Why is boxing not as popular as it once was?
There are a number of movies/documentaries that chronicle the lineage of the major heavyweight champions of the 20th century: Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali. (Yes... many would argue that Rocky Marciano, Sonny Liston, Mike Tyson, etc.. should be included, but they are not. This does not reflect my personal feeling, it's just what is usually shown.) They all include major fights of each boxers career, and a small synopsis of the social climate at the time.
Many of the features of Dempsey portray him as the hero and the icon of the "Roaring Twenties". Though Babe Ruth was around and in his prime, its been said, time and time again, that Dempsey truly held the heart of the people at that time.
Ali is perhaps the most famous person on the planet, and probably the most recognized. At the first Ali - Frazier fight, Frank Sinatra got a photographer's credential and took pictures for Time magazine.
Tapes in my collection of older boxing matches are studded with celebrities. Hearns - Leonard II saw Billy Crystal, Kevin Costner, and many others in the aisles. Miles Davis was probably Sugar Ray Robinson's biggest fan, Davis adored him.
At one time, fights were broadcast on prime time network television. (Nevertheless, HBO did not exist yet.)
...but what has happened?
Theory 1: The Heavyweight Champion
Lennox Lewis is the undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the world. (Forget whatever crap John Ruiz wants to say.) Lewis is the Linear Champ. When following the lineage of champions from the inception of the belt, Lewis is Number 1.
Unfortunately, he's not the most charismatic person. He acts in a "gentlemanly manner", which he prides himself on, is fairly well-spoken, but really has little charm or personality. He doesn't have to talk trash or be a loudmouth, but he doesn?t not appear to be very accessible to the public, his arrogance does not appear to be "brash" or "bold", just annoyingly arrogant (although he's earned the right to be arrogant), and there is nothing particularly charming about him. Is he a great fighter? Absolutely. Is he the dominant champion of our most recent times? Without question.
Nevertheless, who is the champion that most people remember in recent times? A few people saying Evander Holyfield aside, Mike Tyson. Iron Mike Tyson.
Anyone that heard the name Mike Tyson in the early 80s remembers the aura of invincibility, the seemingly indestructible champion. He was part nice guy, part thug, tenderness and savagery combined. He has been the "money" fighter of the 20th century. People drop their cash to see him fight. Whether deservedly or not, people pay to see Mike Tyson.
The Heavyweight division is referred to as boxing's "glamour" division. The general public will generally only know, care about, or watch heavyweights (Oscar de la Hoya and Roy Jones, Jr. exceptions aside). The Heavyweight division is the "top of the heap".
A few possibilities:
1. Due to the laws of physics, heavyweight fighters can beat fighters in any other division. They are bigger, theoretically stronger, have more muscle mass, etc? Therefore, why wouldn't people watch the "very best"?
2. Knockouts. People love to watch knockouts in boxing. Due to the size of heavyweight fighters (most top fighter weigh in at over 220lbs), it is more likely to see a knockout in a heavyweight fight. (IN THEORY)
3. The most popular fighters throughout history, for whatever reason, have been heavyweights. Why not follow the lineage?
If the top boxer in the top division isn't very exciting to the general public, the sport as a whole suffers.
Theory 2: A kinder gentler time
Ali may be the most known person on the planet. The sight of Ali today is almost enough to bring someone to tears. The once fluid body and constantly wagging tongue trapped in a body that doesn't respond as it once did.
While Parkinson's is the official cause, many still believe that pugilist's dementia (being punch-drunk) helped or hastened his physical decline.
What does that say about the sport? Ravages of time or the nature of the beast have humbled a man who would tell the world that he was, is, and will always be, "The Greatest".
Other boxers have died in the ring. Some boxers that have only lost, have been mentally humbled in their craft (ie: "He's not the same fighter he once was after so and so beat his ass.")
Do you really want to witness this?
Theory 3: Lack of media attention
There?s very little boxing coverage in the newspapers. There are few boxing related magazines.
Boxing has very little merchandising possibilities. Boxers don't wear jerseys with their number on the back. There are no boxing trading cards.
While you may want your child to play little league baseball or pee-wee football, most parents don't encourage their children to strap on some gloves, headgear, and jump into the ring. (Which is kind of funny because people get wrecked in more "acceptable" sports such as football, lacrosse, rugby, and hockey.)
Therefore, boxing isn't incredibly "marketable".
So... the die-hard boxing fan is generally a "cult" member. There are website and magazine that he religiously follows and reads. He studies stats and statistics, learns the lineage of all the titles from all the divisions. Most importantly: he endures all the sideways glances and negative comments when he mentions watching or enjoying a fight.
"Boxing? Yuck! How could you watch that? Two people beating each other up." ...and all the other slight comments, meant to ridicule.
However, we cult members generally take it in stride. We don't ask, "Why do you watch grown men whack a ball with a stick and run around patting each other on the ass?" or "Yeah... football, that's not violent."
Whatever the reason for liking, loving, hating, or not seeing the interest in boxing, the "sweet science", these are just a few theories to entertain or entice anyone of interest.
If anyone is particularly curious, here are a few boxing websites that I recommend:
ESPN2 features Friday Night Fights and Tuesday Night Fights.
HBO has Boxing After Dark
Showtime has Showtime Championship Boxing, ShoBox
Occasional fights appear on FoxSports.Net and MSG (in New York).