Some of us who have reached a certain age can recall a time when the most famous athlete in the world was the Heavyweight Boxing Champion. The list of titleholders reads like a Who's Who of sports legends: John Sullivan, James Corbett, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Floyd Patterson, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis.
But could you name the current Heavyweight Champion(s)?
I could give you a year to answer that and unless you go to the internet, you aren't going to get it. (It's either Ruslan Chagaev or Deontay Wilder--depending on which rankings you use.) When was the last time you watched a heavyweight match? Back in the day, a title fight was a primetime network television event--and was even carried across the country on radio--and it was must watch television.
But somewhere along the line, greed got the better of the sport and the biggest fights moved exclusively to pay cable channels and pay-per-view. The audience for boxing shrank smaller and smaller--as the opportunities to tune in became less and less. I'm not even sure if the fights that gave Chagaev and Wilder their titles were even televised anywhere here in the US.
But NBC Television believes that it can bring back boxing. Their new Saturday night fights series starts this weekend. Five times this year NBC will feature title fights on regular TV--just like we used to get in the "good old days".
Critics predict the venture will be a colossal failure--as nobody wants to watch boxing anymore. We've "moved on" they say--pointing out that such a violent sport no longer appeals to anyone--especially with our new hyper-concern about head injuries and concussions. America will tune in and "be disgusted" by what they see.
How then do you explain the popularity of Mixed Martial Arts? That's even more brutal than boxing has been since the bareknuckled, unlimited rounds days of the early 20th century. And what has been the hottest topic in sports this week? Rhonda Rousey's 14-second submission victory over her latest UFC opponent.
There will always be an interest in boxing--if for no other reason than it is one of our most primal sports. It's one man versus another in a mix of strength, agility and will. Hopefully, the ability to watch it (for free) on a regular basis might bring back some of that popularity--and hearing about who wears the belt doesn't elicit the response of "Who?"