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August 31, 2011

By Darrell La Montre

There really is no objective argument any more. Top American boxers, regardless of weight, no longer dominate the sport on the world level.  Take one look at the top pound-for-pound fighters and it's as clear as day: Manny Pacquiao and Nontio Donaire (Philippines), Sergio Martinez (Argentina), Juan Manuel marquez (Mexico) and perhaps Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko (Ukraine). None are Americans! To be fair, Floyd Mayweather was dropped from their list due to inactivity, and could be back in there after September 17th, but as of now, only three Americans merit a top ten rating: Andre Ward, Bernard Hopkins and Timothy Bradley. Remember the days when as many as four of the top five pound-for-pound best boxers were Americans, with number one almost surely an American? There's no question that as a nation we are losing our grip on dominance in the sport. The question is why? What has contributed to this? In my opinion, a perfect storm is what has allowed for American boxers to lose their dominance and subsequently for boxing to decline in popularity in this country.
First, I refuse to believe that the conventional wisdom that Americans no longer rule the heavyweight division because our best athletes go into football and basketball instead of the sweet science. That alone can't be the answer because that cannot explain the diminishing number of great American boxers BELOW heavyweight, the guys who are too small to play football or basketball.  Again, a perfect storm is what has contributed to the decreasing number of elite American boxers and subsequently the decline in popularity of the sport in America. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, allowing Eastern European fighters to turn pro more easily. This paved the way for the Klitschkos and others to walk through the door. It was easier for America to dominate when there were fewer countries to compete with. But the flagship heavyweight division lacking top American boxers greatly affects the casual boxing fan, and is a big factor in where we are right now. 
Second, in the last five or six years, MMA has really picked up steam and become the fastest growing sport in the world. It is now the sport that young men are more greatly interested in as opposed to boxing. MMA features a greater number of white Americans in the sport, which attracts white fans to watch it, but now there are a growing number of black American and Latinos as well. As the sport continues to grow in popularity, there will be even more minorities competing, which means all races will be represented, which will aid MMA's increased popularity. This is not to say that white Americans, for example, need to have a white American to root for because boxing for a long time was dominated by black fighters, many of whom were extremely popular across all demographics. To name a few, there was Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali (yes I know he was disliked by many in the beginning for his political stance but was ultimately beloved), Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. Nationality trumps race. When Roy Jones fought Joe Calzaghe the New York crowd's chants of "USA, USA!" were heard loud and clear.
Increasing competition from Eastern European boxers both in the amateurs and namely in the pros, along with the subsequent decline in popularity of boxing in the U.S. has lead to less money being invested in our amateur boxing program and thus producing less successful American boxers.  We used to regularly win Olympic golds in boxing, but now any type of medal is a rarity. Although the current economic recession has affected every country worldwide in recent years, European countries, and China, have been pumping money into their amateur boxing programs for a long time and it is currently paying dividends. As top American fighters become less and less prevalent, so too does the popularity of the sport in this country. It's very simple, when Americans don't see many American boxers at the top fighting on television, they lose interest in the sport. The drop in poularity cannot be explained on racial grounds: if white Americans seeing white boxers on tv regardless of nationality was enough to pique their interest, the sport would still be thriving in America, because white fans would support the Eastern European boxers.

Next, the sport itself has contributed to its own demise. There are too many bad decisions by inept judges, too many big fights not getting made, too many greedy promoters, too many so-called champions per division. 


Also, many ethnic gropus no longer contribute to the pool of American boxers. One only needs to look back in history in order to see how freedom (or lack thereof) and economics can alter the landscape of a sport. In the early 20th century, boxing in America was extremely popular and was dominated by poor Italians, Irishmen, and Jews. It took a combination of freedom for black Americans, and improved economical conditions among whites and Jews in order for black Americans to begin to dominate. This is not to say that blacks would still not be fairly dominant even if whites and Jews weren't as prevalent in the sport because looking at it mathematically it's clear that they would have (when a minority dominates in any field, let alone in numerous ones it's impressive and telling), but the thinning of the competition helped as well.
Since African Americans only make up less than 13% of the U.S. population and have been carrying the sport in America for decades, is it really that surprising that we have slipped due to the reasons stated earlier? Looking at it from a mathematical perspective, who is going to help pick up the slack? It's not as if white Americans who make up the majority of this country are going to suddenly go into boxing, and even if they did they would not do any better and would probably do worse against non American countries with long thriving amateur programs and hungrier athletes. If our best athletes regardless of size are not being given the best chance to excel in boxing and the result is less interest in the sport among the American public and among potential future boxers, is it a surprise that elite American boxers are declining? We have the athletes, but if the interest and the opportunity to maximize potential aren't there, the results are predictable.
Even though boxing originated in England, when it came to America and America ultimately became a rich superpower, boxing took off and was ultimately on par popularity-wise in this country with other major sports such as baseball.  Flash forward to the early 21st century, and we now have far less white American fighters entering the sport, fewer young elite African Americans (who never made up a high percentage of the U.S. population in the first place) entering into the sport after a strong amateur career due to a shoddy amateur boxing program, increased freedom of Eastern European and Cuban boxers who have always had a strong amateur program but weren't always allowed to turn pro and the result is what we have now.
In regards to other races in America, Asian Americans are not going into boxing in significant numbers. Americans of Mexican descent, such as Victor Ortiz (and Oscar De La Hoya and Fernando Vargas before him) are few and far between, and are outnumbered by non-American Latinos and in the future will mostly likely be going into MMA as that sport continues to grow. One would think that since Latinos are the fastest growing race in America, we would have more elite Latino American boxers but again due to the same reasons stated earlier that is not the case.
In order for the sport to reverse course and regain the popularity it enjoyed in America 15 years ago and beyond, American-based promoters such as Golden Boy and Top Rank need to invest in the future of the sport on the amateur level. In addition, promoters need to become less greedy on the professional level and ensure that they deliver to the fans the fights they wish to see on a consistent basis and begin to stack the pay-per-view cards like the UFC does. No more mismatches on pay-per-view cards!. Judging needs to improve greatly, boxing organizations and champions per division need to decrease not increase, etc. This would lead to the sport being competitive with MMA among young American athletes in the future. There is hope, but as much as it pains me to say this, the future is looking awfully bleak for boxing in America. 

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