By Paul Magno | March 18, 2024

Boxing “purists” have been lamenting celebrity/influencer boxing and “legends” bouts since this latest wave of fluff fights began. And, as usual, the “purists” laments are about as meaningful as a fart in a hurricane. 

There’s a lot of money to be made in selling boxing to a mainstream audience. The sport still resonates. It’s part of our culture and shared identity. And people still do want to buy into it. Unfortunately, boxing businessmen haven’t found a way to sell the current “for real” boxing product to the masses. 

That’s why Mike Tyson is still a bigger PPV draw than anyone actively boxing. That’s why a celebrity-turned-boxer like Jake Paul is a bigger PPV draw than all but a small handful of active boxers. And, ultimately, that’s why Mike Tyson vs. Jake Paul on Netflix is going to be the most-watched boxing event of our generation. 

Spare me the tears and the pearl clutching. This is business. If McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s stopped making palatable burgers (or started charging a fortune for their food), the market for burgers wouldn’t simply disappear. Customers would just take their hungry asses to Sonic or Culver’s. In the case of boxing, mainstream fight-hungry/fight-curious fans ARE going elsewhere to satisfy their cravings/curiosity. 

And, no, an occasional $20 million+ gate and an occasional million-plus pay-per-view buys are NOT proof that boxing is “as healthy as ever.” More accurately, this is proof that the existing (and desperate) boxing fan base can be sold on paying more for the privilege of something even remotely good. 

The hardcore boxing base will, for the most part, stick around. But that hardcore base is dying off and sometimes moving on, at what appears to be a greater rate than it grows. The numbers tell the tale. Less than one full generation of fandom ago, low-end boxing Nielsen numbers routinely quadrupled the highest ratings of today, with even relative nothing fights like David Reid vs. Laurent Boudouani in 1999 bringing in at least 3 million viewers on HBO. When Joe Calzaghe-Mikkel Kessler drew only 1.591 million live viewers in 2007, I remember the “heads will roll” talk that leaked from HBO corporate. In 2024, Calzaghe-Kessler numbers would be press released as a smash success. 

As fighter purse demands rise while the paying hardcore base flat-lines in growth or diminishes, that means existing fans are being asked to pay more and more for what they do get-- which tends to be less  (and less frequently) than before. 

It doesn’t take a genius to understand why the mainstream sports fan lost interest in following boxing. There’s just been no outreach to anyone beyond the willing-to-pay base. This also explains why the last boxing stars the mainstream knows about and cares about tend to be from the 80’s and 90’s-- the last era where boxing stars were also mainstream athletes, without paywalls built around their entire careers, from fight no. 1 onward. 

It’s a bit like the people who stopped following music right after they left college. Rock music to them is forever Nirvana and hip-hop is forever Dr. Dre. In the case of boxing, the mainstream world stopped caring about boxers when boxing stopped caring about the mainstream. It’s really as simple as that. So, to most of the world, names like Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield still resonate more than the top boxers right now. 

But, again, this is business stuff. Was it easier to sell directly to the hardcore base, to float in a swimming pool rather than try to sail the ocean? Yeah. That’s why promoters moved everything over to premium cable back in the 80’s and kept it there, unwilling to try and get back into the mainstream’s good graces. And that’s why just about everything now is on pay-per-view or behind some similar paywall-- although the financial realities may now make paywalls a necessity. 

So, Jake Paul vs. Mike Tyson is the perfect storm of realism barreling up against the beach house of boxing. If boxing wants something really big these days, the fighters involved better be bringing in their own significant followings. Paul-Tyson is the kind of silly money grab that happens in a boxing world where there are more stars on the periphery of the sport than deep inside it and where fantasy fights are easier to make than high-end “real” matchups. 

This isn’t a morality play on my part and it’s definitely not a “boxing is dying” Chicken Little column. If anything, this is a “hey, boxing is still relevant...people want to buy into it” piece. 

It’s just up to the boxing bossmen to figure out a way to get boxing somewhere even remotely near the mainstream’s line of sight once again. And, yeah, good luck with that because, clearly, they aren’t even trying.

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