Ex-jock talking heads aside, the nation's sports pages remain overwhelmingly white. That's probably why you're only vaguely aware that for many of us, tomorrow night is the one of the biggest sporting events of the year.
On Saturday night, boxing's biggest star, Floyd Mayweather Jr., will meet unbeaten Mexican sensation Saul "Canelo" Alvarez at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas for the junior middleweight championship of the world. The main event will take place well after most children have gone to bed, and only be available to households that pay $60 for the Pay Per View ($70 for HD). It will be an easy decision for many, in part because the card also features Danny Garcia of Philadelphia facing Argentine noqueador Lucas Matthysse in the second-most anticipated fight of the year.
The economics of the fight alternately amaze and distress, depending on the audience. There are many revenue streams for a show like this, but the bottom line is usually the number of Pay Per View buys: 1.5 million would be a huge success; 2 million buys would be a coup for both the fighters and the sport at large. Mayweather is guaranteed a staggering $41.5 million for the fight, plus a share of the back end, which should ensure he spends another year atop Forbes' list of the richest athletes in the world. As abrasive as Mayweather can be, he remains immensely popular with fight fans, particularly African-Americans. It is a matter of considerable debate whether more people pay to watch Mayweather's amazing skills, or simply in hopes that the next opponent will end his unbeaten run.
Hype aside, Saturday's fight is unique among American sporting events in that the majority of those watching on fight night, whether in person or via Pay Per View, will be minorities, specifically African-Americans or Hispanics. Many expect a virtual shutdown in Mexico, where only the country's beloved national soccer team rivals Canelo in popular appeal. Yet one wouldn't know it by perusing any of this nation's largest sports outlets, which have covered the fight sporadically, if at all.
While Mayweather-Alvarez will be the primary topic of discussion in many communities this week, the folks at the water cooler aren't the ones that most marketers covet, save those that make beer and power tools. But the fight is rife with storylines for those interested in issues of race and class, from the phenomenal box office appeal of Mayweather's "Money" persona, to Mexico's immense and complex adoration of Canelo, whose name is a nod to his unlikely ginger locks and freckled visage.
When Mayweather and Alvarez came to Washington this summer as part of their blockbuster press tour, the line stretched around the Howard Theatre for blocks, and the crowd inside crackled with electricity and the screams of rival fan bases. The scene was repeated across North America, as fans devoted whole days to just catching a glimpse of the fighters at a press conference. It is hard to imagine Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer drawing a similar reaction anywhere in the U.S., but tennis is still dutifully accorded prominence at least four fortnights a year. Meanwhile, most mainstream outlets only take note of boxing long enough to pronounce it dead, a stance so unimaginative it was worn out before Muhammad Ali entered the prizefighting ring.
The paucity of fight coverage is particularly striking given the sport's long, complex literary tradition. Legends such as Joyce Carol Oates, Ernest Hemingway and A.J. Liebling have all occupied press row. But boxing writers almost always inhabit a different world than those they cover, and are frequently prone to treating combatants as entertainers, disposable pieces that can be shuffled in and out with little consequence.
The widely varying standards of professionalism among boxing writers today ensures that too many are unwilling to criticize promoters or TV executives, for fear of losing their coveted spot at ringside. In mixed martial arts, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) employs the strategy of banning critical journalists to impressive effect. To a lesser extent, the writers that still cover boxing are all too eager to parrot the demands of the TV executives and promoters, and decry fighters for holding up appealing contests for trivial reasons like compensation.
I do not assume prejudice, or even bad faith, on the part of any boxing writers that believe a fighter is asking for too much money for a particular fight. But it should be noted that said fighters are typically being asked to step into a ring with another warrior who has been training since youth for the sole purpose of bashing each other to a pulp. They do so at significant risk to their long-term health, regardless of whether they win or lose.
Boxing is already inherently exploitative, but there is something unseemly about a group of (mostly white and middle-class) boxing writers and fans debating online whether a fighter (typically a minority from an underprivileged background) is placing too high a value on his future health and well-being. One look at the present condition of Ali, Ken Norton or countless other fighters, should be enough to silence anyone who thinks a fighter is asking for too much money.
Boxing purses are blood money to an even greater extent than the NFL, and the fighters are putting themselves directly in harm's way for the paying audience. Perhaps it is because of the difficult ethical questions it raises, like whether fans should take such delight in the vicious destruction of another human being, that boxing has been confined to the margins of the sports world. Not since Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr. has an American fighter been truly embraced by the mainstream. Many blame the sport's fade on the decline of American heavyweights, but in truth, boxing is more a victim of the segmentation of the American sports fan base, and an overall shift in our culture.
The increasing discomfort with the sport's long-term effects can be directly traced to the condition of Ali in particular. Perhaps all this is a symptom that a portion of society has evolved past ritualized violence (though the popularity of MMA would argue not). The average young man in mid-20th century America could likely expect to find himself in a fight at some point in his life, mostly due to the prominence of the draft and widespread military conflict. Today, the brightest line in our society is between those who face violence as a part of their everyday lives, and those who don't. It is documented that the composition of our military favors certain demographics; the same could be said of fighters, but even more so.
For those who condemn boxing out of hand, they probably live in a world where violence exists only on the screen, in the news, or inside a ring. They are fortunate to lead such a mundane existence, as am I; violence is not something we risk every day just by walking down the street. But reality is far different in many neighborhoods, especially those that produce fighters. To many of the young boxers I've met, violence is a fact of life. The boxing gym is one of the few places where that violence is controlled, and paradoxically, often a safe haven from what waits in the streets.
For the young men I've followed over the past few years, almost all African-American, the ring is a place to channel their anger and violent surroundings into something positive. Some learn to fight outside of the ring, but learning to box often saps them of aggression and gives them remarkable self-control. Anyone in boxing will tell you that fighters are often some of the most gentle, decent, nonconfrontational people you will ever encounter. The embrace between fighters at the end of a match is not the forced handshake of rival NFL coaches — it's a remarkable moment when two men instantly pivot from trying to destroy each other to being grateful they have both come through the battle still capable of standing.
As Boston College professor and noted fight scribe Carlo Rotella wrote in his essay for Deadspin, "Knowing something about the fights — being good with your hands, or maintaining an opinion about the welterweight division or fixed bouts or how to beat a southpaw — was a very common piece of equipment in the toolbox of American cultural competence, especially the section of it devoted to masculinity."
Today's toolbox is more likely to include a jar of expensive pomade than boxing gloves. A D.C. copywriter wrote on Quora recently that boxing is one of the creepiest things our society tolerates as a cultural norm. I can only suppose that person has never spent any time around boxing or fighters (or the fashion industry). Equating boxing as a whole with professional boxing is common and nonsensical, akin to pointing to the WWE to justify the elimination of Olympic wrestling. The vast majority of people in boxing earn little or no money from fighting. Most boxers are amateurs, who fight only for exercise and love of the sport.
Spend some time in a boxing gym, where most boxing takes place, and it will become obvious that there are no corporate sponsors or AAU teams supporting the training of fighters. Often the people that do so get almost nothing in return, devoting their time and resources out of love for the Sweet Science, and a desire to help young men and women better themselves. Boxing gyms are small, dark, dank spaces, where often the only white face present will be a visiting boxing writer or promoter, looking for their next attraction or story.
Even promising young pro fighters are paid only a few hundred dollars for their early fights; their opponents get slightly more, because of the presumed price they will pay in the ring. Fighters fight because they choose to, and only a precious few ever manage to eke out a living from it. Begrudging a fighter his pay for a big fight ignores the years of unrewarded toil and sacrifice it took for him to reach that point, and the reality that he will likely never have another opportunity to cash in. For many of these fighters, who lack education and connections to the professional world, the ring is also the one venue where they can excel, and demonstrate their worth for all to see.
Boxing is not perfect, but comparisons to human cockfighting require a dismissal of the fighters' agency, and hint at deeper issues of race and class. Boxing is not the only dangerous occupation practiced in North America; more people die every year while scuba diving. Yet no one suggests that divers are being exploited by the lucrative scuba industry. Nor do we begrudge those NFL players who hold out for bigger contracts; in those cases, we understand that professional sports are a business.
So is fighting, but it is a cruel, unfair business at best. Fighters enter the ring by choice, usually for deeply personal reasons, or lack of other options. Many professionals hang on too long, unable to relinquish the glory of the ring, or unable to find another occupation that will support them. They are allowed to do so by the negligence of the state athletic commissions, the very bodies charged with policing the sport. Only a national commission with federal authority to enforce common standards would help, but legislation to create such a body from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has drawn little support as of yet. The "alphabet" sanctioning bodies (the WBC, WBA, IBF, etc.) are simply parasites, that contribute nothing to the sport besides dreaming up new categories of "champions."
There are many legitimate arguments to be made against the continuation of professional boxing, starting with the lack of proper oversight. The longer I write about the sport, the more misgivings I have. But as noted boxing author Thomas Hauser wrote in his seminal book, The Black Lights, "the reality of life is that we live in a violent world. ... The sport will endure."
People often ask me why I write about boxing, given all the ethical questions. One need not believe in war to think it merits proper coverage. This weekend, millions of people will be transfixed by the spectacle of two men fighting for the junior middleweight championship of the world. Whatever you think of boxing, that seems like a headline to me.
Gautham Nagesh is the founder of StiffJab.com. He has been punched in the face, but not for a living. Anna John contributed reporting to this article.