America at Large: ESPN deal a real shot in the arm for boxing

Top Rank’s agreement with USA’s top sports channel will raise profile of boxing’s best

When the story of professional boxing in the 21st century is written, Saturday, August 26th, 2017 may well be a date of some significance.

That was when an event so seismic took place in Las Vegas, Nevada that it’s the kind of stuff historians could yet spend years parsing as they try to determine the evolution of the sport.

Hours before Conor McGregor got beaten up by superannuated Floyd Mayweather, Bob Arum and Top Rank announced a groundbreaking deal to take its stable of fighters to ESPN for the next four years. Whatever happened at the T-Mobile Arena later that night, it could be argued boxing had already won the day.

One of the many unfortunate side-effects of the prolonged build-up to the MayMac freakshow was a preponderance of articles and opinions about how a victory for the Irish man might somehow herald the end for the Queensbury rules. It was an especially ridiculous assertion.


Most of these ill-informed commentaries ignored the rather salient fact the sport in America has been actually having a pretty good time of it of late. A slew of once-in-a-generation talents, the likes of Vasyl Lomachenko, Roman "Chocalitito" Gonzalez and Andre Ward, are on tap and, more cogent yet, both casual fans and television networks appear to have noticed.

Some might even say boxing is in far better shape than the stamina-challenged McGregor proved to be about nine minutes into his own contest.

In March, a record crowd of nearly 17,000 paid into Brooklyn's Barclays Center to see Keith Thurman defeat Danny Garica in a welterweight title clash, and, even more impressively, five million watched it on CBS, the network broadcasting live boxing for just the second time in 40 years. An impressive achievement all around for two fighters who weren't exactly household names. At least until then.

In July, Manny Pacquiao's controversial defeat by Jeff Horn was carried by ESPN and became the most-watched boxing match on cable television for more than two decades. An excellent return given that negotiations between Top Rank and the television company were ongoing at the time.

Yes, the numbers involved pale next to the pay-per-view tallies generated by last weekend's circus but for a sport reckoned by so many to be on life support, boxing may, whisper it, be having a resurgence. "Or a least a moment," as Sports Illustrated put it recently.

Box office

Just over an hour before Imelda May sang Amhrán na bhFiann, 8,000 were on their feet at the Stub Hub Arena in Carson, California lauding Miguel Cotto's emphatic 12-round victory over Yoshihiro Kamegai.

At 36, Cotto is on the last lap of an illustrious career but the six-time world champion obviously retains enough box office appeal to put bums on seats even when up against the most hyped and slickly marketed event in combat sports history.

Seven days earlier, 12,000 filled the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska to witness junior welterweight Terence Crawford become that rarest of modern species, an undisputed champion. With his abrupt third round stoppage of Julius Indongo, Crawford took possession of all four belts, confirming his status as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters of his generation. That contest carried added lustre because here were two champions in their prime putting it all on the line to see who truly held sway at 140lbs.

In the decades since it turned into an indigestible alphabet soup of competing governing bodies, the most regular and justified critique of the sport has been the persistent failure of the best to take on the best at their best. Crawford and Indongo did just that.

Slightly over two weeks from now, Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin will offer more of the same in what is the most eagerly-anticipated showdown since Pacquiao and Mayweather. Even more so perhaps because, unlike that duo, this pair of middleweights are meeting while still at their peak.

"If you want to watch, like, a show, like Cirque du Soleil, just watch," said Golovkin, dismissing Mayweather-McGregor last week. "If you want true boxing fight, best fight in boxing, welcome to September 16."

Boxing's other enduring problem has been too many of its marquee match-ups take place, like Alvarez-Golovkin, in the ghetto of pay-per-view. A money-spinning option yet one so exclusive that even in his pomp ten years ago it took a stint on Dancing with the Stars before most Americans discovered Mayweather. By partnering with ESPN, Top Rank are banking on their best and brightest garnering heightened profiles far beyond the fistic fanbase.

While HBO and Showtime do an excellent job broadcasting bouts, they are premium channels that are in relatively few American homes. ESPN remains the face of sport in this country.

When they put their considerable resources and multiple outlets behind any event, it instantly becomes part of the national conversation. At least part of MMA’s meteoric rise has been down to its symbiotic relationship with Fox Sports who appear to show some UFC-related programming (old fights, reality shows etc) at any given moment of every day.

If ESPN do likewise, producing ancillary programming and incorporating Top Rank fighters and fights into their non-stop diet of sports talk shows on radio and TV, all of boxing will benefit. The one downside is that bloviator-in-chief Stephen A Smith will get to continue to feign knowledge of all things pugilistic. A price that will just have to be paid.