Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Vanishing American

A disturbing trend is taking place within in the world of boxing - American fighters are vanishing.

The U.S.A. was once the center of the boxing universe when it came to talent and American born fighters were once the best on the planet. But over the past 25 years the top fighters in the world, and those that hold the titles, are from elsewhere.

And it's a particularly sad state of affairs for the heavyweights whom were once known as the 'glamor' division of the sport. In recent years, American born heavyweights have sunk like a rusty anchor to the depths of a murky sea, perhaps never to be resurrected.

Consider this from exactly 25 years ago: The August 1983 issue of KO Magazine (which covered everything that happened up until the end of April) rated 10 heavyweights, including Larry Holmes who was the WBC champion and Michael Dokes who held the WBA title. The world had not yet heard of the IBF and WBO. 8 of those 10 rated heavyweights were American born with only Trevor Berbick and Gerrie Coetzee being the foreigners of the bunch.

Fast forward two and a half decades to the August 2008 issue of The Ring Magazine ratings and only 2 of the top 10 rated heavyweights are American born - #9 rated Tony Thompson who will face IBF and WBO titlist Wladimir Klitschko on July 12th in Germany and #10 rated Johnny Ruiz whose career is in its certain twilight.

The names of today's top rated heavyweights read like a consonant festival gone awry. Where contenders such as Gerry Cooney, Tim Witherspoon, Greg Page and Mike Weaver once resided have been replaced with tongue twisters that even a lesson of 'hooked-on-phonics' couldn't help you pronounce; Wladimir Klitschko, Ruslan Chagaev, Nicolay Valuev, Alexander Povetkin, Sultan Ibragimov, Oleg Maskaev and Vladimir Virchis.

So in the heavyweight division, where only 25 years ago Americans once had a firm grasp on the title belts and most of the top rankings, have now been reduced to just two fighters in the top 10. And those two ranked fighters are barely hanging on by the threads of their thumbless gloves.

Wladimir Klitschko (left) and Sultan Ibragimov faced each other for the IBF and WBO heavyweight title belts in a fight that was anything but.

But what is even more disturbing is the fact that American fighters are becoming an endangered species in all of boxing - not just the heavyweight division.

Using the same August 1983 issue of KO Magazine and the August 2008 issue of The Ring leads to some startling realizations.

The 1983 KO Magazine rated 120 fighters in 12 divisions. The magazine ignored the Cruiserweights, the Super Middleweights weren't yet dreamed of, and they skipped over the Jr. Bantamweights, Jr. Flyweights and Strawweights. Whatever the case, of the 120 fighters that KO rated, 66 were American or 55% of the overall total - so just over half of all the fighters were American.

The most recent issue of The Ring has 17 weight divisions ranked with some divisions having 11 fighters listed due to the The Ring having their own 'champion' designated in 8 of the divisions. (Joe Calzaghe is The Ring's champ of the 168 and 175 pound divisions). Of the 180 names that fill those ratings, a measly 36 are American born - or an astoundingly low 20% of the overall total which represents a drop of 35% in the past 25 years.

And the picture is no brighter when it comes to Americans that hold world titles.

In the 1983 KO, 15 of the 22 filled titles were held by U.S. born fighters. In other words, nearly 70% of all the available world titles from the WBA and WBC were held by Americans.

Looking at today's title picture, there are 68 world titles available from the WBA, WBC, WBO and IBF, which makes it possible for many more fighters (and Americans) to have the opportunity to become a world titlist or a belt holder.

But of the 68 title belts that are currently up for grabs - only 16 are held by Americans - or an anemic 23.5% of the overall total. Astonishingly enough, the only division where Americans have a clean sweep of the titles is at 135 pounds where 3 of the 4 belts are held by Florida's Nate Campbell and the other is held by Chicago born David Diaz.

Florida's Nate Campbell holds 3 of the 4 alphabet-soup title belts in the Lightweight division.

No American born fighter holds a title in the six weight divisions between 105 and 122 pounds and in those six weight divisions - only one American born fighter is even rated by The Ring Magazine in the top 10 - and that's Jose Navarro who is barely hanging onto the #7 spot at 115 pounds after losing all four shots he's had at world title belts.

So what's to blame for the dearth of fighters in the U.S.A.?

Certainly much of it is the changing socio-economic patterns of the United States and the fact that talented young athletes have many more options to make big money in sports aside from boxing.

Today, kids who once may have gravitated to boxing, instead idolize major league sports stars and muliti-millionaries like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Terrell Owens, Derek Jeter or even Tiger Woods. And the bottom line is that most kids, given the choice, will opt to make their fortunes in team sports (along with big endorsement deals) that don't ever require getting punched in the head.

Consider that in 1973, NFL players who played in the Superbowl, well established stars like Jake Scott, Paul Warfield, Dick Anderson and 'Mercury' Morris made in the neighborhood of $30,000 to $55,000 a year. The average NFL salary in 1973 was $28,500. The average salary in Major League Baseball at the time was $33,500, the National Hockey League was $52,500 and the NBA was $92,500. Certainly great money for the time, but not astronomical figures.

But in 1971, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought in front of a worldwide audience in 'The Fight of the Century' and both fighters were paid $2.5 million dollars. Those dollar amounts were intoxicatingly huge numbers at the time and young, impressionable, inner-city kids who were looking to fight their way out of the ghetto, suddenly had two and a half million reasons to lace up a pair of boxing gloves and shoot for stars. As a result, enormously well-known fighters like Ali and later on 'Sugar' Ray Leonard and to some extent Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield all helped to keep boxing as part of the mainstream and they motivated and attracted younger talent to boxing gyms for well over two generations.

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier met at Madison Square Garden in New York City on March 8, 1971. The entire world was enthralled with "The Fight of the Century" and the men became household names, linked forever to each other.

In decades past, amateur boxing also had many more participants and it served as a feeder to American professional boxing. Consider that Americans won five gold medals in the 1976 Montreal Olympics and seven gold medals in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. Floyd Patterson (1952), Muhamamd Ali (1960), Joe Frazier (1964) and George Foreman (1968) were all gold medal winners and all went on to win the heavyweight championship and then fight each other in some of the most significant bouts in all of boxing history. Most of the medal winners from the 1976 and 1984 Olympics later became professional world champions and some of them became the biggest stars and moneymakers the world of professional boxing has ever known.

But in America, the amateur game has virtually dried up. In the 16 years since 1992, when Oscar De La Hoya won gold in Barcelona, Spain only David Reid in 1996 and Andre Ward in 2004 have managed to win a boxing gold medal. Thin talent in the American amateur game has translated into the same lack of top talent and bankable stars in the pro ranks.

Don King aka 'The World's Greatest Promoter' has been forced to take his show on the road and he's more likely to be seen huckstering in Germany at the Hippodrome than he is to be inside Madison Square Garden or the MGM Grand. King made a career out of following the heavyweights, but since there are virtually no top-rated American heavyweights anymore Don has to go east to keep his bejeweled fingers on the pulse of the big boys.

So in 2008, boxing has truly gone global.

It used to be that Philadelphia, home of the Liberty Bell, The Blue Horizon, the fictional Rocky Balboa and the real-life Joe Frazier was the most famous boxing city in all the world. A fighter that came from Philly had a reputation that preceded him and the stories of the 'Philly-gym wars' were legendary tales. Boxing was so popular in Philadelphia that it was once said "Even the bums in Philly know how to hook off the jab."

But in this world as we know it now, you're as likely to find a poor chap in Poland, a hungry guy from Hungary or a feisty Filipino that can hook of the jab (and maybe even fire an uppercut) as well as that bum in Philly ever could.

June 2008

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The unidentified man i the picture with Forest and Mitchell is AIBA Official Brenton Bovell from Maryland