Playing For Profit: What is happening with the sport of boxing?

Is anyone else worried about the sport of boxing? Was Sunday’s joke of a “prize fight” enough to help fans realize how far the sport has fallen?

I find it hard to believe the best fights boxing has to offer involve an out-of-shape Roy Jones Jr. and Mike Tyson sweating on each other for half an hour or the Paul brothers claiming superiority by repeatedly defeating non-boxers. 

So what’s wrong with the sport that once captivated entire neighborhoods for multiple Saturday evenings every year? Well, a lot. 

Top fighters avoid challenging fights in an attempt to protect meaningless, “undefeated” records. There are so many title belts it feels like every weight class has 15 so-called “champions,” and there are so many weight classes it seems almost impossible for boxing to find its next pound-for-pound star. 

Since Floyd Mayweather Jr. left the sport in 2017, boxing’s biggest headlines have involved the Paul brothers, a 54-year-old Tyson and Mayweather Jr. himself. The sport has declined in popularity for nearly two decades now, but the showmanship of Oscar De La Hoya and Mayweather Jr. throughout the 2000’s and early 2010’s papered over cracks, helping boxing cling to its last bit of relevance. 

Since Mayweather Jr.’s retirement, Dana White and the UFC asserted themselves as the dominant force in combat sports, taking the title that belonged to boxing throughout the 20th century. 

In the UFC, there are eight weight classes for men and four for women, split by 10 to 15 pounds with one champion at each level. Pretty simple, right? 

In the ever-confusing sport of boxing, there are 18 weight classes, split by 5 to 7 pounds each. Fighters created arbitrary “catch weights” to sanction fights across weight divisions in the past, despite such a rigid weight class structure. 

If the classes are enforced loosely, what’s the point of having so many in the first place? 

With the abundance of weight classes in boxing, there are fewer “top” fighters at each weight level, making it harder to create intriguing fights. When there are multiple popular and talented fighters in one weight class, they rarely fight each other when they should. 

The world had to wait over a decade to see Manny Pacquiao get a shot at Mayweather Jr., and even that fight underwhelmed as both fighters were well past their prime.

Similar situations happen right now, as two of the sport’s biggest stars in welterweight champions Errol Spence Jr. and Terrence Crawford have deprived the public of the sport’s most highly-anticipated fight for nearly three years. The reason is likely a combination of promoter politics and hesitance from both Crawford and Spence Jr. 

Both fighters likely see themselves as the top fighter in the welterweight division. Instead of fighting each other to find out, as things would have played out in boxing’s prime years, both Crawford and Spence Jr. have settled into comfortable routines of fighting two opponents they know they can beat every year and collecting their respective pair of checks. 

This mentality is exactly what’s ruining the sport, and it will likely be what buries it. Excessive weight classes and an absurd number of belts allow more fighters than ever to claim “champion” status without facing any real challenges along the way. 

Instead, these fighters are choosing to adopt the “Mayweather Jr.-model” with increased frequency. The “Mayweather Jr.- model” is a term I use to describe fighters who turn down fights that could potentially vault their career because they don’t want to risk losing. In this case, Crawford and Spence Jr. are obsessing over protecting their “undefeated” status in fear that a loss would somehow derail their careers.  

As a boxing fan myself, I still can’t wrap my head around their way of thinking. Almost every legend in the history of boxing lost at least one fight. 

Muhammad Ali lost multiple times. So did Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., Marvin Hagler and Joe Frazier. Extremely talented and highly-marketable fighters, like Crawford and Spence Jr., miss out on incredible opportunities to advance their careers because of the recency bias that favors Mayweather Jr.

If Crawford and Spence Jr. fight and the product is at least somewhat entertaining, they can probably run it back for a rematch, regardless of the outcome. If the rematch is decent, there will probably be substantial demand for a third fight between the two. 

Not only will everyone involved with the fight line their pockets with prize money, but the fighters popularity will skyrocket from the magnitude of being in a major pay-per-view title fight. Stars are made in big-time matchups, not by winning 40 consecutive fights against part-time dental assistants. And don’t get me started on the belts.

There are seven different fighters that technically hold at least one belt in the welterweight division right now. Seriously. There’s the World Boxing Organization champion. Then the World Boxing Council, International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Association champions. I forgot to mention the interim, regular and “franchise” champions too. Bored yet? 

Between the meaningless belts and celebrity cameos, boxing has looked more like the WWE than an actual sport in recent years.

Boxing’s most marketable fights — the ones that would pack every neighbor into your living room on a Saturday night — are not happening anymore. The longer boxing promoters rely on gimmicks to sustain relevance, the harder it will be for the sport to return to the interest and respect levels of the NFL, NBA and, now, the UFC in the eyes of the American public. 

Regulating organizations need to take a page out of the UFC’s playbook: Condense weight classes and unify belts to increase the level of competition and create meaningful fights. When true “prize fights” are back on the table, fighters need to look a little further back into history and realize one loss won’t end their career. 

Once fighters are more willing to take on a challenge, weight classes can be condensed and belts can be unified. Or vice versa, perhaps. With just one belt to fight for in fewer weight classes, the path to becoming a champion would become a lot clearer and boxers would be forced to take on the best competition.

Or we can keep watching YouTubers and retired boxers take the ring as boxing fades into oblivion. The choice is theirs, I guess. 

David Ramirez is a rising senior writing about the intersection of sports and business. He is also an associate managing editor at the Daily Trojan. His column “Playing for Profit” runs every other Wednesday