I sat in my seat at DAR Constitution Hall and watched as professional boxer Michael Clark fell hard on the canvas—Dow Jones in 2008 hard, or your GPA after organic chemistry hard. D.C.’s Dusty Harrison Hernández, a welterweight fighter, stood over Clark’s sprawled body, hands held high.
At that point, I exploded out of my seat pumping the air, screaming my lungs out. The main event at the boxing showcase this past weekend hadn’t lasted long, but it was one of the most exhilarating sporting experiences I’ve witnessed in years. Unfortunately, in an auditorium capable of holding at least 3,500 people, there were probably only 200 in attendance. A show like this would have sold out 50 years ago.
When people think of boxing, they think of two brutes stuck in a ring throwing punches as hard as they can. Most don’t appreciate the level of finesse professional boxers are capable of exhibiting even under threat of injury. Every duck, dodge, and punch is executed in an intricate sequence capable of dazzling a viewer in the same manner as the New York Ballet or a Broadway production.
Despite the level of skill necessary to qualify as a professional boxer, the sport has seen a serious decline in popularity since its heyday in the mid-19th century. Piece after piece has been written on why boxing’s decline has been so rapid, but no one is talking about how such an incredible sport could slowly be brought back into the mainstream.
One of the biggest problems that people have with boxing is its perceived lack of safety. Concussions and other debilitating injuries are hot on the minds of sports consumers thanks to in depth studies that have tracked such damage. While it’s true that boxing takes an incredible toll on your body, it is not the most dangerous contact sport. In fact, former NFL defensive end Ray Edwards left football to learn how to fight.
That’s not to say that it’s impossible to sustain a serious amount of damage boxing. Two of my roommates are boxers and have come home on a couple of occasions looking like they had been caught on the wrong side of the tracks, but they both maintain that safety is their primary concern.
During practice, you wear bigger gloves so blows aren’t as heavy, don headgear to protect your cranium and your partner’s hands, and generally your teammates are pulling their punches. After all, you’re not there to learn how to get hit hard. You’re there to learn how to sustain as little damage as possible.
Bottom line, boxing is dangerous, but not more so than other mainstream sports.
The sport is suffering because of the greed of promoters when it comes to the marketing and the coverage of the sport. Boxing was a staple of the network sports lineup until recently. Nowadays, those in control of coverage of fights prefer to make their spectacles pay-per-view instead of airing it free on network television because they know that they have a steady audience that will fork over $30-40 to watch. Why go through the networks when suckers are willing to line your pockets without the middle man?
This model, however, simply cannot continue. As time wears on, and it becomes easier to illegally stream expensive videos online, the millennial generation becomes less accustomed to paying for anything that’s televised. Continuing on with the pay-per-view model will only serve to slowly kill off the small audience boxing has left. Someday, promoters will literally have no choice but to sell the rights to a network because no one will be willing to pay out of pocket.
A final blow to the popularity of boxing was the advent of other forms of combat sports, which has presented problems for a format that’s already losing viewers. Mixed martial arts and what the WWE wants you to think is wrestling have slowly siphoned fans from boxing, targeting a testosterone-fueled demographic hellbent on being as extreme as possible. Boxing isn’t UFC. It isn’t Monday Night Raw. It’s not meant to be an overly-masculinized version of a combat sport, but it has fallen out of contention with these other formats.
The atmosphere surrounding boxing is pure and uncomplicated. It’s a mature sport that’s had time to grow into its place among the American pantheon. The problem is that it’s stayed there like a piece in a museum. If those in control of the sport could address concerns based on health, and do something about their public relations, there is no reason that boxing can’t reclaim its rightful place in the hearts and minds of the American masses.