Boxing hitting the big time again

THEY may have spent the last three months winding each other up, pouring scorn on their rival’s talents and rubbishing each other’s prospects for success in tonight’s WBC welterweight title fight but if there is one thing that both the Mayweather and Hatton camps agree on, it is that boxing is once again back in the big time.

After years in the doldrums amid fight-fixing scandals, in-fighting between promoters, an unwarranted number of title-sanctioning bodies and declining television exposure allied to the rise of mixed martial arts formats such as the Ultimate Fighting Championships, the sweet science has regained its composure, picked itself up off the canvas and come out fighting for another round.

Tonight’s showdown at Las Vegas’s MGM Garden Arena between Floyd Mayweather Jnr and Ricky Hatton brings to an end a year of success for the sport not experienced since the 1980s and 90s when virtually every weight division could conjure up a superfight to whet the appetite and then deliver the goods for massive tv audiences. Month after month in that golden era brought genuine superstars onto our screens, from Ireland’s featherweight livewire Barry McGuigan to the great middleweight quartet of Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran, and from the epic super-middleweight battles between Chris Eubank, Nigel Benn and Steve Collins to the heavyweight prowess of Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield.

This year has seen fight after fight deliver the goods in similar fashion, in terms of spectacle and excitement, of great match-ups between high-class fighters not ducking a challenge and going toe-to-toe with each other while also possessing the personalities to capture the public’s imagination.

Mayweather himself got the ball rolling in the ring he will grace tonight when he withstood the challenge of ring legend Oscar De La Hoya last May for a split-decision victory, while Hatton took out Jose Luis Castillo a few weeks later across town. There have also been epics between Miguel Cotto and Zab Judah, Cotto and ‘Sugar’ Shane Mosley, super-featherweight star Marco Antonio Barrera bowed out of boxing with classics against Marquez and a rematch with Manny Pacquiao while Bernard Hopkins and Winky Wright got it on at light-heavyweight.

Wales’ Joe Calzaghe became undisputed super-middleweight champion by twice selling in excess of 50,000 tickets at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium while Kelly Pavlik became the middleweight king with a shock win over Jermain Taylor in Atlantic City.

In America, the majority of those fights were delivered to the armchair fan by the HBO network, which broadcast 29 big fight nights in 2007 and logged 37 million pay per view buys ahead of tonight’s fight.

“I think 2007 will go down as the single biggest year in HBO boxing history,” said Mark Taffet, senior vice president at HBO PPV and HBO Sports. “We took in $1.7billion (e1.15bn) in pay per view revenue and so no single year has been as important as 2007.

“I think 2007 will go down as one of the great years in the sport of boxing. The biggest fights happened regularly, the best fought the best and the sport was reinvigorated, revitalised and returned to its rightful place in the sports landscape.

“De La Hoya versus Mayweather was the biggest fight in sports history, it continued from there, and it ends with another megafight, so there’s no better way to cap it off than with Hatton-Mayweather.”

Hatton-Mayweather is certainly one of the most highly-anticipated fights in years, set to eclipse May’s meeting between Mayweather and De La Hoya which in turn outstripped the 1999 clash of ‘DLH’ and ‘Tito’ Trinidad.

Seven months ago, the jury was still out on the state of boxing, even after the Mayweather-De La Hoya clash broke pay-per-view records, by generating 2.15 million pay-per-view buys.

According to David Carter, the executive director of the University of Southern California’s Sports Business Institute, that megafight alone was not going to be enough for the sport to permanently retain an audience.

“Boxing strikes me as being less on the ropes and more being part of a standing eight count at this point,” Carter said following Mayweather’s victory. “The sport did not find its way into its business dilemma overnight, so it can’t possibly expect to be able to dig itself out with a single event — no matter how strong that event may be.”

What boxing needed, Carter said, was for the sport’s promoters to deliver one blockbuster after another.

“Boxing’s erosion in credibility, marked by fans believing some bouts are pre-determined, and corporate partners who view the sport with cynicism, cannot be halted by one fight. However, a series of compelling matches can serve as a tourniquet.”

Bernard Hopkins, who before Mayweather came on the scene was considered the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world, believes boxing’s promoters have come good over the last few months and that his sport was starting to regain ground on UFC.

“This time last year all you heard was about how UFC was the big thing in sports but now you don’t hear no UFC talk,” said Hopkins, who is Golden Boys Promotions’ east coast president.

“Boxing has got its act together and you’re seeing great fights all year round that weren’t happening even last year. But that’s where boxing needed to go.”

Hopkins said a potential meeting with Calzaghe in the new year would also help to put boxing back on the map in a sporting landscape that has seen UFC overtake every sport but the NFL in the American market.

“I think it’s the start of a comeback for boxing. You look at what this fight would mean to boxing, Ricky Hatton and Floyd Mayweather, what that will mean to boxing.

“They mean something to fans but also to history and they’re risky all the way around the board for everyone. So fights like this need to be made and should be made.”

Should Hopkins-Calzaghe take place, and given the American’s reputation as a notoriously tough negotiator that’s a big ‘if’, it will have to go a long way to top tonight’s Hatton-Mayweather showdown. Hopkins’ boss at Golden Boy, CEO Richard Schaefer, had seen his event reach new milestones long before the first bell sounds, a result, he says of putting two big names together in the ring.

“This fight is set to break records again with a $10 million (e6.8m) gate selling out in less than half an hour and 14,000 seats sold for the closed-circuit broadcasts in Las Vegas.”

THE signs are strong that the upward momentum and feelgood factor coursing through boxing in 2007 will, through Hatton-Mayweather, continue into 2008. The new year kicks off with a long-awaited fight at Madison Square Garden between Trinidad and fellow veteran Roy Jones Jnr on January 19. Early 2008 will also see the first move towards the equally long-awaited reunification of a terribly disjointed heavyweight division when Wladimir Klitschko meets Sultan Ibragimov, again at the Garden, on February 23 with the IBF, WBO and IBO belts on the line.

Throw in Hopkins-Calzaghe and a Pavlik-Taylor rematch with Ireland’s own John Duddy waiting in the wings as a possible mandatory challenger, subject to his success continuing in Belfast tonight, and you have the makings of another stellar year.

Hell, there may even be room for another chapter in the Mayweather-Hatton saga.

According to Ricky’s father Roy Hatton, however, boxing is already back in business with their first meeting. “We’ve got Floyd who is undoubtedly the best pound-for-pound boxer on the planet. We’ve got Ricky Hatton who is possibly the most exciting in-fighter in the world today and really to make a good fight you need these contrasts,” Hatton senior said.

“On Saturday there will be two winners in that ring, one will be either Floyd Mayweather or Ricky Hatton, but the biggest winner will be the sport of boxing that we all love.”

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