Weight of opinion changing the boxing landscape

FORGET the history-making heavies, the marvellous middles and the lightning lights – boxing’s traditional weight divisions are facing meltdown at the hands of a new phenomenon designed to meet the credit crunch head-on.

For today’s billboard-hogging superstars, dominating their natural division against the best available contenders is no longer enough. Money talks, and it talks loudly enough to persuade them to look elsewhere.

Floyd Mayweather called out the middleweight Oscar De La Hoya. Kelly Pavlik had the world at his feet in the middleweight division but chose to jump up in a bid to get the better of Bernard Hopkins. De La Hoya will shortly fight Manny Pacquiao – a fighter whose natural weight is at least two divisions lower, but whose status as one of the pound-for-pound kings is enough to sweep such issues aside.

Who is to say the trend will not gather pace in 2009? There is already talk of Ricky Hatton agreeing to an intriguing showdown against Juan Manuel Marquez, in May.

You could stretch the point to an extreme and question whether Mayweather was really on the level when he recently acclaimed Chad Dawson the finest fighter on the planet – or whether he has his eye on an audacious light-heavyweight return.

The whole business may send a shudder through the purists who do not like to see their neat time-lines spoiled by champions who do not show any respect for the sport’s so-called traditional boundaries.

But it is an undoubtedly positive reaction by an industry already struggling to compete with the rise of mixed martial arts even before the global economy went into meltdown. It’s a tough fact that these days pure boxing ability alone is not going to get you where you want to be. The rankings are full of fighters likely to continue to be locked out: Chris John. Edwin Valero. Even Antonio Margarito. The best fight that could be made in boxing right now, from that purist perspective, is Pacquiao against Valero, the concussive Venezuelan puncher who is crucially a virtual unknown in America.

The best, perhaps only fight which could enhance Mayweather’s legacy if he returned – putting aside fanciful notions of a Dawson showdown – is a clash with Margarito, the knockout conqueror of Miguel Cotto.

They will not happen, but it is hardly boxing’s fault. The sport has been ailing on the pay-per-view markets for a long time and enough obituaries have been written on the sport to fill a heavyweight graveyard.

Boxing’s superstars are taking the only route left open to them, and it is an intriguing one, although in many cases, other than tens of millions of dollars, one must question what exactly one fighter has to gain.

De La Hoya is already secured in the Hall of Fame and rightly so, but a defeat to Pacquiao would do untold embarrassment to his carefully cultivated image, while a win would just provoke a chorus of ‘I told you so’s’.

Hatton would find himself in a similar position if he agreed to an admittedly intriguing showdown with Marquez. But according to the pay-per-view sales, these are precisely the fights the public want to see.

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