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Heavyweights Getting The Bum Rush

3/05/2009 5:06 PM

How the mighty have fallen.

The heavyweight boxing championship – once the most prized title in all of individual professional sports – has been relegated to a Saturday afternoon timeslot on ESPN.

The 24-hour sports network, which lightheartedly supports the sport through its weekly ESPN2 Friday Night Fights series, will telecast live the March 21 World Boxing Council heavyweight championship fight between champ Vitali Klitschko and relatively unknown challenger Juan Carlos Gomez at 5 p.m. from Germany.

Not even a primetime slot for a heavyweight title fight that shares the legacy of such historic bouts as Ali-Frazier, Marciano-Walcott, Louis-Schmeling and Tyson-Holyfield.

It was only seven years ago when heavyweight champions Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis met in the then richest pay-per-view boxing event in history. The storied heavyweight division had all but defined the PPV event business in the 1990s when big men like Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe ruled the boxing world and the pay-per-view box office.

Even as Holyfield, Bowe and Tyson declined in the ring, boxing fans could still count on marquee names like Lewis and Roy Jones Jr. to showcase the heavyweight division in title matchups on PPV or in primetime on HBO and Showtime.

It used to be that boxing was only as good as the heavyweight champion’s popularity; thank goodness for the sport that’s no longer the case. Fighters such as Oscar De La Hoya, Jones, Floyd Mayweather and more recently Manny Pacquiao have been doing the heavy lifting for the sport most of this decade.

But it’s true that a strong, popular heavyweight champion can significantly lift the sport. In a time when younger viewers are migrating to mixed martial arts events, a marquee heavyweight champion in the mode of an Ali or Tyson could help recapture some straying fans and draw in new ones.

But it doesn’t look like there are any knockout contenders for boxing’s ambassadorship within the heavyweight ranks. The fact is most people would be hard pressed to name the three universally recognized heavyweight champions, none of which are American. (Hint: The WBC and International Boxing Federation champions are Ukrainian with the last name of Klitschko, while Russian boxer Nikolai Valuev holds the World Boxing Association title.)

As a result, premium and PPV distributors aren’t rushing in to spend their time or money in the division. “The heavyweight division continues to be a challenging division in terms of finding compelling match-ups at the right prices,” said Ken Hershman, senior vice president and general manager of sports and event programming for Showtime, which aired Klitschko’s October fight.

“We have, instead, turned our focus to more talent-rich weight classes — including the super middleweight and junior welterweight divisions — where we can not only put on great fights right now, but we can also begin to develop compelling storylines for future bouts as well.”

HBO says it will still air Vitali Klitschko’s brother Wladimir’s International Boxing Federation heavyweight championship fights for the immediate future. As for finding the remaining crop of heavyweight contenders on TV — good luck. Maybe you can see them during afternoons on ESPN.

September