Boxing: Tyson is a has-been but he is still boxing's best box office draw

Ken Jones
Thursday 30 January 2003 01:00

As you can probably imagine, the boxing promoter Frank Warren, by reputation a litigious fellow, is not slow in coming forward to challenge the glib assumption that prizefighting is in a bad way and soon to draw its last breath.

Recently, at a lunch he threw for sports editors and writers (boxing writers, the "beat men" as they are known in American circles, are almost an extinct species), Warren produced a number of hard facts to prove that the rough old game is in rude health.

Drawing a comparison with the long, post-war era of London's monopoly – the supposed "golden years" – Warren pointed to many successful promotions in the provinces where average attendances are at least equal with and, in some cases, higher than they were at the capital's venues 20 or more years ago. Fighters are better paid too, and better looked after.

There has never been an argument here with people who find professional boxing medically or morally indefensible.It has to be said, however, that some of the most vehement opposition to boxing is raised by colleagues in this threadbare trade whose prejudice does not keep them from the ringsides of New York and Las Vegas.

Nevertheless, it was suggested to Warren, and he took the point, that while boxing remains more popular than many people imagine, negative perception results from an undeniable dearth of personalities.

What got me on to the theme was this week's announcement that Lennox Lewis has pulled out of a contest against Vitali Klitschko scheduled for 12 April. Lewis's intention is a return against Mike Tyson in June, providing the utterly discredited former heavyweight champion defeats Cliff Etienne in Memphis next month.

From the evidence of their first encounter last year, when Tyson was not just beaten but beaten up without landing a blow of any significance, Lewis is so much of a favourite that he is almost off the betting boards.

The discouraging truth is that Tyson is the only heavyweight out there who can generate enough television money to meet Lewis's purse and leave the paymasters with a profit. Put bluntly, Lewis, who unquestionably figures in the top 10 heavyweights of all time, possibly in the top six, can't draw flies. Ed Schuyler, the Associated Press boxing correspondent for 30 years until his recent retirement, says of Lewis: "Outstanding boxer, great role model, boring. It's as simple as that. Tyson's shot, but he's the only one they can sell. Lewis–Klitschko; who wanted to know? It just wasn't going to make the sort of money Lewis wants."

My conversation with Warren wandered around this fact. That, and how few fighters today can connect with a wider audience. For all his limitations, Frank Bruno did through astute promotion. Naseem Hamed did, so did Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank. For want of a better word, the brash Prince Naseem had vaulting charisma. The public at large thought Benn scary; Eubank's eccentricity appealed to them.

At present, Warren's two most prominent fighters are Ricky Hatton and Joe Calzaghe. Excellent fighters, clean-cut, both ranked above the versions of the world championships they hold. Hatton draws big in Manchester and his popularity may be spreading. I have a neighbour whose 13-year-old son is begging to see Hatton's next fight.

As Warren stressed, there is more to boxing than the heavyweight division. Some of the biggest international names in the late Seventies and early Eighties were Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns. All middleweights or welterweights. Then Tyson came along to justify the theory that the heavyweight division always produces.

Within a year of inclusion in a series of heavyweight eliminators, Tyson was the fighter everyone wanted to see. Well over a decade later that is still largely the case. "In real terms, Tyson was washed up when I brought him over to fight Julius Francis," Warren said, "but we sold out in two days."

Despite everything – no, because of everything – they can still sell Tyson. "Tyson is Tyson," somebody said this week. And that's the sad part. Boxing is in a healthier state than some would have us believe. But the only fighter who reaches out to the wide world beyond is a has-been.

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