Column: Remember when people said boxing was dead?
Madison Square Garden was filled with 20,000 boxing fans last month, and they were treated to Gennady Golovkin, Danny Jacobs and a spectacular night of fights.
This week, 90,000 fans are expected to jam London’s Wembley Stadium for the most significant heavyweight fight in a long time. British Olympic gold medalist Anthony Joshua meets former champion Wladimir Klitschko in a title fight that figures to put a charge into a division that has been neglected for far too long.
A week after that, Canelo Alvarez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. meet in a Mexican showdown in a pay-per-view bout that sold out on the Las Vegas Strip right after it was announced.
Oh yeah, Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev will fight in June in a rematch of their light heavyweight title showdown last November.
The party line has long been that boxing is dead. Crippled by greedy promoters and a lack of heavyweights, it was finally killed off by the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight two years ago that lived up to its billing as the richest fight ever, though certainly not the best.
The truth is, boxing is showing plenty of life. Even the biggest star in mixed martial arts can’t wait to get a piece of it.
Conor McGregor has no chance against Floyd Mayweather Jr. Not in a boxing ring, though in an octagon, it would likely be a different story.
Still, the riches are far greater than McGregor can make in the UFC. And UFC chieftain Dana White says he won’t stand in the way of McGregor making money. He believes the fight will happen.
Yes, Mayweather-McGregor is more a freak show than a fight, but there’s still plenty for boxing fans to get excited about. They don’t have to wait long for Saturday’s fight between Joshua and Klitschko, which will be televised by both Showtime and HBO.
”Obviously, the jewel of the crown is the big heavyweight fight,” said Stephen Espinoza, executive vice president for Showtime Sports. ”It sort of feels like a throwback to the golden eras of boxing when you had big worldwide heavyweight title fights and everyone knew who the champion was.”
The fight matches Klitschko, who dominated the heavyweight division for the better part of a decade, against Joshua, who has won all 17 of his fights by knockout. It will either mark Klitschko’s renaissance after an embarrassing loss to Tyson Fury in 2015 or serve as the passing of the torch to a young and vibrant new champion.
Either way it figures to rekindle interest in a division that has had little to captivate fans in recent years.
”It’s gotten more exciting since I left the top,” Klitschko said. ”It’s not as boring as it was with me during all these years. You can like me or hate me, but when one person conquers all it is boring. I totally get it.”
In boxing-mad England, the fight is such a huge deal that all 90,000 tickets sold out quickly. Joshua owns the titles that will be at stake, and American heavyweight Deontay Wilder, who owns the WBC version of the title, will be ringside hoping to meet the winner.
Just as big for Mexican boxing fans will be the middleweight fight a week later in Las Vegas between the red-haired Alvarez, an established star, and Chavez Jr., a son of the legendary former champion.
If Alvarez wins as oddsmakers expect him to, it could set up an even bigger fight in the fall against Golovkin, the power puncher from Kazakhstan who now lives in Los Angeles. Golovkin sold out Madison Square Garden last month for his narrow win over Jacobs, showing some vulnerability that may help lure what has so far been a reluctant Alvarez into the ring against him.
Espinoza believes that both promoters and fighters have realized that in a competitive market for live events, boxing has had to move to provide better matchups if fans are to pay attention.
And he says that is precisely what is starting to happen.
”Without a doubt boxing is surging,” he said. ”We see that in our ratings and in our digital traffic. What has become clear to those in the boxing industry is that in order to attract attention you’ve got to have signature, high-profile events.”
That includes Joshua and Klitschko and, yes, it probably includes Mayweather-McGregor. Eventually it could include a stable of Olympic fighters signed by Bob Arum and others who may turn into big stars.
The matchups are intriguing, and the response from boxing fans has been huge.
Something to think about the next time you hear that boxing is dead.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg