Heavyweight boxing alive and well overseas

BY foxsports • September 10, 2010

On Saturday night, Wladimir Klitschko will walk into Frankfurt’s Commerzbank-Arena while being cheered on by 45,000 fans as he attempts to make a 10th consecutive world title defense. His fight against Sam Peter will be watched on German network television by an expected audience of 11 million (out of a population of 90 million), with viewers from a further 100 countries also watching live. It’s more than possible that when everything is added together, Klitschko’s earnings from the fight will run into eight figures.

And yet across the Atlantic, people will be asking why he isn’t more successful.

In America, the spiritual home of heavyweights, the Klitschkos have long since ceased to be flavor of the month. Despite a proven track record as a ratings draw, HBO brutally turned down the rights to Saturday’s fight while Showtime was unwilling to pick them up as they couldn’t bolster the broadcast of an American event. While the Klitschkos were able to cobble together a deal that will see the fight air live on ESPN3.com and then repeated on ESPN the next day, the failure to secure a better television deal is further evidence of America’s apathy toward the two brothers that dominate heavyweight boxing.

Many reasons have been cited for America’s lack of love for the Klitschkos from the general weakness of the heavyweight division to specific failings with the Ukrainians themselves, with many fight fans finding their demeanor both in and out of the ring boring. But there is a more fundamental reason why broadcasters, journalists and fans in America find them frustrating: the Klitschkos don’t need them.

When explaining to the L.A. Times why he wasn’t interested in carrying the then-planned Wladimir-Povetkin match, HBO Sports president Ross Greenberg didn’t do much to disguise his unhappiness at a world heavyweight title fight once again taking place in Germany, outside of television primetime in America. It’s been over two years since Wladimir has fought in America, and unlike many other overseas champions, he doesn’t appease U.S. broadcasters by making local fans wait until the early hours of the morning to see the fight so that Americans can watch it on television during primetime.

This unwillingness to accommodate the demands of the American media extends to journalists, with many leading writers complaining of a lack of access to Wladimir in the run-up to his March defense against Eddie Chambers. Such remoteness just adds to the dawning realization that unlike other overseas boxers, the Europeans that dominate heavyweight boxing are putting the ability to make money at home above trying to break into the American market. This week saw an extreme example of this with David Haye choosing to defend his WBA title against fellow Briton Audley Harrison in a fight that, despite being of no interest to anyone outside of Britain, may well do over a million buys on British pay-per-view. To many American fans, it increasingly feels like heavyweight boxing is a foreign sport.

In many ways this compares terribly with the success the UFC is having with its heavyweight division, with its champion Brock Lesnar leading a high-profile division full of exciting American contenders including Cain Velasquez, Shane Carwin and Frank Mir. Such is the marketability of the division that Lesnar can justifiably claim to be the American PPV king, with his last three world title defenses outdrawing Floyd Mayweather’s last three fights by around 750,000 buys.

But such a comparison is unfair. America is overwhelmingly the UFC’s primary market whereas to heavyweight boxing it’s less important than the home markets of the Klitschkos (Germany) and Haye (Britain). In Britain, the PPV that saw David Haye win the WBA title from Nikolai Valeuv was purchased by 800,000 households (in a PPV universe barely over 12 million) while in Germany, the Klitschkos are mainstream superstars, with their matches being among the most watched sporting events on network television.

Heavyweight boxing is just as commercially successful as the UFC’s heavyweight division. It’s just that its center of gravity is on the other side of the Atlantic. And unfortunately for American boxing fans, there’s no sign that that’s about to change any time soon.

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