Boxing Historian Mike Silver - On Business side of the Sport, TV, plus thoughts on Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, Antonio Margarito and Much More By David Tyler, DoghouseBoxing (Oct 14, 2010) - Tweet
The most widely recognized boxing historian on this planet is award winning author, Mike Silver who penned the perfect book about the history of boxing, "The Arc of Boxing". Any interview with Mike is a boxing history lesson. I have read the interview many times and learned something new from each reading. Hope you enjoy!
David Tyler: Mike, I don’t believe that many fans of our sport understand the mechanics of how boxing matches were made from the early 1900s to the present day. Can we discuss this aspect of boxing?
Mike Silver Sure Dave, happy to oblige. Boxing has undergone major changes in so many ways since its heyday during the first half of the last century. The way boxing is promoted always depended on how the business was structured. From the 1900s to the 1940s--the pre-television era in boxing--the industry functioned more like traditional show business. Keep in mind that at the time there were only three major spectator sports that mattered--baseball, boxing and horse racing. One of the key differences from today is that boxing was hugely active on the local level. I doubt if there are more than a half dozen fight arenas operating on a weekly basis today. Up to the early 1950s there were hundreds of neighborhood arenas, from Maine to California, showcasing boxing every week. There were more fighters, managers, promoters, gyms and arenas than today. There was a lot of work to go around. Everyone was kept busy. Competition is always good for the marketplace and there was plenty of healthy competition in boxing during those years.
DT: In what way was the boxing industry similar to show business in the mechanics of how matches were made?
MS: Just like singers, comedians, actors or musicians, the professional boxer was a solitary performer who was represented by a manager. The manager negotiated a fee for the fighter’s services with a promoter. There were three people involved in making a matcha manager for each of the opposing fighters and the promoter. The roles of manager and promoter were distinct and traditionally adverse. The manager’s function was to negotiate a suitable fee and advance the fighter’s career with a victory. He wanted to move the fighter but also wanted to protect him and make the best match for him at a particular stage of his career. The fear was not to overmatch him and ruin the fighter but to improve skills and gain experience. Experience did not mean 15 or 20 fights before getting a title shot, as so often happens today. From the 1900s to the 1950s a fighter with 30 fights was still considered a work in progress. The promoter usually had nothing to do with managing the fighter’s career. Since he did not have a financial interest in the fighter there was no interest in the outcome of the bout. The promoter’s function was to present an attractive competitive match that would draw in the fans. He wanted to sell as many tickets as possible so all parties would make maximum dollars. That was the way matches were made until the advent of the television era blurred the picture.
DT: What happened when television came on the scene?
MS: Television’s effect on the sport was seismic. The first weekly televised fights began in the late 1940s and proved to be an instant success. Televised boxing is said to have sold as many TV sets as Milton Berle. Over the next few years up to six fights a week were being televised nationally. Millions of new fans were attracted to the sport. The ratings were huge, but the overexposure accelerated the closing of hundreds of small neighborhood arenas, which had functioned as boxing’s farm system for developing new talent. This informal farm system had been in place for over half a century. The small clubs could not complete with the free TV fights which featured established stars week after week. At the same time, because of the post World War II economic boom, fewer young men were going into boxing. Soon the demand for new talent created by the ravenous TV schedule outran the supply. Many young fighters were ruined when they were rushed into main events against more experienced opponents before they had a chance to develop. Add this to the profound socio-economic and demographic changes that took place in the decades after World War II and what you had, essentially, was a downsizing of the sport’s infrastructure. The overexposure on TV even killed off that golden goose, as ratings eventually dropped off in the late 1950s and the weekly shows were cancelled. Many experienced managers and trainers left the sport because they could no longer make a living in boxing. At the same time a nefarious criminal element had taken over the sport in the guise of the International Boxing Club. The IBC was the major promotional group in boxing and it was controlled by mobsters. Only arenas subsidized with TV money could afford to stay in business and operate on a consistent basis, but the IBC had sewn up the TV contracts and had control over major arenas including Madison Square Garden. The mobsters had all the chips and either bought into the fighter or took over top contenders and champions by hiring stooges to front for them as managers. They fixed fights, forced legitimate managers out of the picture, arranged for their fighters to get title shots and froze out those managers and fighters who wanted to stay independent. Finally, in 1959, the Justice Department ended the whole sordid mess by ordering the dissolution of the IBC for operating a monopoly in restraint of trade and sentenced its criminal overlords to lengthy prison sentences.
DT: What happened after the monopoly was broken up? Did things get back to normal?
MS: If you mean the traditional manager-promoter relationship, well, that was still in place, more or less. But the sport was struggling, and now it did not have the benefit of regularly scheduled televised bouts. Boxing was fortunate in the 1960s and 70s to be carried on the shoulders of Ali, Frazier, Quarry, Bob Foster, Roberto Duran, and a few other stars.
DT: In the mid 1970s boxing was revived by the Olympic champions like Sugar Ray Leonard, Michael Spinks and his brother Leon. Network television was again broadcasting boxing and HBO brought boxing to cable subscribers.
MS: You are correct. The success of the movie Rocky and television coverage of Sugar Ray Leonard and other American gold medal winners at the 1976 Olympic Games aroused public interest in the sport, rekindling memories of boxing’s glory days. Both the ABC and CBS networks began televising fights on a regular basis. Unfortunately, boxing was without any official centralized authority so abuses to the system were not addressed and greedy promoters in concert with phony sanctioning organizations were allowed to run rampant, reviving memories of the IBC’s glory days. Once again professional boxing missed a golden opportunity to right itself, but that is just not in the nature of this sport.
DT: I know we’ve only scratched the surface so I would suggest that anyone who wants to learn more about this topic read your book, “The Arc of Boxing”.
MS: If you want to know what happened to boxingon every levelmy book explains it. I would also suggest to your readers, “Boxing Confidential” by Jim Brady. It is the most informative, detailed and comprehensive history of corruption in boxing ever written.
DT: Mike, your endorsement is all I need to hear. I will definitely get a copy of “Boxing Confidential”.
MS: I think it’s important for anyone who cares about this sport to be as informed as possible.
DT: Mike, getting back to our topic, what is the main difference in the manager-promoter relationship today as compared to years ago?
MS: The traditional manager-promoter relationship hardly exists today. There are no managers in the sense of the type of professional you had years ago. What you have are businessmen or lawyers with little or no knowledge of boxing who sign a promising fighter to a contract and then look to partner with a powerful promotional organization who can get the fighter on television. The promoter then essentially takes over the role of the manager since he controls all the marbles. Today the promoter is essentially the manager and that could create a conflict of interest in that he is trying to protect his investment and not create the best possible match. I’ll give you an example of the changes that were taking place in boxing at the grass roots level. Back in the mid 1990s I became interested in managing a local preliminary fighter. I approached a promoter who was running a small club show about every two months. I told him my fighter was available and ready to fight on his next show. His answer was very matter of fact; “fine, but you have to come up with the opponent and you have to pay the opponent out of your own pocket. That’s the way it’s done today.” I couldn’t believe it. He was basically saying that he didn’t care if the match was legitimate or not. It was difficult enough for him to put on a show featuring his own fighter in the main eventhe didn’t want the extra burden of matchmaking the preliminary card. Every bout could end in one round knockouts for all he cared. I wanted no part of the charade.
DT: How does ESPN fit into the equation?
MS: What ESPN does is televise fights from various cities. ESPN operates in a more traditional fashion in that they will negotiate with an out of town promoter who will put together a fight card and negotiate a deal with ESPN to televise the fights. I do not believe ESPN has exclusive promotional contracts with the fighters they showcase. In that sense it operates more like the traditional fight club developing new talent.
DT: So today’s fighters start as undercard fighters trying to get on television and prove themselves. Next they would appear on ESPN as a main event. If successful the fighter would depend on his manager or promotional company to negotiate an appearance on Showtime, then maybe regular HBO and of course the goal is to reach the million dollar payday as a main event fighter on Pay Per View?
MS: That would be the ultimate goal. But the way the sport is structured today the fighter often is unprepared when he finally does get his TV shot. Many are protected and navigated through a series of bouts against inferior opponents while establishing their undefeated records. The fighter is learning little and not improving. And then when he signs a contract with a major promoter and gets to fight on television his inexperience is exposed. And even if he wins the development of the fighter remains secondary. Television rules and dictates. In the old days a good manager kept their eye on the fighter all the time. That relationship no longer exists.
DT: Today two of the biggest promoters are Top Rank and Golden Boy. How do they arrange fights with HBO?
MS: When your company has a product that’s in demand you’ve got something to sell. Top Rank and Golden Boy have promotional contracts with many champions and contenders desirable to television. What I’ve noticed recently is that both rival promotional organizations are solidifying their territory and seem intent on acting independently of each other. By that I mean Golden Boy will put together a card on HBO featuring only their stable of fighters against one another. It’s the same with Top Rank. They are operating as two separate universes. I don’t think this is good for boxing…it’s good for the individual organizations because all the prize money is kept in-house but it limits competition. From the fan’s point of view that’s a negative. It’s not great for the fighters either. When both fighters in a proposed match are controlled by one promoter the fighters have little negotiating room. It’s all a take it or leave it proposition. The promoter’s attitude is, “you don’t like it take a walk”. Before, when the manager was in control of the fighter’s career, he would negotiate on the fighter’s behalf against the promoter.
The sport was better when there were more promoters and managers. The way the business is set up today it stifles competition, which is too bad because healthy competition creates a better product. But those days are long gone. The game is structured very differently today. You can accept it or just walk away, or tune in to MMA.
DT: Can you see a time when there will be more promoters and managers and we will return to a more competitive environment?
MS: No. That has about as much chance as the old mom and pop hardware stores making a comeback against the huge national chains like Ace Hardware and Home Depot. In the old days promoters would attempt to outbid each other when trying to make an attractive match. There were so many more managers and promoters and many more choices of who to match your fighter against.
Also, a defeat was not viewed the same way. A loss on a record did not set the fighter back like it does today, what with TV wanting to emphasize an undefeated record and high knockout ratio. And of course all those ridiculous meaningless titles sanctioned by the dopey Alphabet groups just add to the general state of confusion. What talent is available is spread so thin. It’s almost as if the sport is doing everything possible to destroy its fan base. It’s crazy. And things just keep getting worse. I’m not the first one to say that boxing has always been a mirror that reflects the culture that surrounds it. Need I say more?
DT: You don’t sound too optimistic.
MS: Today the only fight we have to look forward to is a match that can’t seem to be madeMayweather vs. Pacquiao. Let’s face it, boxing is in rigor mortis. It’s on life support. Over the past 30 years the Alphabet groups in concert with the greed of major promoters have all but destroyed the sport. If boxing was organized properly and had any consideration for its fans MMA would never have gotten a foothold.
DT: I agree with you, Mike. But just playing devil’s advocate hereyou have to agree the sport has earned millions of dollars from major Pay-Per-View fights.
MS: Right now the fans come out only for the occasional mega fight, and those are getting fewer and fewer. That’s like having baseball fans only interested in the World Series. Can a sport continue to thrive under those circumstances? If baseball or football were run like boxing they would become fringe sports too.
How can any sport develop a solid knowledgeable fan base when it has so many champions and weight divisions, when the titles have been so devalued? Who can keep track of what’s going on? People don’t know who the champions are…and worse, they don’t even care! A sport will not grow without efforts to develop its fan base. If it truly wanted to help itself boxing would outlaw the Alphabet bums and the major promoters would organize tournaments to crown one champion per division and open up the competition. That would benefit everyone. But realistically, that won’t happen.
DT: Mike, what’s your take on the current heavyweight situation.
MS: There is an old saying in boxing, “as the heavyweight division goes, so goes boxing”. That is never more true than today. You recently had a heavyweight champion defend his title and nobody cared. And if you take Pacquiao out of the picture you’ve got nothing of interest to the fan. The sport desperately needs more superstars but as long as you have this disorganization that will not happen.
DT: Let’s discuss the upcoming fight between Pacman and Margarito. Would Top Rank allow Margarito to beat Pac who is their number one source of money?
MS: So you’re saying they would not have made the match if they weren’t sure Pacman would win? Margarito is no pushover. On paper this looks like a very tough match for Manny. But I understand your concern. Anytime you’ve got two fighters matched who are controlled by one promoter and one of them is a huge money generating superstar there is always a seed of doubt. I am sure they prefer Pac to win, especially with that elusive Mayweather fight still a remote possibility. But even if Pacman lost, which is highly unlikely, it would generate a lucrative return match with Margarito. The only loser here would be Mayweather who appears to be on another planet. In any case it should be an interesting fight while it lasts. I think Margarito is just too far gone and Pacman shouldn’t have too much trouble stopping him.
DT: Thank you, Mike
For those readers interested in learning more about Mike Silver's book, "The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science" they can check out reviews and updates at MikeSilverBoxing.com.
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