Say what you will about boxing: It's cruel, it's crooked. That's true. It's gone the way of horse racing, no longer a daily sports staple in America. But boxing is not dead, not quite. As long as 525,000 home viewers are willing to buy a fight, which HBO reported last weekend, boxing has not yet set itself up for the blow that would put it to rest.
Roy Jones Jr.-John Ruiz turned out to be a more lucrative matchup than even HBO anticipated. Ruiz, of course, will never be a household name, and even Jones, as remarkable an athlete as he is, still lacks the name recognition he somehow should have. If that many people would buy a fight not involving Mike Tyson, whose notoriety has now lingered about seven times longer than his prime, boxing's death knell has been staved off at least temporarily.
But the Jones-Ruiz matchup also exposed once more boxing's painfully thin ranks in every weight class. In search of a worthwhile payday, a good boxer like Jones has to find it where he can, even if it means being outweighed by 20 to 30 pounds. Unable to identify a moneymaker his own size, he had to parlay his appeal with people's curiosity in his moving up from light heavyweight champion to fight a heavyweight champion. Of course, Jones picked wisely, a heavyweight champion in name only whom he could confidently engage.
It proved to be another astute business decision by Jones, who calls his own shots out of the ring as well as in it. He attracted the most viewers he ever has in a 50-fight career.
Jones reaped such a windfall, maybe $12 million when it's all counted, that it immediately dawned on other fighters that they might do well to follow suit. Having witnessed Jones's good fortune, any number have been looking up or down at other weight classes in search of the "name" that will bring them a payday. Oscar De La Hoya is that kind of name.
All week, De La Hoya has been the opponent of choice. Floyd Mayweather Jr., the lightweight champion, said that he would move up three weight classes to meet De La Hoya for the junior middleweight tile. That would be from 135 pounds to 154. Middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins said he would shed from 160 to fight De La Hoya. Almost any fighter smaller than Lennox Lewis or bigger than Kermin Guardia (a strawweight) wants De La Hoya.
Few fighters have such appeal, and their numbers are dwindling. Yet in our fixation on celebrity, and a trend toward entertaining at home, boxing became in recent years event programming.
Ordering up Lennox Lewis-Tyson (as did a record 1.9 million last year) or Jones-Ruiz is a way to play host at your party. It's just another example of life updated from when we sat around watching "Bonanza" or listening to "The Shadow" on radio.
But boxing is long beyond the era of Leonard-Hagler-Hearns-Duran (the sport's last fine time?), when those giants of the middleweight ranks had each other and we could turn to them. More recently, the big fights come along less and less frequently. Fight fans always seem to be waiting.
With increasingly fewer "names," boxing offers fewer occasions to be the hit of the party. Just as horse racing's most appealing times are limited primarily to the Triple Crown races, only rarely does boxing entice a general audience. The "sweet science" has fallen so far that Tyson remains prominent even though his knockout last year by Lewis dispelled lingering notions that he remains a heavyweight force.
One thing about boxing remains the same. As James Cooks, who used to advise welterweight champion Simon Brown, said this week, "Fights are still made in barbershops and pool rooms."
And the talk there is Jones-Tyson.
There also is talk about De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad, but Trinidad insists that De La Hoya can wait forever, he's staying retired.
There is talk about Lewis and one of the Klitschkos, Wladmir or Vitali, but Lewis hesitates, perhaps for less of a risk, Tyson, or retirement.
"Tyson-Jones would be bigger than Tyson-Lewis," Cooks said. That would make it the biggest grossing fight of all time. And Cooks is not alone in that opinion. "They could help each other," he said.
Tyson needs money. Jones won't fight unless he can make plenty of it. Jones, though, is independent, thoughtful, shrewd -- and he likes to win. He won't be rushed or persuaded for any amount of money if he doesn't believe he can beat Tyson. Jones said he plans to take "a lot of time" before deciding what to do next.
Boxing has become the waiting game. You wait and wonder about its fate.