Forty-five years ago this week, Muhammad Ali rocked George Foreman and shocked the world in Zaire, now known as Congo. The “Rumble in the Jungle” remains one of the 20th century’s signature sporting events, and its stars, Ali and Foreman, have remained icons in American sport, popular culture and even business.
But the sport that brought them stardom has largely vanished from popular culture and public consciousness. Why? Because while “Friday Night Fights” were once a weekly broadcasting ritual, boxing’s sheer brutality forced it off the national network airwaves. Enormous revenue further facilitated its transition to cable and pay-per-view telecasting, and the sport then eased out of the living rooms of everyone but dedicated fans.
Another professional sport is now confronting the pitfalls of exploiting trauma-inducing violence for televised entertainment: football. And, as with boxing, the viability of professional football will be decided by the ways broadcasters and the NFL collaborate to address the new moral questions of complicity and responsibility that America’s casual sports fans confront.
Like football today, boxing owed its enormous national popularity to broadcasting. Originally, in the bare-knuckled days, bouts would often be staged in barrooms while bookies placed odds among the raucous crowds. At the turn of the 20th century, however, boxing emerged as legitimate amusement. State regulatory boards, pushed by promoters, fans and the media, began to sanction the sport.
Radio capitalized on the huge crowds that swarmed arenas around the world to watch iconic champions — the first real sporting celebrities — battle it out. Radio coverage cleaned up boxing, pulling it out of the smoky bars and grimy arenas and making it presentable in every American home. The networks showcased boxing stars by creating dramatic and sensational narratives around such heroic athletes as Jim Braddock, Max Baer and Joe Louis. In the 1930s, Louis’s championship bouts were the only network programming that proved competitive in the national ratings with President Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats. Everyone tuned in.
Broadcasting intensified boxing’s popularity and earnings. Gigantic purses — the prize money split by the competing fighters — occurred regularly from the 1920s to the 1940s. The sport’s national popularity, created by radio, raised the price of tickets to a Jack Dempsey or Joe Louis championship match to unheard-of levels.
By the 1930s, heavyweight championship fights paid out almost unimaginable riches to elite stars. And over the ensuing decades, as radio evolved into television and “Friday Night Fights” became appointment viewing, even the boxers themselves couldn’t believe the money involved. In 1971, right before Ali fought Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden, the crowd watched Ali chanting something while dancing around the ring. Everyone assumed he was taunting Frazier. In fact, he was quietly repeating to himself: “Two-and-a-half million dollars! Two-and-a-half million dollars! Can you believe it?”
That $5 million purse (for both fighters) doubled when Mobutu Sese Seko ponied up a $10 million guarantee for the Rumble three years later. The amount was staggering. In comparison, the entire player payroll for all of Major League Baseball in 1973 was $22 million. The National Basketball Association’s total 1974 payroll was $18 million. Foreman and Ali were earning $5 million each for one evening’s work.
By the 1970s, boxing was a regular staple of such TV programs as ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” Boxing’s ability to attract reliable audiences while keeping production costs low made it popular with the networks. And because its flexible schedule meant it could be easily aired at any point in the calendar, it maintained its enormous popularity.
But that popularity encouraged promoters to search for new revenue opportunities, and they found them outside the broadcast networks, on satellite and closed-circuit pay-per-view television. That is the significance of the Rumble in the Jungle: It did not appear on network television. The live broadcast occurred in the United States in closed-circuit-equipped movie theaters. This effort to capitalize on the sport’s popularity risked losing the interest of the casual viewer. As more top fights left free television, the networks settled for lesser attractions, and the quality of the matches eroded.
And then the violence of the sport took its toll on viewers. Boxing’s future on free television was most likely sealed by a series of events in 1982. First, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini seriously maimed South Korean Duk-Koo Kim live on CBS; Kim died a few days afterward. Less than two weeks later, while the public and politicians debated the horrifying savagery of that event, Larry Holmes pounded the face of Randall “Tex” Cobb into a bloody mess live on ABC. When the referee refused to stop the fight, a disgusted Howard Cosell turned on the sport that made him famous. Cosell’s anger presaged the frustration of his network bosses.
For them, the value proposition of running afoul of Washington’s regulators in exchange for now-second-rate sports programming with declining ratings was no longer viable. They had other options. Soon the NBA started drawing in the casual sports fan, and within a decade basketball stars filled boxing’s void in the global sporting arena.
In the late 1980s, Mike Tyson’s violent freak show transformed boxing into a niche product in the narrowcasting media universe. Though championship purses kept growing, the disappearance of the casual fight fan continued apace. The sport’s last gasp of truly national popularity occurred with Foreman recapturing the heavyweight championship 20 years after the Rumble, in 1994.
Boxing results soon moved off the nation’s sports pages, and reporters no longer covered the sport regularly. It had always been a favorite of America’s most celebrated writers, but even the literary set moved on. Boxing’s relevance to the average American declined precipitously. The era when Americans regularly used boxing metaphors in conversation and everybody could identify the heavyweight champion of the world had disappeared.
Can you name the current heavyweight champion of the world?
The lessons for the future of professional football seem clear: Keep your network broadcast partners happy, rather than moving to more exclusive distribution models — tempting as revenue streams spurred by cable subscriber fees might be or future proprietary apps might be. Don’t mistake the premium consumer for the casual fan. Closely monitor and clearly address the public’s perception of violence both on and off the field.
And perhaps most important: Never take public opinion for granted because someday — strange as it may seem now — the American public’s interest could simply vanish.