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Boxing popularity decline in the U.S: The real reason why

Lee Cleveland Updated
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In 2015, boxing legend Mike Tyson appeared on Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore.”

When asked what advice he'd give to aspiring young boxers, Tyson replied, "Go to MMA."

When someone as popular as Tyson disses the sport that made him a star, one must ask, "Why?"

Is boxing in such terrible shape in America that someone who has grown to become a 'face for the sport' would advise youngsters to 'jump ship' and enroll in a mixed martial arts program?

Answer: No

Has MMA taken the focus off boxing and reduced its popularity?

Answer: Not even close. 

But, has boxing's landscape changed a lot in the U.S. since the 1990s?

Answer: Definitely

The sport is enjoying a renaissance of sorts in Europe, especially Germany, Poland, Russia and the UK. 


USSR and the Communist Bloc
When the Berlin Wall came crashing down in 1989 and the USSR collapsed soon thereafter, few understood the profound impact those historic events would would have on professional boxing.

Prior to the early 90s, athletes in some parts of the world, like Russia, couldn't turn pro due to their socialistic economic systems. Hence, fellas like Sergey Kovalev and Gennady Golovkin wouldn't have been able to compete as pros in 1990. 

Perhaps they would have burst onto the scene in the late 90s like Andrew Golota, but would have had years of catching up to do as many former eastern bloc nations were still too new to be competitive in professional sports in the mid and late 90s.

Simply put, the fall of the USSR and spread of capitalism to other parts of the world have produced countries that are "embracing" boxing and cultivating professionals because fighters can now keep the money they earn. Prior to the early 90s, any earned income boxing would have been (legally) seized by their government.

As a result, the sport is increasing in popularity and is more competitive today, internationally, that it has ever been. Hence, it is no longer dominated by Americans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and the occasional Brit.

Talent-wise, North America, Puerto Rico and the UK no longer have a monopoly on professional boxing. 

Quite naturally, national interest in any sport wanes when its heroes are replaced by champions from abroad who live and fight on foreign lands, speak different tongues and have names that cannot easily be pronounced.

Today, America's only recently-active mainstream boxing star is Floyd Mayweather. In the 1990s, however, U.S. boxing was stacked with mainstream superstars such as Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Pernell Whitaker, Roy Jones Jr, Oscar De La Hoya, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, George Foreman and the list goes on.

Boxing popularity depends on its stars. Since the United States isn't used to having so few star boxers, many Americans will assume the current talent is poor. However, today's talent, at least on the elite level, is every bit as good as it was in the 1990s. The sport simply got more competitive thus making it more difficult for any one nation, like the U.S., to boast a "Dream Team" of world champions and superstars.

We are seeing something similar, although to a lesser degree, in Olympic Men's Basketball. 

The flood gates have opened and the U.S., who used to easily win Gold fielding college kids, now struggles to do the same using professional stars.

Basketball, like boxing, has become more competitive on the international front.

Sure, boxing may be a niche sport in the U.S. today but it's flourishing abroad and the level of competition has never been so fierce.

A sport is carried by its stars and if the U.S. can produce three or four concurrent mainstream stars or an electrifying, dominant heavyweight champion, boxing popularity may rise again in America.

Deontay Wilder, are you reading this?


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