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In a Flyover State: Here Comes a Puncher’s Chance for Boxing

So I saw a really fantastic pilot the other day. Got a sneak peek of the new FX drama that launches next month, Lights Out.

It opens with a beaten and bloodied boxer lying on a slab, and you’re not sure if he’s in a morgue or a locker room, dead or alive.

It dawned on me that that’s a pretty good analogy for the state of boxing right now. Even its staunchest fans (hi there) can’t help but wonder sometimes.

As the scene unfolds, the boxer’s wife opens some smelling salts and the pugilist snaps back to consciousness. That seemed pretty prophetic: Boxing is about to get its own wake-up call, and we’ll have to see if it can answer the bell.

But before we talk about fixing the sweet science, let’s review how boxing ended up on its back, under a standing eight-count.

Unlike NASCAR’s flummoxing, plummeting ratings— a phenomenon for which I have yet to hear a plausible, believable reason—boxing’s troubles are pretty easy to define.

The sport has no unified leadership, so the best fighters often don’t fight each other; its heavyweight division (traditionally the sport’s flagship) is dead; and nine times out of ten, an Ultimate Fighting Championship event blows boxing out of the water from a relative excitement standpoint.

So, here comes the last, best chance to get this sport back on its feet. I’ve long thought that boxing needs some mainstream, crossover publicity to get people interested again. And it should get it within the next month, in the form of a movie and a TV show.

This month, Paramount Pictures puts out The Fighter, a movie based on the early career—and sibling drama— of boxer Mickey Ward. I first saw the trailer in a theater recently, and was blown away. The wife was sitting next to me, and she hates boxing like she hates cleaning. So just as I was about to tell her I would happily pay $12.75 just to see the trailer again, I turned to see her eyes welled up . . . from watching the trailer. Granted, she’s a bit nuts, so random tears are no shocker in my world, but this was from the movie preview. That tells me the sport could have some warm spotlight coming thanks to a pretty compelling flick.

And if The Fighter doesn’t bring some focus, I’m betting Lights Out will. FX’s new drama, launching Jan. 11, follows a retired heavyweight fighter as he struggles to support his wife and three children. The money has dried up, so he has to consider every gig, from coming out of retirement to becoming a debt collector for a shady character.

And the pilot is as gripping as Mickey Ward’s famed trilogy of fi ghts with Arturo Gatti. The lead character, played by Holt McCallany, pulls you right in as he battles a moral compass that is under attack like it just looked the wrong way at Mike Tyson, circa 1987. Jab to the face: every idiot in the world thinking they can beat him up now. Right to the body: Daughters sneaking around with boys. Left hook to the caulifl ower ear: A wife who made him quit boxing before he was ready. And the brutal uppercut: All his money disappearing thanks to one bad investment.

The past-his-prime fighter dealing with life after the final bell plot may sound a little late-era Rocky, but that ain’t right, as Mr. Balboa might say. There is plenty to like here for boxing fans and foes alike.

And FX is bringing in some big guns of its own to promote the new series, as the network soon will announce a Jan. 5 premiere event in New York that will feature boxing heavy hitters including Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, Gerry Cooney, Evander Holyfield and Wladimir Klitschko.

Which leads us back to the ring. And all the problems. And the final solution. There is only one fight boxing fans want to see right now. Only one fight that could put boxing front and center for one night in a way that even UFC could not match.

And that is a fight between the two best boxers in the world, Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. The two haven’t fought due to the first problem I mentioned with the sport: it doesn’t have a commissioner to say, “You two, get in the ring.” I haven’t seen anyone with more excuses not to mix things up at night since my wife.

So instead, the two superstars have been fighting trumped-up tomato cans. Instead of dominating coverage on ESPN, they’ve done their most notable work on another Disney network, ABC: Pacquiao’s crooning on JimmyKimmel Live and Mayweather’s turn on Dancing With the Stars.

Now, there have been some very good fights of late, as HBO has been on a roll the last couple of weeks. My November highlight was a guy named Sergio Martinez hitting his opponent so hard that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell fined him.

But if boxing is going to bounce back from its troubles, the time is now. In a recent Sports Business Daily poll, 53% of respondents said that UFC has peaked. They are all wrong. As are those who say UFC doesn’t take away from boxing. I have heard too many fight fans I know say that UFC is starting to make boxing boring by comparison. I’m in danger of becoming one of them, if I’m not already. If you read my recent column on seeing my first UFC event in person, you know I was converted in one night.

So this is boxing’s next, best chance. A (hopefully) great movie; what looks like another great, gritty FX drama; and then the one superfight that will give boxing a puncher’s chance at a comeback.

However, if Mayweather and Pacquiao don’t get in the ring in 2011—make that early 2011—then you may as well count to 10 and ring the bell for boxing to wake up anytime soon. All the movies and shows in the world won’t be able to take that punch, which will land squarely below the belt on an entire sport—and its fans.

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