By Corey Erdman
Everyone in the world can agree that 2017 was an outstanding year for the sport of boxing in America.
It’s important to make the distinction of America because boxing has had plenty of great years, great fights and great fighters recently if one bothered to look outside of the United States. What made 2017 as successful as it was for fisticuffs stateside was the boxing industry’s full-blown adoption of the sport internationally—its events, and its stars.
For many years, boxing fans in the United Kingdom, Mexico, Japan, Canada, Thailand, the Philippines, Russia, Ukraine, and almost anywhere else in the world outside the United States likely read the lazy “boxing is dead” takes and wondered how that could be when their boxing shows were selling out, and their native fighters were plastered all over the news. At the same time, the casual fan in the United States reading those columns wouldn’t have known any better—international cards were rarely shown on American networks with the exception of the odd Wladimir Klitschko fight, and fighters of foreign descent were sparingly chosen (and often only as B-sides).
The biggest combat sports event of all-time took place this year between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor, smashing every other event in terms of pay-per-view numbers and revenue with the exception of Mayweather’s bout against Manny Pacquiao. That enough could have been enough to make 2017 a win for boxing, but the true greatness of the year happened elsewhere.
By looking outside of the United States, boxing has found its biggest draw in Anthony Joshua, its biggest North American star in Canelo Alvarez, and perhaps its two best fighters in Gennady Golovkin and Vasyl Lomachenko.
Obviously all four men had appeared on American television prior to this year, but it felt as though this was finally the year we adopted them, and came to grips with the fact that sometimes the men and women who carry your industry aren’t necessarily from the United States.
Imagine if the music industry had been as tepid about international talent as boxing had been in recent years. Of the seven greatest selling musical acts of all-time—The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Elton John, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd—four of them are not from the United States. At no point during their peaks did anyone suggest that “popular music is dead,” or “there just aren’t any great musicians coming out these days.”
That’s exactly what was done in boxing for years, even while non-American fighters were starting to get airtime.
Perhaps the four most notable bouts of the year had a decidedly international flavor. Joshua-Klitschko was the Fight of the Year according to most outlets, and an outstanding live event spectacle with more than 90,000 fans in attendance. Watching it, particularly in person but even on television, was an unforgettable sporting moment. It was also a fight between a man from the United Kingdom and one from the Ukraine.
Canelo-GGG was a smash hit on pay-per-view and one of the best fights of the year. It was a fight between a man from Mexico and a man from Kazakhstan.
Vasyl Lomachenko and Guillermo Rigondeaux’s fight turned out to be a letdown—but it was a fight that generated plenty of interest heading into it, as the only professional bout ever between two double Olympic gold medalists. It was a fight between a man from Ukraine and a man from Cuba.
Roman Gonzalez and Srisaket Sor Rungvisai had one of the best fights of the year, one which Sor Runvisai followed up with the Knockout of the Year candidate in the subsequent rematch. It was a fight between the two highest-ranked super flyweights in the world at the time—a man from Nicaragua and a man from Thailand.
Even Mayweather-McGregor—sure, was staged on American soil and the A-side was the best and most famous boxer of his generation, but to ignore the role McGregor’s Irish fanbase had in generating excitement and atmosphere around the bout would be foolish.
Boxing fans, like every other human being on the planet, have access to more information than ever. It’s not enough for networks to simply tell viewers “these are the best fighters in the world,” when they can visit any boxing website and see and read about the spectacular fighters in other countries and in different weight classes. Networks, no doubt, are privy to this. There was a time when fighters below 135 were a very tough sell on HBO, likely due to prejudice based on the size and the location of the fighters. Now, the network prides itself on its commitment to the 115-pound weight class and its stars from Asia, Mexico and abroad, and lets Canelo, GGG and Russia’s Sergey Kovalev effectively fly the company flag.
Showtime has taken it a step further. While HBO mostly would prefer for the fighters it features to fight in the United States, Showtime has dedicated itself to either full-fledged international productions, or simply taking the satellite signal of noteworthy international bouts and bringing them to an audience which would otherwise not see them, or would find a pirated stream of them.
As a result, it’s been easier for the best fighters to fight the best fighters, which had been a common complaint from boxing detractors in recent years. There’s now a television market for the best fights—not just the best fights that include at least one American fighter. Foreign fighters aren’t just the unknown faded veterans with nice records we see served up to US prospects on their way up, American fans now know them, and know they’re some of the best in the world.
While there are no doubt more superstars of the future in the boroughs of New York City and the valleys of California, it was unfair and narrow-minded to pin the health of the sport on whatever talent could be found there at any given time.
Just as British bands served as inspiration and motivation for American bands regardless of where they were from, today’s top fighters from other countries will do the same young American boxers. It doesn’t matter that Anthony Joshua and Gennady Golovkin aren’t American—they’re the best fighters in the world and they’re on television.
Maybe if that’d been the case before, we could have had many more years like the one we just had.