Rebuilding the Boxing Franchise From the Local Level Up
By Evan Weiner
(New York, N. Y.) -- About 10 years ago, my agent called me and asked if I wanted to do a television program for the History Channel. The show was going to be produced by Susan Michaels, the sister of the then-ABC sports announcer Al Michaels and was going to have among the other guests, Al Michaels, the noted sports commentator (and fellow client) Frank Deford and would be hosted by the “Scud Stud” Arthur Kent and the premise was that this program would cover the entire history of sports from say 773 B. C. when the first Olympic Games took place until say 1999 in two two-hour blocs minus commercial time as part of the “Histories Mysteries” franchise.
The TV show’s mission was an impossible task and today the show is probably floating around in pieces in some YouTube type setting.
The show was utterly forgettable except for one observation by the esteemed writer Frank Deford. The segment was about popularity of sports in the United States and how as Deford pointed out that in 1950, America’s most popular sports were baseball, boxing and horse racing and within a space of 15 years television had changed sports popularity with football taking the lead, baseball hanging in there but other sports sapped baseball’s popularity. Boxing was a well watched TV franchise in the 1950s but in the 1960s, the lure of big money was the hook behind taking championship boxing off commercial television and subsequent live showings of big time bouts on closed circuit in movie theaters, most championship boxing matches disappeared from prime time nor weekend TV.
It didn’t help boxing that Muhammad Ali refused induction into the United States Army based on his religious beliefs and his opposition to the Vietnam War in 1967.
Horse racing and boxing, except for Ali’s 1970s battles with Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton, became afterthoughts. Boxing has never recovered from Ali’s retirement in 1981 although people had interest in Mike Tyson but the curiosity was not necessarily because of his ability in the ring.
At one time, boxing’s heavyweight champion was respected and held in high acclaim, that is no longer true. George Foreman is probably the most visible of the people who have been champion but that is because he reinvented himself into a highly successful, almost cuddly TV pitchman, which is 180 degrees different from his original incarnation. Muhammad Ali frightened people in the 1960s but over the decades has become an icon. There are no Foremans, Alis, Joe Fraziers, Rocky Marcianos or even the celluloid Rocky Balboa out there to capture the imagination in the United States right now, but there are some people in Delaware who would like to rebuild the sport.
Gloria Hammelef is the promoter at Dover Downs in Delaware and on February 26, she is putting together a card that she hopes will be the first that will energize the sport at least in an area between New York City and Norfolk, Virginia with Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D. C. within the market.
There are no familiar names on the card except for local Delaware fighters like Michael “No Joke” Stewart who will take on Brandon Baue in the main event, an eight round welterweight bout, but Hammelef is building a promotion that she hopes will get stronger and will eventually feature major bout but for now, at least for the February and June events, it is getting a foundation build and getting people interested in boxing.
“International boxing is doing okay,” said Hammeldef. “Boxing has lost a lot of luster but in this area, the interest is strong in terms of competition and there are a lot of gems, for a lot of these people, it is a family business and we are dedicated to do the best we can to give these young boxers a showcase they may not have, there is a lot of (boxing) talent in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, D.C. down to Tidewater (Virginia). Initially (the February 26th and June 4th cards), we want to showcase the talent and by September, have a title fight but we will maintain the undercut with the young talent.”
Dover Downs could become a major player in rebuilding the boxing brand. Dover Downs already has horse racing, two NASCAR events, casino gambling, sports betting and will have table games by summer and boxing could a nice fit with the other activities.
“Right now, there are several things we are looking to accomplish because we are a business and with the advent of table games we are looking for entertainment and events to attract the right demographic which are males 35 (years of age) plus. We are going to make every effort to revive boxing. There is an enormous amount of value in boxing and there is a lot of talent coming up. That kind of dedication needs to be rewarded to make the sport thrive,” said Hammelef.
Boxing has been a sport that has been dismissed by many in the sporting industry and yet in the 1990s, the sport generated a pile of cash from pay-per-view events and remains a mainstay in the casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Dover Downs has nearly sold out for the February 26th card which a number of local fighters which might be an indicator that boxing still has traction and again capture the imagination of boxing fans.
Boxing probably will never be mentioned in the same breathe as baseball in popularity as was the case in 1950 but that does not mean the sport cannot carve out a niche presence or better but it has to start from the ground up. Boxing used to have slogans like the people’s champion or the fan favorite or crowd pleasing or even tomato can.
Boxing needs a people’s champion; the ever-popular fan favorite or even the lovable tomato can like Chuck Wepner, the inspiration for film’s Rocky Balboa. The sport also needs to be nurtured in a crowded entertainment field.
Boxers were once celebrities for boxing and their personalities. Rocky Graziano has a whole other career after his boxing days because of his epic fights with Tony Zale and was immortalized in the 1956 movie, Somebody Up There Likes Me which starred Paul Newman as Graziano. Robert DeNiro starred in the 1980 movie Raging Bull which was the story of the middleweight boxer Jake Lamotta. There are many boxing movies but the producers don’t make many movies anymore about boxers with the exception of Ron Howard’s 2005 Cinderella Man about James J. Braddock who might have been the original Rocky Balboa and won the heavyweight title over Max Baer in 1935.
That is what boxing is missing and that is what Gloria Hammelef would like to bring back starting in Dover, Delaware.