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Is boxing down for the count?

PHILADELPHIA – They streamed, screaming and laughing, from two blue charter buses to re-create an iconic movie moment. Scores of eighth-graders from Tates Middle School in Lexington, Ky., sprinted up the 72 steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. At the top, they raised their fists triumphantly, just like underdog boxer Rocky Balboa.

The teens trotted back down to pose for photos next to the famous bronze Rocky statue. They weren’t alone. A 20-something jogger stopped for a selfie there. A strolling middle-aged couple asked a stranger for a snapshot.

Through boxing, these 90 or so people of all ages had been touched on some level. They recognized the power of a sports moment. Boxing resonated with them.

Then came a question for the lot of them.

Who is the current heavyweight champion of the world?

For the past 15 years, boxing has been about as cool as riding in the backseat of your parents’ car.

But boxing is back in the spotlight lately because welterweights Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao finally will fight Saturday night in Las Vegas. Even casual sports fans have craved this matchup for years. Mayweather and Pacquiao are the most famous fighters on Earth. Their paydays will set records. The pay-per-view telecast costs an unprecedented $99.

So you might expect folks to be familiar with other top fighters, especially the heavyweight champion, a claim formerly synonymous with being the planet’s Alpha Male, a sporting and pop-culture behemoth.

Silence among the museum group was followed by low muttering, as if trying to pool together brainpower. They offered no guesses.

Zero kids, zero chaperones, zero passersby knew the champion is Wladimir Klitschko, who would defend his world title just two weeks later in Madison Square Garden.

This wasn’t a trick question. Klitschko has been champion for nine years without interruption. Only Joe Louis reigned over the division longer. Klitschko also is engaged to television star Hayden Panettiere.

Yet in one of the world’s great boxing cities, at the foot of a seminal boxing movie scene, in front of a famous boxing monument, no one could identify the heavyweight champ.

That’s an unnerving problem for boxing’s future in the United States, where interest has been undercut by a lack of television exposure, younger fans who’ve gravitated toward mixed martial arts and meager grassroots funding.

Beyond Saturday night’s recognizable foes, the mainstream American sports fan likely cannot name two other boxers, let alone a pair from the same weight division who actually would face each other.

Not even Mayweather, who owns his own boxing promotional company, knows fighters too well.

“I’m not really into boxing like that,” Mayweather said Wednesday in Las Vegas. “I’m into football and basketball every day. I don’t focus on boxing at all. I don’t watch fights at all.”

Mayweather, an unapologetic high-rolling bettor in Las Vegas’ sports books, claimed he loses money whenever he bets on boxing.

“I don’t know any fighters anymore,” Mayweather said.

Such a disconnect should cause one to wonder if this could be America’s last vital boxing match, the end of an era that symbolized U.S. strength and dominance. Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Ray Robinson, Jake LaMotta, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya …

The image of the superstar American fighter has drifted out of reality. Now they seem more suited for an exhibit.

Boxing always will remain inspiring on film. Photos of classic fight poses always will look fantastic on a barroom wall.

In reality, boxing might be headed for a wing in an American history museum unless significant changes are made to the sport’s infrastructure. There have been promising developments, but no guarantees.

Saturday night aside, mainstream interest is waning. Many fear it’s not coming back.

More spectacle than match

LAS VEGAS – Many thought Mayweather-Pacquiao never would happen, but it will take place here at the MGM Grand Garden this weekend.

Mayweather and Pacquiao were supposed to fight five years and so much promotional posturing ago. The differences seemed petty but nonetheless irreconcilable. Each team pouted and stomped and blamed the other for denying fans the chance to witness the most meaningful bout so far this century.

“I can’t say that this matchup is about hype,” Mayweather said. “This is real life. This is two future Hall of Famers in a megafight.”

Foreman has called Saturday night’s fight third in historical importance behind only Louis’ good-versus-evil rematch with German Max Schmeling in 1938 and Ali’s landmark first meeting with Joe Frazier in 1971.

Officially, the winner of Mayweather-Pacquiao will unify the 147-pound division. Of the four widely accepted world titles, Mayweather has the World Boxing Council and World Boxing Association belts; Pacquiao has the World Boxing Organization belt.

The International Boxing Federation has the gall to call somebody named Kell Brook its welterweight champion, but that just goes to show you how invalid these sanctioning bodies can be.

What’s at stake Saturday night are the mythical pound-for-pound (best regardless of weight class) and lineal (historical significance of having beaten the man who beat the man who beat the man all the way back to the 19th century) titles.

Mayweather is 47-0 and has been considered the best boxer for much of the past decade. Pacquiao was the pound-for-pound king when Mayweather stopped fighting for 21 months in 2008 and 2009. Pacquiao has won eight titles in various weight classes.

Years of anticipation have propelled interest into the ozone.

The fight was sold out almost before tickets went on sale. About 500 seats were made available to the public, and those disappeared in three minutes.

Tickets on the secondary market are volcanic. Ringside seats could be purchased Wednesday night on StubHub.com for $117,000 apiece. The cheapest seats on StubHub were $3,500.

The 10 closed-circuit telecasts around town sold out two weeks in advance at $150 a pop.

Mayweather has hinted he will make about $200 million in a 60/40 purse split with Pacquiao.

Boxing, once a favorite subject of national magazines, rarely rates cover status anymore. But Mayweather and Pacquiao are on the covers of Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine this week.

The last time Sports Illustrated put boxers on its cover was eight years ago, when De La Hoya and Mayweather appeared with the headline “The Fight to Save Boxing.”

Boxing advocates will note what’s happening in Las Vegas and claim it proves that boxing is alive and thriving.

But calling this event’s financial success reflective of the sport’s U.S. health is tantamount to saying the Summer Olympics prove Americans love to watch track and field.

Mayweather-Pacquiao is more of an event than a boxing match. This event is mainstream, transcendent.

Those in the boxing industry pray the hype will help the sport gain traction toward relevance again.

Star power is fading

For decades, people have repeated that boxing never will die. Around the world, that’s likely true. The sport continues to do well in Latin America, Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Television ratings over the past 15 years have shown the United States has a hard-core boxing fan base that will watch any two men execute the pugilistic arts. Those ratings, however, have been flat.

Boxing used to offer layers of appealing personalities. When KO magazine ranked the best 100 fighters of 2000, stars such as Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Diego Corrales, Zab Judah, Johnny Tapia, Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward couldn’t crack the top 10.

For today’s casual boxing fan, the list of recognizable names is thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiin.

“Boxing in the U.S. today is a dying sport,” said Henry Schafer, executive director of the Q Scores Company in Manhasset. Q Scores measure the familiarity and appeal of brands, companies and celebrities for advertising and marketing purposes.

“This fight obviously is generating a lot of interest,” Schafer said, “and it’s going to be a huge payday for each of them. But beyond that, it doesn’t look like there’s much interest in the sport from an industry point of view.”

Mayweather is the most recognizable boxer based on Q Scores. Pacquiao is second, but more likable among those who know him. They are boxing’s lone deities, but compared to other athletes’ Q Scores, they’re not so special. Mayweather’s appeal is average.

Klitschko is a distant third. But in recognizability and Q Score, he rates similarly to Lee Westwood, a 42-year-old British golfer with two PGA Tour victories.

“He’s average in his appeal,” Schafer said, “and if he’s the high-water mark for heavyweight boxers today … Well, he’s average, which in and of itself is telling.”

Even more telling: Klitschko’s unimpressive Q Score was shared three days before he defeated Bryant Jennings on Saturday night.

Schafer was surprised last week to see Jennings actually had a higher Q Score than Klitschko.

“I’m not familiar with Jennings myself,” Schafer asked. “What weight class is he?”

Holmes takes stock

EASTON, Pa. – Behind his desk at Larry Holmes Enterprises, the gregarious boss is more apt to brag about his real-estate dealings than his victories over Ali, Ken Norton or Gerry Cooney.

Holmes, the former world and lineal heavyweight champion, built an empire in his hometown. The Easton Assassin’s business policy every time he fought was to buy property around town – darn near everything but the Crayola factory.

He has been downsizing recently. While most sports stars offer T-shirts, ball caps and signed memorabilia on their personal websites, up until last week you could put a house or an office building in your LarryHolmes.com shopping cart.

If boxing were a stock, would Holmes be an investor?

“No,” Holmes replied solemnly. “The stock rises as the future promises. The guys on the top right now are going to be there only for about another minute.

“Mayweather’s talking about quitting; I doubt it. There’s probably going to be a rematch.

“But after that? What is there?”

An old boxing adage claims the sport is as relevant as its heavyweight division. Holmes generally agrees with that sentiment.

“You need heavyweights, cruiserweights, middleweights,” Holmes said. “Nobody wants to watch flyweights. People want to watch big punching, big fighters going down. Little guys can punch all day long.”

Holmes rose from his black leather office chair and threw some imaginary haymakers.

“They want to see ‘Bang! Bang! Bang!’”

About those heavyweights, Holmes was asked if he recognized the WBC’s top 15 guys. Holmes won the WBC’s heavyweight title in 1978 and defended it 20 times over the next eight years.

The rundown began ...

No. 15, Mark De Mori: “Nope.”

No. 14, Chris Arreola: “Yes.”

No. 13, Carlos Takam: “Nope.”

No. 12, Eric Molina: “Nope.”

No. 11, Artur Szpilka: “Nope.”

No. 10, Tony Thompson: “Nope.”

No. 9, Manuel Charr: “Nope.”

No. 8, Andy Ruiz: “Give me one that I know, will ya?”

No. 7, Anthony Joshua: “Nope.”

No. 6, Lucas Browne: “Nope.”

No. 5, Bermane Stiverne: “OK, there’s one I know.”

No. 4, Vyacheslav Glazkov: “Come on, man. Maybe.”

No. 3, Tyson Fury: “I haven’t heard of him.”

No. 2, Mike Perez: “Nope.”

No. 1, Alexander Povetkin: “Nah.”

The champion, Deontay Wilder: “Yes.”

When people with a vested interest in the sport don’t know who’s in it anymore, that’s a gargantuan issue.

“It’s like a vacuum cleaner to outer space,” Foreman said last week on a conference call. “We are looking for heavyweights. We are searching everywhere, looking under beds and under the rocks, looking for great heavyweights.

“There just aren’t any around. If there were, we could take over. But for some reason everybody’s got the glamour of all the other sports.”

Youth pipeline dries up

Boxing’s most formidable hurdle in America is the absence of youngsters interested in trying it.

While major leagues pour millions of dollars into grassroots development, boxing commits fewer and fewer dollars each year. The pipeline from the amateurs to the pros has dwindled to a trickle.

Some of America’s greatest boxers emerged from the Olympics: Floyd Patterson, Cassius Clay, Frazier, Foreman, Leonard, Michael Spinks, Pernell Whitaker, Holyfield and De La Hoya for starters.

The USA has won a single medal – Wilder’s 2008 bronze – over the past two Summer Olympics.

“You have to put the money into the kids,” said former U.S. Olympic boxing coach Al Mitchell, who used to live about four blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Rocky statue. “Whenever we had outstanding teams, they put money in the Junior Olympics. They’re not doing that no more.

“All the other countries are putting money into their Junior Olympics. If you put money back in that Junior program, in four years you’ll get that feeder system back.”

Amateurs from other countries can fight 100 times or so before they turn pro. Slim opportunities to compete in America can force our prospects to try the pros after maybe 10 amateur bouts.

Amateur boxers don’t wear headgear anymore. Mitchell noted kids and parents are significantly wiser about the health consequences of contact sports. If a young fighter is going to get punched without protection, then why not go pro and get paid to learn on the job?

But fewer are even bothering to get started.

“You know what boxing does to you?” Holmes said “You start walking toward that square, and you’re scared. You’re about to fight in a few minutes, and you’re thinking, ‘Man, what am I doing? Should I be doing this?’

“My son wanted to fight. But I made money. I got money, and when I die he can have it. He doesn’t need to take punches upside the head.

“Listen, man, as much as we kid, boxing’s a motherf––-. Sometimes you go somewhere and forget where you’re going. Sometimes you see a friend and don’t even know his name. Sometimes you eat dinner, go home and can’t remember what you ate.”

Colleges don’t hand out boxing scholarships. Pro fighters don’t belong to a league or a union. They don’t receive pensions.

Large, athletic teens sign up for football, basketball, soccer or whatever. Too many options are more appealing than pugilism.

“You can’t blame them,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell and Holmes agreed coaching has deteriorated in the amateurs, too.

The talent pool is getting tinier, the instruction getting worse.

“Nobody’s teaching it,” Holmes said. “There’s garbage hanging around because there’s nobody teaching or mentoring young talent. You need to get rid of the garbage. It begins to stink after a while.”

Said Mitchell: “I go to the national tournaments, and I just shake my head. We’re going back further and further and further.”

A plan for TV exposure

With development virtually crippled, we plainly see the consequences.

On ESPN’s top pound-for-pound list, only two of the 10 fighters are American: Mayweather and welterweight Timothy Bradley.

Of the 17 weight divisions, only four of the widely accepted champions are American: Mayweather, super middleweight Andre Ward, junior welterweight Danny Garcia and lightweight Terrence Crawford.

They instead come from countries like Ukraine, the Philippines, Kazakhstan and Japan. Marketability for them in America is hampered by language barriers, but they’d rather fight on their continents and for their fans anyway.

Black American heavyweights used to dominate. One hasn’t been considered the consensus world champion since Hasim Rahman in 2001.

Boxers used to inspire Americans. They don’t capture our imagination anymore. Wide-eyed children don’t tack pictures of current boxers onto their bedroom walls.

The Sports Poster Warehouse in Toronto sells thousands of contemporary and vintage sports posters, almost all via mail order for sports bars, dorm rooms and man caves.

The store offers 82 boxing posters, but only two of active fighters: one apiece for Mayweather and Pacquiao. Four “Rocky” posters are available.

“If you strip away Muhammad Ali, we sell virtually nothing,” Sports Poster Warehouse CEO Neil Flagg said from his showroom near Woodbine Racetrack. “We might sell the odd Mike Tyson poster, but not much.”

Other sports constantly turn over their stars. Boxing doesn’t have an Andrew Luck, a Bryce Harper, a Stephen Curry or a John Tavares.

Al Haymon, boxing’s most mysterious man, would like to change that discrepancy.

Haymon is Mayweather’s adviser but is rarely seen in public. Haymon doesn’t grant interviews and doesn’t discuss his business intentions publicly.

But if boxing can be returned to mainstream relevance, then Haymon probably will be the catalyst. He has stockpiled a massive stable of about 190 fighters and has negotiated deals with a multitude of television networks, including NBC, CBS and ABC/ESPN.

The hope is that boxing will be more accessible to the average sports fan who’d rather not spend big bucks on pay-per-view (where the biggest bouts are shown) or subscribe to premium cable outlets HBO and Showtime (where the other compelling fights are shown).

With so many boxers under contract, Haymon has the wherewithal to provide show after show after show.

“We may have lost fans for life,” former middleweight champ Bernard Hopkins said by phone this week. “But we have to start from somewhere to have a chance of getting those fans back.

“Things are changing in the TV world that could end that drought or recession. All these networks are getting involved in boxing – you’ve got to take your hat off to Al Haymon – and that’s how you build fighters.”

Mitchell echoed Hopkins’ optimism with Haymon’s apparent plan.

“Average sports fans will see Joe Blow four or five times. Now he’s in your memory,” Mitchell said. “Then the people who watch other sports will say, ‘You know, I’ve seen Joe Blow and know his story and wonder what’s next for him.’ ”

Keeping faith in Canastota

CANASTOTA – On a chilly April night, the blinking red neon from Graziano’s World Famous Restaurant & Inn welcomed a traveler off a dark and desolate Thruway.

The classic film noir scene unfolded inside, where a couple of regulars leaned into the bar. The kitchen looked closed, but the 93-year-old owner, Tony Graziano, slipped a white apron over his neck to fix a plate of spaghetti and meat sauce.

Canastota is known as “the birthplace of boxing,” and in six weeks, Graziano’s will be jumping for the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s annual induction. The place will be so packed that you’ll feel a blast of body heat the moment you open the door.

Hall of Famers will party at Graziano’s until the band stops playing and they lock up the liquor. Foreman, Norton and Frazier have tended bar during induction week. Emile Griffith would seize the microphone. Iran Barkley could lose 10 pounds on the dance floor every year.

On this night, it’s quiet enough for Graziano to give a personal tour of the gorgeous photos adorning his walls.

There’s a grainy, black-and-white picture of him and four other Army paratroopers, posing victoriously with a Nazi flag in 1945. Graziano also points out Hillary Clinton standing behind the bar while on break from campaigning. Then there’s Clayton Moore (aka “The Lone Ranger”) having some fun at Graziano’s.

But Graziano’s is about boxing. The Hall of Fame is in Canastota because two champions, Carmen Basilio and nephew Billy Backus, were from there. Graziano managed both.

“Once boxing gets in your blood,” Graziano said, “you’ll never get it out.”

Around the bar he worked, recalling the stories behind pictures of Ali, Leonard, Tyson, Alexis Arguello, Leon and Michael Spinks and Roberto Duran. Graziano had hung lithographs and fight posters and newspaper articles and 8x10 publicity shots.

The space would make any sports fan marvel at the legends, the memories, the history.

Asked about the future, Graziano insisted boxing never will die. He still helps run a gym in Syracuse and said there’s no shortage of interest in the sport.

He does admit, though, boxing is barely a shadow of what it once was. Once Mayweather and Pacquiao fight – barring a rematch or a threematch – identifying the next marquee matchup is a whopping challenge.

“There are some damn good fighters out there, but to give you a name? I’m out of the conversation,” Graziano said. “There really isn’t that many, just a few, I’m familiar with.

“Unless they’re going to fight for the title, I really don’t know who the hell they are. Years ago, you would know the guys in the top 10.”

Graziano won’t buy the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight for his bar. The pay-per-view cost, calculated by the number of seats in the establishment, is too exorbitant for a place like his. Besides, the hard-core pugs among his regulars will have their own viewings to attend.

Will Graziano find a spot to watch it?

“I may,” Graziano said. “I’m not really that enthused over it.

“I really don’t think it’s going to be that great.”

email: tgraham@buffnews.com