Added On: Thursday, November 27, 2008

Boxing's Biggest Pay-Per-View Paydays


Tom Van Riper 11.24.08, 3:00 PM ET

On Saturday, Dec. 6, the boxing industry will enjoy a true rarity--a big payday.

That's when the sport's lone meal ticket, Oscar De La Hoya (39-5), faces off against Manny Pacquiao (47-3-2) in a welterweight bout at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Not only did tickets sell out within an hour after going on sale in September, but pay-per-view buys are on a pace that could thrust the fight onto the all-time top 10 list.

"We expect to break records," De La Hoya says of the potential revenues associated with going toe-to-toe with Pacquiao, a Philippine native rated as the world's best pound-for-pound fighter by The Ring. That's probably a tall order--few think the fight will surpass the 2.4 million pay-per-view buys of his 2007 bout with Floyd Mayweather, which netted De La Hoya $23 million. But few doubt it will be the biggest fight since.

In Pictures: The Biggest Pay-Per-View Fights Of All Time

The problem for boxing is that De La Hoya, at 35, only has a few fights left in him. "I'm near the end, my mind is in it, but my body is starting to feel it," he says. With opportunities for going to the Oscar well dwindling, the sport needs to develop big names in a hurry. With a few exceptions--Ricky Hatton and Shane Mosley ring a bell with some casual fans--it hasn't happened. Roy Jones Jr. is nearly 40, and the 30-year-old Mayweather is officially retired--for now.

"It used to be you could circle five or six days a year on the calendar for big fights, now it's maybe one or two," says Shawn McBride, a vice president with Ketchum Sports Marketing.

It all starts with the heavyweight division, long the driver of interest in the sport among casual fans. Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Larry Holmes are long gone, having taken network television with them. Mike Tyson carried the heavyweight mantle during the pay-per-view 1990s, until his career crashed and burned.

Now, boxing's five major governing bodies have produced three current heavyweight champs: Nikolai Valuev and brothers Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko. Who? Exactly. "What heavyweight division?" is how longtime boxing maven Bert Sugar sums it up.

Eight of boxing's 10 highest-selling pay-per-view telecasts have been for heavyweight fights. Six of them featured Tyson; none of them featured the current champs. De La Hoya is the common thread for both non-heavy bouts on the list, last year's Mayweather fight and his 1999 clash with Felix Trinidad. Should his upcoming bout with Pacquiao surpass 1.2 million pay-per-view buys, as expected, he'll hold three spots in the top 10.

When it comes to promoting a fight, it's never just about the boxing. Most of the big heavyweight pay-per-view buys have drawn people in with interesting or controversial side stories. Tyson's 1995 bout with journeyman Peter McNeeley scored the fifth-biggest audience ever because it marked Tyson's return to the ring following a three-year prison term on a rape conviction. His 1991 rematch with Razor Ruddock (No. 9) drew interest after the pair's first fight ended in a controversial technical knockout in Tyson's favor (many thought the fight was stopped prematurely).

Curiosity sells too: One non-Tyson heavyweight bout that scored big was the April 1991 match between 42-year-old George Foreman, a former title holder on the comeback trail, and 29-year-old champion Evander Holyfield. The pay-per-view crowd got their money's worth when Foreman managed to go the distance despite dropping a unanimous decision.

Foreman was able to stay in the fight game long enough to recapture the heavyweight crown three years later, while showcasing his entertaining personality. But there's no heir apparent in the wings who has a fighting chance for a deal selling grills or doing a reality show.

"No one has caught the imagination of the general public, or even of the fight fan," says McBride. No one but De La Hoya, that is. And he's only got a few punches left.

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