Premier Boxing Champions: One step forward, too many steps back
Seagulls were flittering around the rafters of Coney Island’s Ford Amphitheater when a short, cleaving right hook sent the Florentine Leonard Bundu straight to Dante’s first circle of Hell in the sixth round of a rare, al fresco boxing match. There have been more visually captivating one-punch knockouts this year but, as far as the reactions of the felled goes, Bundu’s may take the cake: a dramatic collapse so stretched out in time that one could describe it as having a distinct three-part structure, beginning with the sharp buckling of his knees and ending with his body splayed out, the head hovering outside the limits of the canvas. In the interval between – for as long as the fibers of his deflated torso could hold him up against the ropes – one saw stricken across Bundu’s face – mouth agape, eyes shuttered, neck slack – the sure rupturing of innumerable synapses. Bundu was out cold, beyond the point of registering any pain. Were the context not one of unchecked violence, you would think he belonged under some sun-kissed bungalow taking his midday nap. For the multitude of Americans who treat the Sunday as their Sabbath, and spend it congregating in front of the box, there must’ve something strange witnessing such a violent ending on their day of rest. Will they be asking for an encore?
The latest Premier Boxing Champions on NBC broadcast speaks to the special fighter who is Errol Spence Jr., the author of last Sunday’s sense-sapping destruction. With the win, Spence is now the newly-christened mandatory for the IBF welterweight title, held currently by Kell Brook, who, after his murderous date with middleweight bigwig Gennady Golovkin, will likely vacate it than try to ever make that weight again. In other words, the IBF belt essentially belongs to Spence. And yet it speaks to the kind of caliber of fighter he is, that obtaining the belt feels less like validation than mere formality. There’s a future here and, with the injury to WBC heavyweight titlist Deontay Wilder, the reticence of WBC welterweight beltholder Danny Garcia and the Keith Thurman-Shawn Porter scuffle for the WBA welterweight strap a distant memory, Spence looks primed to take the PBC mantle as its flagship star. His last two opponents were ready-mades for his style, sure, but there is something to be said about reducing durable men to complete rubble.
Asked for his impressions after the match, the promoter of the bout, Lou DiBella, confirmed what many have thought for some time, “Look, he’s a tremendously impressive kid. His nickname is “The Truth” but (unlike others) that nickname fits. The kid, to me, doesn’t have any discernible weaknesses – that’s what differentiates him to me from a lot of other guys. He’s extremely extremely skilled and no one’s perfect but it’s hard right now for a young fighter to find real issues with his game. He’s got a very complete style and there are no obvious weaknesses. If the kid stays humble and keeps his concentration, the sky is the limit. He may be the most talented young American fighter right now.”
Spence is that good and, if the early numbers are true, his work on Sunday was seen in front of nearly 6,000,000 viewers, a ratings high for the PBC. Six million! Of course, a large makeup of that audience carried over from the afternoon’s previous program – no less than the Rio Olympic gold medal basketball game between the US and Serbia. Credit goes to the PBC for aiming for something that approaches some semblance of coherence, a rarity in its inconsistent programming. By showcasing the 2012 Olympian right after an Olympic gold medal match, the PBC did the equivalent of completing a rhyming couplet for a poetry workshop. At least, here, the effort to capitalize on the gaudy viewership of the world’s biggest athletic potpourri has the ring of logic. In this light, the fight – and, really, any program – was going to draw a generous rating anyway. Slot anything after the Olympics and even surveillance tape of a Midtown high-rise lobby is bound to get at least a million viewers.
Mainstream exposure for boxing is supposed to be a good thing and the 6,000,000 mark is nothing to scoff at, yet the problem for the PBC is it has been unable to effectively capitalize and sustain those kinds of numbers. Even after Sunday’s show, the same old mantra – “Boxing is coming back!” – is being trumpeted ad nauseam. After what’s been nearly a year-and-a-half of PBC shows, isn’t it strange that the talk is still geared toward boxing’s supposed comeback instead of an actual emergence? In the digital blitz of the television landscape, even 6,000,000 viewers for a program showcasing something as niche as boxing means virtually nothing when there is no actual ferment for the product.
Apparently, about 75% of the viewers from the Olympic basketball game decided to stick around to catch the fight. The guess here is most of these viewers’ allegiance to boxing is, at best, probably negligible. Were they seduced by the poise in Spence’s patient, technical attack? Will they seek out similar shows? Hard to say. Despite the congratulatory self-congratulation of PBC officials, this statistic is essentially meaningless without the scope of a larger field of data. Can any significant conclusion be drawn from any endeavor that happens just once? As James Hibberd of Entertainment Weekly once noted about lead-in fallacies: “The issue for networks is that strong performances propped up by a bigger show often don’t last too long. Witness the way NBC’s ‘Revolution’ kept declining, despite ‘The Voice’ last season. (ABC’s) ‘The Goldbergs’ definitely took a hit for its second episode Tuesday night after ‘(Marvel’s Agents of) SHIELD’ likewise declined and (CBS’) ‘The Crazy Ones’ dropped without ‘(The) Big Bang (Theory).’ The next few weeks should reveal which of these shows are drawing their own fans and which are merely borrowing them from somebody else.”
For a league that touts its own excellence in its name, there are few, if any, fighters within its purview that are considered to be the consensus best in their respective divisions. In Spence, however, they have substantial claim to having the sport’s most talented 147-pounder on the planet. But apart from his brilliance in the ring, it’s Spence’s crossover appeal – to wit, his poise, good looks and slight Texan drawl, – that’ll give PBC its best chance to stay competitive in programming waters, filled with recognizable stories and characters. Looking on the horizon, however, makes the heart drop. This much is certain: The upcoming fights between Robert Guerrero-David Emanuel Peralta, Daniel Jacobs-Sergio Mora II and Ishe Smith-Frank Galarza do nothing to whet the appetites of newcomers and aficionados alike.