There’s no place like home
When asked how boxing can be improved, to regain some of the status it once held, my reply is simple and unwavering. Take it out of the casinos and bring it back to the fans. Too many American promoters want their boxers on TV instead of in their hometowns. Yes, it makes economic sense to collect the site fees from casinos but once a true fan attraction is created, the monetary benefits could pay off in the back end. It should be a given that a world champion will sell out an arena in or near his hometown and last Saturday’s title eliminator victory by Jose Ramirez is a case in point for my argument. The fight had a heightened sense of drama because of the 13,383 Avenal/Fresno fans who drove Ramirez on, which lent fans at home a real rooting interest as well. Most will remember that fight for the crowd and atmosphere and when is the last time you could say that about a casino crowd for a non-title fight?
I find this frustrating and unsettling, since a boisterous crowd is an essential part of creating a dramatic event. The English Premier League is a good example in soccer. It is not the best or most tactically advanced league but is the most viewed because spectators are right on the edge of the field, lending atmosphere with chants and songs. So, which boxer holds the best hometown (or, in the case of some, home country) advantage? Predictably, most are found overseas, with only two of my 10 selections being from America. Recently retired Andre Ward would have made the list, given the draw and commercial backing he had in Oakland, and Floyd Mayweather Jr. is pretty much a Las Vegas native. Young guns like Josh Taylor and Felix Verdejo may morph into local heroes but in the case of Verdejo, Top Rank CEO Bob Arum will send him to New York or Las Vegas for marquee fights. Three others who missed my Top 10 are Knockout CP Freshmart, Jürgen Brähmer and Joseph Parker.
Jeff Horn (Brisbane, Australia) – Some, OK make that a large majority, claim if the Jeff Horn-Manny Pacquiao fight had been staged at a neutral venue, Pacquiao would have been given a points victory. Even if crowd did not inspire Horn’s overperformance, which is hard to argue against, every cheer and scream seems to have had the desired effect on the judges. Were the 51,052 in attendance worth two and six points on the scorecards? Even when Horn is not fighting legends, he is a big draw, given his Olympic run and “boy next door” charm, in relation to his former full-time job of grade school teacher. The WBO welterweight titlist has Oscar De La Hoya-type appeal and has been selling out arenas, since his pro debut, which allows him to never fight outside of Australia, if that is his desire.
Omar Narvaez (Buenos Aires, Argentina) – The Argentine Methuselah is still going strong, at 42, and has never tasted defeat in 43 home outings. The two-time Olympian did win his first world title in Italy but quickly found home cooking too delicious to ignore, defending a world title 22 times. This is not to say Narvaez’s wins are in any way shady or the result of favorable judging, as six defenses overseas prove. It’s just that Narvaez is a comfort fighter, whose incredible sense of distance and defensive ease are better appreciated by a favorable home crowd. They cheer as much when an off-balance challenger misses, as when Narvaez connects with an intelligent counter or snappy lead. The crowds are not always large but they make up for lack of size in strength of voice and sense of specter.
Kazuto Ioka (Osaka, Japan) – The three-division champion has had all but four bouts in Osaka, where Ioka feels most comfortable even though it is also the venue for his only loss. The Japanese are not known for a boisterous fan culture like England or Mexico but they are usually in rapt attention, enjoying nuances of the sport more than most. It is not an intimidating atmosphere but boxers feel a need to deliver outstanding performances for a demanding crowd. They will reward an away boxer for their efforts with sincere applause, though Ioka is generally the recipient of their affections, given his surgical style. The WBA flyweight titleholder has harnessed that pressure, giving his all to satisfy a crowd of aficionados, who will notice missed openings other audiences miss, while checking their cell phones.
Carl Frampton (Belfast, Ireland) – The Irish are well-known and praised around the sporting world for their spirited fans, who manage to sing and drink at the same time as supporting their athletes. Soccer’s World Cups are better for them, as they provide a jovial atmosphere that defuses some of the harsher realities which sometimes accompany the sport. Irish boxing crowds are equally boisterous, though there is a slight tinge of malice, to some, as they cheer for a punch to land instead of a goal to be scored. The former two-division beltholder’s style is ideally suited to harness such a crowd, a whirlwind of action who throws punches constantly and sometimes with reckless abandon. The fans provide a rhythmic song to which Frampton (who faces Mexico’s Horacio Garcia today) dances and punches, which has yet to be bested inside Irish borders.
Denis Lebedev (Moscow, Russia) – Russia can be cold and uninviting (ask invading armies) and that is the sense which comes across when the WBA cruiserweight titlist fights in Moscow. It’s not just the atmosphere in the arena; there is a standoffish aura toward outsiders, which seems bred into Moscovites. This is probably different outside the city limits; New Yorkers have a reputation for this in America but present on the wide avenues and windswept alleys of the capital city. A pressure fighter like Lebedev, who builds momentum, as the rounds ratchet up, is a perfect fit, absorbing punishment early, while inevitably grinding down opponents. You can feel Lebedev and the crowd meeting in the middle rounds, building for a final championship round push that puts Lebedev over the top.
Adonis Stevenson (Quebec City and Montreal, Canada) – Canadians don’t have a reputation for being offensive or intimidating but their boxing events are fun and loud with more than a hint of a party atmosphere. Some ESPN2 telecasts, featuring early fights of David Lemieux or aging Dave Hilton, sometimes looked like they were filmed at a strip club, given the dancing girls and blaring music between rounds. Stevenson’s only loss came in America but the power-puncher has fed on many nationalities in the Great White North. Yes, we will ceaselessly complain that the level of Stevenson’s competition is weak but it does not dampen the mood of large crowds that flock to his fights. It helps that the WBC light heavyweight beltholder usually ends the show with a bang and the crowd relays that sense of anticipation through the TV set.
Deontay Wilder (Birmingham, Alabama, U.S.A.) – No offense to our American heavyweight champ but asking for pay parity when the other guy draws nearly five times the fans to a fight is farcical. Americans used to demand that Europeans come to America to prove themselves and earn more money. So, it is hypocritical not to admit Europeans dominate the heavyweight division now and make more money selling out 80,000 seat stadiums across the Atlantic. Still, when Wilder fights in Alabama, he definitely has an advantage, especially given how emotionally Wilder fights. The fans may not be the most educated, given the lack of world-class boxing in Alabama, but they make up for it with enthusiasm and an undying backing of one of their own. They also distract from the WBC heavyweight titleholder not looking pretty…until one of those tremendous hooks or straight right hands lands, erasing all memories, except the ones of a fanatical crowd and final punch.
Naoya Inoue (Ariake, Japan) – All the positive arguments I stated for Kazuto Ioka’s audiences hold true for Inoue. However, the WBO junior bantamweight titlist needs less of a push from the crowd, given his pound-for-pound ability and more global appeal, now that he has appeared on HBO. The tension in the arena seems more heightened with Inoue, since a fight can end at any moment, thanks to his stopping power. Given how sublimely Inoue works, when not landing a devastating punch, it is a given that nobody in the crowd looks away or makes a quick run to the concession stands. That sense of electricity is missing with Ioka, though even Inoue will not get exclamatory gasps from the reserved and respectful audience. It is a connoisseur crowd for sure and maybe we don’t give them enough credit for maintaining their humility in the face of what looks like legitimate greatness.
Terence Crawford (Omaha, Nebraska) – The American can obviously win anywhere but Crawford does it with a bit more panache and flair in Nebraska. He has appeared in his home state five times and scored four knockouts in those outing. A shame that it took six years for the two-division champion to be afforded such an advantage and it came in the first defense of his world lightweight title, despite appearing on TV previously. It is a blueprint that should be emulated by other recently crowned champions, as it not only rewards the fighter but also, inevitably, will inspire young athletes who go to these fights. The memories of a world title fight can produce a whole new generation of boxers, which America has lost because of its dash-for-casino-cash. It has made boxers like Crawford outliers, whose athletic life is hidden to even his hometown until he wins a world title.
Anthony Joshua (United Kingdom) – Actually, the IBF/WBA heavyweight beltholder is a bit more special because he has a United Kingdom advantage. The British Olympic hero drew 78,000 people to a title defense against late substitute Carlos Takam in neighboring Wales (would be like Wilder selling out the Toronto Skydome). Joshua may sell a couple thousand more or have a decibel higher entrance applause, in England, but it translates roughly the same on my television. In other words, still very impressively! I believe that makes a difference, in terms of purse split, with Deontay Wilder, rendering any argument on Wilder’s behalf for parity moot. I am not saying 90,000 screaming fans were the reason Joshua arose from a sixth round knockdown, and found an impressive second wind, to defeat Wladimir Klitschko but it certainly did not hurt his cause. There are a lot of positives to be taken from the collective emotion of a crowd and, at this point and time, no one has more of an advantage than Anthony Joshua!