Boxing hasn't been driven underground so much as it's been
driven south of the border. The game now belongs to the Hispanic
crowd (both fighters and fans), and anybody who doesn't get with
the program is condemned to watching desultory, overhyped and
irresponsibly made heavyweight fights and trying to figure where
that $54.95 went on a Saturday night--some pay-per-view idea
that seemed good at the time but now feels like a bad day at the
The more open-minded, those who aren't so particular about
issues of language and nationality, are in for a decidedly
better time, and at bargain prices. Last Saturday's rematch
between Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales may not have
equaled their match in 2000, which was voted Fight of the Year
by Ring magazine, but it gave more bang for the buck than almost
any other fight this year. That Barrera's victory at Las Vegas's
MGM Grand was as suspect as Morales's win two years ago is bonus
material; on top of world-class action, you got intrigue,
carping and paranoia. And all for $39.95 to your cable
Hispanic fighters, particularly at the lower weights, have been
carrying the load for some time now. Julio Cesar Chavez, Oscar
De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad have come through to restore our
interest in boxing (usually after a lackluster heavyweight
performance). But this fight, which had to be promoted to the
hinterlands on the basis of athletic prowess alone, might have
been a turning point in the sport. An estimated 400,000
households (not to mention a crowd of 12,709) paid to see two
fighters whose name recognition anywhere beyond the Southwest
was roughly on par with that of a U.S. cabinet member.
The good thing is that those willing to convert, to abandon
their old favorites (done with Mike Tyson, anyone?), can do so
without a Berlitz course. Many of the Hispanic stars are
English-friendly, but even when they aren't, as in the case of
Barrera and Morales, the action is easily translated. Some
nuances may be lost--without a map of Mexico and a little
understanding of class warfare in that country, you miss some of
the fun--but the big picture is easy to handle. These guys are
delivering frantic fights at cut rates.
The first meeting of the two fighters was one of those mythic
matches in which the winner (Morales, by a controversial split
decision) threw 868 punches--72 a round. The pace was
staggering. The rematch, which took two years and $2 million per
featherweight to put together, was pale only by comparison.
Morales and Barrera threw only 600 punches apiece, just 50 per
round. But the ebb and flow produced easily as much drama as the
first fight and, with another debatable decision, certainly as
much bitterness. And the great thing is, the two fighters
already hated each other anyway!
Whether there's a third meeting, which would be a good place for
the casual fan to sample some international fare, is probably up
to the money men. Both Barrera (proudly unmarked) and Morales
(quite a bit worse for the wear) were willing to book the third
leg of the trilogy. But at evening's end Morales's promoter, Bob
Arum, was still stewing over the injustice of the decision. "How
can anybody watch boxing anymore?" he asked, which is a curious
thing to hear from a man who makes his living convincing people
that they absolutely must watch boxing. "I'm finished with this
It was, however, one of those fights in which it was possible to
justify any decision. Morales controlled the first half of the
fight, bringing the action to a surprisingly reluctant Barrera.
Then Barrera forced himself upon Morales, swelling the defending
WBC champion's right eye and bloodying the bridge of his nose.
Complicating matters--or, rather, supplying an important debate
point--was a body blow that Morales delivered in the seventh.
Most observers would have scored Barrera's fall to one hand a
knockdown. Referee Jay Nady ruled it a slip. The difference
would have produced a three-point swing on two of the judges'
scorecards and given Morales the victory.
"A slip," said Barrera afterward.
"A legitimate drop," said Morales, who was so upset by the final
decision that he stormed out of the ring upon hearing it (only
to recover his sportsmanship and quickly return). "I thought I
did enough," he said.
Barrera, who felt so strongly that he was jobbed two years ago
that he had to be cajoled into this rematch with promises of top
billing, thought all you had to do was look at their mugs after
Saturday's fight to see who'd won. "Most important," he
explained, "I'm going to celebrate with a clean face."
Perhaps more important, the roughly 400,000 pay-per-view buys
for a fight between featherweights whom most in the U.S. had
never heard of supports Arum's theory that boxing is strictly a
Hispanic sport, in both participation and appeal. Certainly it
is a Hispanic-oriented business. "Other than a freak heavyweight
match," says Arum, "it's very, very difficult to make any real
money in boxing without the Hispanics."
Among the Anglo crowd, Arum contends, boxing is basically your
grandfather's sport. "It skews old," he says. "That's why
networks want no part of it, even though boxing delivers bigger
ratings than any piece of crap they put on." And any attempt to
skew younger--say, HBO's doomed KO Nation--is met with
generational resistance. The Hispanic audience, on the other
hand, is not only fight-ready but also advertiser-friendly.
Boxing on Telemundo, the huge Spanish-language network, delivers
that 18-to-29 crowd. Other networks will see the light soon.
For now, though, the real commercial experiment is in
pay-per-view. And Arum believes the results have been in for a
long time. "For an Oscar [De La Hoya] fight," he says of his
preeminent Hispanic draw, "we'll get 40 percent of our numbers
from just 12 percent of the population."
Since most of those nine million Hispanic households are in
California and the Southwest, that means the sport is, for the
moment anyway, as regional as it is ethnic. Going back to 1996,
when he offered the De La Hoya-Chavez fight on closed circuit
only, Arum has been exploiting this divide. "We did great," he
says, "until we crossed the Mississippi and ran out of Mexicans."
The polarization has had one unfortunate effect, namely that the
old Anglo audience, which is not concentrated in the Southwest,
remains largely ignorant of boxing's new vitality. A fighter
capable of generating news among the more traditional Anglo
audience--Floyd Mayweather Jr., for instance--may have all the
East Coast recognition in the world, but he just can't sell
tickets the way Barrera or Morales does. "Put Mayweather on
pay-per-view?" Arum asks, laughing. "Not unless he fights a
Of course this is just a replay of boxing's heritage; the sport
has been supported by one ethnic immigration after another. The
difference is that Hispanic immigration, which is now
penetrating Kansas and Iowa and Michigan and lots of places east
of the Mississippi, will have a far more profound impact on
boxing than the waves of Jews and Irish and Filipinos that
Still, a fight like Barrera-Morales has a specialized, if
disproportionately intense, appeal. The action translates well
enough, but some of the promotional subtleties, the kinds of
things that sell these events to a broader audience, get lost.
The fighters' mutual dislike, which was manifested in a
press-conference brawl last December, transcends language and
nationality. Everybody understands a guy popping another because
he's been called a mariquita (sissy) in front of the
international media. But rivalries that seem so basic south of
the border are mysterious and unexplored here.
For example, though both men are Mexican, they represent radical
differences within their country, which after all is pretty big.
Morales is from Tijuana, the frontier, while Barrera is from
Mexico City, the country's Paris. It's hard to overstate the
social distinction. Morales says, "There's an old saying: 'Kill
somebody from Mexico City, do something for your country.'"
Barrera, who comes off unbearably privileged compared with a kid
who was born in a room over a Tijuana gym, got enough from his
brief time in law school to know better than to fan class
flames. Yet he wasn't above calling Morales a "dumb Indian,"
which is just about the worst thing you can say of a fellow
This subtext, which is crucial to the proper promotion of
fights, wasn't really available to the entire audience this time
around. That's too bad. But as Hispanics grow to dominate the
sport--as they become the mainstream--the subplots of their
fights will be more widely accessible. For now, it's enough that
the boxing is refreshingly exciting. And it doesn't hurt that
it's a little unpredictable too.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK J. TERRILL/AP SPIN CYCLE Barrera turned both Morales and the fight around, winning five of the last six rounds on all three judges' scorecards.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO BODY WORK Though Morales (right) landed the telling blows early, Barrera emerged unmarked and with the decision.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO UPLIFTING Barrera thinks he got jobbed two years ago, but he got the nod in a rematch that could've gone either way.
"Other than a freaky heavyweight match," says Arum, "it's very,
very difficult to make any real money in boxing without the