It’s tempting to reminisce back to the golden age of Ali, Foreman, and Frazier. The glitz, the glamour, the rivalries. Or long for the return of captivating characters like Mike Tyson, and conclude that boxing is a dying sport.
But not so fast. While boxing’s popularity might not yet be back to where it once was, since 2010 the sport has seen a huge resurgence. Participation and viewing figures are now climbing every year. The future looks very bright for boxing.
Let’s look at the numbers.
Boxing was certainly more popular around the world for most of the 20th Century than it is today. However, boxing has recently made a comeback, with viewers and participants growing yearly. In a 2020 survey, boxing was found to be the 4th most popular sport in the USA. In the same survey back in 2010, it didn’t even make the top ten.
Is boxing a dying sport? 🥊
Data on the number of people that participate in boxing is hard to find for most countries but it is available for two countries where boxing has always been extremely popular: the USA and the UK.
This is what participation looks like in recent years for these countries:
Boxing dying? Not in these places it isn’t!
Over the past 10 years in the USA, the number of people participating in boxing has increased by 610,000 people, over 13%!
In the UK, participation has grown by ~100,000 in just four years, a growth of 15%.
Ok, so more and more people are participating in boxing every year. What about watching it?
A 2020 poll in the US found that boxing is the 4th most followed sport in the country, with 33% of respondents answering that they were fans of the Sweet Science. In the same survey back in 2010, boxing did not even make the top 10!
This signifies a huge increase in popularity and means that today boxing is more popular than its rival, MMA.
Source: Forbes, “Boxing’s popularity is surging in the United States“
It’s definitely true though that televised viewing figures are not as high today as they used to be for the most hyped fights. As mentioned earlier, an estimated 1 billion people watched the epic battle between Ali and Frazier in 1975. The event was a global phenomenon much like a soccer world cup final would be today. A billion people also tuned into “The Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974, Foreman vs Ali.
By comparison, “The Fight of the Century” between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao in 2015, had 4.6 million pay-per-views. Tyson Fury’s third and final fight against Deontay Wilder in 2021, just ~900,000. Although many more likely watched through illegal online streaming services.
We can get a useful indication of the popularity of boxing by looking at online search figures and social media followings.
Data from Google in the chart below shows that before the COVID 19 pandemic hit in 2019, global searches for “boxing” were nearly at their highest point since the records began back in 2004. Searches are now recovering fast since they declined sharply during lockdowns. The general trend is creeping upwards.
Source: Google Trends
The chart shows an index, i.e. not actual search numbers, for the term “boxing”. I have done a 12 month rolling average to smooth it out for the seasonal variations (searches for “boxing” spike massively over the Christmas period).
In terms of actual search numbers, around the world every month there are 869,000 searches for the term “boxing”. This follows close behind “MMA” with 1,100,000 monthly searches. “Football” is Googled 4.8m times every month!
Instagram also gives us a good indication of how popular some of today’s biggest boxers are:
For context: Cristiano Ronaldo has 446m followers (!), Tom Brady has 12.1m, and Stephen Curry has 42.3m! So most of boxing’s biggest stars today are still a long way behind other sports in terms of fame and audience.
Why is boxing making a comeback? 📈
Many boxing purists, myself included, roll their eyes when they hear about YouTube influencers participating in big money bouts. The fact is though, these fights draw in the huge audiences that these influencers have, exposing them to a sport they wouldn’t otherwise be interested in.
Two YouTube celebrities, KSI and Logan Paul fought in 2019, attracting 2.3 million viewers, which included more PPVs than when heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua shockingly lost his titles to Andy Ruiz Jr in the same year.
The format of boxing, explosive and fast, lends itself very well to the way that Gen Z consumes content on social media. Short video clips of knockouts, GIFs, and memes of Mike Tyson, can quickly spread among hundreds of millions of people online, creating massive amounts of exposure for the sport and bringing it back into the mainstream.
2. Big rivalries
After a decade of quiet in the 2000s, the 2010s and 2020s have brought some big characters and epic rivalries back to the sport of boxing.
We’ve had Floyd “The Money” Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, arguably two of the greatest ever pound-for-pound fighters, battling it out in the Fight of the Century in 2015. We’ve had the trials and tribulations of the unique character that is the Gypsy King, Tyson Fury. And his epic trilogy of fights with Deontay Wilder.
Anthony Joshua, The Klitschko brothers, Canelo Alvarez, Vasily Lomachenko and many others have also contributed to the sport reaching new fans around the world.
What are the pressures on boxing? 😔
For sure there are several headwinds that lead people to claim that boxing is a dying sport. Here are the typical arguments:
1. Too many weight classes and associations
Today there are 17 weight classes (previously there were 8) and 4 major boxing associations (up from 2 in the 1960s). This means that today there could be over 60 different “world champions” and 4 world heavyweight champions at the same time! This is crazy. The last time the heavyweight belts were unified under one champion was Lennox Lewis back in 1999!
All these divisions and sanctioning bodies have arisen from greedy promoters and only serve to create confusion and apathy among fans.
The sport of boxing has long been mired in corruption and allegations of match fixing. Most notably, at the Rio Olympics in 2016, judges were found to have manipulated several of the fights after being paid large bribes.
The arbitrary nature of judging boxing leaves the sport vulnerable to this sort of corruption and can create huge amounts of suspicion within the sport if judges results seem strange. In 2021, when Campbell Hatton (son of Ricky) fought Sonny Martinez, it was clear to anyone watching that Martinez had out fought Hatton. Yet the fight was awarded by the referee to Hatton…This sort of thing is sadly rife in the sport.
These sorts of incidents badly damage the reputation of the sport. Sport is nothing if it is not competitive.
$79.99. That’s how much it cost if you wanted to watch Tyson Fury fight Deontay Wilder in 2021. No, not at the stadium. On TV. It’s absurd.
Sure, the PPV brings in big money for the sport but it clearly creates a huge barrier for many who cannot afford to pay that to watch a single fight. And it’s certainly strayed a long long way from its roots as a blue collar working class sport.
With costs as high as these, its no wonder that fewer and fewer people are tuning in. It’s hardly like champion boxers are strapped for cash. Fury made +$25m from that fight. Why not reduce the pay-out to the fights, lower the price for viewers, and make the sport’s showcase events much more accessible for all?
In few other sports is it this expensive to simply watch the game. Imagine paying $80 to watch the Super Bowl final…
4. Not enough iconic boxers
The likes of Mike Tyson (aka The Baddest Man on the Planet) who owned pet tigers and has a giant tattoo on his face make most of today’s polished and media-trained top tier fighters look like virgin boy scouts.
Yes, Tyson Fury is a breath of fresh air, but otherwise the sport today doesn’t really have the wide array of intriguing personalities that transcend the sport and draw in media attention.
12th Round 🔔
It’s unlikely that boxing will again reach the sky high pinnacles of the past when the world stopped to watch. But is boxing a dying sport? No damn way! It’s actually making a comeback as participation and viewing figures are on the rise. The sport needs to go back to its roots and make itself more accessible to the masses, and hope that a few iconic superstars emerge in the coming years to spice things up and capture everyone’s attention once more.
Happy fighting! 🥊🥊
“I don’t think his hands could take the abuse.” – Randall “Tex” Cobbs