On Saturday night in Las Vegas, Manny Pacquiao will face Juan Manuel Márquez for the fourth time. It's a fight that everyone expects to be good—the first three were pretty damn entertaining—but one that nobody is very excited to see. That's because Juan Manuel Márquez is not Floyd Mayweather Jr. The one prospective Pacquiao opponent who can move the needle, Mayweather continues to show little interest in getting in the ring with the Filipino superstar.
And therein lies the problem with boxing: Few of the big stars seem to want to fight. Junior welterweights Brandon Ríos and Lucas Matthysse would wage a war if they ever got together, but neither has demanded it. Nonito Donaire and Abner Mares have slapped around everyone between 118 and 122 pounds—except each other. British heavyweights Tyson Fury and David Price like to call each other names, just not while wearing gloves. "Fighters in the '70s and '80s sought out fights," says promoter Bob Arum. "Marvin Hagler was always bitching to me about [wanting to fight] Tommy Hearns, Hearns was bitching about [wanting to fight] Roberto Durán. Most of today's fighters have become businessmen."
There are other factors, of course. The war between Golden Boy and Arum's Top Rank, the two promotional giants that control most of the top fighters, has crippled the sport. It has been three years since the companies shared a major promotion, and there's not likely to be another one soon. The influence of shadowy adviser Al Haymon, whose ability to maneuver Mayweather to either HBO or Showtime has both networks tripping over themselves to appease him, has resulted in unwatchable mismatches headlined by his other clients.
Matchmakers, of course, are not dictators; ultimately it's the fighter's call. But when presented with options, many boxers are taking the easy way out. "It's become about who a guy wants to fight and just how much he can get," says Bernard Hopkins. "When you pick an opponent no one cares about, it depreciates the brand of boxing. And it's not good for the long-term health of a fighter's career."
The price to be paid for this cherry-picking comes due in any serious test. For four years welterweight Andre Berto overwhelmed unworthy opponents in prime time. Then last month he ran into rugged Robert Guerrero, a relatively unheralded guy who can fight a bit. Guerrero dropped Berto twice and won a lopsided decision. Similarly, heavyweight Seth Mitchell was fed a steady diet of stiffs while being groomed as the next big thing, and against journeyman Johnathon Banks—who showed some power and ring smarts—he couldn't finish the second round.
This should be a golden era in boxing, powered by unprecedented television exposure. HBO and Showtime continue to lead the industry, but the proliferation of sports networks has created a new demand for live programming, and boxing comes relatively cheap. In the last two years NBC Sports Network, Epix and WealthTV have made significant investments in boxing, as have Spanish-language networks Fox Deportes and Telefutura. Later this month CBS and NBC will air fights on back-to-back weekends. Yet the reluctance of many fighters to embrace the biggest challenges continues to hold the sport back. Welcome to the watered-down world of boxing, where won-lost records aren't worth the paper they're printed on.