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The Future of Boxing?

A look inside the training camp of Adrien Broner, the sport's self-professed savior

When we first meet, Adrien Broner, the 23-year-old undefeated lightweight champion who calls himself the future of boxing, asks if I’m a faithful guy. We have just shook hands in the locker room of a Bally’s fitness center in Colorado Springs, and although it’s freezing and overcast outside and swampy and flora-lit inside, Broner wears an oversize pair of Ray-Bans. I have no idea how to answer his question, so I just sort of shrug. He says, “I knew it. I knew you must be about the hoes because you look too much like Jeremy Lin to not be about the hoes.” Before I can defend my fidelity or point out just how very little I look like Jeremy Lin, Broner asks his follow-up: “So you’re about that Colorado life, huh?” Again, I shrug, not really knowing what he means. Broner pulls his shades down and peers into my eyes, doing his best impression of a concerned optometrist. He says, “You seem very aware that weed is now legal here in Colorado.” I tell him that I’m tired and that my stoned voice is just some vocal chord thing. Broner laughs, puts his Ray-Bans back on, and says, “I’m just fucking with you. We’re going to have some fun.”

We are surrounded by eight remarkably fit men, all of whom have traveled to Colorado Springs to participate in Broner’s training camp. They are all young — even by athletes’ standards — and they all seem obsessed with their physiques. “My six-pack is showing out,” one says. Another responds, “My eight-pack is showing out, bruh.” A couple of the fighters sneak onto the locker room’s scale, looking over their shoulders for cut man Levi Smith, who they know will chastise them for any excess pounds. Among friends, in training, Broner does not especially stand out — the self-professed missing puzzle piece of boxing, the man who has pledged to generate a billion dollars in pay-per-view revenue, does not yet have, as they say, an aura. From a pure physical standpoint, Broner does not look particularly imposing — he’s cut, of course, but not as impressively as some of his training camp mates. Although he’s plenty big for a lightweight, or even a junior welterweight, he still stands a mere 5-foot-7. He has that blocky head, unique to boxers, where it almost seems like the years of wearing headgear during sparring sessions have squared off the corners of the skull. His hands, I notice, are remarkably small.

This past November, Adrien Broner electrified the boxing world when he stopped tough-as-shit Mexican fighter Antonio DeMarco in the eighth round of their championship fight. In past bouts, Broner’s reputation had him pegged as a brash, promising, but ultimately unproven young fighter who had probably watched a few too many 24/7‘s. DeMarco vs. Broner changed all that as Broner displayed elite speed on the outside and suprising power on the inside. He marshaled the ring with a confidence that far exceeded his relative professional inexperience. By the end of the fifth round, DeMarco had been battered into a bloody mess. By the end of the sixth, his corner asked if he wanted the fight stopped. DeMarco held on gamely till the eighth, but his trainer ultimately stopped the beating.
It takes a hell of a champ to stop a game, determined fighter from Tijuana. Broner did that. And perhaps, most shockingly, he made it look easy.

Broner’s doubters, who had pointed out his easy fight schedule and the relentlessness of Golden Boy and HBO’s hype machine, had to step back and reconsider. Nearly every major fight outlet published a piece that proclaimed Broner to be the future of the sport.

This morning, the fighters in Broner’s camp turn in eight miles on the treadmill. They jog side by side and stare out at the gym’s parking lot. Broner runs with his earbuds in and a faded USO headband. The Ray-Bans stay on. After about a minute of sprinting, Broner hops his feet off to the side of the tread and starts to dance. He then yells to nobody in particular: “Nobody can beat me. Nobody works harder than me. People have doubted me forever, but now they’re going to know.” Declaration finished, at least for now, Broner hops off the back of the machine and does 20 quick, short-burst push-ups. Before climbing back onto the treadmill to start the process all over again, Broner points wildly at himself and crosses his arms around his chest, striking his best Run-D.M.C. pose.

Nobody in the gym pays Broner much attention. An old Army vet riding a nearby exercise bike chuckles and says, “He’s certainly a character.”

Is this really the future of boxing?

Adrien Broner grew up in the Westwood neighborhood of Cincinnati, one of 12 kids born to Thomas Knight. All of Broner’s siblings learned how to fight with gloves on, but none quite took to it like Adrien and his twin brother, Andre. At the age of 6, Broner had impressed his father enough that Knight brought him to Mike Stafford’s gym and claimed that he had twin boys who could whip anyone Stafford put in front of them. The boast held true until Stafford had Broner fight Rau’shee Warren, a future three-time Olympian who also made the trip to Broner’s camp in Colorado Springs. Warren beat up Broner and made him cry. After that, Stafford wondered if the twins and their father would return. “We showed up the next day,” Thomas said.

Mike Stafford has trained fighters in Cincinnati for about 30 years. He has coached amateur champions, Olympians, and now Broner. But his connection with Broner runs deeper, and not only because of Broner’s seemingly unlimited potential within the sport. As a boxing coach who works with kids of all ages, Stafford has had a firsthand look into the urban decay that has crippled the city. “When Adrien was 8 years old,” Stafford explained, “I’d drive the van out to his neighborhood and there’d be 20, 30 kids trying to get to the gym. I’d make some of them run down to the gym cause they couldn’t all fit. Out of all those kids, there’s only about four or five left. The rest are dead or in jail or running the streets. Adrien’s one of the only ones left.”

As a kid, Broner’s boxing career oftentimes took a backseat to his activities on the streets of Cincinnati. “I did everything you can name,” Broner says, “but when I got in trouble the last time, my mom told me, ‘You can’t be king of the streets and king of the ring, you gotta pick one.’ I had to make a choice. I chose the ring.” Before Broner came to prominence, Stafford helped produce another promising young prospect named Ricardo Williams. Like Broner, Williams started fighting before the age of 10. But unlike Broner, whose success has come as a professional, Williams turned in one of the most storied amateur careers in recent Amerian history, capped off by a silver medal at the 2000 Olympics. But after he turned pro, Williams’s career was derailed by trouble with the law. In 2005, he was convicted for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and sentenced to three years in prison.

Broner has already learned the professional athlete’s trick of answering direct questions about his criminal past with a shrug and a litany of vagaries. During the two days I spent with him in Colorado Springs, the only time he was at a loss for words was when I brought up Ricardo Williams. When asked what lessons he had learned from Williams, Broner shook his head silently. He said, “He’s a big brother to me,” and then nothing else. After a short pause, he continued: “I know where I come from. I came from nothing and I have a chance to do something that happens once in a lifetime. There are only a couple people who can wake up and say that they’re a world champion, a multimillionaire, and a successful superstar. I don’t want to mess this up. Ever.”

As an amateur, Broner was less successful than some of Stafford’s other young fighters. He didn’t make the Olympic team or collect Golden Gloves championships. But he displayed an indefatigable work ethic that helped him develop his speed and power in both hands. Levi Smith, who has been Broner’s cut man for almost as long as Stafford has been his trainer, recalls watching a teenage Broner working out in preparation for a fight: “I remember he was training real hard. Some other coaches were watching. They kept telling me it would be too hard on his body. I told them that if they wanted him to ease up, they should tell him. Adrien overheard, turned around, and said, ‘Don’t tell me what to do. I’m going to train as hard as I want to train.’ That’s when we knew he was going to be special because he was training like a champion when he was 14 years old.”

Under Stafford’s watch, Broner fought more than 300 amateur bouts. He turned pro in 2008 when he was 18 and won his first three fights by first-round knockout. Between June 2008 and the end of 2009, Broner went 13-0, with 10 wins coming by knockout. His step-up fight finally came in Anaheim in March 2011 against Mexican journeyman (and current featherweight champion) Daniel Ponce De León. Broner showed flashes of brilliance in a 10-round fight against Ponce De León, but most ringside observers thought Ponce De León had controlled enough of the fight to win the decision. Shockingly, Broner was awarded a unanimous decision, a verdict that caused Roy Jones Jr. to laugh out loud on camera. But even though the Ponce De León bout was the worst performance of Broner’s career, that was the fight that convinced Oscar De La Hoya to throw the full promotional weight of Golden Boy Promotions behind Broner.

“What really struck me about Adrien in the Ponce De León fight was his willingness to win,” De La Hoya explained. “Broner was in a tough fight — he has mentioned he’s never been hit so hard in his life — but he kept fighting, not dancing or shuffling, but actually going forward. That was what set him apart from other fighters, at least in my mind. Not only does he have the boxing ability to slip and move, but he has that hunger to fight and win.”

In his next three fights, Broner destroyed overmatched opponents. His following opponent, former U.S. Olympian Vicente Escobedo, was dispatched in similar fashion, but at least Escobedo came away with a decent portion of Broner’s paycheck because of the fact that Broner weighed in three pounds over the 130-pound junior lightweight limit for the fight.

All the while, Broner kept talking. He called himself Mr. HBO and called out opponents. He proclaimed his ambition to be the best who ever did it. For the most part, the boxing press treated Broner like Floyd Mayweather’s annoying little brother — post-fight boasts and proclamations of greatness just don’t mean much when you’re fighting guys named Jason Litzau and Eloy Pérez.

Then came DeMarco. And after DeMarco, the hype.

But before we start anointing anyone, let’s ask another question: Does boxing even need a savior? If you ask your standard sports fan — the sort of guy or gal who loves the nearest NFL franchise, roots for the old alma mater in the NCAA tournament, and enjoys the occasional beer-soaked baseball game, the answer will almost always be yes. This sentiment is echoed throughout much of the mainstream sports media. It’s true that boxing has not had a true crossover star since Oscar De La Hoya and it’s also true that the cloister effect of premium cable and pay-per-view has shut out many casual fans. But TV ratings have held steady in this Floyd Mayweather–Manny Pacquiao era. Showtime and HBO, the networks that show the majority of big fights, have seen their boxing audiences grow in the past five years. About 1.4 million people watched Miguel Cotto fight more-or-less unknown Austin Trout on Showtime in December, roughly the same number who watched the Memphis Grizzlies play the Oklahoma City Thunder on TNT last month. A notch more than 1 million people watched Broner fight DeMarco. And last September, on the night when boxing tried to cannibalize itself, 450,000 people purchased the HBO pay-per-view fight between Sergio Martinez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., while another million watched Saul “Canelo” Alvarez fight Josesito Lopez on Showtime. Both venues in Las Vegas — the Thomas & Mack Center and the MGM Garden Arena — were sold out.

There’s clearly a disconnect here. Boxing, despite its myriad troubles — PED scandals, judging fiascos, and a bifurcated promotional power structure that rivals the deadlock between Democrats and Republicans in Congress — continues to attract fans. But by and large, these fans are not represented by the mainstream sports media. There are several reasons for this, including the fact that HBO and Showtime’s dominance means that the networks that handle most major sports coverage (including ESPN) don’t have much incentive to help premium channels promote fights and pump up PPV numbers. But mostly, the issue comes down to one of class and race. Boxing in the United States is largely sustained by Latino and African American fans. And because the mainstream sports media caters to the interests of white males who live on the Eastern seaboard, boxing highlights almost never lead SportsCenter.

The people in charge of bringing boxing to the masses seem to understand both the relative health of the sport and the need for a crossover star to fill the voids left by Mike Tyson and Oscar De La Hoya. Floyd Mayweather has generated almost as much PPV money as Oscar1 but hasn’t been able to match Oscar’s popularity, whether through marketing or through general household recognition. Manny Pacquiao had a historic five-year run and brought in millions of dollars from Filipino fans, but interest in his fights has been waning. And it’s worth noting that both Mayweather and Pacquiao launched their huge careers by beating De La Hoya.

So is Adrien Broner the next Oscar De La Hoya? Or, like many suggest, is he a Floyd Mayweather clone? Can a brash 23-year-old lightweight take on all the exciting fights that await him at the junior welterweight and welterweight divisions? Is Broner even all that good, or is he another product of the HBO hype machine?

Oscar De La Hoya, whose company promotes Broner, says crossover success can only come if the fighter commits to three separate paths. First, and most obviously, the boxer has to be great in the ring. Second, he must never give off the impression that he’s ducking anybody — regardless of whom you blame, the failure of Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather to make their superfight damaged the reputation and earning potential of both fighters. Lastly, and perhaps, most importantly, a true boxing star must be accessible to his fans. De La Hoya credits his own commitment to this last requisite for his own wild popularity. “I understood what it meant to take care of the fan,” he explained, “I understood what it meant to be charismatic. I felt like it was my obligation to put myself out there and be exposed.”

Exposure is no longer a problem for Adrien Broner. HBO and Golden Boy have been promoting him tirelessly for the past year. The grumblings that accused Broner of taking easy fights have died down. Broner, of course, had his own explanation for the relative ease with which he had dispatched his opponents. Before his fight against Vicente Escobedo, Broner sat down for a one-on-one interview with Roy Jones Jr. Broner described his mastery of the ring by quoting one of Roy’s songs: “It ain’t that I don’t fight nobody, it’s just that I make them look like nobody.”

Broner now seems ready to enact his slow coup of Mayweather’s throne.

“Mayweather probably got a couple more fights,” Broner explains. “After that, I’m going to run boxing. I feel like I run boxing now ’cause I look at it as Mayweather and Pacquiao had their era, but their window is closing. My window stays open and my legacy moves on. I give all respect to those guys; without them two, boxing probably wouldn’t be what it is today. But now we have Adrien Broner. Boxing is safe.”

At the Old School Boxing Gym in Colorado Springs, you’ll find a ring, a few heavy bags, one double-end bag, a collection of sun-worn photos of past champions, and not much else. The ceiling is so low that an average-height man can reach up and graze his fingers along the saggy, yellowing ceiling tiles. Boxing trainers, for the most part, have two only objectives when it comes to camp — eliminate distractions and keep the fighter hungry. And so, while it might seem incongruous that a fighter as flashy as Broner works out in such humble digs, the rules of training apply regardless of résumé or bankroll.

Today, Broner will spar for 45 minutes against three opponents. Rob Frankel, a 32-year-old fighter from Denver, shows up an hour before Broner’s camp arrives. Like so many boxers you meet, Frankel is a gentle guy with no clear thirst for violence. Like all fighters who have hung on too long, Frankel’s head has been squared off, beaten in, and scarred up. While we wait, he tells a story about a boxer friend who fell off the wagon and broke a bottle over Frankel’s hand. Coach Luis, the Old School’s caretaker and a former Olympic boxing coach, talks me through the photos on the wall. There’s Shannon Briggs. I helped train him. And there’s me and Pernell Whitaker. I got with Pernell over in Europe.

Broner and Stafford arrive in a black SUV. A white 15-passenger van follows. A crowd of young black men flood into the gym and start getting their hands taped for sparring. The other fighters almost always defer to Broner, laughing at his jokes and treating him with a thoroughly reverential politeness. This applies to Broner’s longtime cut man Levi Smith. As he wraps Broner’s hands in gauze, he whispers soft encouragement to the champ. Boxing is filled with tender moments, but perhaps none more intimate than the sight of an old man carefully taping the hands of a kid he’s known forever.

All that tenderness ends once Broner enters the ring. Frankel climbs through the ropes. Stafford, who has known and trained Broner since he was 6, calls a start to the session.

Adrien Broner starts talking.

To Frankel, he says: “I think you’d be a better carpenter than a boxer because you’re not a boxer. Consider being a carpenter.” After Frankel misses a combination and Broner slips easily to the corner, Broner says, “Actually, I don’t know if you could really be a carpenter, either. There’s a lot of math involved.”

Frankel gives a game effort, but he’s no match for Broner’s speed, power, and ring intelligence. Between the personal barbs, Broner yells out typical peacock talk — a lot of “I’m the best who ever did this”; some “Nobody’s ever going to beat me”; and the occasional “People don’t even know how good I am.” Around the eight-minute mark, Broner starts calling out Frankel’s shots. “Left hook coming. Loop the right hand. There it is.” Broner has that skill, unique in boxing, of reacting to an opponent’s next punch before he even throws it. For 15 minutes, every advance by Frankel gets stopped dead in its tracks. Finally, Stafford calls time. Frankel climbs out of the ring and James Stevenson, an undefeated fighter out of Baltimore, climbs in. Stevenson stands four inches taller and weighs roughly 15 pounds more than Broner.

Stevenson pushes Broner hard and backs the smaller man into the corner, where he unleashes body shots in flurries. For the first time, Broner seems to be taking a little bit of damage. But his mouth doesn’t stop. Eventually, Broner times Stevenson’s rushes and keeps him away with a persistent, accurate jab. Once this starts working, Broner starts yelling, “Jab stops everything.” The bravado kicks back up again. Unlike Frankel, who quietly took the abuse, Stevenson gets angry. He shoves Broner into the ropes and once again unleashes to the body. Broner calmly backs up and shakes his head, perfectly mimicking the face Floyd Mayweather makes when he wants to show his opponent that the last punch didn’t hurt at all. Again, about midway through the 15-minute session, Broner figures Stevenson out. “You move your head in the same motion,” Broner explains, while peppering Stevenson with jabs. “Every time. That’s how I keep hitting you, because your head just goes to the same spot.”

When he’s had enough of Broner’s talk, Stevenson slaps at his chest and screams, “I’m with you, not against you! I’m with you, not against you!” Broner, for his part, yells, “I don’t hear that! I don’t hear that!”

Last in the ring today will be William Jackson, another young Cincinnati fighter. Earlier in the day, I ate lunch at Denny’s with the entire Broner camp and struck up a conversation with Jackson, who had just heard he would get to leave Colorado Springs early. “I got a daughter,” Jackson explained when asked why he wanted to head back home. “I’ve been in camp so long that I’m starting to miss her.” Jackson has known Broner since the two were elementary school kids training at Stafford’s gym. They both came from rough neighborhoods and credit boxing with saving them from the streets. Both Jackson and Broner spent of much their childhoods under Stafford’s care. But they are near-polar opposites in terms of demeanor — where Broner is brash, Jackson is shy, and where Broner will antagonize, Jackson will defer. And given their almost identical paths, it’s worth wondering just how much the differences in their personalities might explain their success in the ring. Jackson has a 10-1-1 record as a professional, but he has never fought outside of his hometown.

When Jackson climbs into the ring, what had been an entertaining talk show turns into a full-scale opera. Jackson walks straight forward and backs Broner into the ropes. Cornered for the first time in that day, Broner begins to yell: “I remember my first fight. Y’all didn’t believe in me. Y’all thought you were better than me.”

Jackson corners Broner again. Broner slips the punches and yells: “All of you thought you were better than me when we was kids. I’m telling the truth today — that’s how it was back then.”

There’s a new desperation in his voice, perhaps brought on by 40 minutes of all-out sparring. The men at ringside grow a bit anxious. Levi Smith reminds Broner, “We’re with you, not against you.” Broner finds a second burst of energy and tattoos Jackson with a five-punch combination. Jackson shakes it off and keeps advancing. Every time he lands a punch, Jackson pounds his chest and yells, “Work, work, work!” at his old friend.

And that’s when Broner gets mean. Working Jackson’s body, Broner yells, “You never believed in me, but you didn’t know what I could do. You got too comfortable because you thought I wasn’t shit.” And then, specifically, to Jackson, he says, “That’s why your career’s where it is and why mine is where it’s at. I’m telling the truth today!”

It feels like Broner has just crossed the line, especially with an old friend who has flown to Colorado Springs to help with training camp. Jackson, of course, responds with another volley of “Work, work, work!” Broner’s response: “I don’t owe any of you n—-s anything.”

Always keep smiling. Work hard and fight the best. There’s no room for ducking anybody. I always fought the best, and whether I won or lost, I always had a smile on my face. Whether it was a tough fight or an easy fight, I would smile and the fans respected that. People know we’re in a tough sport and so if we smile after a tough battle, people will like you more.”

That is Oscar De La Hoya’s fourth key to crossover success. It’s the only one that Adrien Broner will most likely not fulfill. Broner does not believe in nice guys in boxing. “You gotta have some flash,” Broner explains. “Being a nice guy is cool and all, but to really make it in this game, you bring that extra quality.” When it’s pointed out that Manny Pacquiao, boxing’s resident nice guy and habitual smiler, made about a hundred million dollars in the sport and increased its popularity across the globe, Broner admits, “Manny did OK. He could have done better, but he did OK.” After a short pause, Broner adds, “I would have done it better.” Then he corrects himself: “I will do better.”

Broner doesn’t have to act like a nice guy to bring boxing back to the fickle mainstream media. He does not have to smile to generate his promised billion dollars in revenue. But at some point, he will have to address one criticism that still feels painfully relevant — Broner might be too much like Floyd Mayweather, not so much in his fighting style, but more in the manner in which he promotes himself. In his fight against Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd walked into the MGM Garden Arena in a leather ranchero outfit made in the colors of the Mexican flag, complete with sombrero. It was an homage to his uncle, Roger, who used to go by the nickname “The Mexicutioner.” He was accompanied by 50 Cent, who rapped the intro music live. Against Eloy Perez last year, Broner walked into the ring rapping his own song, dressed, like Mayweather, in the colors of the Mexican flag. Since then, Broner has entered the ring accompanied by rappers Waka Flocka Flame and Kendrick Lamar. At this point, it’s nearly impossible to tell where the Mayweather act ends and where Broner’s begins. Mayweather’s “Money” persona has allowed him to capitalize on what might have otherwise been seen as a dazzling but ultimately unsalable set of skills, but it’s difficult to see how Broner will eclipse Mayweather’s stardom without some tricks of his own. Mayweather benefitted from some Emmy-worthy performances on HBO’s 24/7 and his impressive ability to manipulate social media. Stephen Espinoza, the head of Showtime Sports, agrees with De La Hoya about the importance of accessibility and sees Floyd as the best example of a fighter who made himself available via the Internet. “Mayweather has somewhere around 4 million followers on Twitter,” Espinoza explains. “That helps him immensely. He cultivates the conversation about himself.”

Broner has a mere 68,000 Twitter followers. He mostly tweets photos of himself with famous athletes or heavily filtered gym shots that show him flexing in the mirror. Broner could possibly eclipse Mayweather in the ring, but he still has not figured out how to marshal his flash and showmanship into a coherent narrative. Most of his post-fight jokes have fallen flat. After beating Escobedo, Broner postponed his post-fight interview with Max Kellerman to get down on one knee in front of his girlfriend. Instead of proposing, though, he asked his girlfriend to brush his hair, playing off Broner’s long-standing ritual of having his father brush his hair after fights. Nobody found this proposal gag to be particularly funny, just as nobody quite understands the point of the whole hair-brushing thing in general.2 In his interviews, Broner oftentimes sounds like a novice stand-up comedian, delivering one-liners with great earnestness and commitment, but not quite figuring out how to make the jokes land.

One can hardly fault a young fighter for emulating his idols, but if Broner wants to generate a billion dollars, if he wants to be considered among the greatest of all time, if he wants to become a household name like Oscar De La Hoya or Mike Tyson, then he must find his own identity and distance himself from Mayweather’s long shadow.

If Adrien Broner wants to become boxing’s bad guy, he has a ready-made foil waiting across the border in Mexico. Canelo Alvarez, 22, has already amassed perhaps the biggest, most rabid boxing fan base in the world. The ratings on Mexican television for Canelo’s fights rival those of the country’s national soccer team. Espinoza describes Alvarez as “Mexico’s version of Tom Brady,” alluding to his good looks, his high level of performance and his penchant for dating starlets. Canelo has recently started taking English lessons and often stays in the Los Angeles area in an effort to win over the American market. Broner and Alvarez are three, maybe four weight classes apart right now, but as long as both fighters stay protected and win a couple big fights, Canelo vs. Broner promises to be the superfight of the next five years. “[Broner and Canelo] are young,” De La Hoya explains. “These guys are the future. There’s no reason to make the fight right now, but I believe it’s eventually going to happen.”

Broner, to his credit, understands the need to fight bigger name opponents. He has called out Juan Manuel Marquez, but only on the condition that Marquez agrees to strict drug testing. The same goes for Manny Pacquiao. “We’re going to make [Marquez] piss in a cup,” Broner says. “USADA, VADA we can do ’em all. There’s no way this guy comes into his last fight looking like Brock Lesnar. Him and Pacquiao both looking like WWE wrestlers with gloves on.” As for Canelo, Broner dismisses him as a “little guy” and claims he would have no trouble beating the 154-pound Mexican bruiser. He does evince some respect, however, for Canelo’s broad appeal. “He’s got a hell of a fan base,” Broner admits. “They love him. Maybe if I was over there, I’d love him too. I mean, you think about it — he looks different, he fights different — he don’t fight like a Mexican, but he’s Mexican. They’ve got to love him.” Broner also seems aware that his career, and all the hype surrounding it, could still use a boost. Even with all the attention he received after the DeMarco fight, Broner says, “I give it another year before my stardom really goes where it needs to be. I still got so much work to do. This is just the beginning.”

Boxing has a nostalgia problem. Any discussion about the fight game is really a discussion about the past and all arguments are really just variations on the barbershop scene in Coming to America. Even fighters as young as Adrien Broner drag along a litany of historical names. Before Adrien “The Problem” Broner became an amalgam of Floyd Mayweather and Roy Jones Jr., Floyd was walking around with the nickname “Pretty Boy,” in homage to Pretty Boy Floyd Patterson. Every fighter named Ray will, at some point, go by “Sugar.” Fight fans are almost like bored academics — every argument must be cross-referenced, cited, and thoroughly backed up with empirical evidence. (In some ways, I think the popularity of mixed martial arts can be explained by the fact that it’s a new sport, unburdened with the cranky invectives of old men who won’t let you enjoy a fight without telling you exactly how little you know about the history of the sport.) This reflex, whereby the fighter of the present would always take a whupping from the fighter of the past, might account for the never-ending savior talk in boxing. When the past looms so large, I suppose, it looms so large.

Neither Adrien Broner nor Canelo Alvarez can save boxing, at least not in the way imagined by those musty old sportswriters who have left the sport for dead. Only a Great White Hope or a dynamite heavyweight champion can appease that brand of cynicism. And even if America produced the next Mike Tyson, those same skeptics might simply dismiss him (again, using the past as justification: This kid ain’t no Joe Frazier. I saw Joe Frazier) because it’s easier to bury the sport than it is to recognize that an immutable part of the American discussion has moved on and found a new home. For the majority of fight fans who crowd into arenas and tune into Showtime or HBO on Saturday nights, boxing does not need a savior because, quite simply, the sport’s health is not contingent on the opinion of old sportswriters and the older, yapping talking heads they ultimately all become. Broner and Canelo might not be boxing’s saviors, but they have a chance to carry boxing into its next era. As fans within demographics traditionally ignored by the mainstream media grab a larger foothold within the United States, at large, they will bring their beloved sport along with them. Canelo Alvarez and Adrien Broner will not drive the ship, then, as much as they will be the figureheads lashed to the bow.

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