Tonight Floyd Mayweather will finally meet Manny Pacquiao in a match many are claiming will be the biggest fight in boxing history. Bob Arum isn't one of these people.
As he explained to Dan Rafael of ESPN, while Mayweather-Pacquiao is a massive event he doesn't think it's bigger than the other "biggest boxing matches" of history, including the first Ali versus Frazier contest.
"[Muhammad] Ali-[Joe] Frazier I -- I remember it like yesterday. No satellite TV, no social media. We only had three television channels. Newspapers were strong and every paper covered it. The world stopped. The entire world stopped for that fight. It became the subject of editorials in papers because of the political implications of the fight. Is this bigger than that? In some ways you could say that, but that would be unfair. You can't compare eras."
Mayweather-Pacquiao is projected to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars while also paying out a purse of several hundred millions dollars to the athletes, both amounts that will dwarf those of the mega fights of the past. Using this one metric, money, it is without a doubt the biggest contest ever. But as Arum points out that has as much to do with the "means of transmission" as it does with the fight itself.
"It is well to recognise that finance was the basis of the prize-ring from the first," wrote William Biggs Boulton when describing the earliest days of boxing. This has been true from the times of James Figg until today, as each generation found news ways to monetize the sport.
In fact, the very first written rules for the sport, which were only seven in number and penned by Jack Broughton in 1743, included one that governed how purses should be split. The sport was called "prize-fighting" for a reason, after all.
In 1750 Jack Broughton took part in one of the biggest fights of his era, the 18th century equivalent of Mayweather-Pacquioa. It was against Jack Slack and attracted much excitement amongst the "fancy," as the collection of boxing enthusiasts who watched and bet on matches in London were known.
In these early days the only sources of revenue for a boxing match were the live audience, limited by first geography and also awareness of the contest, and gambling. In the case of Broughton and Slack enough was collected at the gate to offer a £600 purse, with the winners' split being 2/3 as was typical at the time. In addition the two men, or more specifically their backers, wagered £200 a side, meaning that the winner would walk away with £600, the loser nothing. In the end Jack Slack won the match and the £600 (175,000 USD in today's dollars) while Jack Broughton's backer, the Duke of Cumberland, reportedly lost £10,000 (almost 3 million USD today) foolishly matching bets at 10-1 odds.
By the end of the 19th century the telegraph and the newspaper had drastically altered the economics of a match. Thanks to first wired and then wireless communications, a newspaper's coverage of a boxing match was no longer limited to their own city. Now the entire nation, or even much of the world, could learn not only the results of the big match but also follow the daily happenings of the champion and his challenger. As newspapers fed the appetite of their readers for stories of Sullivan, Fitzsimmons, Corbett, Kilrain, or Paddy Ryan, they also served as promoters and even financial backers for some pugilists.
When James L. Sullivan defended his title against James Corbett in 1892 interest was so high thanks to the endless newspaper coverage that they were able to sell 10,000 tickets priced between $5 to $15. Fans came to New Orleans from all across the country (many by another innovation, the train) to watch the match at the Olympic Club. The size of purses had grown significantly from the time of Broughton as well. The winner-take-all purse was $25,000 plus each competitor also put up a side bet of $10,000, so that the winner, Corbett, ended up earning $35,000 (the equivalent of $885,000 today) while the loser, Sullivan, was out $10,000 (almost $253,000 today).
By the time Jack Johnson and James Jeffries was held in 1910, the first "Fight of the Century" of the 20th Century, a new medium had added another potentially lucrative source of revenue: motion pictures. In addition to the live crowd in Nevada, which numbered 18,020 spectators and generated a $270,755 gate, film cameras captured the action with the intent of exhibiting a motion picture around the world. It was estimated before the event that the films rights would be worth more than a million dollars but, in the wake of the terrible racial violence that followed Johnson's victory, congress passed the Rodenberg Act that prohibited the interstate transportation of prizefight films. Fortunately for the contestants they had sold their rights to the film in advance, with Jeffries collecting $66,000 and Johnson $50,000. With the addition of the $101,000 purse that was split 60/40 in favor of the winner and the $10,000 signing bonus each received, Johnson made the equivalent of $3 million in today's dollars and Jeffries only a few thousand less.
Another means of transmission, radio, was introduced at the 1921 "Battle of the Century" between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier. Over a million people are estimated to have heard the broadcast, with halls all over the country charging for the privilege of listening to the match.
The amount made from radio, however, was dwarfed by what was made at the gate. Because New York had a $15 maximum on ticket prices, the promoter Tex Rickard (who also promoted Johnson-Jeffries) borrowed $250,000 to build his own 91,000-seat arena in New Jersey. Tickets were priced from $5.50 to $50 generating a gate of $1,789,238, the first ever million-dollar gate (a little over $23 million in today's dollars). The fight was also filmed, and while the Rodenberg Act should have limited its distribution, it is thought to have made millions, mostly for Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty who was charged with illegally distributing the film.
For the match Dempsey was guaranteed $300,000 ($3.9 million today after adjusting for inflation) and Carpentier $200,000 ($2.6 million today). In addition the two boxers split 25% of the motion picture rights.
In 1927 Tex Rickard promoted a rematch between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney, the famous "Long Count", that drew nearly 105,000 fans and a gate of $2,858,660 (nearly $39 million in todays dollars). Jack Dempsey received a purse of $447,500 ($6 million today) while Gene Tunney received $1 million dollars ($13.5 million today), $9,555 of it his own money he paid Tex Rickard so that the check would be an even million. This time seventy-four radio stations carried the bout, broadcasting to a potential audience of 15 million listeners.
By the time Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali's 1971 "Fight of the Century" took place a new means of transmission had been introduced, closed circuit.
"When Ali and Frazier fought," recalled Bob Arum in Dan Rafael's article, "we sent the signal on telephone lines, and we could only reach less than 400 locations. That's all the phone company could service. We didn't have enough closed circuit locations. Every single closed circuit location was sold out, and people were running around to find places [to watch the fight]."
Fans were changed anywhere from $5 to $15 to watch the bout from these closed circuit locations. At Madison Square Garden 20,445 watched live, generating a gate of $1.5 million ($8.7 million in 2015 dollars). Ringside seats had cost $150 ($869 today); balcony seats $20 ($116 today).
Outside the US and Canada, fans watched on regular television. It was broadcast in 12 different languages with the viewing audience being an estimated 300 million. In total the fight is thought to have generated a gross total of $18 million dollars ($104 million today). Both Frazier and Ali had been guaranteed $2.5 million each ($14.5 million today) for their purses.
Three years later, Hank Schwartz and Don King promoted the "Rumble in the Jungle" between Muhammed Ali and the current heavyweight champion, George Foreman. The two boxers were each paid $5 million ($23.8 million today), which was paid in two $100,000 advances while the remaining $4.8 million was deposited in a bank, ready to be withdrawn the day after the match, An additional $100,000 for each was used to pay for their training. Besides the boxers, publicity, insurance, telephones, travel. lawyers, office staffing and other promotional expenses totaled $1.5 million.
A $1.25 million site fee was paid to hold the event in Kinshasa, Congo. The fight was broadcast on closed-circuit television at close to 400 locations across the United States and Canada. Tickets, some 3 million were made available, were $20 apiece, with the houses having to guarantee $7 per seat in advance, against 60 percent of the gross. Television and radio rights were sold around the world. A British distributer paid $600,000 to air it on closed-circuit television. Other European countries paid similar amounts to air it on public TV. It is estimated that the television advertising brought in a few million more and "maybe an equal amount on such random items as T-shirts, souvenirs ash trays, medallions, and lithographs of the fighters." Films of the contest would provide a small income for years to come. In total the fight may have generated as much $30 million (almost $145 million today).
The third and final fight in the legendary Ali-Frazier trilogy generated even more money. The 1975 Don King promoted "Thrilla in Manilla" was shown at close to 400 closed-circuit television locations in North America and broadcast to 68 countries around the globe.It also received millions from the Ferdinand Marcos government in the Philipines. Accroding to the 1974 Foukien Times Philippines Yearbook "the Philippines exposure was $4 million while the King people put in $5.5 million. Ali's purse was $4.5 million against 43% and Frazier's $2 million against 22%." It is estimated that in the end Ali made about $9 million total ($39 million in todays dollars) and Frazier roughly $5 million (the equivalent of almost $22 million today).
By the time of Tyson and Holyfield 2 in 1997 payperview had replaced closed circuit television as the primary revenue stream. While the closed circuit numbers were still huge, 1,625 locations in the United States and $6 million ($8 million today) in ticket sales, this was dwarfed by the payperview numbers. Domestic payperviews were just under 2 million, generating almost $100 million ($146 million today), a record that stood until 2007's De La Hoya-Mayweather bout. The fight also produced a record gate, $17.28 million at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. It was seen in 97 foreign countries, generating sales of over $21 million ($30 million today), including sponsorship. Tyson earned $30 million ($44 million in 2015 dollar), while Holyfield got $35 million ($51 million today).
Two Mayweather matches have since broken the record for highest gate, payperview sales, purse, and revenue generated. And his match tomorrow is already guaranteed to smash the records he previously set. So what new stream of revenue have they tapped into to see such an increase? None it would seem for it's still the same streams as before being discussed: payperview, foreign TV, tickets, sponsors. Instead they've been able greatly increase the prices of those same revenue streams.
Josh Gross asks in his recent Sherdog article on the fight if "the 21st Century bout of all bouts reserved for another class, the one percent who emerged in recent years as more influential and powerful than at any time since the 1920s?" The "Biggest Matches of All-Time" have always been marketed to the wealthy, only now, thanks to the divergence that's grown since the late 70s, they have grown even wealthier. The end result is the "biggest boxing match of all-time."