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Originally published February 27, 2011 at 6:22 PM | Page modified February 28, 2011 at 3:59 PM

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Danny O'Neil

It's somewhat sad, but boxing's allure being felt only in Hollywood

Now, it's probably not a great sign for the sport that the most-watched fighters this month are actors, but it's a start. Boxing might be down, but it's not out.

Seattle Times NFL reporter

Boxing matters again.

At least it does at the Academy Awards. "The Fighter" won two Oscars, and was nominated for five more, including best picture. And boxing matters on Tuesday nights when "Lights Out," a compelling story that is as much about family as fighting, airs at 10 p.m. on the cable channel FX.

Now, it's probably not a great sign for the sport that the most-watched fighters this month are actors, but it's a start. Boxing might be down, but it's not out. Not completely. It hasn't culturally flatlined.

There is still an appetite out there for fights — even if they aren't real fights. There's still an audience for boxing, but it's an audience increasingly disinterested in the actual sport.

I'm part of that apathetic crowd. I no longer know who the heavyweight champion of the world is. I'm not sure when that happened, but it was in the past 10 years, sometime after Mike Tyson became a circus sideshow and Evander Holyfield refused to obey Father Time — and some doctors. And, yes, I declined to learn the difference between the Klitschkos.

It wasn't always like this. I was a big enough boxing fan to know that Tyson beat Trevor Berbick, Pinklon Thomas and James "Bonecrusher" Smith to unify the heavyweight title. I remember Riddick Bowe entering the ring to Phil Collins' "In The Air Tonight" to fight Holyfield for the title. Roy Jones was my favorite fighter, I cheered like crazy for Pernell Whitaker against Julio Cesar Chavez and Ralph Wiley's "Serenity — A Boxing Memoir" is among my favorite books.

But now, at 36, I am part of that demographic that has come to prefer mixed-martial arts to boxing.

There are all sorts of potential reasons for that, from the variety of fighting skills on display to the fact that most of the best fighters are in one promotion so you get to see them — you know — actually fight each other. And if I'm being honest, there's also some bloodlust — the violence of an MMA knockout is simultaneously appalling and alluring.

It was only the past two months that I really discovered boxing isn't just something I used to like. It's something I'd like again if the sport would get out of its own way.

Because I loved "The Fighter" and I really like "Lights Out." I like the buildup to fights, the sacrifice a fighter makes and the courage it takes to enter the ring. I love the precision of boxing, the strategy and the absence of flash knockouts that are just a fluky reality in MMA.

Yet the last pay-per-view bout I watched was Floyd Mayweather Jr. against Oscar De La Hoya. That was 2007, a bout I'll remember for Mayweather's lack of interest in doing anything other than winning on points and De La Hoya's weird, smiling interview afterward.

Mayweather has the highest profile of any boxer, and he and Manny Pacquiao can't agree to fight each other, and they can't agree on the reasons they won't.

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So Hollywood has become the preferred alternative with the productions that follow the silver screen's longterm love affair with boxing. There's a long line of it, whether it was the "Rocky" lineage, Robert DeNiro in "Raging Bull" or Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby."

Comedian Adam Corolla has a theory on this. He was in his own boxing movie, "Hammer" and he says he thinks movie stars love the idea of getting a chance to kick butt without actually running the risk of getting your butt kicked.

That helps explain why those movies get made, but why do we watch? After all, Robert Redford starred in "The Natural," which was nominated for four Academy Awards, but it didn't outdraw the World Series. Football fans who watched "Any Given Sunday" didn't go out and avoid "Monday Night Football."

"The Fighter" has made more than $85 million domestically. It opened in 2,503 theaters. It's likely that more people have watched the cinematic rendition of "Irish" Micky Ward's career than actually watched Ward fight.

It's probably not a coincidence a white boxer is the protagonist in both "The Fighter" and "Lights Out." But boxing's decline is about more than race. There have been African-American boxing champions for a long time and the lack of American interest is only relatively recent.

So the fact that people are noticing the sport — even a cinematic rendition — is progress, because hey, at least someone is actually watching the sport. It shows that the appeal of boxing isn't dead. In fact, there's a hunger there that simply isn't being met by the actual sport as it exists today.

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com

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About Danny O'Neil

Danny O'Neil will comment on issues, events and personalities in the NFL. His column will appear on Sundays during the regular season. He also posts most days on the Seahawks Blog.
doneil@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2364

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