Boxing is a sport built on individuals, not institutions. No powerful teams churn out victory after victory, generation after generation.
Each era is defined by a few men who manage to captivate the public’s fascination during the incredibly brief window that is a boxer’s career.
What separates great fighters from legends is more than just the ability to connect a solid punch and generate a big payday. Boxing, more than any other sport, is as much about persona and an athlete’s audience appeal.
As happens every decade or so, boxing is on the verge of a shift.
Manny Pacquiao, 32, is entering the final rounds of his career. Floyd Mayweather Jr., 33, faces legal issues that might prevent him from returning to the ring. All other fighters from flyweights to heavyweights have taken second billing to these two greats for the last few years.
Whether the two ever meet in the ring, the inevitable end to this chapter is drawing to a close.
Soon, boxing will need a new marquee name in boxing. But as of yet, a clear successor, the kind of dynamic personality that will intrigue hard-core boxing fans and help draw in the casual spectator, has yet to emerge.
As much as boxing purists might want to believe that athleticism and skill are all a fighter needs to become a champion, HBO’s “24/7” has capitalized on the character-driven element of the sport. CBS looks to continue this model with “Fight Camp 360º” in the lead up to the Pacquiao’s May 7 bout against Shane Mosley.
Finding a way to connect with viewers outside of the ring is essential, especially as MMA continues to gain ground.
There’s no question the sport is rife with talent, but we have yet to see the rise of the next star who can carry the sport to the next level.
Pound-for-pound No. 3 Sergio Martínez has garnered attention as a serious contender for boxing’s top spot. But Martínez also turns 36 on Feb. 21, so some wonder whether he’s reaching the sport’s pinnacle too late.
Miguel Cotto, 30, has yet to make the transition from good to great. Amir Khan, 24, is perhaps the closest thing to a young hotshot. However, with all but two of his fights being held in the United Kingdom, he’s yet to make a big splash in America.
Juan Manuel López and Andre Berto, both 27, are winning fights and earning accolades. Athens Olympic gold medalist Andre Ward (23-0) seems a prime candidate to perhaps get his shot at the spotlight in the near future, as does Timothy Bradley (27-0 and No. 4 in pound-for-pound rankings).
Bradley is 27, Ward will be 27 next week. But the truth is, few of these names are familiar to those who simply follow the sports page headlines.
By contrast, Muhammad Ali won his first the heavyweight title at 22. Mike Tyson did it at 20. Oscar De La Hoya was the undisputed pound-for-pound best by 24. At 26, Pacquiao was named fighter of the year and had won world titles in four divisions.
Building a legacy takes time. Countless boxers have reached the top, but few have stayed there for an extended period of time. Only a special fighter can maintain his dominance – and engage and entertain the masses while doing so. But we’ve yet to see the emergence of such a superstar.
Boxing is undoubtedly entering the end of an era. Fans can only hope a new one – buoyed by an engaging superstar – is somewhere on the horizon.
Maria Burns Ortiz is a freelance sports journalist, chair of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists' Sports Task Force, and a regular contributor to Fox News Latino.