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Brackets and Boxing: A Brief History of Professional Pugilism’s Experimentation With Tournaments

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It’s one hell of a trick that the NCAA pulls off every year with “March Madness.”

From November through February, only the hardcore college hoops fans care about the sport. Then all of a sudden, we hit mid-March and college basketball becomes the absolute center of the American sports universe. People who couldn’t have named three active players one week before are dropping everything to watch Western Kentucky face Marquette in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday.

It’s a testament, in large part, to the power of brackets. Throw a bunch of competitors in a single-elimination grid, and people are instantly intrigued. Add the opportunity to gamble on the outcomes, and those observers go from intrigued to invested. But even without the money and the office pools, there’s something universal and timeless about the “win or go home” urgency and beauty of 64 becoming 32 … and 32 becoming 16 … and so on, until a single champion is left standing.

It’s a formula boxing can’t easily replicate – because a field of 64 is preposterous in a business that often struggles pathetically to arrange a field of two. Also because the sort of injuries that may muddle plans in a team sport will fully scuttle them in an individual sport.

Tournaments are the lifeblood of the amateur fight game, of course. But in the pro version, they are a relative rarity. Still, efforts have periodically been made to find a formula that works.

Here, presented chronologically, are the most noteworthy such efforts in a sport that overflows with madness – not just in March, but through all 12 months, every year.

The Ali-in-exile vacant heavyweight title tournament: You couldn’t strip Muhammad Ali of his lineal championship – it took Joe Frazier in 1971 to deprive him of that. But you could strip Ali of alphabet belts during his period of exile, and one sanctioning body devised a plan to fill its vacancy through an eight-man bracket.

Frazier declined his invite, choosing instead to fight Buster Mathis for the vacant New York State Athletic Commission title. (Splintered titles ain’t nuthin’ new, folks.)

That left an eight-man tournament featuring the likes of former champ Floyd Patterson, Jerry Quarry, Ernie Terrell, Jimmy Ellis and Oscar Bonavena – and somehow that group got through all seven fights, in eight months across 1967-68, with nobody having to withdraw. Ellis decisioned Quarry in the finals, earning the right to get splattered by a Frazier left hook in a unification bout two years later.

The scandalous Don King-“Ring” tournament series: Think about how perfectly that aforementioned eight-man heavyweight title tournament was pulled off. Now picture the exact opposite. That’s the United States Boxing Championships.

In 1976, promoter Don King sold ABC on a tournament series to crown American champions in eight weight classes, with “The Ring” providing ratings that would help determine the most worthy participants. Seemed a fine idea – until it was discovered that King had paid off “Ring” associate editor John Ort to falsify records and rig rankings (along with King reportedly requiring fighters who wanted to participate to sign multi-fight contracts with him).

The tournament kicked off in January 1977, and by April, ABC had gotten wise to what was going on and scrapped the whole thing.

The one-night, 16-man 1993 heavyweight PPV potpourri: “Sports Illustrated” nailed the headline: “Attack of the Killer Tomato Cans.” From faded ex-beltholders Tony Tubbs and James “Bonecrucher” Smith to former title challengers Tyrell Biggs and Bert Cooper to an 18-year-old from Canada whose fighting experience mostly came in Toughman competitions, 16 fighters fought a series of scheduled three-rounders, one after another, on a December night in Mississippi. And fans got to pay for the privilege of watching.

The event was called “The People’s Choice World Heavyweight Superfights.” Hard to argue with the word “heavyweight.” I’m not so sure about the rest.

The 35-year-old Tubbs won, but his advertised million-dollar first-place prize got squeezed down to $170,000 because … well, because that’s how much money the organizers had.

The 2001 Middleweight World Championship Series: About a quarter-century after his first foray into the tournament thing, Don King tried again. He kept it simple: four boxers – the three reigning 160-pound beltholders and 154-pound champ Felix Trinidad – and every fight staged at Madison Square Garden, all in about a five-month span.

First, Bernard Hopkins handled Keith Holmes in Hopkins’ familiar, effectively ugly style. Then Trinidad wiped out William Joppy in front of one of the most raucous crowds imaginable. It was all working out perfectly for King to watch Trinidad, his Puerto Rican superstar, crowned middleweight champ on September 15, 2001, and receive the Sugar Ray Robinson trophy as winner of the MWCS.

But we all know what happened next, four days before September 15, 2001, in New York: The finals were delayed by two weeks, and even when the time came, Hopkins didn’t follow King’s script. He stopped Trinidad in the 12th round of a career-defining performance. And not that night, but eventually, Hopkins received his trophy – after, legend has it, King had a second trophy made to replace the one that already had Trinidad’s name engraved on it.

Cedric Kushner’s “Fistful of Dollars” PPV: Had “Sports Illustrated” still cared enough about boxing in 2002 to cover this one, the obvious headline would have been “Return of the Killer Tomato Cans.”

The concept for this November 2002 card was similar to the 1993 “People’s Choice” silliness: a single night, a bunch of three-rounders, broadcast on pay-per-view. This one unfolded at the ill-fated Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, N.J., and the main differences from the heavyweight tourney nine years earlier were that this event had just eight fighters instead of 16, the fights were “exhibitions” that didn’t count toward anyone’s record, and the top prize was a modest $100,000. (Nobody ever specified how large the fist holding the “fistful of dollars” had to be.)

Random fun fact: I watched this event with then-”USA Today” boxing writer Dan Rafael at his townhouse in Virginia because I was in the area that weekend for some sort of family event. And we actually found ourselves mostly enjoying the card. From a field featuring 44-year-old Tim Witherspoon, Derrick Jefferson, Jeremy Williams, Ray Austin and Maurice Harris, it was Harris who emerged victorious – in large part because he was in good enough shape to make it through a trio of three-rounders in a single evening without gassing out.

“The Contender” and the merging of boxing and reality TV: The first season of “The Contender” – the season that aired on NBC and added countless new layers to the unintentional comedy legacy of Sylvester Stallone – will always be my favorite. But the boxing may have been best in the ESPN-televised third season, which ended with a hellacious war between Sakio Bika and Jaidon Codrington.

The tournament structures were all over the place across the five seasons of this reality show (the last of which came in a 2018 Epix revival hosted by Andre Ward that I know for a fact you didn’t watch). Fighters often selected their opponents, the boxers were sometimes split into teams, competitors would get eliminated but then reenter the bracket due to another boxer’s injury. And most of the actual boxing we saw on TV was edited down into a highlight package that made it impossible to know if the decisions were fair.

On the plus side, though, the show helped elevate the careers of Sergio Mora, Peter Manfredo, Alfonso Gomez, Steve Forbes and others. And the biggest plus of all: It wasn’t “The Next Great Champ,” the competing Fox network boxing reality tournament show hosted by Oscar De La Hoya that you had mercifully forgotten existed until reading this sentence.

The U.K. Prizefighter series: Starting in 2008, Barry Hearn and Sky Sports came up with a formula that worked to the tune of 34 tournaments in 14 weight classes over a seven-year stretch. They were single-night tourneys, each fight a three-rounder, with eight boxers in the bracket.

Audley Harrison won not one, but two Prizefighter tournaments – which tells you a little something about the general level of competition in these events. Still, it was a fine alternative form of boxing entertainment. Until it eventually ran its course.

Matchroom had plans to attempt a revival at the end of this month in Nagoya, Japan, on DAZN. But those fights were quietly postponed a few days ago. Whether or not Prizefighter has a future, it has gone a longer way than anything else in suggesting that there is a place in pro boxing for tournament brackets.

Showtime’s Super Six World Boxing Classic: They don’t come more ambitious than this super middleweight tournament, which began in 2009. Ambition, however, bites the nails of success. At least that’s what Bono told me. I’m not actually sure exactly what the lyric means, but I do know that Showtime execs did a lot of nail-biting and the Super Six hit a lot of speed bumps on the road to success.

The field was top-notch: six championship-level boxers in Andre Ward, Carl Froch, Mikkel Kessler, Arthur Abraham, Jermain Taylor and Andre Dirrell. The format was complicated. There was a “group stage,” points were accumulated to qualify for the single-elimination portion, followed by a semifinals and finals. Taylor withdrew after one knockout loss, replaced by Allan Green. Kessler withdrew after two fights and was replaced by Glen Johnson. Dirrell withdrew after two fights and was not replaced.

In the end, the tournament propelled its winner and runner-up – Ward and Froch, respectively – to new heights (both, notably, are now Hall of Famers). But it’s understandable why a second swing at a Super Six was never attempted.

The World Boxing Super Series: We end where we began, in a sense. The 1960s heavyweight title vacancy was filled by taking eight of the best available fighters and setting up a simple, single-elimination bracket that could be completed inside a year. Sauerland Promotions and Richard Schaefer did the same in 2017, focusing on a handful of weight classes that featured strong depth and weren’t ruled by a singular superstar.

The talent was comparable to the Super Six, but the WBSS steered clear of the structural complexity of Showtime’s effort.

The first tournament saw Oleksandr Usyk crowned undisputed cruiserweight champ. Another saw Josh Taylor unify the 140-pound titles against Regis Prograis. Yet another ended with the 2019 Fight of the Year between Naoya Inoue and Nonito Donaire.

In total, organizers ran five tournaments under the WBSS banner. But it hasn’t returned post-pandemic, and the WBSS account last tweeted in June 2022.

In an entirely unrelated matter, organized crime boss Daniel Kinahan was sanctioned in April 2022.

But we’re not here to talk about rackets. We’re here to talk about brackets.

It’s been four years since anyone in boxing put on a major tournament. It feels like it’s time for someone to try again. Anything less would be madness.

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