Ranking boxing’s biggest ever pay-per-view stars, box office draws and highest-paid fighters – from heavyweight champions to pound-for-pound kings – is not as simple as you think.
Totaling up PPV numbers or career earnings might seem the best way. But inflation means financial figures inevitably rise – while modern pay-per-view figures ignore closed-circuit TV (fans paying to fill cinemas and watch fights live; the precursor to PPV). So we’ve crunched the numbers, adjusted for era, and selected the 10 biggest A-side draws the fight game has ever seen.
10. Canelo Alvarez
Has earned $225million at age 31 and is at the peak of his stardom, helped by his constantly improving boxing skills and new ability to swear hilariously in English. Canelo was able to draw more than a million US pay-per-view buys against a top opponent (Golovkin, Mayweather) and just under for others (800,000 for Caleb Plant). He is not a crossover household name outside parts of the USA and Mexico, but an increasing willingness to share more of his personality may change that.
9. Manny Pacquiao
Stunning that the ‘Pan Man’ began his career as a 16-year-old, weighing 98lb, fighting for 100 Philippine pesos (about $2) and ended it with more than $500million in career earnings and as one half of the biggest PPV card ever. His sizzling in-ring style, modest charm and awful karaoke made him an unlikely US star – and even if his drawing power waned a bit after his athletic peak, he was still pulling in fans and TV audiences most boxers could only dream of until he retired last year.
8. Oscar De La Hoya
Mayweather and Pacquiao are seen as the big stars of modern boxing, but who did both men have to beat to gain genuine fame? Yes, ‘The Golden Boy’ – who never needed a crossover pro fight, because he came out of the 1992 Olympics with a gold medal, a lethal combo of looks and left hook, and was a megastar from day one. De La Hoya generated around $700million in PPV income (only Floyd and Manny have made more), was a guaranteed ticket-seller and losses never really hurt his dazzling drawing power.
7. Sugar Ray Robinson
They invented the term ‘pound-for-pound’ for the original Sugar Ray in the 1940s – a way of telling fans that this was the most skilled fighter on the planet – and he had the personality to match. Owned the first boxing entourage, traveling with a pink Cadillac and a dwarf called Arabian Knight (it was a different time). Broke attendance records with 147lb and 160lb title fights in the US, but was also exalted when he toured Europe. Earned more than $4million in purses when that was unheard of money, but spent lavishly.
6. George Foreman
Uniquely, ‘Big George’ had two entirely separate runs – and was a box-office smash in both. The huge-punching heavyweight was part of ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’, watched by an estimated billion people worldwide (though his opponent helped there). Then came back in his 40s, balder, rounder, happier and was generating 1.45 million in PPV buys for fights with Evander Holyfield. Genuinely world famous, they stuck his name on a grill and sold over 100 million of them, earning Foreman more than he even made as a boxer.
5. Sugar Ray Leonard
In the post-Ali era, the second ‘Sugar Ray’ filled the void as the world’s biggest boxing star. Not only did his mega fights with Roberto Duran and Tommy Hearns make millions, Leonard was also an endorsement juggernaut, glugging down Coca-Cola in TV adverts. Showdown with Marvin Hagler set the template for modern super fights: it sold out Caesars Palace and was a hit on new-look PPV and old-school closed-circuit, grossing $78million in 1987 (almost $200million in today’s money).
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4. Jack Dempsey
There was a time when boxing’s heavyweight champ was the most famous athlete in the world, so arguably Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and more deserve a top-10 spot too. But Dempsey was different. The ferocious, black-haired icon of the 1920s demolished box office records and opponents alike. Had boxing’s first $1million gate, KOing Georges Carpentier in front of 91,000 people, and the numbers kept soaring. His last fight was watched by a crowd of 104,943 in Chicago and was the first $2million gate in entertainment history.
3. Floyd Mayweather
In terms of PPV numbers and earnings, here is the undisputed king. Generated 4.6 million US buys for Pacquiao, and 4.3 million against a boxing novice in Conor McGregor. Was happy to play the villain, leveraging his brash personality, unbeaten record and fans’ desire to finally see him lose. Mayweather made an estimated $1billion in his 50-fight boxing career, though has spent a lot of it. Still, no boxer better harnessed the early power of social media than the man aptly self-titled ‘Money’.
2. Mike Tyson
While Mayweather needed his cloak of invincibility to enhance his act, Iron Mike’s star power is so jaw-dropping that the defeats and controversies barely dented his appeal. The menacing, spectacular KO machine of the 1980s was still able to generate $96million on his first post-prison fight for an 89-second wipeout against no-hoper Peter McNeeley. Even at age 54, his exhibition against Roy Jones Jr drew 1.6 million buys (for $80million) making it the biggest PPV of 2020. No living fighter boasts this level of mystique.
1. Muhammad Ali
The numbers make a case. Ali vs Joe Frazier I sold 2.5 million on closed circuit TV in the US alone. Ali vs Foreman grossed $100million (inflation adjusted: $570million) worldwide and was watched by a billion people, including 26 million in the UK. His paydays, from $5.45million for Foreman to $9million for the Frazier trilogy fight, broke records in their era.
But beyond the sheer numbers was the fact that Ali was the most charismatic, most photographed, most interviewed athlete on the planet. At the peak of his fame in the 1970s it was regularly said he wasn’t just the most famous sportsman on the planet, he might well be the most recognizable human being – a star who sold out arenas from London to Manila, New York to Tokyo and beyond. In the modern PPV era, you simply cannot imagine the numbers Ali would generate.
Honorable Mentions: Joe Louis, Julio Cesar Chavez, Rocky Marciano, Evander Holyfield, Jake LaMotta, Roberto Duran, Roy Jones Jr, Henry Armstrong, Lennox Lewis, Willie Pep
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