From Mike Tyson to Canelo Alvarez and Floyd Mayweather
Ranking boxing’s biggest pay-per-view stars, box office draws and highest-paid fighters — from heavyweight champions to pound-for-pound kings — isn’t as simple as you might think.
Totaling up PPV numbers or career earnings might seem like the best way. But inflation means that financial figures inevitably rise – while modern pay-per-view figures ignore CCTV (fans pay to fill cinemas and watch fights live; the precursor to PPV). So we crunched the numbers, adjusted for the era, and picked the 10 biggest A-side draws the fighting game has ever seen.
10. Canelo Alvarez
Earned $225 million at age 31 and is at the height of his fame, aided by his ever-improving boxing skills and newfound ability to swear hilariously in English. Canelo managed to attract more than a million pay-per-view buys in the United States against a top opponent (Golovkin, Mayweather) and slightly less for the others (800,000 for Caleb Plant). He’s not a household name crossed outside of parts of the United States and Mexico, but a growing willingness to share more of his personality may change that.
9. Manny Pacquiao
Amazing that the ‘Pan Man’ started his career at the age of 16, weighing 98 pounds, fighting for 100 Philippine pesos (around $2) and ended it with over $500 million in career earnings and as half of the greatest PPV card ever. His sizzling in-ring style, unassuming charm and gruesome karaoke made him an unlikely American star – and even though his drawing power waned a bit after his athletic peak, he still attracted fans and viewers whose most boxers could only dream of until he retired last year.
8. Oscar De La Hoya
Mayweather and Pacquiao are considered the big stars of modern boxing, but who did the two men have to beat to achieve real fame? Yes, ‘The Golden Boy’ – who never needed a crossover pro fight, as he came out of the 1992 Olympics with a gold medal, a lethal staring and left hook combo, and was a megastar from day one. De La Hoya generated around $700 million in PPV revenue (only Floyd and Manny did more), was a guaranteed ticket seller, and losses never really hurt his dazzling drawing power.
7. Sugar Ray Robinson
They coined the term “pound for pound” for the original Sugar Ray in the 1940s – a way of telling fans he was the most skilled fighter on the planet – and he had the personality to match. Had the first boxing entourage, traveling with a pink Cadillac and a dwarf called Arabian Knight (that was another time). Broke attendance records with 147lb and 160lb title fights in the United States but was also elated on his European tour. Won over $4 million in scholarships when it was unheard of, but spent lavishly.
6. George Foreman
Uniquely, “Big George” had two entirely separate runs – and was a box office success in both. The huge heavyweight was part of ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’, watched by an estimated one billion people worldwide (although his opponent helped in that). Then came back in his 40s, balder, rounder, happier and generating 1.45 million PPV buys for fights with Evander Holyfield. Truly world famous, they stuck his name on a grill and sold over 100 million, earning Foreman more than he even earned as a boxer.
5. Sugar Ray Leonard
In the post-Ali era, the second “Sugar Ray” has filled the void as the world’s biggest boxing star. Not only did his mega fights with Roberto Duran and Tommy Hearns earn millions, Leonard was also an endorsement juggernaut, gobbling up Coca-Cola in TV commercials. The showdown with Marvin Hagler set the pattern for modern super fights: He sold out Caesars Palace and was a hit on the new-look PPV and the old-school closed circuit, grossing $78 million in 1987 (nearly 200 millions of dollars in today’s money).
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4. Jack Dempsey
There was a time when the boxing heavyweight champion was the most famous athlete in the world, so Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and many more deserve a top 10 spot too. But Dempsey was different. The fierce dark-haired icon of the 1920s shattered box office records and opponents. Had boxing’s first $1 million deal, knocked out Georges Carpentier in front of 91,000 people, and the numbers kept skyrocketing. His last fight was watched by a crowd of 104,943 in Chicago and was the first $2 million gate in entertainment history.
In terms of PPV and revenue, this 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, undefeated record, and fans’ desire to finally see him lose. Mayweather earned around $1 billion during his 50-fight boxing career, though he spent a lot of it. Yet no boxer harnessed the early power of social media better than the aptly eponymous “Money” man.
2. Mike Tyson
While Mayweather needed his mantle of invincibility to improve his act, Iron Mike’s star power is so jaw-dropping that the losses and controversies have barely shaken his appeal. The menacing and spectacular knockout machine of the 1980s was still capable of generating $96 million in his first fight after prison for an 89-second wipeout against hopeless Peter McNeeley. Even at age 54, his show against Roy Jones Jr drew 1.6 million buys (for $80 million), making it the biggest PPV of 2020. No living fighter possesses that level of mystique.
1. Muhammad Ali
The numbers make a case. Ali vs. Joe Frazier I’ve sold 2.5 million on CCTV in the US alone. Ali vs Foreman grossed $100 million (after inflation: $570 million) worldwide and was watched by a billion people, including 26 million in the UK. His salaries, from $5.45 million for Foreman to $9 million for the Frazier trilogy fight, broke records in their day.
But beyond the numbers was the fact that Ali was the most charismatic, most photographed and most interviewed athlete on the planet. At the height of his fame in the 1970s, it was regularly said that he was not only the most famous sportsman on the planet, he might well be the most recognizable human being – a star who sold out arenas of London to Manila, New York to Tokyo and beyond. In the modern era of the PPV, you simply can’t 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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