The names ring out as some of the greatest sporting icons of the last century: Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Mike Tyson. For a period of nearly 80 years, heavyweight boxing was headlined by the biggest names in sports. In the early 20th century, boxing became the marquee American sport along with baseball.
Eventually the popularity of other sports surpassed that of boxing, but it was still at the forefront of the sports world in the '60s and '70s thanks to transcendent stars like Ali, who brought in the last true heyday of heavyweight boxing, with memorable championship bouts such as "The Thrilla in Manila" and "The Rumble in the Jungle." More people watched Ali-Frazier I than the moon landing.
But the rise of multiple splintering sanctioning bodies confused the sport and left casual fans often wondering who the true champion was. In the '80s, Tyson became the unanimous champion and commanded a large following, but after he lost his titles to Buster Douglas - and a subsequent prison sentence - heavyweight boxing never quite recovered. For about 10 years the support remained lukewarm behind Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis, but since Lewis retired in 2004, heavyweight boxing has had no marquee-named star.
The lack of star power, combined with the decline of American talent, corruption in the sport, and rise of mixed martial arts have all contributed to the fast and steep decline of heavyweight boxing and boxing in general around the world. For now the hopes of returning boxing to its former popularity lay on the shoulders of its smaller athletes such as Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather. If only the two of them would agree to fight.