MERILATT MONDAY

The Broncos reign atop the Denver sports landscape could end

Apr 8, 2024, 4:00 AM

Here’s a fun mind bender for a Monday: Name the current heavyweight champion of the world?

It’s a bit of a trick question, as there are actually three. The alphabet soup of governing bodies that has made professional boxing a mess for decades cause a trio of champs.

Manuel Charr currently holds the WBA (regular) belt. Oleksandr Usyk is the WBA (super), IBF and WBO title holder. And Tyson Fury is the WBC champ.

The third name is familiar to most sports fans. The first two are not. And that’s nothing new.

The list of heavyweight champions during this century contains more no-names than big names. Chris Byrd, John Ruiz, Hasim Rahman, Corrie Sanders, Lamon Brewster, Nikolai Valuev, Siarhei Liakhovich, Oleg Maskaev, Shannon Briggs, Ruslan Chagaev, Sultan Ibragimov, Samuel Peter, David Haye, Alexander Povetkin, Bermane Stiverne, Charles Martin, Lucas Browne, Anthony Joshua, Joseph Parker, Andy Ruiz Jr. and Trevor Bryan have all held the title.

The Klitschko brothers, Wladimir and Vitali, are well-known names. Deontay Wilder rings a bell. And Fury has a following. But they’re the exceptions nowadays.

Compare the last 25 years to the prior quarter century. It’s startling.

Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton, Leon Spinks, Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis were among the champions. They were world-famous athletes. They couldn’t walk the streets anywhere and not be recognized.

Oh, how times have changed.

What’s the point? What does this have to do with sports in Colorado?

Well, it serves as an example of how nothing is permanent. Boxing was once the biggest sport in America. The heavyweight champion was once among the most-famous people on the planet. In 1980, it would’ve been absurd to suggest that there would be a time when virtually no one would know who held that title.

Right now, it’s outlandish to suggest that the Broncos would ever become irrelevant in their home state. They’ve long been the unofficial religion of the entire region. People in Denver and far beyond bleed orange, as Broncos Country boasts some of the most-passionate and loyal fans in all of sports.

They’re far more popular than any of the Mile High City’s other pro teams. The Avalanche and Nuggets, even after throwing parades in the last two years, are lightyears behind the Broncos in terms of popularity. The Rockies probably don’t even register at the moment, given their woeful state.

Colorado sports fans love the Broncos. They also really like whatever other team is winning.

That’s the way it’s always been. But that’s not the way it always will be. That’s not etched in stone.

The city is changing; it’s a population that has exploded in the last 20 years, with people moving in from all areas of the country. The sports landscape is also shifting, with the internet and satellite television allowing relocated fans to keep following their former hometown’s teams from afar. And allegiances are waning, as fans tend to root for their fantasy teams and parlays as much as any particular franchise.

So if they aren’t careful, the Broncos could fall from their lofty perch. They could go the way of boxing, going from the biggest game in town to an afterthought.

The team has missed the playoffs in each of the last eight seasons. They’ve been under .500 for the last seven. They’ve cycled through quarterbacks and head coaches, while other players have also come and gone.

The Broncos once boasted the likes of John Elway and Peyton Manning. They were the most-recognizable people in the Centennial State when wearing orange and blue; they probably still are. Denver’s current quarterback is Jarrett Stidham. No one would recognize him if he wore his game jersey through the airport.

It’s a team devoid of stars. What jersey would be a wise investment right now at the team store? Maybe Patrick Surtain, the team’s best player. It’s nearly impossible to come up with a second viable option.

The Broncos are bad. And they’re boring, a star-less squad that loses snoozer games.

And there’s no end in sight.

It’s nice to be optimistic that they can turn it around, starting with the No. 12 overall pick in this year’s draft. But there’s no real reason to believe that will happen. George Paton, the Broncos general manager, has racked up way more misses than hits when making picks.

It’s cool to think that Sean Payton will be able to develop a young quarterback, giving the team a face of the franchise for the next decade. But there’s nothing in the coach’s background to suggest that he’s up to the task.

Instead, it’s likely that more bad seasons are ahead. The Broncos have to endure an $85 million dead cap after releasing Russell Wilson, the largest sum of sunk money in NFL history. They’ve been relatively inactive in free agency, despite having the richest owners in the league. And they’ve parted ways with talented players, releasing Justin Simmons and trading Jerry Jeudy.

It’s bleak. Really bleak.

It’s more likely than not that the playoff drought reaches a decade, with 2024 and ’25 shaping up to be struggles. At some point, that kind of futility turns people off.

Fans will find something else to do on Sundays. They’ll watch “NFL Red Zone” rather than suffer through three hours of Broncos football. They’ll go for a hike, mow the lawn, vacuum the living room or do anything to avoid the misery of losing.

If that happens, the love affair between a city and a team could be over. The Broncos would be like every other team in town. Fans will follow them when they’re good and they’ll largely ignore them when they’re bad.

That seems hard to imagine. For long-time Denver residents, it seems ludicrous.

But if boxing can go from Ali to Charr, the Broncos can go from the penthouse to the outhouse too.

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