IF it’s true what they say, that a pay-per-view model is the only way the boxing business can survive, expect plenty of boxers to hate each other and tell you how much they hate each other in the coming months and years. Expect a string of social media spats. Expect the term ‘beef’ to be used more frequently than it would be in a butcher shop or at a Chippendales show. Expect harmless nice guys to rebrand themselves as juvenile loudmouths, all in the name of making noise and stealing limelight. Expect upended furniture. Expect death threats. Expect tacky, misspelt hashtags.
It could get ugly.
One upside of this push for pay-per-view fights, however, is the ‘middle ground’ it will inevitably create. This middle ground, a scary place on the face of it, needs to produce the kind of fights good enough and competitive enough to pique the interest of fans and broadcasters, those predisposed to only caring about the big, bells and whistles pay-per-view nights. Which, by the way, is great news, because if it’s not able to do this, the whole structure, a loose and flimsy one at the best of times, will fall in on itself and British boxing, we’re told, could be in a very bad place.
So, to make it work, promoters will be forced to match their boxers aggressively – competitively – and will no longer be afforded the luxury of padding their records against opponents who have rushed to the venue straight from work. Those fights don’t cut it anymore. Not for broadcasters. Not for punters.
As Eddie Hearn explained to Boxing News in our Christmas double issue, the appeal of the pay-per-view show (to broadcasters and to so-called ‘casual’ fans) has inadvertently weakened the value of everything positioned beneath it: regular shows, domestic title fights, small hall fights, free-to-air fights.
“There are two main problems in British boxing right now,” Hearn said. “Number one, the fighters’ purses are increasing rapidly and incomes from broadcasters and the gate are not. So that doesn’t really make sense. The second problem is the massive saturation of boxing content and events in the UK. Two or three years ago, if you had one or two shows a month, fans would be ecstatic. Now you’ve got two shows a weekend. It’s not going to work. There aren’t enough fans to drive these gates. There aren’t enough viewers to do the right numbers for broadcasters. Something has to give.
“In the end, I suspect the quality will shine through, the right model and business will shine through, and everyone else will fall short. On one hand, you look at the market and say, ‘Wow, it’s incredible, it’s thriving,’ but then you look at it from the other point of view and realise there is complete saturation right now.
“It’s actually a dangerous time for British boxing. The big events are fine – your Joshua vs. Klitschko, Joshua vs. Parker, Haye vs. Bellew, Eubank vs. Groves, no problem – but it’s the middle ground that will really struggle. And, obviously, we all have to try and develop the careers of young fighters. It’s going to be really interesting.”
Broadcasters, it would seem, are only interested in boxing if it consists of big names saying nasty things about one another – fights with a price tag, let’s say, not fights that necessarily help the development of fighter A or fighter B or, indeed, aid the long-term growth of the sport.
If, therefore, boxing is going to thrive beneath the pay-per-view level of the pyramid, the area in which most boxers reside, there will need to be fights that appeal not only to promoters and managers, those conditioned to protect their commodity, but to punters and television broadcasters. The message, in fact, appears to be clear: if it isn’t worthy of pay-per-view, it better be a damn good fight. If not, we don’t want to know (the view of both broadcaster and punter).
Boxing, for better or worse, has become a big event sport. The sport you pay for on a Saturday night. The sport that takes place in sold-out football stadiums and arenas. The sport that tees up a main event with a sing-a-long rendition of ‘Sweet Caroline’. The sport dominated by Anthony Joshua and Floyd Mayweather and, gulp, Conor McGregor. If none of those components are present, and – surprise! -most of the time they aren’t, what exactly is boxing in the eyes of the general public?
It’s certainly not an Area title fight at York Hall, nor a four-rounder between a local ticket-seller and an Eastern European whose shorts were nabbed from the lost property box at the back of the venue. Instead, British boxing has gone high-end and upmarket, a move that might, if it’s not careful, not only pump fresh blood into the sport but also, as Hearn alludes to, detrimentally impact the way it is viewed and consumed by the masses.
The recipe for success, Hearn believes, is simple. It requires risk-taking – a foreign word in the safety-first world of matchmaking and promoting – and ruthlessness.
“It’s no longer enough for a fighter to just drift along and pad their record with a load of journeymen,” said Hearn. “If you want to get noticed in this day and age, you need to take a risk. You can’t be scared to lose. If you’re scared to lose and don’t take risks, you’ll go nowhere. The TV broadcasters won’t be interested in you. Nowadays, people aren’t interested in how many fights you’ve won in a row. They just want to know if you can fight and be involved in fights that matter.”
You wonder whether fights like the upcoming cruiserweight one between Lawrence Okolie, 7-0, and Isaac Chamberlain, 9-0, would have been made a few years ago, in different, darker times. The answer is, probably not. It wouldn’t have been made because both men, in the eyes of the promoter, could have been led in different directions, swerved a potential first loss, and made money without the other. The end goal, they’d claim, would be to match the pair when it becomes bigger – ‘marinate’ is a word used by some – and there are titles on the line and more money in the pot. Yet, in reality, one or both suffer a defeat along the way and the dream fight, this thing they had been sculpting for years, falls by the wayside at around the time everyone stops caring.
It’s encouraging, therefore, that fighters are now being pressured into taking fights like these. Proper fights, competitive fights, the kind people actually don’t mind paying to watch. And when I say pressure, what I mean is this: boxers like Okolie and Chamberlain, for all their talent and pedigree, will have been made aware of the fact their careers, however promising, can no longer just bimble along in 2018. Not if they want to make serious money. Not if they want to one day reach the promised land of pay-per-view riches. For that to happen, they need to step up. They need to get themselves noticed. And the best way of doing that, history proves, is to get involved in fights of interest.
It’s a risk – you just might lose – but invariably it pays off (especially for the winner). George Groves and James DeGale realised the upside of this back in 2011. Former amateur gym mates, they boxed each other at a time many said they shouldn’t and did so because they were being paid an inordinate amount of money for what was a British title fight and because the fight was to be televised on pay-per-view. This meant both were guaranteed a single night windfall, but, more than that, meant they would become associated with the pay-per-view platform and, should they fulfil their potential and go on to win world titles, be in line for similar opportunities in the future.
Savvy and switched on, as well as driven by the need to make money, Groves and DeGale knew it paid to box each other early. They also knew, given their long-standing rivalry, it was unlikely to be the first and only time they met as pros (that, of course, remains to be seen).
Last July’s Commonwealth super-lightweight title fight between Josh Taylor and Ohara Davies reminded some of the halcyon Groves and DeGale days, for that too was a fight that eschewed the kettle boiling process and reached straight for the hot tap. Taylor was 9-0; Davies was 15-0. They were paid handsomely, they told the world how much they disliked one another, and the fight, shown live on Channel 5, seemed to capture the public’s imagination in a way most Channel 5 fights have struggled to do.
If Hearn is proved correct, matchups like Taylor vs. Davies and Okolie vs. Chamberlain will no longer be the exception but the rule in British boxing. Some fighters might not like it, some promoters and managers definitely won’t like it, but the need to generate competitive action between promising young fighters is starting to become clear, and that can only ever be a good thing.
Here are 10 fights between undefeated British boxers that could – could – soon be coming to a ring near you.
Daniel Dubois (6-0) vs. Joe Joyce (1-0) at heavyweight
Joyce, 32, has the top-level amateur experience on his side, as well as the better pro win (Ian Lewison), yet Dubois, 12 years Joyce’s junior, has won six paid fights inside the distance, apparently flourished in sparring with Anthony Joshua, and is fast becoming one of the most talked about prospects in British boxing. This would be an intriguing matchup between the two best UK heavyweights, ability-wise, yet to box for pro titles.
Nathan Gorman (9-0) vs. Webb (11-0) at heavyweight
If Dubois vs. Joyce represents heavyweight fine dining, a slugfest between punchers Nathan Gorman and Nick Webb is its three o’clock in the morning fast food equivalent. Both men hit hard, both seem willing to test themselves, and a matchup like this can surely only end inside the distance following a great amount of drama. (Encouragingly, the two were scheduled to fight last October, only for Webb to pull out injured.)
Luke Watkins (13-0) vs. Arfan Iqbal (12-0) at cruiserweight
Iqbal would have to get past Simon Vallily first (no easy task), but a fight between the English cruiserweight champion and Luke Watkins, the Commonwealth cruiserweight champion, is one that should probably happen at some point in 2018. Their careers were flying under the radar before a fruitful 2017 saw Iqbal knock out Wadi Camacho in four rounds and Watkins stop Ian Tims, Robin Dupre and Mike Stafford in succession. Now, with momentum on their side, there’s no better time for one of them to lose their zero.
Zach Parker (14-0) vs. Lerrone Richards (10-0) at super-middleweight
Sauerland-promoted Parker is a heavy-handed fighter good enough to take out Luke Blackledge and Bradley Pryce, albeit a faded version, inside the distance, while Richards, more of a pure boxer, has barely lost a round so far as a pro and reportedly gave Chris Eubank Jr. all he could handle in sparring. Both have pedigree and potential and would make for a fascinating stylistic matchup.
Ted Cheeseman (12-0) vs. Joe Pigford (13-0) at super-welterweight
The battle of Cheese and Pig, this one sounds more gastropub than prizefight. It would, however, pair Cheeseman, a man about to step up a level and fight American Carson Jones, with Pigford, someone who last year faced and stopped another unbeaten fighter, Aaron Morgan, in five rounds. Neither, then, seems averse to a test and that bodes well for a future Cheese-and-Pig-off.
Josh Taylor (11-0) vs. Jack Catterall (19-0) at super-lightweight
Smooth boxers with skill in abundance, Josh Taylor and Jack Catterall presumably aren’t too far off competing for world honours. Taylor boasts wins over Ohara Davies, once of the undefeated record, and Miguel Vazquez, a former world champion at lightweight, while Catterall, a pro for longer, recently won the British super-lightweight belt with a decision win over Tyrone Nurse. It’s not exactly a collision course, but common sense suggests they should fight each other at some point.
Zelfa Barrett (19-0) vs. Lyon Woodstock (10-0) at super-featherweight
Barrett is the English super-featherweight champion and Woodstock holds some WBO European thing, but it’s a fight between the two of them – irrespective of titles on the line – that really interests us. What’s more, unlike some of the other fantasy fights on this list, both compete under the same promotional banner and therefore Barrett vs. Woodstock, when the time is right, should be relatively easy to make.
Reece Bellotti (11-0) vs. Jordan Gill (18-0) at featherweight
Jordan Gill has been a pro five-and-a-half years now, with 18 wins to his name, but is still looking for his big test, his breakout night. Reece Bellotti, on the other hand, has been a pro half that time, boasts only 11 fights on his record, but already holds the Commonwealth title. Gill probably needs an opponent like Bellotti at this stage, if only to help him realise his potential, and Bellotti, based on current form, doesn’t seem the type to turn down a challenge.
Sunny Edwards (6-0) vs. Harvey Horn (1-0) at flyweight
Harvey Horn may have only turned pro in December, but he has been inextricably linked with Sunny Edwards, six fights into his own career, since the pair were ABA title-winning amateurs. Horn won his ABA title in 2014 and Edwards won his the following year. Interestingly, though, as amateurs their paths never crossed. And that can mean only one thing: they absolutely must cross as pros.
Katie Taylor (8-0) vs. Natasha Jonas (4-0) at lightweight
Taylor and Jonas are doing their utmost to raise the profile of women’s boxing in the UK and Ireland, yet the quickest and best way to do that is to box each other at some point this year or next. It would, of course, be a repeat of their 2012 Olympic match, a bout won by Taylor, and would also be chock-full of quality and action, one that could even be the first (or second, if you include their amateur contest) installment of a series. Best of all, now that Taylor has the WBA lightweight title to her name, it would have added prestige and resonance.