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A Lane of Their Own: Triller takes boxing in a new direction

Founder and CEO of Relativity Media Ryan Kavanaugh (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Art of Elysium)
Ryan Kavanaugh is the driving force behind Triller, the new-fangled boxing platform that is getting right up the noses of boxing fans. Here, in conversation with Craig Scott, Kavanaugh admits he understands that hardcore demographic’s frustration while offering his explanation as to why

IT isn’t for everybody. The breaks from boxing punctured by performances from global superstars such as Justin Bieber or The Black Keys, the commentary, anchored by rapper Snoop Dogg, blowing smoke from joints while on air, swearing, hollering, and almost talking about the fights sporadically happening in the centre of the room.

You can laugh at the events, throw shade at the quality of the away fighters, and question its legitimacy.

Those fights aren’t our fights. They aren’t often well-balanced contests featuring two, trained professionals. In fact, they regularly feature athletes from other sports, dipping their muddy, bruised hands into boxing’s often-chastised pot of riches. Sometimes, much to the frustration of fans who’ve dedicated portions of their lives to being disappointed by boxing’s empty promises, these cards see rappers and musicians, YouTubers or ‘personalities’ awkwardly holding up their hands, confused by the large, padded objects they’re supposed to throw at the men in the opposite corner. 

This is Triller. And it’s not going anywhere. The man driving the sport’s newest and most controversial promotional brand, former Hollywood movie producer and tech-investor, Ryan Kavanaugh, spoke to Boxing News about his vision (before, we should note, Oscar De La Hoya was replaced by Evander Holyfield as his latest show-piece this weekend) – and asked boxing’s existing army of defensive fans to relax. Triller isn’t here to wipe out Top Rank, Matchroom or PBC; it isn’t here to compete with age-old promotional know-how. It’s aiming to achieve quite the opposite.

“Look, I think we have our thoughts on boxing in general,” explained Kavanaugh, relaxing on a roof terrace. “Our thoughts are that it needs to be changed. Changed, I know that’s a bad word for a lot of boxing purists, but I’m not trying to change the rules of boxing, I’m not trying to say that people should fight differently. When sport shrinks, when entertainment shrinks, you need to look at why. I’m not coming in here saying I know more about boxing than anybody else; I know a lot less than anybody else, quite frankly. I’m not saying I know the rules or that I understand how to spot talent – because I don’t. What I do know about is how to entertain people.” 

“There’s so much alternative stimulation for audiences that boxing just hasn’t evolved. When I say it hasn’t evolved, it hasn’t evolved in the way that it’s shot, the way that it’s lit. It was a sport that was made for when you had people paying $10,000 for front row seats, and that’s fine when all you have in your living room is a big box that doesn’t look different whether you have 20 cameras or one. But now, everybody has a front row seat through their phone, through their living room, and if you don’t give them that access, they’re gonna go somewhere else. Also, matchmaking, if you’re gonna attract a younger audience, you want to keep it exciting. What’s the back story? We have this saying, ‘Everybody fights for a reason.’ What’s the reason?” 

Having a valid reason and asking existing boxing fans to buy your shiny narrative are two very different conversations. On the undercard of the Triller September 11 show, former cruiserweight king and heavyweight belt-holder David Haye returns (again), fighting one of his friends with whom he was on holiday less than a month ago. So, what’s the reason, to use Kavanaugh’s words? 

Apparently, the pair have fallen out after club-owner and social media figure Joe Fournier decided he could beat the crocked former champion, once a pay-per-view attraction and a legitimately exciting British talent. That narrative doesn’t sell to fans of the sport who watched Haye topple Jean-Marc Mormeck, Enzo Maccarinelli or Nikolai Valuev. They – we – know that this is fiction. But Kavanaugh doesn’t mind; he’s a man that understands enticing a fresh audience allows Triller to create their own methodology. Haye is a one-man promotional machine and having him on board allows the ‘Master vs Apprentice’ storyline to breathe its own air. 

“He [Fournier] starts saying, ‘I can kick his ass.’ And it turns into a really interesting story. Here’s a guy in David Haye that had to fight his way to the top of the sport, and here’s a guy that’s a billionaire who doesn’t need anything to do with boxing, but David Haye trained him. Suddenly, Joe wakes up one day and says: ‘I think I’m better than you.’ It’s that simple. What better story than that? We heard that and I just can’t believe that people don’t want to see that. It’s not some YouTube blogger who can’t fight, he’s won a belt. But the question is, is he as good as he thinks? A lot of people think he [Fournier] is gonna get pummelled and found out, but I promise you this, one of those guys is getting knocked out.”

Haye versus Fournier, despite the opinions of those who know the significance of that belt the younger man ‘won’, was to feature on the undercard of Golden Boy Promotion’s head, and former multi-weight world champion, Oscar De La Hoya, now aged 48, before he contracted Coronavirus and Holyfield was drafted in. De La Hoya is one of his generation’s finest fighters, last seen slumped in his corner, despondent after realising the jig was up when challenging Manny Pacquiao in 2009 (L RTD 8). But Kavanaugh had no issue with embracing De La Hoya’s middle-aged wish to return.

“He’s fighting the knockout king of the UFC,” Kavanaugh stated about staging De La Hoya versus Brazilian UFC legend, Vitor Belfort. “He’s fighting someone with a different style than anybody he’s ever fought, and someone who’s bigger than anybody he’s ever fought – probably scarier than anybody he’s ever fought. It was important to find the right opponent. It was like, yeah, you can box another great boxer, but you’ve done that a hundred times. When the odds came out, Vitor was slightly ahead and to this day, people say ‘I don’t know who’s gonna win.’ That, to me, says that in terms of matchmaking, it’s almost perfect.

“Oscar is just a fantastic guy, a real human being. Everybody has been through their shit, and I love that he’s been through his and he just owns it, you know. Obviously, he’s a legend in the sport, so one: he’s been amazing as a resource to have and to bounce things off. When we first met, he told me his thoughts of a comeback and a lot of people had been trying to get him to do it for a decade. I just started to talk to him about it and have fun with the idea, then we just kept bantering back-and-forth about how it would look. The one thing he said to me was that if he came back, it was for real. No bullshit exhibitions.”

That last sentence is met with silence. But the fight isn’t a bullshit exhibition to the executives at Triller, or to Oscar De La Hoya or, now, to 58-year-old Evander Holyfield (who faces Belfort in Florida). For them, the ‘different style of fighter’ angle holds weight, and Kavanaugh holds high hopes for the bout’s commercial success: “Once we announced it, I can say this from our pre-planning model that we run, I think we’ll probably set some records. I think between having Oscar and the purists, the Mexican community rallying round Mexican Independence Day and having Oscar headlining, and Vitor being so beloved in the UFC. Then we have Anderson Silva vs Tito Ortiz, then you add on Haye, and the other people we’re about to announce. Our trends show that we’ll probably beat the [Mike] Tyson fight. 

Confidently, the astute Los Angeles businessman stated: “I’ll be shocked if we’re not in the top 10 of all PPVs of all time.”

Ryan Kavanaugh

Words come cheap, but Ryan Kavanaugh isn’t a two-bit wannabe. He was named 19th on Forbes’ list of youngest billionaires back in 2013, and his success adopting the Moneyball approach to Hollywood filmmaking saw him accrue production credits on films such as: The Fighter, 3:10 to Yuma, Dear John, and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. His company Relativity Media enjoyed success for years, generating over $17 billion in worldwide box office revenue, earning a total of 60 Oscar nominations across his filmography. Triller is his baby now, and the laid-back, slick-talking Kavanaugh is confident that entertainment remains his forte.

He talked of the “four-quadrant entertainment model,” something his boxing cards have focused on when drawing new viewers. This has included musical interludes, high-profile rap battles, celebrity appearances and commentary, and much more. It’s the appeal of all the aforementioned that drives Triller’s audience, as the platform was initially created as Chinese-owned TikTok’s great industry rival.

“When you look at that, you break it into categories: male, female, under 35 and over 35. If you can get all four of those quadrants to have a touchpoint and to be interested, then that’s 100 per cent of the audience. Then, you go down from there, this one got females under 35, this one got females over 35. Is it a younger thing, an older thing, a male thing, a female thing? For us, we’re looking at how do we get this to grow combat sports? How do we get it to become a widely accepted or watched event, especially among the younger audiences? You bring in those worlds; music, fashion, celebrity, lifestyles, and you tie it in with combat sports. One of the things we saw – and we have about 400 million people we have direct links with through social media – is this population of under 25-year-olds who have boxing in their everyday lives.”

Kavanaugh continued: “Whether they work out, they box, they own a ring, they have a favourite boxer, they follow a training regimen or they literally like to street fight, they have this tie to it – but most of them don’t watch professional boxing. Yet, they know who Oscar De La Hoya is or who Mike Tyson is. Why don’t they watch it? Because it’s boring, because it’s the same people who were shooting it 40 years ago. It’s the same up lighting, the same boring walk-ins, the same announcers with ‘Oh, I think this fight is good; look at that hit, he got him there.’ It’s like, kids don’t want that. They want the boxing, but they want it to be real. They wanna hear Snoop Dogg say ‘f**k’ and ‘shit,’ they wanna see people smoking a joint and getting stoned because it’s real life.” 

It isn’t for everybody. No doubt it’s not for you. But it is for some people. Actually, it’s for lots of people, thousands, millions, probably. They may not be the typical boxing fans that pollute Twitter with negativity, or those who proclaim a greater knowledge when reviewing performances online, but those aren’t Triller’s desired audience. When speaking to Boxing News, Kavanaugh was up front about understanding the derision his brand attracts – he knows it rubs people up the wrong way. He just doesn’t care because their mission statement doesn’t feature the smothering of traditional boxing promotions.

“It’s probably not too dissimilar to why people who make very serious movies are angry when people make farces of the movies. I get it. But what I’m here to say to them is: we’re not here to fuck with your sport. We don’t want to change the rules; we’re not trying to make a mockery of it. What we’re trying to do is keep it alive and keep it exciting. You don’t have to watch us – all we’re asking people to understand is that we’re getting fighters paid more than they’ve ever gotten paid, and we are getting announcers paid more than they’ve ever been paid.

“We’re bringing in a younger audience, and if they watch one of our fights, there’s a much greater chance they’re gonna go and watch a purist fight. All we ask is that people understand that we’re coming into a room, we’re putting a ring in there, we’re making it look a little different and feel a little different, but we’re elevating people’s profiles and we’re adhering to the rules of boxing – then we’re walking back out of that room. Whether they walk into our ring next time or a purist ring, they’re gonna have more people buying it, it’s that simple,” concludes Kavanaugh, aware that their approach isn’t going to convert boxing’s most ardent, loyal disciples.  

Triller bid way over the odds for Teófimo López’s (later postponed) title defence against Australian challenger, George Kambosos (approximately $1.5 million over, stated Kavanaugh), and that was deliberate. It was calculated and meant to send a message. While they may do things differently and ask fans of boxing to swallow their unique approach, they have money, they understand what a non-boxing audience needs, and they are willing to invest in their business model. Kavanaugh may be viewed by many as an intruder, a boxing pretender, a Hollywood producer looking to make a quick buck.

But maybe, in moving forwards with modern production and controversially loading the spine of an event, and with some of the sport’s all-time pay-per-view records within his grasp after such a short tenure, he has shown boxing that it can’t afford to stand still any longer.

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