ONE can generally judge boxing’s overall health by the fights that are being made and the public’s interest in them. So as we enter 2021 with the irresistible Anthony Joshua versus Tyson Fury showdown on track for deliverance, a new and exciting lightweight pack falling over themselves to fight each other and Canelo Alvarez seemingly intent on showcasing his skills at least three times this year, it would ordinarily be presumed that the sport is flying high.
On the one hand, that is true. The top of the sport is laden with talent and there appears to be a genuine desire to make the most of it. But there are heightened levels of expectation on that talent as boxing enters a new fight against the consequences of the pandemic.
Boxing relying solely on its flagship stars for salvation can be compared to the entire world crossing its fingers, rolling up its sleeves and hoping the various coronavirus vaccines that are plunged into its veins prove successful. Not quite last chance saloon but we certainly have to give it everything we’ve got.
Those bright lights at the end of the tunnel are vital. The hope is that the light also brings the dark and dingy journey through that tunnel into sharp focus. Plenty of gyms are still closed. The vast majority of fighters are still inactive. Small hall boxing is showing no signs of life. Amateur boxing will need more than Joshua’s admirable promise to provide financial assistance to get out of a crisis. And the plight of ex-boxers continues to go under the radar.
In Britain, despite assurances that elite sport will continue, boxing has been suspended until February as concerns grow about the strain on the NHS who provide the essential ringside medical care. That we must endure another month without any live boxing is wholly understood and a sacrifice the industry must make.
The British Boxing Board of Control’s recent message that the sport will return next month must surely come with an asterisk, however. If we have learned one thing from the last 12 months, it’s that nothing is guaranteed and even the best laid plans are susceptible to change. The government must, at least in part, be blamed for this: While their rules should be obeyed, one wonders if the carrots they dangle – ‘this might only last a couple of weeks’ – are ultimately doing more harm than good. While we bunker down, we respectfully ask for the truth from those in power.
In boxing, those in power carry the weight of an entire industry on their shoulders. There have been calls for the leading promoters and fighters to help those below them and, to those on the outside, the rich assisting the poor would appear fair. The thinking goes if Eddie Hearn wants to be the leader of the sport – and that would seem to be his long-term vision – he has a duty to look beyond Matchroom Boxing. In 2020, he showed he was willing, at least in part, to do that when he pledged his support to amateur boxing.
Bottom line, though: Everyone is fighting for survival in their own way. And when you’re fighting for survival, self-preservation is the primary concern. And boxing has long been conditioned by that notion of self-preservation after fending for itself for many years.
The government’s failure to provide more than token funding to boxing was disappointing but not a surprise given the sport’s somewhat murky reputation to most who don’t operate within it. This has nearly always been the case. Think about it: We bemoan the cost to the consumer but boxing is one of the few major sports that, at professional level, must generate additional and substantial funding itself to attract elite athletes and in turn retain its billing as an elite attraction. Pay-per-view can be identified, in part, as a symptom of that: Reliable and lucrative blue chip sponsorship is rare; broadcasters use significant chunks of their budgets to prioritise sports that run like clockwork, that guarantee answers to the important questions – like, who is the best? – and therefore attract huge audiences every single week.
In a way, boxing operates in a vicious circle. There is always pressure to make marketable fights and consequently the path to what really matters – the best fighting the best – too often takes a back seat to short-term fixes like pantomime rivalries, manufactured titles and daft storylines.
What 2020 illustrated, however, was boxing seemed to be learning its lesson. The audience figures for competitive fights dwarfed badly-matched ones. Not every Joshua pay-per-view will attract millions of viewers. If the scope to make fights is limited, those that do take place must be worthwhile. A poor product on our screens will do the sport no favours whatsoever.
Furthermore, a genuine positive in all of this has to be we’ve been here before. We are not facing the dark abyss of last March.
Hearn is already on the road looking for alternative places to stage boxing for his Matchroom stable should the sport not be able to return to Britain in February.
Higher on his to-do list is getting the right venue for Joshua-Fury. The current situation allows those making the all-British heavyweight superfight to go ahead with plans to stage that contest in a cash-rich country – thousands of miles away from where the fighters were born – with a clear conscience. It is indeed true that it is simply unworkable to plan for such an event in this country at the moment but this new narrative that the fight may have occurred in Britain were it not for the pandemic is little more than propaganda. Similarly, a guarantee that the rematch will be held in the UK must also be treated with care. For a start, who knows if the first fight will warrant a return? That’s not to say rematch clauses shouldn’t be written into contracts – their importance in getting the first fight over the line is obvious – but boxing matches should never be sold as two-legged affairs until we know that two legs are required. In short, promises that will be kept should be the only ones made at this stage.
Even so, the efforts of Hearn, Bob Arum and Frank Warren are to be commended. Some might grumble that Joshua-Fury will not be taking place in the UK and their grievances are understood but it’s unlikely that will stop anyone from watching. Boxing needs the fight more than ever before, irrespective of where it takes place. Even in a year that hopes to stage the postponed Olympics and European football championships, Joshua-Fury could top them all when it comes to widespread interest from the public.
The sport of boxing needs that interest to provide the platform to shout as loudly as it can. But it must shout tastefully and choose its words carefully to show what it’s about and what it can do. We must attract the right attention by delivering the right messages. The pressure is on Joshua and Fury and all the rest to use their fame and statuses wisely, to not only sell their fights but to sell the sport and ensure boxing’s precious time under the world’s microscope does not go to waste.
The Joshua-Fury vaccine cannot come soon enough. The sport’s long-term health might just depend on it.