“If you build it, he will come,” a confused Kevin Costner was once told by a mysterious voice in an Iowa cornfield.
What needed to be built, Costner discovered, was a baseball field. It was there he would eventually meet ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson, a deceased baseball legend, who turned up and asked to play catch, as well as his own father, who asked to do the same and whose pain Costner had to ease. It was there, also, on this cornfield-turned-baseball field, intrigued tourists would later gather to share the experience, happy to pay for the privilege.
For a while, it seemed British boxing was adopting this Field of Dreams approach. Soundtracked by Neil Diamond singing ‘Sweet Caroline’, there were world champions in multiple weight divisions, there were sold-out arenas and stadiums, and there were promoters with fresh ideas and television networks eager to monetise the sport’s popularity in the form of pay-per-view blockbusters.
We were told the sport was getting sexy again. We were told events in swimming pools and ice rinks and shopping malls were ghastly things of the past and that arena and stadium fights and pay-per-view paydays were accessible for all. We were told Britain was now the epicentre and envy of the boxing world. Something was being built. People were going to come.
Anthony Joshua, the jewel in the UK crown, was the light towards which heavyweight moths gravitated. Charles Martin played hard to get but finally opened his legs and even Wladimir Klitschko, the king of Germany, ended up retiring on British soil. Beneath heavyweight, meanwhile, Gennady Golovkin and Oleksandr Usyk fancied a taste of the UK honeypot and so did Terence Crawford, Errol Spence and Gervonta Davis, future US stars who risked early career losses to venture across the Atlantic.
Thanks to the fighters and promoters, the perception of boxing in the UK had changed and the nation was now synonymous with big venues, big numbers and big money. Go to Blighty, boxers were informed, and you’ll return wealthy.
So, en masse, they did. Foreign champions surrendered home comforts to get paid and US television networks and streaming services started showing an interest in British boxing and its protagonists. Matchroom Boxing USA became a thing and partnered with DAZN, while Tyson Fury went on to sign a US television deal with ESPN.
Moves such as these are a testament to British boxing’s resurgence and bring money to boxers’ pockets, which can only be a positive. However, one possible downside to it all is this: Britain’s two biggest names, and perhaps others, will now up sticks to collect the cheques.
“When there’s a bit of a market change it’s really dictated by the fighters and managers rather than the promoters, in terms of where they want to fight,” promoter Eddie Hearn told Boxing News. “If you’re a world-class fighter and you see people on the same level in America earning twice what you’re earning in the UK, what are you going to want to do? It’s not rocket science. The market in America has gone berserk but it definitely won’t last.”
In the next four months, Anthony Joshua, Tyson Fury and Amir Khan will all box stateside. Khan and Fury have done it before, of course, but, for Joshua, set to fight Jarrell Miller in New York on June 1, this is all new and arrives somewhat earlier than expected.
Last summer it was Dillian Whyte and not Miller on Joshua’s radar when two dates – September 22 and April 13 – were reserved at Wembley Stadium. The plan, it seemed, was for Joshua, as the owner of three of the four heavyweight titles [WBA, IBF and WBO], to continue his build-it-and-they-will-come path to heavyweight dominance. All roads led to AJ. Nobody argued.
But then a penny dropped, and Joshua cottoned on to the value of the American dollar and realised, too, that he had essentially cracked the British market. He had done the stadiums – both Wembley and Cardiff – and he had done most of the arenas as well. He had done the chat shows, worn the logo of every sponsor imaginable, and become as well-known as any British boxer in recent memory.
So, having completed the game, at least the UK version, Joshua decided breaking America was the next logical step. Lennox Lewis did it, Naseem Hamed did it, Ricky Hatton did it, and, in December, Tyson Fury, in playing his part in a compelling draw with Deontay Wilder, did it. Frankly, they all would if they could.
“It’s an amazing time for fighters,” Hearn, Joshua’s promoter, continued. “I was speaking to Carl Froch about it this morning and I said to him, ‘If you were around today, name your number.’ That didn’t go down well.
“But here’s the problem: the purses in the last year have doubled and perhaps trebled but the rights fees haven’t, the gates haven’t, and sponsorship hasn’t. So, where the f**k does it come from?
“I’ll be honest, without DAZN, I wouldn’t even be in America. I wouldn’t get involved in that market. It’s absolutely mental. People aren’t just losing a million quid a year, they’re losing eight figures a year. I’m trying to create a sustainable business in America and that’s very difficult to do.
“Right now, you have the war between DAZN, Showtime and PBC, which is almost like a d**k-measuring contest to see who has the most money. It’s a war of attrition and it won’t last because the model is wrong, and the numbers are wrong. But no one cares about that at the moment because it’s all about outlasting the others.
“These purses have to come down at some point, though. Otherwise I don’t know what’s going to happen. To remain the number one promoter in the world, we just have to stay with it.”
Although he appreciates there is an ungodly amount of money to be made in America, Frank Warren, Tyson Fury’s promoter, believes Joshua heading stateside isn’t so much a natural career move as an indication of the power battle going on between the various players with a stake in the AJ franchise.
“It seems to me there is a conflict of interest between DAZN and Sky Sports, and I’m sure Sky are not happy,” Warren said to BN. “There wasn’t a UK-based world title fight shown on regular Sky Sports in the whole of 2018 [the last were December 2017: Katie Taylor vs. Jessica McCaskill and October 2017: Ryan Burnett vs. Zhanat Zhakiyanov]. They were all on pay-per-view. Sky won’t be happy with that and neither will their subscribers.
“At the moment, the priority for him [Hearn], there’s no doubt about it, is DAZN. According to him, though it remains to be seen whether they will be successful or not, DAZN are putting a lot of money up. So, all he’s doing is going where the money is.
“But you can’t keep throwing fighters to America as fodder. How many of their fighters have been bashed up over there in the last year? They’re getting beaten on undercards, too, not even in big main events. They’re doing that to try and give Sky some British interest on these American shows. They’re sending British boxers over there as lambs to the slaughter.”
Hearn, the promoter appeasing two powerful broadcasters, refutes any notion of a conflict of interest.
“They’re [Sky Sports and DAZN] non-competitive at the moment, so that’s a good thing,” he said. “They’re in a position, in my opinion, where they’re benefitting from the partnership. DAZN get all our UK shows and Sky get all our DAZN shows.
“Obviously, Sky will still want their main focus to be Saturday Fight Nights, but, if you’re a fighter right now, you’re looking at this American explosion and going, ‘I want a piece of that.’
“It’s not me telling them to fight in America. It’s them and their advisers. We’ve just got to make sure we do a great job for Sky, our UK and principle partner, and DAZN, who have invested a lot of money in believing in us as a business.”
There are certainly drawbacks to Anthony Joshua going overseas. So long the fulcrum of British boxing, his imminent departure means there is a sizeable hole no one else is equipped to fill and removes from the 2019 schedule a tentpole Wembley event around which the rest of the British boxing calendar could revolve. Moreover, Joshua will no doubt box again in America, and so too will the starry-eyed supporting cast. The likes of Callum Johnson, Scott Quigg, Luke Campbell and Katie Taylor, for instance, have all appeared in the US and expressed a desire to return, and last week Callum Smith, the WBA super-middleweight champion, told Boxing News his ideal next move involves a trip to America and a fight against IBF titleholder Caleb Plant.
“There has never been an opportunity for the big names to earn big money in the UK outside of pay-per-view because the rights fees aren’t significant enough to pay the market value for those fighters,” said Hearn. “Callum Smith is a good example. He has just won the World Boxing Super Series and the world title. How can he now box on a Saturday Fight Night show in Liverpool without taking a substantial pay cut?
“The right thing to do is put him on at the Echo Arena in Liverpool. That’s what I’d like to do. Before we had a US outlet, our only option was to put Callum Smith in a pay-per-view fight. But what if that pay-per-view fight doesn’t currently exist? Now the answer is: you put him on in America.
“Obviously, Sky want to keep as many big fighters here as possible, and so do we, but we also have to be realistic. To be honest, it’s not really what I want. It’s what the fighters and their advisers want. An adviser won’t say to a fighter, ‘The fans want you to box in the UK and you have to take whatever money’s there.’ Business doesn’t work like that.”
Smith in America means no Smith in Liverpool, just as Campbell in America means no Campbell in Hull, and Quigg and Khan in America means no Quigg and Khan in Manchester. Not only that, Anthony Crolla in America – on April 12 against Vasyl Lomachenko – means no Crolla in Manchester and Crolla is one of the few British boxers who has proven he can sell tickets in his home city.
Consider the knock-on effect, too. If you remove key British and Irish boxers from headline slots back home, you also remove opportunities for other boxers from those cities looking to make inroads and cultivate fanbases by association. Reduce the frequency of key UK shows, meanwhile, and you take away platforms for domestic title bouts, once a fixture of a boxer’s development, and leave the fight schedule looking like a heavyweight’s plate – empty.
“It does and it doesn’t hurt the British game,” said Warren. “It hurts because you’re not getting Joshua and Fury in prime time fights over here and you’re not getting a big British audience. They have to travel, or they have to watch it in the middle of the night.
“On the other hand, all British boxers have to expand their horizons and, if you want to make it big and make life-changing money, you will probably have to travel.
“Fury vs. [Deontay] Wilder was watched by 325,000 people on Showtime, and Tyson’s next fight will be shown on a station that is in 75% of people’s homes. So, it’s a no-brainer for us. Tyson is going to have better exposure than Joshua in the US and that will help him massively. ESPN are getting into boxing big time and they’ll get behind him. This will help us in negotiations when it comes time to fight the likes of Wilder or Joshua.”
It’s anything but cut and dried, the American adventure. You can win financially while losing out both in terms of profile and exposure. James DeGale, for example, was a history-making world champion from Britain who made a lot of money in his pro career – always the aim – but did most of his best work in the shadows. By chasing the American dream, he prioritised signing with Al Haymon, boxing regularly in America and getting regular paychecks over building a proper following and becoming a headline attraction in the UK. He won in one respect but lost in another.
Still, it’s hard to criticise DeGale. Now financially secure, it wasn’t too long ago he was carrying shows at Bluewater and a Bristol sports centre in WBC silver title fights and giving Mick Hennessy, his former promoter, the cold shoulder at a press conference. Considering that reality, his escape to America probably served him well.
“I think the opportunities British fighters are getting abroad is a positive thing,” said Hearn. “We still have enough money to bring major fights to the UK, but, with the market change, of course there are going to be fighters who want to go to America to get paid more money than they would here, particularly outside pay-per-view.
“That’s the key. It’s very difficult to do major fights – Dillian Whyte vs. Dereck Chisora, Tony Bellew vs. David Haye, Kell Brook vs. Errol Spence – off pay-per-view. It’s actually impossible unless you want to lose seven figures.”
In the UK, the new consumer experience is a strange and, at times, alienating one. For as encouraging as it is to know leisure centre fights involving Commonwealth titles and teak-tough Ghanaians are no more, there is, equally, a sudden yearning for boxing action on all those weekends dominated by other sports. It’s in these moments you realise it has been three weeks since you last watched any boxing and potentially three months since you saw any boxing you didn’t have to pay for. Whatever the catalyst and reasons behind the pay-per-view boom, this has to be a concern.
“Pay-per-view should be saved for the Wimbledon Final, the Grand National, and the Champions League Final of our sport. It shouldn’t just be any old fight,” said Warren.
“When Hearn came into the business, he slagged pay-per-view off like you can’t believe. He was the one who went out of his way to say pay-per-view was bad for boxing and he wouldn’t do it. He then went from one extreme to the other. Then everything becomes pay-per-view.
“For me, Dillian Whyte fighting Dereck Chisora [on December 22, 2018] was not a pay-per-view fight. I know people bought into it, but that’s not what Sky should be doing. I’m a Sky subscriber so I can complain about that.”
As consumers, we must all ask ourselves, what is being sacrificed as a result of the need for boxing to be a pay-per-view sport in the UK? Also, at what point do we accept boxing is considered an asset to television networks solely on those terms – as a pay-per-view sport – but not as something anyone seems overly keen to develop or preserve? At what point do we accept boxing is the one-night stand of the sports world and that it is fun for a night but carries too much baggage and cost for it to ever be considered more than a notch on a television network’s bedpost?
“We’re in a great position, but there’s still the problem of having Saturday Fight Night and pay-per-view and nothing in the middle in terms of the revenue for the promoter,” said Hearn. “It’s either a few hundred grand or a few million, which is the problem when you’re talking about Brook or Smith or Whyte being in a good fight. In an ideal world, they would be on Saturday Fight Night, but then I ask you, who is paying for it?
“It’s not just a problem for me. It’s the market place. Warren has the same problem. That’s why I recently said Josh Warrington against Kid Galahad, for me, has to be on pay-per-view if I’m going to spend that kind of money. He’s [Warren] saying it’s not, and that’s okay if you’re prepared to lose four or five hundred grand in a night. I’m not. That’s running a poor business and your accounts will reflect that. He will always criticise us for being accountants but if you go to Companies House and read our two respective accounts, you’ll see why we run our business in a certain way.”
One small hall promoter revealed to Boxing News that they and a partner had to remortgage their houses last year following a loss on a show and that “the bottom of the sport is in danger of falling out”. Asked to suggest a fix, they implored big-time promoters to make better use of local talent on pay-per-view events, encourage and incentivise ticket-sellers over pay-per-view-sellers, and think about the long-term health of boxing in the UK. The money might be increasing for those at the top, they said, but it’s fast running out for those at the grass roots level and the long-term implications of a get-rich-quick scheme will be as follows: once the initial wave of euphoria has passed, and the well of headline acts has run dry, Britain will be all out of boxers capable of becoming pay-per-view stars in a pay-per-view sport.
To compensate, novice fighters, the kind who should be developed the old-fashioned way, might then be fast-tracked, or just plain old rushed, and inevitably come a cropper. Others, meanwhile, genuine talents either lost in the shuffle or shipped off overseas, will remain unknown entities to the general public and left to curse the day Britain was blinded by stars and stripes and dollar signs covered up warning signs.
“The problem is, suddenly you look around and wonder where the next generation of pay-per-view stars is coming from,” Warren said. “How are you selling that next generation right now? How is anyone going to see the next generation if they are just on pay-per-view shows? Not all pay-per-view shows sell five or six hundred thousand. Some do two hundred thousand. Some do a hundred thousand. How are the general public ever going to get to see this new wave of stars?
“We’ve got a lot of good young fighters but they’re not ready yet. I don’t even mean for pay-per-view. I mean they’re not ready to top regular shows.
“But I don’t want to rush them just for the sake of it. Other people do that. We’re looking at the long-term and we’re looking out for the fighter’s career. We don’t just want to sling them in at the deep end because we need to make sure we deliver a certain amount of pay-per-view shows a year. That can’t happen.”
But enough of the doom-mongering. That can wait. Instead, a song. “Sweeeeeet Caroline… good times never seemed so good.”