THERE has been something of a honeymoon period in boxing as the sport rallies against a coronavirus pandemic running riot all over the world. Old rows have been forgotten and that nagging feeling of discontentment has eased. Almost everyone working inside the sport understood that we had little choice but to take small steps before attempting to run again. But this weekend, after three Matchroom events on consecutive weekends were broadcast on Sky Sports Mix (a channel available even without a Sky Sports subscription) Eddie Hearn takes boxing back into the pay-per-view world when Dillian Whyte fights Alexander Povetkin on Sky Sports Box Office. Simply, if you want to (legally) see the biggest fight since lockdown, you will have to pay for it.
As Hearn knows better than anyone, the moment an event has a price tag attached to it you’re inviting potential criticism from the consumer. Whyte-Povetkin was not deemed worthy of the Box Office treatment by critics when it was originally announced. But now – five months after the world was plunged into a dark inertia – one can argue it is if you compare it to the action we’ve seen since boxing returned. Even so, it remains a tough sell in a world counting its pennies.
Whyte and Katie Taylor (who goes in against Delfine Persoon in a rematch of their savage June 2019 slugfest) are not the first truly big names to fight this summer but they’re the first to do so in anything approaching competitive fights. The likes of Carl Frampton and Joe Joyce (both on BT Sport) have fought in recent weeks. Any faults those two exhibited against inferior opposition were forgiven – both by the public and rivals unable to capitalise. Daniel Dubois, without an opponent at the time of writing after Eric Pfeifer pulled out, will likely experience similar levels of leniency when he comes back next week. Dress rehearsals are fine in the short-term but the sport needs show-stopping events if it’s to thrive. Whyte-Povetkin is not that exactly. Some will say it would have been perfect as another free-to-air offering that would really draw a huge TV audience and in turn boost the sport’s profile. But then those saying that will not be footing the bill to stage it.
For Whyte and Taylor, these are not dress rehearsals. The pressure will be enormous. Not only does Whyte have to win to secure his long-awaited world title shot, the event itself must deliver. It will be interesting to see how Whyte in particular copes.
We’ve seen him emerge from several crises in boxing rings, often reacting to the cries from the crowd to haul himself out of them, but he’s yet to experience an environment like this. And it’s that alien atmosphere that makes this a better fight on paper – or at least harder to predict – than it would have been if staged in a bouncing arena, as was planned, five months ago.
Whyte has been through a lot in the last 13 months. There have been the brushes with UKAD, the split with his trainer Mark Tibbs, the rows with sanctioning bodies and the legal wrangles with the media who Team Whyte felt had been unfair. One wonders if there have been too many distractions. But he’s a fighter who rarely lets down the paying public and for that reason alone, this weekend’s contest is one plenty will deem worth shelling out for. How it performs could govern the immediate future of the sport.
Promoters will know that pay-per-view is one of the few options they’ve got to be profitable. Eddie Hearn can’t keep hosting extravaganzas in his garden that cost a fortune. Frank Warren isn’t in a position to indefinitely bankroll a steady stream of domestic events, either. Not only will the novelty wear thin, but there are only so many of those fights that can be made. No one should presume boxing is back and flying high again. The journey is just at the start.
Pay-per-view, more so now than ever before, might be the only feasible way to ensure the best fights get made. Money must be generated alongside them.
This is the entertainment business. A business where so many are realising that efforts to regain profits have to be made sooner rather than later if they’re to survive.