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Kalle Sauerland: ‘The industry will bounce back’

Kalle Sauerland
Kalle Sauerland talks to Alex Steedman and Matt Christie about the future of the sport, including his plans for the World Boxing Super Series and for women’s boxing, and he breaks down the Povetkin-Whyte rivalry

How was lockdown for you? Did you start to see and do things differently?

I think it was a time when you spoke to a lot of people you wouldn’t normally speak to. A lot of people realised it’s time to work together as an industry and cooperate on certain things. You’ve seen a few deals being made and I think you’re going to see a lot of promoters working together, there has to be synergies. We know that crowds, at least big crowds, are not possible this year. You might nick a few thousand here and there in terms of spectators, but this year is about getting fighters out and making the shows that are not only efficient, but have the best matchups on them. For that to happen the promoters need to work together. I don’t expect that to happen forever but it’s a good thing for boxing. Long term, the industry will bounce back – those people who said this will affect boxing permanently are talking complete rubbish.

Who have you been speaking to?

I speak to all of the big promoters on a regular basis, especially in regards to the WBSS. It’s my job to get the best talent and the best ideas, it’s not an exclusive project. I go out there and try and work with every promoter and we’ve done that very well in the first two seasons. For me, it’s less relevant.

But I have been speaking about the WBSS next season. And given that we are in a very special time, maybe for season three we have to think outside the box on how to get that done.

The world seems to be getting a little smaller in that the best fights become easier to make, particularly in the UK but also in Europe. Is that a vision you’d share?

I think so. Next weekend the World Boxing Super Series cruiserweight final takes place between Mairis Briedis and Yuniel Dorticos. I said when it was announced that this is the signal that big-time boxing is back. That’s no disrespect to any of the promoters who have put on shows before now, there have been cracking fights but this is the first fight between a No.1 and No.2 in a division and more importantly, it’s the first fight between one fighter from America and one fighter from Europe contesting at this level. Anyone working in promoting understands the difficulties around that. For me it signals that we, and by that I mean the industry of boxing and not just the WBSS, are back.

In the UK there has been this big talk about Eddie [Hearn] and [Frank] Warren working together and having this famous lunch, or not having this famous lunch. I think it’s all been very entertaining dialogue but whether they actually do it, I don’t know. I have worked with both of them, they’re different characters but I don’t see why they can’t work together. At the same time, some of the fights they’ve talked about, I can tell you now why they wouldn’t work. You’re going to try and push forwards the fights that you as a promoter want to make but good luck to them.

From our perspective, the WBSS perspective, we have things to consider: Do we switch to just one weight? Do we just start from the semi-finals? How do we deal with the lack of crowds? Those are our thought processes at the moment and mean we are reaching out to other promoters who are vital to make everything happen. That interchange, in a normal environment, would be much cagier but now everyone is thinking, ‘Crikey, there’s no revenue from crowds this year’.

I see Eddie has announced that the rematch between Dillian Whyte and Alexander Povetkin will be on with or without a crowd, that’s a quite a statement. I think that’s good. Clearly they’ve got the deals done in the right way – that is, one deal with a crowd and another deal without a crowd. This is something we’ll need to look at with the WBSS. If you sign a guy or girl for a season now, you can’t sign a guy or girl to a deal that’s dependant on crowds, everyone understands that. In the same way, you can’t sign them presuming there won’t be crowds [at some point during the competition]. Those are the kind of complications I have to deal with.

You mention women there – is there enough strength in depth for a women’s WBSS tournament?

Most people would agree that we, as Team Sauerland, were among the first promoters to put on big boxing shows with women. It’s a natural.

There were quotes from the old school – and by that I even mean people in my own family, so you can guess who that is – saying they would not watch female boxing. I think we’re away from that now. We’re away from that because the ladies have earned that respect because of the tremendous fights we’re now seeing. The issue for us back in the day was that you’d have someone like Cecilia Braekhus [below] and you couldn’t find the opponents. If we’d have attempted to do a tournament in the past, you’d have one star and seven punch bags, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. You wouldn’t have that depth. Whereas now, there is that depth in at least a couple of the weight classes. You know they won’t be lopsided fights.

Cecilia Braekhus

That’s what I’m looking for when I look at a line-up for a WBSS tournament. It’s not necessarily the star names, it’s how many 50-50 fights we can deliver with these eight fighters. We’ve shown that with weight classes that aren’t mainstream – the bantamweights, the cruiserweights. I believe that this sport, when it’s 50-50, it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, you’re going to get entertainment.

You reference an ‘old school’ point of view that is familiar to Boxing News: We still hear from certain boxing fans who do not like women’s boxing. Do you believe there is enough widespread appeal in women’s boxing in general to sustain a whole competition?

It’s a valid point. But I do think what the WBSS could do for the female sport is elevate it past where it is now. A lot of the fights in the last 24 months have been cracking fights. Fans have been talking about it. We’ve been arguing about decisions. Why? Because we care all of a sudden. If people show a reaction, there’s something there. If we were having this discussion 10, 15 years ago it would have been different. There would have been no doubt that Cecilia Braekhus was a good fighter but the fights were so one-sided it was the end of the discussion. Now we’re seeing great fights and talking points around those fights.

The tide is turning, even that member of my family is turning. You will always have that hardcore minority who simply don’t like watching women get hit. That’s their right to say that. I must admit I don’t like males doing synchronised swimming. So there’s sexist arguments you can make back and forth like that. But the point I’m making is the females, as fighters, have earned that respect.

What are your thoughts on women boxing three-minute rounds instead of two?

There are great fights with two-minute rounds. I don’t like to talk too much on it without talking to a medical professional about it. But as a fan, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be three-minute rounds. I can tell you first hand from watching the girls in the gym they can do four-minute rounds; they take their training a lot more seriously, particularly the conditioning, than a lot of the male fighters. I’d be all for three-minute rounds but I say that admitting I don’t understand full the medical arguments against it.

Is it feasible to make ‘best versus the best’ type fights that the WBSS stands for in the current climate, particularly considering the financial constraints?

In terms of the finances, you have to find ways to make the budget work. There’s weight classes that cost less than others. You will always work a budget around the sport and that’s the task. We went from two weights to three weights from season one to season two. Can we do three weights again next time? Again, it’s about the budget. First you look at the dynamics of making the 50-50s. Historically I’d always worked with the bigger weight classes so I had to delve into weight classes I’d done very little with [in order to make WBSS financially viable]. We had to get accustomed to brokering different deals, we had to know who was controlling certain weight classes. At the same time, it was so easy to pluck out those 50-50s. I believe there are certain weight classes that are calling for this. Before the lockdown I said the flys, the super-flys. But there’s also the middleweights, the light-heavyweights and of course the heavyweights. Then you go back to the budget but you also must consider the different revenues [certain weight classes and fighters will create]. If it’s all set up for the two big fellas next year [Fury and Joshua] is it worth us doing a tournament outside of them? Perhaps it goes against our ethos of ‘the best vs the best’ but it would be a popular choice and one we’ve definitely got on the drawing board.

Do you have sole discretion on who is in the WBSS or do you have outside influences from broadcasters and sponsors?

My role, more or less, is to do the analysis and put the numbers together. That goes in front of a board which, of course, involves considerations around what sells. Ultimately it’s my recommendations and then the decision is taken by a board in terms of the business. It’s not like Kalle stays out home and plays ‘Fantasy Boxing Manager’. It’s complex and it’s very different to the role you have in promoting a one-off event. It’s about making the finances work but also about making a weight class work within the framework of the tournament for a particular season.

Let’s talk about boxing in Germany. Your father was involved in the days of Sven Ottke and Henry Maske, there’s a perception of bad decisions over there and dry audiences. Talk us through the culture and climate of boxing in Germany over the years.

Let me make it clear I was never a fan of Ottke or Maske, though both deserve a lot of credit. Ottke held a world title for a long time, Maske was very much the symbol of the East when the Berlin Wall came down and a very good technical boxer. But paint drying is the saying that rings a bell when I talk about him and his style. Yet he had big money sponsors, Tina Turner and Meatloaf sang at his fights; when he fought they were huge, huge events, some of the biggest ever seen in boxing. The after-parties were so fantastic I could never remember the fights! And this is when I was in my prime, at the age of 16, 17 and 18. The boxing was very much secondary to me.

The eighties in Germany was very red light. It was a gangster’s sport. Boxing was a hobby to my father then, it wasn’t where he made his money. It was very different back then, a different set up. The after party then was in a brothel. But it changed because of Henry Maske, RTL came on board, suddenly it was very razzmatazz. You went from Graciano Rocchigiani – who was in the nick more than he was in the ring – into a whole new phase. And boxing in Germany is all about those different phases.

But when you talk about the decisions, that’s when I get protective. Going to a Henry Maske fight was like going to an event, a pop concert, but for all his wins there weren’t any controversial decisions, apart from the one he lost – to Virgil Hill. Ask David Haye as well. He won a fight against Nikolai Valuev that Sky Sports had him losing. There were close fights, some went one way, some went the other. I must add that I didn’t promote Felix Sturm, so what went happened on his shows, I can’t comment!

You’ve worked with some huge names over the years. Who evokes the best memories?

I think of Arthur Abraham, Mikkel Kessler and George Groves. But Alexander Povetkin was my first boxer. It was very special at the time. He was the heavyweight champion from Russia, Olympic champion, he’d won everything. When we signed him there was a big undercover process of going over to Russia and meeting his backers. All very interesting people, all nice people. There was a lot of vodka drinking over the period of about three months. It was crazy, Moscow in the winter, lots of vodka, lots of saunas and everything that goes with it. Lots of other promoters wanted him but we got him and took him all the way to the Wladimir Klitschko fight. We separated after that but it was amicable and I still went over to see his fights, we still speak regularly and he’s one of the few fighters that still remembers my birthday. One hell of a fella.

The failed drug tests aside, he does seem a character…

You have to be careful regarding those drug tests. There’s a lot we don’t know. It’s a different world over there. I can’t comment on it because I don’t know enough about it but Povetkin isn’t one who is a food fanatic who watches exactly what he eats. He’s a very happy-go-lucky guy, I personally think there’s more to it. But it is what it is.

Alexander Povetkin

Do you think he beats Dillian Whyte again?

It’s a 50-50 again. Nothing changes there; Dillian could win, he could win. From Dillian’s point of view, he has to change things, because Povetkin will do what he does again. He’s landed punches like that many times against fighters just as good as Dillian. Fighters always have that one shot they’re weak to and you can train for that for an entire camp. In a 12-round fight you get hit with another shot, you get distracted, and that’s where Povetkin [above], particularly with his experience, takes advantage. You can watch the first fight again and say he was dropped twice in the fourth but anyone who says he was nearly finished are wrong. They were not fight-ending knockdowns. He always gets up, he almost looks p**sed off when he gets dropped. It’s a good second fight. I’ll watch it, I’ll buy it. But maybe Dillian shouldn’t be here now. Three 50-50 fights against Joseph Parker, Oscar Rivas and Alexander Povetkin. To roll that dice, in that mandatory position which is currently worth, I don’t know, 10-million dollars, that’s one hell of a gamble. Credit to Dillian.

Would you have moved Dillian differently?

Yeah, maybe. There has to be a case made about when a mandatory is called and not called. If you’re active, you’re not available. So if you’re planning big pay-per-view fights you’re not available [to answer call for a shot at world title]. I’m a bit old school like that – if you’re in a mandatory position, you’re waiting. But who am I to say? It’s his career and he’s had a great career already. These have all been great fights. The fans are the real winner. Is Dillian the winner? He’s made a fair few quid I guess but it all depends on what he wants and that’s his decision. If it had been me advising, I’d have said let’s park it, and get loud. I’ve done it a few times and mostly got away with it.

To hear the full interview, where Sauerland tells stories of Povetkin’s infamous bare-knuckle wars, of his experience with ‘hospitality’ from British promoters and breaks down the upcoming WBSS cruiserweight final between Yuniel Dorticos and Mairis Breidis listen free to Episode 7 of The Opening Bell, the Boxing News podcast available on all major podcast platforms or direct from our website.

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