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Lou DiBella: ‘The boxing paradigm stinks‘

Lou DiBella
Brendan Moran/Sportsfile/Getty Images
Lou DiBella is one of the few influential figures in boxing who speaks honestly about the practices that hold our sport back. Here he tells Sean Nam about the challenges facing the industry and his success in 2021 with lightweight king, George Kambosos Jnr

VETERAN New York promoter Lou DiBella has seen it all in his nearly three decades in boxing, but even he had to be disturbed by the developments of the past year. After all, it’s not like he has ever been involved in a saga as frustrating, bizarre, and drawn-out as the accursed Teófimo López and George Kambosos Jnr lightweight showdown that was postponed nearly half a dozen times. But when the fight actually happened — the original entity responsible for the bout, Triller, defaulted on its bid, which went to Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom – on November 26 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, DiBella was rewarded. His fighter, Kambosos, notched the upset of his life – and the entire boxing year – beating the ballyhooed López on points. Now Kambosos – previously regarded as nothing more than a Manny Pacquiao sparring partner – has the opportunity to parlay the victory into a tremendously lucrative defence. It is no doubt a welcome development for DiBella, especially in a year that has seen one of his top fighters, Amanda Serrano, leave his promotional fold, and another, O’Shaquie Foster sue him for breach of contract. But even with those downsides, and even as the global pandemic rages on, DiBella is optimistic that with the likes of his talented blue-chip heavyweight Bakhodir Jalolov, his deal with Triller, and, of course, the ascendance of Kambosos, the future still shines bright.

You were involved in not only the biggest win for your promotional group but possibly the most significant upset the boxing world has seen in the past year, and that’s George Kambosos’ dethroning Teófimo López in New York.

That was definitely a big deal for me. It was a bigger deal for George. It was a big deal for the entire team, [Kambosos manager] Peter Kahn, everyone involved with George. I’ve gotta be honest, I didn’t think we thought that it was that outrageous a possibility as everybody else. I think George believed himself 100 per cent. All his bravado leading up to the fight came true. Everything he prognosticated, everything he envisioned he did. He basically said, I’m the hungrier fighter and you’re going to see it in the ring. That’s hugely significant to my company, hugely significant to Peter’s management, it’s significant to anyone who’s in the sphere of Kambosos. But I don’t think it was that shocking. I think it was a huge upset, yeah, but we never believed the odds should have been long as they were. George and his dad prognosticated this for years since I signed them.

It was quite the journey for you to get there, with all the delays that occurred and the initial platform Triller eventually backing out.

The year was insane, with all the cancellations. But you know what, in hindsight George going back to Australia and staying there, being focused and never leaving the gym – his wife was pregnant, his grandfather passed away – I think not only was he the better fighter when he fought Teó that night, he was the better prepared and more mentally ready fighter.

I also had a heavyweight prospect win the Olympic gold medal [Bakhodir Jalolov]. It was quite a last six months of the year. He just fought in Dubai. He’s going to be active in 2022. His next fight will be an eight-rounder. Frankly, I think he could beat almost everybody in the world rankings tomorrow. It’s just a matter of getting him some eight-round fights so he can go some rounds and then maybe another eight-round fight, and then he’ll be fighting 10-rounders in the third quarter of next year. I expect him to be world-ranked guy this time next year, the beginning of 2023.

There’s been a lot of speculation of Kambosos’ next fight. Can you give us any indication?

We’re going to be deciding – ultimately it will be George who decides who and where. The Where is going to be Australia. As for the Who, right now the orders that I’ve been given are, ‘I don’t want to fight a small fight, I want a significant fight’. It’s likely going to be a significant fight in the first half of next year, April or early May kind of timeframe. It’ll be whatever the best deal is. We’re going to weigh everything that’s out there. But we’re going to run the show in Australia. Like I said on the night of the fight, if DAZN wants to do the event, then they’re going to make a deal with me.
Right now you can figure out what the big fights are for George. We’re going to pursue them, but not all of them are going to be available. It’s pretty clear that Ryan García needs to get in the ring first with someone else; he’s not going to jump into a big fight. I don’t know that [Gervonta] Davis would want to fight in Australia. But, you know, there are a number of possibilities.

How hard has it been navigating the business with the pandemic raging on this past year – and even now, as we speak?

It’s been ridiculously hard. And it’s getting hard again. Good luck securing a small venue right now. Good luck trying to figure out if you’re going to have a crowd. I would have thought this thing would have been resolved a long, long time ago. I managed through 2020 and 2021, it wasn’t easy, but everybody had the same issues. If you had a “bubble” situation paid for by a platform you certainly had it easier. I’m certainly one of gazillion people affected. It looked like we were coming out the other side. At least, we’ll have to adapt to a new reality. You see the [major sports] leagues changing the rules. We’re adjusting to it.

And, if I might add, you just caught Covid from a boxing event – at the Boxing Writers’ Association of America dinner, no less…

Yes, I was a victim of the Boxing Writers’ Annual Super-spreader. [Laughs]. Today is the first day – the dinner was what, two weeks ago basically? – today is the first day that I’m feeling much better. Hopefully I’ll be cleared up by Christmas.

You’ve been very vocal the past year about how network exclusivity with certain entities have basically shut out the middle class of promoters.

It isn’t so much the promoters so much as the f**king product sucks! It’s a bad paradigm the whole industry has. Three little self-contained universes [PBC, Top Rank, Matchroom, for eg] is not how you succeed in a mano a mano, woman against woman, may-the-best-person-be-the-champion kind of a world. That’s why you have so many champions and so many splintered titles and so many major fights that never take place. The paradigm stinks. It’s terrible for me. But I wouldn’t want to be one of them. I was on the other end of this game. I know what it takes to make the best fights in boxing. It takes competition. It takes people understanding that the biggest fight by definition is the biggest business. So there’s always a business incentive. But when you add exclusivity to a streaming service, or exclusivity to a network that, in effect, cockblocks these kinds of events from happening regularly, it’s not great for the sport. That being said, we had some good fights last year. Thank God we had Wilder-Fury, which was a sensational heavyweight championship fight. The heavyweight scene is still interesting. You saw the other night Chisora and Parker. That was a great heavyweight fight – a notch below the heavyweight championship level, but those kind of fights are exciting.

But I don’t think the existing paradigm [works]. There’s a reason why boxing is so marginal. I don’t say that because I want boxing to be marginal. I’ve spent a good portion of my time working in boxing. I like to see boxing thriving to the greatest degree possible, but right now I think we’re a niche sport more than we’ve ever been. I don’t think the three separate spheres in boxing [is improving the sport]. Errol Spence and Terence Crawford should be on their second or third fight in a trilogy by now.

So, essentially, the major powerbrokers are feasting and everyone else is picking up the crumbs or having to give up an arm or an leg to get a chance for decent exposure on a major platform. What’s the remedy?

The problem is that the overwhelming number of fighters aren’t signed to the three major guys. So, what basically happens is that they’re developed by somebody else so that the three major guys can strangle the people below them. The networks want stars. So once one fighter is built by somebody else, there’s an effort to separate them from the people they’ve been with, or there is a necessity on the part of the person who developed them to give up part of their asset because it’s an anti-competitive kind of environment. But at the moment, it is what it is. You can get strangled by it. Or you can choose how to work within it. I don’t like it, and I have the balls to tell people like you that I think it f**king sucks and that it’s not good for me and that it’s not good for the sport. It’s not good for most people in it, including fighters. Look at how many fighters didn’t get signed by one of the big guys and then they do everything they’re supposed to do, and then the people they’re working with have to subjugate themselves to get them an opportunity that they otherwise wouldn’t get. It’s ridiculous. But that being said, you can either roll over or survive.

These people who can give out these “stupid deals” have the power of the bigger chequebook. It is what it is. That bigger chequebook didn’t sign my fighters when they had the opportunity. The fighters would have been nowhere. Amanda Serrano just won WBC Female Fighter of the Year. Who got her there? The reality is I don’t need to be doing this. Some things work out for the better. Some relationships end and maybe it’s better for everybody’s mental health. You’ve gotta do a cost-benefit analysis of everything. I’m just more philosophical about things. I’m too good at this sh*t not to be able to make money out of it. So no one’s going to get me out of it. It’s when I want to stop doing it. At the moment there some reasons to be having some fun. I have some good assets and some good relationships that will make it easier to navigate, God willing, 2022-2023 than it was to navigate 2021.

What do you envision for 2022?

I’ve been able to keep most of my fighters active. I’ve been able to make fights on Triller, and I have a couple of big things to offer with them for next year, so I think some of my fighters will keep active that way. I made a deal with Jalolov [to appear on a] Probellum show in December. I have an extremely strong relationship with [Probellum Chief Strategy & Legal Officer] Harrison Whitman and [Probellum President] Richard Schaefer. I foresee doing some things with them in 2022 and beyond. As soon as things stabilized a bit more, Broadway Boxing [DiBella’s signature club show series] will come back with a new platform. Time will tell. It’s still a period of uncertainty but I have some good assets and some good working relationships, so I’m excited about 2022.

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