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Paying the Price: How six British heavyweights became box office gold

Dubois heavyweight
There is a raft of heavyweight fights involving British boxers coming to pay-per-view platforms in the next few months. Elliot Worsell investigates why

TO properly follow and enjoy today’s heavyweight division you will need to possess two things: an ability to forgive, and money. Possess both and you can get along just fine, but if short on either you will likely find yourself at best confused and at worst detached, locked out from all the fun and lamenting the fact it just isn’t like the old days.

Rich or poor, boxing fans will be aware that the next five ‘big’ heavyweight fights involving British heavyweights are to take place on a pay-per-view platform. They will be just as aware that free fights are these days few and far between and that any fight of note – especially those involving big-name heavyweights – will invariably require anyone interested in watching it paying for the privilege.

There is still the occasional free fight on Channel 5, ditto ITV’s subsidiary channels, and small-hall shows will sometimes find their way on to YouTube. But the bulk of British boxing takes place on channels and subscription services accessible only to people willing to part with their hard-earned. Moreover, the very best fights – the tentpole events once key to growing the sport – demand additional money being paid on top of this.

Why? Because both the rules and landscape have changed. Because, unlike in years gone by, qualifying for a role in a pay-per-view headline fight isn’t so much about accomplishments as personality and isn’t so much about a fight’s competitiveness as its capacity for mayhem.

In a world of reality television, social media power, short attention spans and all-round narcissism, this should come as no surprise. Yet, even if not surprising, the shift has certainly created a curious sea change, notably in Britain, and an audience content to shell out money to see recognisable faces punch other recognisable faces with all manner of unrecognisable belts on the line.  

This is most evident, of course, in the rise of so-called YouTube boxing, a boxing spinoff, nay, cancerous growth, which encourages unqualified and unskilled celebrities from the world of reality TV and YouTube to glove up and make money at the expense of the sport’s integrity. However, a change is just as apparent at heavyweight, where contenders, in particular, can now be confident of becoming pay-per-view stars if able to shout loud enough, punch hard enough and, crucially, attach themselves to the famous names in the division.

If successful, what this then generates is a cast of characters; or, in other words, a weight class reframed as a dysfunctional soap opera family. Fighters can become famous fighting Anthony Joshua, for example, in much the same way a man or woman can become famous through sleeping with a Kardashian. It’s not so much a testament to their prowess as to the power of celebrity.

In recent years Anthony Joshua has touched Dillian Whyte, Joseph Parker and Alexander Povetkin, and blessed each with the supposed star quality crucial to becoming pay-per-view features in their own right. Meanwhile, Dereck Chisora will, having been touched by Dillian Whyte, become a pay-per-view headliner on May 23, with his opponent Oleksandr Usyk similarly boosted by the fact he was touched by Tony Bellew in 2018. If this sounds at all incestuous, it’s because it is. And money will forever remain the root of the inbreeding.

During this process fans will be bamboozled by boasts and beef and occasionally, if they’re really lucky, a dramatic, thrilling fight. They will be reset and retrained, convinced the appeal of a fight is no longer the quality (of punching or action) on display, nor even the magnitude of what’s at stake, but instead the degree to which two fighters hate or threaten each other. They will be starved until they become grateful whenever food, no matter how trashy, is offered in the form of a pay-per-view. Before eating, they will be told this is the pay-per-view formula and that it works. It works because they say it works, just as it’s necessary because they say it is.

Anthony Joshua
Joshua’s rematch against Ruiz did 1.6 million buys on Sky Sports Box Office (Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing)

With Anthony Joshua, the market leader in the UK, there is no longer any surprise when his fights are announced as pay-per-view events. Nor should there be. A star from day one, Joshua has been a mainstay of the Sky Sports Box Office calendar since boxing Dillian Whyte in 2015 and has, all things considered, both earned and fully maximised his position of power. As well as becoming a household name, someone whose appeal transcends the world of boxing, he has more often than not delivered inside the ring and given value for money. Not just that, his level of opposition, despite the guarantee of a pay-per-view date, has never dipped, remaining high and for the most part dangerous.

What has changed, however, is the price of an Anthony Joshua pay-per-view. Once somewhere around the £16.95 mark, it was as high as £24.95 for his December rematch with Andy Ruiz Jnr and will no doubt continue in this direction with a title defence against Kubrat Pulev looming on June 20.

This will upset some. It will upset them because Joshua’s rematch with Ruiz was, on paper, arguably one of the standout fights of 2019 and because it was bolstered by a captivating narrative and the hook of Joshua gaining revenge against the only man to defeat him as a pro. It will upset them because Joshua vs. Ruiz then flattered to deceive. It will upset them most of all, though, because Joshua vs. Ruiz was, going in, all the things Joshua vs. Pulev is not.

Regardless of three belts being on the line, Joshua vs. Pulev doesn’t capture the imagination the same way. It is a far quieter fight, with Pulev someone whose skills are appreciated only by those tasked with dealing with them, and whose English is broken and therefore hardly conducive to flaunting his wares on the world stage. A 2014 defeat to Wladimir Klitschko, meanwhile, served to shatter any mystique the Bulgarian may have built on the ascent and does the same to the possibility of now selling him as an undefeated threat whose weaknesses have yet to be made apparent.

Ultimately, it is not a fight anybody but Kubrat Pulev and his team asked for. Ordered [by the IBF] rather than desired, some will find it difficult to understand how it can carry the same prestige – and price – as Joshua vs. Ruiz II. Yet it’s for Joshua the price has been increased, not his opponent.

Joshua and Pulev will meet in July (GEOFF CADDICK/AFP via Getty Images)

Indeed, a similar thing could happen to Tyson Fury should he continue along what now appears a path to world domination. ‘The Gypsy King’, well and truly in the doldrums three years ago, has been revived by two fights with Deontay Wilder, the last of which he won inside seven rounds, and is fast becoming one of the more identifiable sports stars on the planet. With ESPN and Bob Arum behind him, and a desire to carry on boxing stateside, he is also well-positioned to get a jump on Joshua when it comes to properly breaking America.

A third fight against Wilder, tentatively scheduled for July 18, won’t do any harm, either. This will again be a pay-per-view event, televised by BT Sport in the UK, and rightly so. After all, irrespective of the one-sided nature of the rematch, the two men involved remain two of the three best heavyweights in the world and the story of their rivalry will continue to be lucrative until it reaches its natural conclusion.

Whether a third fight garners the attention of its predecessors remains to be seen. At first glance, it’s doubtful, yet history tells us excuses can become subplots and selling points and then ta-da, like magic, the dynamic of old can be sparked up again. Who knows? Besides, if, worst-case scenario, it ends up being The Godfather III of the franchise, it will still be preferable to most of what’s currently out there.

A May 2 heavyweight fight between Dillian Whyte and Alexander Povetkin, shamelessly billed as a WBC interim title fight, is an example of how controversy sells. Both men have had run-ins with drug testers yet find their names not blackened but enhanced as a result. Now cleared to box, they can make money against each other and can capitalise not only on the fact their names have been – fairly or unfairly – dragged through the mud but that they were both also stopped in seven rounds by Anthony Joshua.

This combination works a treat in this day and age. It can make household names of top 10 contenders and give them an edge appealing to the kind of audience boxing these days looks to attract. ‘Maximum violence,’ promoter Eddie Hearn calls Whyte vs. Povetkin, as if selling something not far off a snuff film.  

Dillian Whyte
Whyte is back headlining a PPV (Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing)

Speaking of violence, and the guarantee of it, former Whyte opponent Dereck Chisora is an intriguing case. Now 36, the nine defeats on his pro record have in time been superseded by the consistent excitement he brings to the ring and the volatile personality he exhibits away from it. His losses, against the likes of Dillian Whyte, Kubrat Pulev and Agit Kabayel, have highlighted an inability to succeed at the top level yet have somehow amounted to little more than scratch marks, paint damage, when it comes to his TV appeal. Flawed but compelling, he is in many ways the ideal hero for these times.

He is also the ideal opponent for Oleksandr Usyk on May 23. He is ideal stylistically, meaning Usyk should impress in what will be only the Ukrainian’s second pro fight at heavyweight, and ideal, just as importantly, because he can touch Usyk the way Tony Bellew touched him and make the unbeaten southpaw an even more marketable opponent for, say, Anthony Joshua when the time comes for Joshua to fulfil his mandatory obligation with the WBO [Usyk is their number one contender].

In essence, Chisora is not only the cherry-picked opponent but the fixer for future deals. He will sell his star power to help Usyk further endear himself to a British audience in the hope of him then cashing in on a third major UK pay-per-view later this year or next. He won’t beat Usyk but will instead bless him.

Dillian Whyte vs Dereck Chisora fight time
Chisora and Whyte weigh in (Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing)

Less cynical is the April 11 heavyweight matchup between Daniel Dubois and Joe Joyce for the British and Commonwealth titles. As pure as the pair involved, this fight is interesting for many of the reasons the others aren’t, yet, admittedly, takes place at a level just above domestic; a level some way short of the rest. 

This creates quite the paradox, for on the one hand Dubois and Joyce are, as standalone entities, relatively unproven pros, but on the other, as a combination, their matchup sizzles and fascinates like no other mentioned.

The fight’s power comes from the vs. between their names. It has not a thing to do with their personalities, a title or even their achievements, which, to this point, are only a slither of what they could later become. It is also a fight spared any clunky backstory or manufactured beef; a fight sold solely on the potential of what might happen when the first bell rings.

That said, it’s not perfect, and if there is one knock against Dubois vs. Joyce it is that fights of this ilk – British and European title fights – were never previously afforded pay-per-view billing, making it seem ridiculous this one is being held in any higher esteem. Yes, times have changed, but still, how can it now be argued two up-and-coming heavyweights have, in a combined 24 pro fights, pitched a strong enough case for them to warrant topping a pay-per-view event at this stage in their respective careers? Answer: it can’t.

Certainly, when compared to the likes of Dillian Whyte, Dereck Chisora, and of course Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua, the two men competing on April 11 are neophytes, prospects whose ceiling has still to be touched. And though some will liken this to the 2011 pay-per-view headliner between George Groves and James DeGale, to do so is to overlook the fact Groves and DeGale were longtime rivals and engaging characters and that Nathan Cleverly’s ill-fated WBO light-heavyweight title fight against Jürgen Brähmer was the original headliner that night.

Even so, there is still a lot to be said for Dubois and Joyce risking it when others would be inclined to preserve their undefeated records. Though unproven, there is, because of their risk-taking mentality, an element of surprise to Dubois vs. Joyce that the other heavyweight fights on offer to UK fans in the next few months lack. It isn’t predictable, not in terms of it being made in the first place, nor in terms of us guessing its outcome, and therefore feels more organic, that is, less forced on us than some of the others. It feels instead more like a treat – something we didn’t see coming, something we didn’t expect, something tough to call.

And when boxing’s done right, the surprise should always be in the fight, not its cost.

Joe Joyce on Jarrell Miller
Joe Joyce will be topping his first PPV in April (Esther Lin/Showtime)

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