2020 hasn’t been much fun, but it has been revealing. We began the year strong, with Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder squaring off for a second time in February and Fury turning in a career-best performance. It earned solid pay-per-view numbers in the US and saw BT Sport move into the PPV sphere in the UK as a legitimate operator and competitor to Sky Sports.
Of course, a month later, everything changed. Lockdowns were announced worldwide in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and boxing, along with all other sports, was put on hold. Major fight cards were scrapped or postponed, including Daniel Dubois vs Joe Joyce, Canelo Alvarez’ next fight, Vasiliy Lomachenko vs Teofimo Lopez and a third Fury-Wilder fight. At the time, no one knew how things would pan out.
Then, in late April, an otherwise nondescript show in Nicaragua was held with relevant safety measures in place. The UFC had made plans to stage fight cards on ‘Fight Island.’ Suddenly, there was hope.
What followed in boxing, as in other sports, was a display of perseverance, adaptability and courage. Top Rank led the charge, holding a couple of events in June in the US, airing on ESPN. Frank Warren followed suit in the UK with a lengthy series of weekly cards on BT Sport, while Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom also kicked off their outdoors ‘Fight Camp’ series of shows on Sky Sports.
There were, of course, teething problems – no crowds meant a diminished atmosphere and broadcasters piped in canned audience noise, which was just weird and quickly scrapped. Gaps in between fights were longer to allow for the ring to be properly cleaned. There were, by virtue of government rules, less fights on each card. Yet still, boxing was back, and we were treated to some excellent fights.
Boxing had shown an uncharacteristic ability to roll with the punches and adapt to the times. However, there have obviously been casualties over the past year. Smaller promoters have struggled, and still are. While some have found success streaming on YouTube, countless others have not been able to stage shows without crowds.
In the US, Showtime and FOX unveiled impressive schedules despite the circumstances, with fights like Gervonta Davis vs Leo Santa Cruz and Jermall Charlo vs Sergey Derevyanchenko standing out.
It was also a tumultuous year for DAZN. At the beginning of the year the streaming service released impressive figures for 2019, reaching tens of millions of viewers. Early in 2020, they announced plans to launch globally – including in the UK. Then the pandemic hit. DAZN had no live sport to show and reports emerged that they were on the hunt for funding to keep themselves afloat, while also notifying organisations they held rights to that they would be paying less. Things looked bleak.
Those problems began to worsen when it emerged Canelo Alvarez, boxing’s brightest star, was seeking to end his record-breaking contract with the streaming service. An ugly court battle seemed inevitable, and while this would have been equally damaging for the flame-haired Mexican, DAZN were clearly not shaking up the game the way they had intended. Before the year was out, however, the dispute was settled outside of court and Canelo ended up fighting on DAZN in December, when the service finally rolled out globally.
As we move into 2021 they seem to be on sturdier footing, but in these unpredictable times there’s no telling how long that ground will hold.
Ultimately, boxing can be proud of how it responded to a hellish year. Broadcasters, promoters, fighters, managers, trainers and more all worked as hard as they could to keep the sport alive and kicking under torrid circumstances. The work, of course, continues but there is now a clear blueprint on how to operate with these restrictions in place.
Naturally, most boxing podcasts predominantly focus on weekly news and action, meaning for significant chunks of 2020 they’ve had to switch things up. The Five Live with Costello and Bunce pod did this particularly well, with their ‘Greatest Fights’ series looking back on historic clashes with prominent names on the show like Sugar Ray Leonard, Ricky Hatton, Evander Holyfield and David Haye.
When it comes to looking back on past fights, Costello and Bunce are two of the best around and the content they’ve produced this year has been excellent.
Similarly, Tris Dixon’s Boxing Life Stories has also been a potent tonic to everything that’s going on around us. Lengthy interviews with prominent – and some lesser known – names in boxing, looking back on their careers and experiences, makes for gripping listening. Standout episodes are those with Duke McKenzie, Mikkel Kessler and Nicky Piper.
There’s obviously been plenty of action to respond to as well, and pods like The Fight Disciples and Morning Kombat with Luke Thomas and Brian Campbell have been entertaining to follow – both include plenty of personality and humour. And, of course, there was a welcome return for The Opening Bell – the Boxing News podcast.
What has been noticeable this year is how some prominent fighters – such as Oleksandr Usyk, Vasiliy Lomachenko and Anthony Joshua – are pivoting to their own YouTube channels to release interviews. Sitting down with a member of their team, or sometimes just to camera, they’re controlling their own narrative and speaking on what they want to speak on. It’s by no means a sea change in how content is created, but it’s worth keeping an eye on, especially if more fighters follow suit.
Channels like IFL, Boxing Social and Seconds Out have continued to produce mountains of interviews, many of which have had to take place over video calls this year. Plenty of these exclusives have broken important news, and YouTube continues to be one of the key avenues of boxing figures getting the word out.