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The apparent appeal of Pacquiao vs McGregor speaks of a huge problem in boxing

Pacquiao vs McGregor
The reaction to the mooted Pacquiao vs McGregor lays bare boxing's problem, writes Matt Christie

NEWS broke over the weekend that Conor McGregor plans to return to boxing and Manny Pacquiao has agreed to face him in the new year. It’s the sport’s biggest story – purely in terms of interest – since Mike Tyson announced in the summer he was coming back to face Roy Jones Jnr in an exhibition bout. That Pacquiao vs McGregor, which like Tyson vs Jones is nothing more than a novelty bout, stole the headlines from a busy weekend of action that featured Josh Taylor, Mairis Briedis and the Charlo twins should speak of a huge problem.

The BBC published two stories about Pacquiao-McGregor but did not report on Briedis or the Charlos; The Guardian also reported on the proposed fight between a boxer and a UFC star over the weekend but did not mention any real boxing that occurred; The Sun’s boxing home page was dominated by Pacquiao, McGregor and Mike Tyson.

Boxing News ran an online story on Pacquiao-McGregor over the weekend (not a positive one and alongside reports on all the weekend’s real contests, I must add) which generated more hits in one hour than the rest of the weekend combined. It must beg the question: Why are fans turning to nonsense like Pacquiao (62-7-2) vs McGregor (0-1) and 54-year-old Tyson vs 51-year-old Jones with such gusto?

One might be tempted to blame the pandemic for this. Like every sport, boxing is slowly finding its feet after a barren period and we must be patient, that much is accepted and understood. However, imagine any news outlet prioritising a story about Diego Maradona coming back to play in an all-stars charity match over an actual match or any other sport allowing a novice to compete at the highest level. You can’t imagine it because it wouldn’t happen. And it wouldn’t happen because football (and all other sports boxing claims to compete with) has the infrastructure to ensure that the best will play the best. Therefore it always has a worthwhile narrative and any novelty attractions are viewed only for what they are.

It is of course unfair to compare boxing to football. The latter is a sport with strict fixture lists, widespread appeal and significantly more resources at its disposal than boxing. But the point is still valid. Boxing must clean up its act. The industry’s reaction to the upcoming Vasyl Lomachenko-Teofimo Lopez bout says it all; it’s exactly the kind of fight that should be happening all the time yet we greet it like it’s a gift from the gods simply because such contests are so rare.

Elsewhere, Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua are taking care of other business before each other (for those that are not keeping count, it’s 17 years since Lennox Lewis ruled without argument, five since Fury beat Wladimir Klitschko and still we wait for one leader to step forward). Why? So we can keep the sanctioning bodies happy and make the ‘undisputed’ fight.

Undisputed is perhaps the most galling word of all in a sport so fractured and disputed it’s frankly impossible to be undisputed for any longer than a week or two. That we keep saying undisputed like it’s some magic word only highlights the lunacy of it. The hoopla that surrounds someone winning all four sanctioning body titles every once in a while should not be a celebration of the sport but a damning reflection on it. ‘Wahey! For the third time this century we have one world champion! Pop the champagne!’

And that’s the crux of the issue: The amount of titles and inferior products the sanctioning bodies force upon us. Yet we keep bending over backwards to appease them and heighten their status in the process. Josh Taylor, for example, had to fight an unknown fella from Thailand in the hope he might then be allowed to face his closest rival (as long as his closest rival can now appease the sanctioning bodies he represents, of course).

It’s little wonder the media, and in turn the fans, can’t be bothered to try and keep up. Pacquiao vs McGregor and Tyson vs Jones are singular events that come without all the baggage and confusion. The last man standing is the winner, no further questions. Easy to follow and easy to report on, they’re not only masquerading as boxing they’re also showing it the way.

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