RICKY HATTON didn’t need much. For the most part he was able to make do with a basic, unoriginal nickname, a pair of City-blue shorts, and just two songs: “Blue Moon” and “There’s Only One Ricky Hatton”. Eventually, once the spotlight became brighter and he had more creative control, he did get a little fancier, it’s true, but only insofar as donning a fat suit during his ring walk, which, as it turned out, just added more weight to why he was such a fan favourite in the first place.
In fact, to this day there have been few British boxers as popular as Ricky Hatton, something highlighted rather impressively by a recent and powerful documentary; titled, simply, Hatton. Looking back, Hatton’s popularity around that time, circa 2000-2009, can be attributed to the simple and straightforward nature of both his approach and the time itself. He didn’t, for example, have the questionable benefit of social media to use for self-promotion, nor, so strong was his fan base, did Hatton ever have to portray himself as anything other than what he appeared to be. He didn’t need to talk out of turn, either, or trash talk opponents, or flog himself with the same desperation you see in the eyes and hear in the voices of so many British boxers today. Just lucky like that, Hatton was instead spared the hassle due to both his charisma and the way in which he united a large city normally divided into two colours: red and blue.
What also helped Hatton was the way boxing was viewed by TV networks around that time. For while the networks who remained loyal to boxing were still very much keen on hosting pay-per-view events, they did at least allow Hatton, and others, to develop gradually, and organically, and the right way. Because of this – call it an investment – he built his name and reputation on Sky Sports shows, of which he was always the highlight, and his ticket-selling prowess grew on account of featuring on the same bills as other popular Mancunians like Anthony Farnell and Michael Gomez. By the time he then emerged as a genuine headliner, and by the time he was putting it all on the line against Kostya Tszyu and, later, Floyd Mayweather, the whole nation was behind him.
Now, of course, things are different. Now, as we have seen on recent Sky Sports shows, there is a drive to rush stars into headline positions, the reasons for which are manifold. On the one hand, much of this rush owes to the increasing importance placed on pay-per-view as a business model and how there appears to be few British boxers capable of reaching that level, through no fault of their own, in the coming years. On the other hand, meanwhile, the reason for this rush has a lot to do with the fact that investing in a boxer’s rise, either from a promoter’s point of view, a TV network’s point of view, or a fan’s point of view, is no longer as appealing as it may have once been.
The world has moved on, becoming faster, fickler, and choosier, and, what is more, the same can be said for the job of a boxing promoter. Today, rather than target a major town or city and make a particular boxer its focal point and figurehead, promoters are instead primarily targeting user profiles on social media in terms of fan base. This approach will of course have its perks, if only in the sense that its reach is unlimited, yet what should not be ignored is the fact that by chiefly targeting people who are chronically online you are, in turn, targeting a group who are invariably savvy enough to work out how to avoid paying for the very product you are promoting to them. In other words, to target the online fan base is to target people who are equipped to use you, the promoter, the way you think you are using them. Or in even simpler terms: it is easy, yes, to promote online, but self-defeating, too.
That’s perhaps why viewing figures are down, “event crowds” are more prevalent than crowds drawn to a particular fighter, and influencer boxing is now being used to clear up the mess made by the traditional code. It is also why promoters themselves are becoming more and more embroiled in squabbles with fellow promoters, as if they are the ones actually fighting, and far more willing to give interviews to fans holding cameras. This, after all, has become the era of the get-in-there-and-make-it-all-about-you promoter; the promoter with the hefty social media presence and the opinion on everything, whether it concerns boxing or not; the promoter who must stand between boxers following a press conference and get that all-important shot for their personal collection.
As a consequence, it’s hard to now see who is capable of stealing their limelight. Over at DAZN, where they now bed-hop between proper boxing and the influencer fisticuffs necessary to maintain a pulse, the need for a star in a post-Anthony Joshua world has seen them do all they can to pretend Conor Benn has just had a perfectly normal 12 months. Meanwhile, over at Sky, where the decision was made to rescue some of the boxers DAZN no longer wanted, the panic to accelerate the progress of someone like Adam Azim, talented but not yet “it”, causes only confusion when the fire we are promised doesn’t ignite every time.
That’s not Adam Azim’s problem, by the way. In an ideal world, one in which pay-per-view isn’t the be-all and end-all, he would be allowed to take his time and not become a victim of desperate hyperbole. Moreover, in this same ideal world, low-key characters such as Joshua Buatsi would not be castigated for only focusing on boxing (not when it remains the job of the promoter to make stars of these boxers and make people care about their fights).
That’s the problem, though, with “followers” becoming fake currency and everything requiring bells and whistles these days. Someone like Hatton, for instance, was able to create his own noise in the early 2000s because the ingredients back then were so much simpler. Helped out only by his theme tune and the noise of the crowd, his crowd, there was no need on fight night for an excitable MC to yell at people to get them to focus, nor the need for “Sweet Caroline” to encourage these same people to pretend they were having the time of their lives. They didn’t even have to play music between rounds in Hatton’s day, so sure were they that the fans watching the action were stimulated enough by what was taking place inside the ring; so sure were they that the fans in attendance cared about what they were watching and prioritised it over simply being seen at an event and afterwards tweeting their gratitude to the promoter in the hope of some acknowledgement.