UNDERCARDS in boxing are to sometimes be endured rather than enjoyed. In Britain anyway, an undercard typically plays the same role as the lift music you hear while in the silent company of a stranger, both of you waiting for the doors to open and the tension to break. If not that, it can instead be compared to the music that plays while the hospital receptionist places you on hold, minutes before an all-clear is delivered, or the music your bank plays before they tell you the scam didn’t take everything in your account. It is to the audience member what a school play is to the parent of the child who appears only at the end of the play and only for the briefest moment; something, in other words, that must be suffered before any reward can be received.
Now, that is not to say all undercards in boxing are bad, nor that to sit through them is an ordeal of some kind. But clearly, given their very nature, there is forever going to be the possibility of a lull ahead of the thing everybody is ultimately waiting for. It is, because of this, up to the promoter and the matchmaker, whose job it is to set the table and create the menu, to try to guarantee that what precedes the main event provides the momentum required to produce a crescendo of noise and anticipation by the time the undercard is complete.
A task easier said than done, often, it must be said, promoters get this all wrong. While perhaps never their intention, they nevertheless have a way of sucking the life out of the audience, either the live one or the one at home, by doing at least one of the following: making the undercard too long and therefore a chore to sit through; putting together too many mismatches which result in fans losing interest; having too many fights destined to go the distance and thus testing the patience of even saints and connoisseurs.
It’s a tough balance to strike, as you can imagine, and one that has been made all the more difficult in recent years by both the proliferation of titles and the desperate need for pay-per-view events and headliners for these events. This, alas, doesn’t leave a lot of time to invest in properly seasoning young prospects, nor does it leave a lot of money in the pot once the night’s headliners have been paid their share.
As a result, the quality of the undercard inevitably suffers. This we have seen evidence of in 2023 and increasingly it is becoming tougher and tougher to make it through some of the undercards we are being served up. Nowadays, in fact, rather than simply background noise (noise, that is, to which you can cook, wash up, tidy your room, or read), undercards in Britain in 2023 have become a strange and unexpected form of water torture. Indeed, between the hours of, say, five and eleven, they represent the dripping tap you are convinced you can hear during the night; the one that really needs to be fixed and until it is will keep you awake. The only difference here, one might argue, is that when dealing with boxing undercards the challenge is to stay awake. There are, after all, only so many meaningless bouts between overhyped prospects and journeymen, as well as equally meaningless ones between “personalities” whose boxing ability does not justify their placing on the card, one can sit through before their eyes start to betray them. Not only that, what makes this endurance test all the trickier is the fact that time and time again in Britain we are forced to stay awake beyond 11 o’clock in order to see the main event.
That’s a separate issue, sure, but it still has relevance and it still no doubt impacts one’s overall enjoyment of an undercard. For, let’s be honest, it is hard when alert and awake to enjoy some of the fare dished up in recent months, let alone when tired, counting down the hours, and fully expecting these hours to be filled with vanilla punditry or, worse, interviews with ringside guests and illiterate influencers. It is in those moments you find yourself pining for even the time when, horizontal on the sofa, you watched tiny, light-hitting men like Iván Calderón go 12 rounds in the early hours of the morning or watched a couple of Don King-promoted heavyweights knock seven shades out of each other as though the opponent was the reason for them not being paid what they were promised. At least on those occasions, when it was still admittedly challenging, you were kept awake by something of value and something doing its best to hold your attention.
Now, rather than that, you have people doing all they can to turn you away and have you come back later, only hoping that in that time you haven’t forgotten all about them or, by then, decided to watch Match of the Day instead. You have in place of quality a travelling circus of characters who analyse and give their “takes” when, ideally, boxers should be in the ring being introduced and showcased to their public. You also have “public bullying” in the form of the many mismatches approved by promoters terrified by the thought of seeing their cash cow – this man or woman they will simultaneously tell you is the greatest thing they have ever seen – lose their unbeaten record and therefore their shot at becoming a pay-per-view star.
Because that in the end is what it’s really all about: pay-per-view. It’s why the money is being unevenly distributed and it’s why fear rather than ambition fuels a lot of what we see on undercards in Britain these days. In fact, one could even go so far as to argue that the standout main event and chief support combo witnessed in recent months was the one Channel 5 – a channel for which you don’t have to pay – delivered on September 1st. That was the night Lyndon Arthur stopped Braian (no, not Brian) Suarez in the main event of a back-and-forth light-heavyweight battle, while on the undercard Samuel Antwi became British super-welterweight champion with a stunning final-round knockout of Mason Cartwright.
Interestingly, of all the major shows promoted in the UK during that period, this one happened to be the most low-key and the least sexy. Yet what, on reflection, it had going for it was two things: one, terrestrial TV, which to some extent removes the need to brainwash the audience, and two, the British title, which, despite the influx of fancier variants, remains the tool most adept at cutting through the bullshit and ensuring competitive action still exists.