KALLE SAUERLAND oozes mischief. It leeks from his Joker smile and slicks back his dark brown hair in goodfellas’ style. But to mistake that mischief – or perhaps a better way of putting it, his public persona – as a clue that Sauerland isn’t taking his role as one of the most powerful figures in world boxing seriously, that he’s winging it and making it up as he goes along (or as social media might have you believe, that he’s regularly hoovering white lines from the bare chests of ladies drunk on champagne), would be doing the man a huge disservice.
“I like being known as a party animal, it makes me feel young,” a chripy Sauerland tells Boxing News of a reputation that grew from an age-old nervous tick in his jaw being misinterpreted as gurning while high as a kite. “I don’t mind the bad boy image, I don’t give a s***. But let’s be serious, if I partied like people think I do, seven nights a week with private planes, 50 chicks in the hot tub and 100 bottles of champagne a night, as much as it sounds like my kind of life, well, it would also be completely ridiculous. I was pretty wild in my twenties but, man, when you hit your forties… The key for everyone is to find some balance in life, whatever you’re doing. Whether you’re the CEO of an international company or a road sweeper, you have different challenges every day, you need that balance.
“I love to bring the bad boy out once in a while, no doubt about it, but the days of me doing that day in, day out are long gone. For me, life is very simple. I have four pockets: My sport, my family, my social and my business. But when one takes over, one of the others has to give. You only have one life, do what you have to do, do what you enjoy, but don’t p*** about with it.”
That life has involved boxing from the start; for context, John “The Beast” Mugabi, who was managed by Sauerland’s father, Wilfried, was Kalle’s first babysitter. Now approaching 43 years old, and with a self-confessed “addiction” to body-building that stems back to 2008, the super-fit Sauerland has emerged from a rollercoaster year with his ambition and focus, not to mention an impressive physique that bulges beneath his polo-neck sweater, very much intact. The World Boxing Super Series has been a triumph since its inception as its format delivered a blueprint on how the sport should be done: Eight of a division’s best fighters whittled down to one via quarters, semis and a final; a sprawling narrative it might be, but one that ends, as all major sporting events should end, with one undisputed winner left standing.
Oleksandr Usyk and Callum Smith were crowned leaders of their divisions following a first season decorated by memorable moments. But it was the second season, which spawned two of the best fights to grace the sport in recent years (Naoya Inoue-Nonito Donaire and Josh Taylor-Regis Prograis), that amplified the beauty of his competition. At Boxing News, we have long called Sauerland’s vision a ‘boxing utopia’, one that dispenses with the headaches of warring promoters and broadcasters and egos and delivers the fights that the fans want to see. It’s all so simple on the surface but, of course, the reality is far from.
Such audacious ventures often live life on a knife edge – especially at the beginning. The opening ceremony, staged in Monaco, was a lavish affair. No expense was spared at any of the subsequent events. It seemed inevitable, particularly in this boxing world where generating regular and substantial profit is a perennial problem, that the money would run out.
That moment came midway through season two when broadcasting partner MP & Silva (after the French Tennis Federation joined a long line of short-changed organisations and took them to court) went into liquidation a little over 12 months ago.
“They had other things like the French Open, Serie A, La Liga and all were chasing money,” Sauerland reflects. “But we were a start up! Imagine your broadcaster goes bust in the middle of the season. But we had shareholders who stepped in and said, ‘We believe in it, we’ll put our money where our mouth is.’ And they did it, and they backed it.”
Even so, payments to boxers had been postponed and the vultures, who had been circling since day one, prepared to land. Sauerland batted them away. The money to save the WBSS was raised within 48 hours from more robust shareholders but it took Kalle much longer to erase the doubts. It was reported that Ivan Baranchyk was going to drop out. Regis Prograis apparently wanted no part of it anymore. There where whispers of discontentment from other parties, too. In the end, the super-lightweight and bantamweight competitions reached glorious conclusions with the latest cruiserweight final set to follow in March this year.
“Last year was a huge one for us, I lost hair up here,” says Sauerland – who is more expressive than a drama student’s showreel – while tilting his head and pointing to his temples. “I had a lot of sleepless nights. But in the end, it was proof of concept. We did exactly what we said we were going to do. There were big offers made to the finalists to get out of their contract [with us]. But the finals happened, like I said they would. [Ivan] Baranchyk fought in Glasgow, like I said he would. [Regis] Prograis fought in London, like I said he would. Those were moments when we knew we had to deliver for the brand.
“It strengthened us. We showed everyone that we will come with the biggest, baddest lawyers, we will come with everything we can use in our arsenal, we will freeze them if they don’t fight, we will take them to the cleaners… All those points were put on the table and boxing is a small world, it spreads quickly with the amount of big mouths. We showed everyone what we’re about.”
The World Boxing Super Series is here to stay, Sauerland insists. He admits it’s not yet profitable if you look simply at the money coming in and the money going out. But as a brand, as a concept capable of reinventing the sport, it’s priceless.
“Yes, you can go off and make a ton of money on one event,” he says. “Boxing is a predatory business. Look at the way that boxing actually exists in terms of brands and the top names. We have Top Rank, Matchroom, Team Sauerland, Frank Warren, Golden Boy, PBC – and I’ve probably gone through the biggest promotional brands on the planet there – but those brands are always secondary to the fight. Now there’s Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder II and that in itself is a brand. It’s brand that’s being sold until February 22 and then on the Sunday, the morning after the fight, it’s gone, it’s finished.”
Kalle rubs his hands together, claps and then bangs the table between us. “But in that time, from inception to the fight, you have capitalised on that brand in that time. And that’s boxing. It’s predatory. It’s opportunistic. That’s beautiful … in a way. It’s almost working.
“I looked at that and thought, how can we get it to work all the time? How can I bottle the goods and get what people ultimately want? And what they ultimately want is to find out who the best is. You always need to remember where your end consumer is. You end consumer is not the likes of you and I – we’re happy. You and I would watch a battle of donkeys at York Hall on a rainy January night because we like boxing. We’ve done it all our lives, it’s in our blood and we love watching it. We’re always there. My focus is on the fan with a passing interest, one who will read about it now and again in the papers. They’re the ones I want.
“Then I create a bantamweight tournament. ‘Bantamweight? That’s not going to draw in causal fans, that’s not going to be sexy.’ But by the end of it, we’d had one of the all-time great fights in Naoya Inoue-Nonito Donaire. That was the end-product of all the branding, of the storylines.
“There is a huge benefit to having a storyline going in. But you can get tired as a promoter of being asked what comes next before the fight your promoting has even started. It shows the storyline might not be strong enough. There’s great promoters out there: Eddie [Hearn] does a great job, especially on his social media platforms; Bob [Arum] is Bob; Oscar De La Hoya has a great face in the Latino communities in America; and Frank [Warren] is Frank, he’s a great matchmaker, he always has been, he knows how to put on great fights. But I’m looking at ways of making the promoter’s job, not redundant, but focused more on the fighters. You know when they sign up for a tournament, the fighters mean f****** business.”
Which is perhaps why some promoters have been a little dismissive of Sauerland’s ideas. But the promoters’ approval is secondary to that of the fighters. Kalle takes obvious pride from creating a competition that – in time, he hopes – all boxers will want to be a part of.
“Inoue signed up for the WBSS without even seeing a contract,” Sauerland continues. “He announced it in the ring after he had knocked out [Jamie] McDonnell, he didn’t even know what money was involved. But for him, that was it, he wanted to prove himself. So if we talk about the best moment of the WBSS, for me personally, it was when Inoue said – without me knowing – that he was going in the World Boxing Super Series. Forget what I might say about it being the Champions League of boxing, when a fighter of that standing comes out and says that, you think, ‘Right. Okay. We’re there’.”
Sauerland, a Spurs fan, often compares the WBSS to the Champions League. But the promoter has had to make some tough decisions along the way to ensure the two competitions have comparable qualities; particularly when faced with trying to find the right TV network in the early days.
“People wondered why we were putting fights on our own channel online,” he explains. “But the first thing you do when you build a brand is you own that brand. You control it. Under no circumstances do you give away that control. The first way to lose that control is to give it to a network; a network that doesn’t appreciate and understand your brand. We had a massive offer, and I mean massive, from the US during season one after the quarter-finals when people started to realise, ‘S***, this is good’. We turned it down. Now, as a promoter, it’s like going up to the roof and jumping off the building. It was business suicide. But as a brand, it was the best decision we made because we found DAZN, who understand and love the brand. What happens? Last year we have two of the best fights of the year. That’s repaying the faith.
“But that was all only possible if we have the partners, the right partners, who understand the overall storyline of the WBSS. What if we agreed a one-off deal for a semi-final yet that broadcaster then refused to show the final? The storyline has to flow. And don’t forget that it’s the broadcaster, and not the promoter – whatever some promoters might tell you – who tell the story. As promoters, we can set the scene, but we can’t tell the whole story, that’s what the broadcasters do. Which is why certain things are so important to us when we agree on the broadcaster: We wanted the trophy included in the graphics, the presentation ceremony had to be on-air. All little things, maybe, but imagine watching the Champions League final and the broadcast switches off before the trophy has gone up. Our business model is not a boxing promotions model – otherwise we’d be doing something wrong. We are building a brand.”
A brand that is not here to radically change the sport, then, but to compliment it. While he would like nothing more than to be hosting 17 WBSS tournaments every single year he realises that it’s unlikely to be achieved in the current market. But it’s a vision he hopes his fellow promoters share as the sport moves forward in decades to come.
“We welcome all promoters because we’re not trying to encroach on them,” Kalle explains. “That’s the way we need to keep it. In an ideal world, yes, of course I want it in every division, every year. We’d then have that utopia that you speak of. But in my lifetime, with the set up we have now, it would be impossible to implement. But to say it would be impossible in the future is another matter.”
While assistance from promoters is vital, it can be argued that the sanctioning bodies – the WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO – are not so pivotal in the competition’s success; after all, if the WBSS could begin to fulfil that vision of utopia across the whole sport, the importance of those titles would, in turn, diminish substantially. Sauerland agrees but, outwardly at least, only to an extent.
“We will work with all the sanctioning bodies and we want world champions in at the start. But if, for whatever reason, under their rules they can’t do that then we will go our way. For us, it’s different. People are not going to go out and defend the Muhammad Ali Trophy, we’re not trying to set up any kind of rival organisation here. The winners may want to parade the trophy in their first fight after winning it, but did Liverpool take the Champions League trophy to their next game? No. But it stays in the trophy cabinet and it is a very important trophy.
“We’re not trying to take over from any of the federations like some others. There was a time when I heard PBC were going to make their own belt. We’re not doing that, we’re just trying to sit there and unify a division. But we don’t need to have the belts to do that because by the time the final comes along it’s clear that they’re the best two fighters out there. Everyone knows that whoever wins that trophy becomes the man to beat in that weight class.
“It’s not a takeover. It’s to the fighters’ benefit, the managers’ benefit, the promoters, the trainers and even lower down, with the exposure on the undercards, where we will showcase young boxers from the local area. It should also be to the sanctioning bodies benefit, should it not? They can charge their sanctioning fees and everything else.”
So what’s next? Sauerland hints that the super-middleweights could again feature in the next season. Women’s boxing too is high on his agenda. But he cannot start planning, seriously planning, until the last of season two’s finals are out of the way. For a WBSS to work he needs eight fighters with clear schedules and finding eight fighters with clear schedules and, more importantly, the flexibility to commit to a tournament, is not an easy process.
Utopia, then, is some way off. But Sauerland will retain that goal, even if it’s one that’s scored long after he’s gone. Such foresight has made him one of the most exciting, controversial and underrated promoters to come along this century. He recognises the party-hard playboy image adds to his appeal in certain markets; it’s a role he’s happy to play because it has no bearing on his reality. People should be more careful what they believe, he jokes.
“When I see people and they’re painting their lives as this perfect picture, b*****ks,” Kalle snipes. “I think social media is to cringe for, I think it’s a horrible thing. I think when you see people who feel the pressure to paint this picture to the outside world, it’s a very weak person. ‘I’m in the gym!’ What, again? Great. Who cares? It’s all so superficial. Half of them have gone into the gym to have a coffee just so they can tell everyone they’re in the gym. If you want to show photos of you in the gym, fine, there are people who do it for the right reasons, but many more that don’t.
“I have 120 followers on my private Instagram account. People I have known for at least five years on there. That’s me on there. That’s what I’m really like. Now I’m probably going to get people trying to hack that account – ‘that’s where the real uncensored shit is, man!’ – but that’s what I want to show my friends and family, the people that really matter.
“We have the Sauerland social media accounts, we have a social media team, but I don’t want that to be some robotic account, I want to have a bit of a laugh. I enjoy that, but I also see people who are trying hard, far too hard, to paint a picture of this perfect life. A perfect life? There’s no such thing.”