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There is no quick fix for boxing

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Optimism and long-term thinking required to break free from the boxing lockdown, writes Matt Christie

THIS week marks my fifth anniversary as the editor of Boxing News. I spent my first official day in the hotseat in Las Vegas on the eve of Floyd Mayweather’s victory over Manny Pacquiao. Today, at a time of the year when boxing is traditionally the talk of the sporting world, I work in my kitchen and that May 2015 super-fight seems like decades ago.

This lockdown life is our new reality. Confined to our homes we dutifully make the best of it. It’s harder for some than it is for others. The longer it stretches the more unfamiliar the old normality seems. My most recent trip to Las Vegas took place only three months ago when Tyson Fury, in front of an electric crowd inside the MGM Grand, thrashed Deontay Wilder. Memories of walking through the fight city and brushing past fellow human beings already seem peculiar and distant.

Those who are able to walk or run or cycle do so each day. Strangers smile gratefully when we adjust our paths to ensure we remain two metres away. If accidentally we edge too close they recoil in disgust. Imagine asking those already conditioned to social distancing to gather in their thousands in the next few months.

With each week that passes, a quick return to what we once we knew gets harder to envision. Boxing, like so many industries, is searching for solutions.

There was optimism only a few weeks ago. A feeling that boxing would rise quickly once this blip was over, that its lack of structure and strict fixture lists would make it easier to restart. Yet no sport can hope to pick up where it left off. The sporting world must learn to walk again, behind closed doors and on carefully considered steps, before it runs free.

Football, a socially acceptable sporting endeavour, will be at the front of the queue. The national game is being discussed in parliament, with plans being formulated to ensure it kicks off again sooner rather than later.

Football needs doctors but they’re not borrowed from the National Health Service. The sport can be relaunched without putting a strain on much-needed resources, particularly without the crowds that require so much policing. Football will soon start its journey back. But a sport defined by blows to the head is unlikely to be at the front of the queue when stadiums and arenas eventually reopen. It means that the biggest fights – those we hoped would happen to entice the crowds back – might be postponed until at least next year.

There are contrasting views. There are other options, we’re told. Though contests will initially have to take place without spectators, atmospheres can be simulated through loud speakers that will drown out the voices of the ringside commentators. Pay-per-view costs could be increased to make up for lack of ticket sales and therefore make the biggest fights plausible; one million people paying an extra £20, for example, would generate a significant proportion of the usual gate receipts. The biggest earners might be asked to take a pay cut but will the biggest earners be willing to put their reputations at risk in an environment that is alien to them? Will punters be in a position to pay extra to watch at home? Both are unreasonable expectations.

Bottom line, at least in the UK, until the NHS is in a position to support boxing, any speculation about its return is merely that. Boxing will of course survive. The small steps it takes over the coming months have to be designed for the long term, and even if progress is slow, optimism should be high. Reopening gyms must be the first priority. Fighters used to taking a backseat in terms of attention, those who appear on big fight undercards or top small halls can step into the limelight in the short term. When the sport is ready to stage the biggest fights, the feeling is they will be made with the minimum of fuss because lessons about the importance of them will have been learnt. Boxing, like the world, can come back stronger and wiser.

We all operate in our own bubbles. It’s hard to see out of them sometimes. But, rest assured, a time will come when the lockdown life will seem just as distant as the Las Vegas super-fights seem today.

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