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Top Rank is bringing boxing back

Mikaela Mayer
Shakur Stevenson and Mikaela Mayer will headline a June 9 bill in Las Vegas. It signals the sport's comeback. John Dennen explores how the event will work in this era of coronavirus

BOXING’S big comeback is getting underway, and sooner than anyone anticipated. With the sport shut down due to the global coronavirus pandemic, a boxing event hasn’t been held in America since March 14. But Top Rank, the most influential promotional company in the world today, are bringing the sport back to its fight capital, Las Vegas. They have received the greenlight from the Nevada State Athletic Commission to stage two shows at the MGM on June 9 and June 11. This will be the start of a series of regular events. The world will be watching to see how they handle these shows and whether it can be done safely.

These events will be behind closed doors and strictly pared down in terms of who will be admitted. There will be no spectators. All participants will answer a questionnaire on whether they’ve exhibited any symptoms and then be tested for Covid 19. They will remain in isolation for several hours while they wait for the result. A negative test will give them clearance to enter ‘the bubble’ or the closed system where they must remain up until and through fight night.

Their health protocols are being finalised but Bob Bennett, of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, has reviewed their operations plan. He previously said, “They’re still in the process of completing it. It’s very comprehensive. We’re moving in the right direction. I’m pleased to see we’re working in concert with a closed-system event and I expect it to be very successful.”

Each show will have around five bouts and be comprised of US-based fighters due to travel restrictions. The boxers and their corner teams will essentially go into quarantine on a floor of the hotel in Las Vegas. A gym has been set up for them there and they’ll have one specific training slot a day assigned to them.

Many of Top Rank’s most high profile fighters are based abroad. Emanuel Navarrete, the WBO super-bantamweight champion, is in Mexico, Naoya Inoue is in Japan, Tyson Fury and Michael Conlan are in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It’s unclear at present how they could compete in America.

There are also economic limitations on what fights can be made. The live gate is a significant part of their funding which is not currently available. The crowd at the Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder rematch for instance brought in $17 million, a crucial sum clearly when it comes to putting together an event of that magnitude. Those top level world title fights won’t be on the agenda for the time being.

“There’s a limit to what we can do,” Top Rank founder Bob Arum said. “It’s not going to be easy and everyone’s going to have to be patient.”

But they are bringing forward one of America’s potential stars of the future to headline their first show back. Shakur Stevenson, only 13 bouts into pro career but already the WBO featherweight world champion will box at the MGM.

Shakur demonstrated his ability when winning a silver medal at the 2016 Olympic Games when he was just a teenager. Only 22 years old, time and bright future are on his side.

Felix Caraballo is scheduled to be his opponent on Tuesday June 9 in a non-title bout. The Puerto Rican sports a 13-1-2 (9) record but has not competed with opposition of Stevenson’s calibre. The young American has a commendable skillset and is punching with increasing authority. He should be favoured to win inside the distance.

Mikaela Mayer, Stevenson’s team mate from that Olympic squad, is also due to box on the card. Mayer, 12-0 with five stoppages, is advancing towards title level. She will box Helen Joseph, a Connecticut based Nigerian. Joseph is 17-4-2 (10) and has never been stopped, going the distance with Belgium’s energetic Delphine Persoon last time out. Mayer should outbox and outpoint Joseph if she can keep the contest where she wants – at range behind her jab.

Shakur Stevenson celebrates his win over Oscar Mendoza STEVEN RYAN/GETTY IMAGES

“Shakur’s always looking great. That kid’s a prodigy. Obviously I’ve been watching him box for years, he’s my friend and my team mate but I’m a fan of his style too. I try to emulate some of the things he does,” Mayer, who has been in camp with Stevenson, told Boxing News. “I love that they chose two young up-and-comers to showcase boxing for the first time since this whole lockdown. I think it was a good move to have someone like Shakur Stevenson, a young new champion and then a female fight like me who’s a top contender, ready to be a world champion, looking for that opportunity. It’s going to bring in a good mixture of people who want to tune in and watch us fight so I’m excited and I’m honoured that they believe in me to want to put me on this card and showcase boxing again.

“It’s a huge honour, I know the world is going to be watching this fight. Even people who wouldn’t normally watch boxing in general, I think everyone’s itching for live action sports. So I think a lot of people are going to be tuning in. I think the UFC proved that with their views. So I’m excited for the opportunity, I know a lot of people are going to be watching. This is huge for my career but it’s huge for women’s boxing as well to put a female on the main card like this. I feel like I really do need to represent us in this fight and put on a good show.”

A wild card in these contests is how hard it’s been for boxers to prepare properly and to get sparring while gyms have been shut down. That factor will add an element of unpredictability. Stevenson and Mayer were due to box in New York in early March on a show that had to be cancelled. They’ve been doing their final preparations in Houston and have been able to get in sparring partners.

The fight week environment that they’ll be going into in Las Vegas will be significantly different from what they’re accustomed to. “It’s really strict. Usually I’m allowed to fly out five people in my team, my cutman, two corner men, photographer, my nutritionist, everyone I have as part of my team, it’s a big team. This time we were only allowed to fly in two people, two corner people. Not even my manager can come,” Mayer said. “No extra stuff. Two cornermen, we have coach Al [Mitchell] and coach Kay [Koroma] and me and that’s who they’re flying in.

“I’m not necessarily worried about anything. I’m pretty flexible, I know how to roll with the punches. I’m worried about keeping my team safe, especially coach Al, he’s going to be 77 this year. I would hate for anything bad to happen to him. Even in camp we’re being very careful, we’re only in the gym with people that we need to be. He’s wearing his mask, we’re constantly sanitising, just to keep him safe and everything. That’s number one but other than that, again my experience fighting in the amateurs, you have to learn how to adjust. You don’t always have the best accommodation, you don’t always have everything you need in other countries or travelling so I’m used to it, we’ll figure it out.”

Being isolated in the hotel and competing with no spectators will be factors that have an effect on boxers. “That’s unique and I think the biggest thing is no fans. I don’t know how that’s going to play out,” she continued. “It’s on ESPN so I assume they’re going to have to create some element of entertainment so I assume there’ll be a walkout but I don’t know how it’ll be.

“I fought in the amateurs for 10 years so I’m used to fighting with no crowd… I fight for the glory of winning and making my team proud and representing women’s boxing. Thousands of people on ESPN will be watching and that is good enough for me.”

It’s still a crucial fight for Mayer’s career as she hopes to secure a shot at the WBC super-featherweight world title, held by England’s Terri Harper. “I’ve been the number one contender and I want that fight. But you know what, she got it, now she’s the champ and I just hope that they step up and give me a chance to fight her soon. I’m ready,” Mikaela said. “Terri’s got her work cut out for her. Eddie Hearn got her in a position to be a world champion. She doesn’t have a tonne of experience yet so she has a lot of tough girls in her division that are ready to take this belt from her. So she’s going to have to stay on her toes and really step up because there’s a lot of girls coming for her spot. So she’s got to be ready for the heat.

“Everyone’s coming to take that number one spot, everybody wants that. I don’t look past anybody and I’ve got a tough fight ahead of me.”

There is another limiting factor when it comes bringing back high level world title fights. Champions and their challengers will want a full uninterrupted training camp to prepare for bouts that are such high level. Under current conditions that is a hard task to accomplish. Terri Harper’s WBC super-featherweight title defence against Natasha Jonas is currently under discussion. That would be the first world title fight to come back in the UK and one of the first worldwide. But getting the athletes enough time and resources to prepare is a major consideration. A date in July has been suggested for Harper-Jonas but August is more likely.

Joe Gallagher, Jonas’ trainer, told Boxing News, “Straightaway, if you’re back in the gym on June 1, for a world title you’re looking at the back end of July or early August for that now. It’s going to take time. They can be doing all the running that they have been doing or working at home. But getting back in and punching and strengthening their arms and their tendons and their hands and getting that ringcraft in and getting their eye in again and getting sparring again [all takes time]. That’s going to be a huge problem, sparring. Because travelling for the sparring and then being concerned that the gymnasium is clean. Everyone has their own story in this lockdown. As in Natasha is the main carer for her nan, I am for my mum. So you want to be sure that the people who come to the gym are coronavirus free and are abiding by the guidelines… It’s who we’re passing it on to is the main concern.

“I would be looking at Natasha-Terri Harper happening in the first or second week of August. Ten weeks of proper training for a world title fight. I understand the gyms are reopening now from the beginning of June. The people that are ready to fight, they’re the kids that are good for six or eight round contests. No problem with that and they’ll be ready to go. But when you’re talking about a world title fight [it’s different]. Getting into a gymnasium, punching again, getting that timing back, getting that rhythm back, hardening your hands up, your shoulders, your knuckles, the whole lot.

“Safety is paramount at all costs.”

That safety would involve minimising the risks of contracting coronavirus and giving the athletes adequate time for preparation. Many will be watching to see what lessons can be learned from how Top Rank handle this event on June 9. Other promoters ultimately will be following suit. For good or ill, this is the start of boxing’s comeback.

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