IF once upon a time the ideal boxer was, like a child, one seen and not heard, it’s fair to say the opposite is true of boxers today. In fact, one could even go so far as to say there has never been a greater need for, and emphasis on, boxers finding their voice and promoting themselves, nor as many possible ways to do this. Embracing the sea change, the sport experienced quite the watershed moment at the start of 2021 when Ryan García, he of 20 straight wins and 8.7 million Instagram followers, impressively stopped Luke Campbell, a top 10 lightweight contender, inside nine rounds on January 2.
Ordinarily, this would have been a fight like any other. It would have been a crossroads battle between a young, untested prospect and an experienced title challenger, with the result, whatever it happened to be, coming as no real surprise. Yet here, in this instance, what made García’s fight against Campbell so compelling was how, during it, the opinion of García dramatically shifted and how this shift owed to the Californian breaking free from a persona he had created online to become a champion-in-waiting, displaying, in the process, all the traits this role requires and García apparently lacked: heart, resolve, strength, determination.
Looking back, García’s fight against Campbell came at an interesting time for the sport. We had just seen Mike Tyson, 54, and Roy Jones Jnr, 51, share eight rounds in a December exhibition sold entirely on their names and past achievements. We had also seen, on the Tyson-Jones undercard, YouTube star Jake Paul flatten former NBA point guard Nate Robinson, while Jake’s brother, Logan, announced he would soon be boxing Floyd Mayweather. That news proved not only shocking and confusing but had plenty wondering what now constituted a big ‘fight’ in boxing.
García vs Campbell, the first important bout of 2021, was not a big fight per se but was intriguing due to the meeting of old-school mentality and new-school mentality. It carried greater significance because of this dynamic and purists looked upon the fight as a chance to see García, the cocksure upstart, get his comeuppance and discover that fights are won in the ring and not on phones.
In Campbell, a former top amateur with sound fundamentals, they had their man and the sight of him taking apart a fighter deemed style over substance would, they felt, go a long way to recalibrating the sport. It would put it back on track. It would warn others, those less talented than García, that there is no substitute for technique, sacrifice and hard work.
This lesson, predicated on García not being as good as he claimed, seemed sure to happen when Campbell measured García early and dropped him heavily in the second round. But the fight’s momentum and the audience’s opinion then completely changed once García, having recovered, grew more and more into the contest and finally took over, walking Campbell down and ticking boxes round by round.
By the time Campbell was stopped in the seventh, it was clear boxing had a new star. A fresh one, at that. The kind of star perfect for the social media era. The kind of star capable of combining the childish, attention-seeking antics of the internet’s most famous faces with the skills and toughness required to become a world champion fighter. Boasting the best of both worlds, García was, in essence, either one of the Paul brothers if they could fight, or Terence Crawford if Crawford was a decade younger and could self-promote. He appeared, on the face of it, to be everything boxing needs and everything boxing promoters are searching for.
In fact, given the role of promoter has now changed beyond recognition, García arrived at a crucial time. Promoters today still play the role of event managers, of course, yet the custom of promoters connecting boxers with their public becomes more and more archaic by the week. Now boxers, boxers like García, can promote themselves through their own channels and methods and require neither promoters nor even outmoded media to be heard, develop a following, or rise to prominence. Now, with the boxer never more powerful, it could be argued the promoter has never been more surplus to requirements.
The downside of that is this: in becoming promoters in their own right there is now a far greater emphasis on the selling aspect of the boxer’s profession, meaning an ability to sell is often considered more important than an ability to fight. Subsequently, as in life, social media presence becomes a substitute for quality and talent, leaving skilled but introverted boxers working doggedly in silence. Worse than that, it redefines the term ‘boxer’ as someone who can sell, rather than someone who can actually fight.
If in doubt, look around. Plenty of the boxers showcased in the past 12 months have been boxers whose best wins have come online rather than in the ring; through posts rather than punches. Active and savvy, these are the great self-promoters of the smartphone age, committed to playing the game and playing it well. They know what to say and what to post and know an online presence can compensate for a lack of presence in the ring or, indeed, an absence of noteworthy victories. They also know social media numbers and a boxer’s audience reach are now just as pertinent as titles, rankings, and standout wins.
This was perhaps best demonstrated when Australia’s Ebanie Bridges was lined up for a shot at the WBA women’s bantamweight belt on a Matchroom card last April. Thirty-five-year-old Bridges, who boasts 87,000 followers on Twitter and 340,000 on Instagram, had, at the time, boxed just five times as a professional and was, by most people’s reckoning, still very much a novice in terms of her development. But what made her such an interesting case was her hunger to sell herself, using both her looks and accessibility, and the fact this hunger would inevitably land her opportunities and fights she does not, all things being equal, perhaps deserve.
Bridges, to her credit, is refreshingly open about her approach and doesn’t deny her capacity to promote is pivotal to her career as a boxer. As is her right, she is using every promotional tool available to her and has, in time and by doing this, become a welcome addition to a sport forever in need of characters with stories and unique points of view. Still alarming, though, is the speed with which she gained the kind of attention seen as currency in the eyes of circling promoters. For, as shrewd as it seems at the time, the combination of those two things – inexperience and popularity – is often a toxic mix, never more so than in a sport as dangerous as boxing.
Luckily, in the case of Bridges, now 7-1, she has shown she can fight (against Shannon Courtenay, in April, she battled through the kind of injury that would have had many seeking a way out). But, of course, not all boxers who sell themselves in this way will appear quite so comfortable when their phone is off and the bell rings.
Another boxer who made his name on social media is Dave Allen, the Doncaster heavyweight who not long ago retired and then unretired at the age of 28. He can be considered either a success story or a cautionary tale depending on your perspective. (Truth be told, even he isn’t sure.) Some days Allen thinks he has overachieved as a boxer, whereas other times he feels he has underachieved. What he is certain of, though, is that social media, as a tool, has been both a help and a hindrance to him during his professional boxing career. It helped establish his fan base, it made him popular, and it delivered him opportunities on Sky Sports for which he was well-paid. But social media was, Allen said, also partly the reason why he was rushed in his career, frequently booked at short notice, and occasionally thrown in tough fights too early. Calculated or reckless, risks were taken because he was all of the following: well-known; popular; a face; a talker. He was, having reached a certain status level online, not taking fights to aid his progression but to instead sell either an event or his opponent. He was, in effect, the promoter taking punches.
When looking at it like that, it’s hard to ignore the potentially damaging impact social media, as a training ground, could have on some fighters, especially today. After all, in a time of widespread uncertainty, inactivity has been rife, opportunities have been scarce, and purse and TV money remains in short supply. With costs cut across the board, there has perhaps never been more of a need for style – something easily fabricated, manipulated and bought – to gain traction at the expense of slow-to-boil substance. It’s quick. It’s easy to understand. It’s often cheap. It’s the ready-meal route to temporary satisfaction and fit for purpose in an age of short attention spans, one-click delivery, and disposability.
In the film world, director Martin Scorsese ruffled feathers in 2019 when labelling studio-driven, franchise-based superhero movies “theme park rides”. His aim, in making this comment, was to highlight, in basic terms, how studios had pivoted towards safe, easy-to-digest, guaranteed money-makers rather than place their trust – and money – in the hands of the auteurs and storytellers of old. It was a comment made by Scorsese with no small degree of sadness yet an equal degree of acceptance, fuelled no doubt by an awareness of how our lives have changed.
“There are some in the business with absolute indifference to the very question of art and an attitude toward the history of cinema that is both dismissive and proprietary – a lethal combination,” Scorsese said. “The situation, sadly, is that we now have two separate fields: There’s worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and there’s cinema. They still overlap from time to time, but that’s becoming increasingly rare. And I fear that the financial dominance of one is being used to marginalise and even belittle the existence of the other.”
In boxing, a similar trend has emerged and consequently a similar allowance has to be made. In other words, real fights, like real films, will surely always exist in one form or another, but to ensure the long-term health of the sport we must accept that theme park fights and theme park fighters – that is, ‘audiovisual entertainment’ and ‘audiovisual entertainers’ – will, for better or worse, also have their place.
The same goes for remakes, which, in boxing terms, translates as shop-worn fighters being brought back to exploit their name and brand for the entertainment of those prone to bouts of sentimentality. This was no better exemplified than by the Triller card on September 11, 2021, headlined originally by a 48-year-old Oscar De La Hoya, only for a 58-year-old Evander Holyfield to fill the void when De La Hoya declared himself unfit to fight. Holyfield was stopped inside a round that night, and the only consolation is that in his current state he is unlikely to remember it happening.
Alas, atrocity exhibitions like these will find a home in the boxing universe because boxing, as a sport and industry, is neither as honest nor as healthy as they tell you it is. They will exist because the audience has changed: younger, less patient, more easily distracted. Moreover, they will exist because the very media that cover the sport, the media supposed to criticise these events, has changed beyond all recognition: less craft, more content; click appeal, not quality; banter, not insight; tell, don’t show.
A societal change as much as a boxing change, these factors have created the perfect storm for an internet celebrity like Jake Paul; someone whose audience and popularity eclipse most professional boxers and whose ability to promote himself is maybe unmatched in the sport. Bigger than boxing, in perhaps the only way that presently matters, the divisive American fought three times last year, beating ageing mixed martial artists Ben Askren and Tyron Woodley (twice), and, if he hasn’t already, will soon have most pros begging for an opportunity to fight (read: earn with) him.
“I guess I have mixed feelings about it,” said Ireland’s Katie Taylor, the very antithesis of someone like Paul, both in ability and the way she carries herself. “He’s (Paul) obviously bringing new eyes to the sport and has a huge fan base. He is stepping into the ring, I guess.
“But he does pick and choose his opponents very well and is making a lot of money against these opponents. You can’t really criticise him. Overall, I guess he’s a good thing for the sport. It’s very hard to criticise when he gets in the ring and takes punches himself.”
Another top female champion, Claressa Shields, was less kind, even offering herself up as a future Paul opponent. “I was very serious,” she said. “Skills pay the bills, size don’t matter. I think that if Jake Paul got inside the ring with me he would get countered a lot. He would get hit with some hard body shots. I know what to do when I get inside the ring and face a man.”
Be that as it may, mercifully, despite the weak, unscrupulous nature of boxing’s security checks, that fight – Shields versus Paul – is one we can safely assume will never happen. As for the rest, it’s hard to write off anything with much certainty these days. With 2022 upon us, all we can do is expect the worst and hope for the best.
For, in the end, while celebrity and freakshow fights have long been boxing’s dirty secret, never have they seemed as potentially key to the health of the industry as they seem right now. Reminded at every turn it’s a numbers business, it’s now all you tend to hear when one is either mooted or takes place: pay-per-view buys; gate receipts; followers. The numbers, repeated by promoters and TV bosses, are used to provide evidence, silence cynics, and sometimes even show the good these fights are supposedly doing for the industry (the argument being that more eyes on the sport can only be a positive thing). But what do large numbers and cursory glances mean for boxing, real boxing, if the quality control gets slacker and slacker and genuine boxers are ignored and forgotten as a result? Furthermore, what does it say about the true health of boxing if novelty fights are considered not just welcome but relevant to its long-term success?
This time last year, Ryan García showed that the two – new-age promotion and old-school skills – can coexist and can, if mixed well, produce quite the thrilling, marketable commodity. Yet we cannot ignore the fact, either, that the beauty of García (who hasn’t fought since, by the way) is that he was born into both boxing and the social media age and can therefore operate in and shapeshift between these two worlds seamlessly. Others, of course, cannot say the same. Others are not so blessed. Others will doubtless get the style-substance ratio wrong and realise only when it’s too late that boxing, never more an entertainment industry than it is today, has a greater interest in a boxer’s ability to sell than anything they do once the product is already sold. It is then, regrettably, they might learn how unforgiving boxing can be and how viral content is considerably less amusing when it features someone out of their depth getting knocked out cold.