EXCLUSIVE: HEAVYWEIGHT DIVISION LOSING CREDIBILITY AS THE BEST ARE PRICED OUT
Updated: Oct 15, 2020
Egoism is nothing new in individual sport, especially boxing. Indeed, in a sport where the exacting preparation and training requisite requires significant time spent in isolation, it is an oft-energising fuel often needed to sustain and sharper a fighter’s hunger, focus and belief. It has long been the dominant expression of pre-fight press conferences and pre-fight promotional hype; and in this world where traditional forms of machismo and masculine pride still predominate, it extends to inform the patterns of behaviour for not only fighters, but trainers and promoters alike: the egos of Don King and Floyd Mayweather Senior being preeminent cases in point.
Yet, contrary to previous generations – when arrogance and ego used to be built upon and enhanced by exploits undertaken within the ring – we are now transcending into an worrying era where ego, boasting and braggadocio is centring predominately around the should-be externalities of money and (perceived) popularity and the financial size of tv broadcasting deals.
Who or what is responsible for this shift?
There are primarily two converging factors responsible: (1) the effectiveness of using money as an overt promotional tool and (2) the thrusting forth of previously-hidden-‘money men’ and their mundane operations out into the glare of the media spotlight.
Stories of ludicrous capital excesses have followed fighters throughout each generation. However, these were usually framed negatively as tragic and portentous, detailing squandered riches and the declining graces of former heroes who would assail to the heights they had once reached.
It was not until Floyd Mayweather Junior that we encountered a fighter who so readily and successfully inverted this narrative to use money and the acquiring of money as a salient means to differentiate and market himself; often displaying his lavish car and watch collections, clothes, private jets, expensive suites, mansions and bags full of stacked cash as a means to sell an entire lifestyle, inextricably associating his success within the boxing ring to his material success outside of it. The blurring of these two distinct existences served to synergistically strengthen each of them: with an identity based around money, as he became continually more successful within the ring, he was able to command more money in business transactions and pay-per-view percentages, thus increasing his wealth outside of it; as he became wealthier outside of the ring, he became viewed as different, other and (in the capitalist sense) more successful than his rivals, which translated to the way he was handled within it: he was granted more power and ‘A side privileges’, from choosing the type of gloves opponents would wear, to mandatory drug testing, to choosing preferred catchweights and ring surfaces and sponginess.
His approach was pioneering and amplified by the concurrent success of online social media platforms, which allowed him to sustain relevance, market himself directly to consumers, become a brand, control his own narrative and transcend the sport as a renown celebrity and talk show personality, reaching fans/consumers constantly and cynically, especially in periods outside of an upcoming fight, when the resources of traditional media was restricted to covering other fighters and upcoming events.
The proliferation of social media outlets and their insatiable craving for content links in and leads directly onto the second factor: voices for the money-men. Whereas the thoughts of promoters, tv executives and financers used to be confined to weekly paper columns, dedicated monthly-boxing-magazine features or at broadcasts of pre-fight press conferences, we now live in a world where it is possible to receive the wisdom of dominant promoters Eddie Hearn, Frank Warren, Bob Arum, Kalle Sauerland and the President of Showtime Sports, Stephen Espinoza many times a week and across a plethora of outlets, covering breaking boxing negotiations and considerations in real time. Their inter-network and inter-company rivalry has become a publicised narrative in itself, and has allowed for fresh egos and interests to further complicate and conflict negotiations; only theirs occur at a rarefied level above any fighter’s considerations and their word is final.
Each tow the disingenuous line that the boxers’ interests are their own, yet the boxers are the pawns in the money/power game constantly being played and in flux and materialising between the vested interests of these companies, who care exclusively for viewing figures and generated revenue. Their voices have given celebration and exposure to prosaic externalities which should be decided, discussed and confined to boardrooms; and separated entirely from the pure brilliance that is two unarmed men exacting their physical will onto one another until one is vanquished, either through being rendered unconscious, retiring or being adjudged to be better in skill. Instead, they laud their own assets, when what they possess is dull and disinteresting and this process is now leading to a growing percentage of media and coverage being shaped that way.
With the recent news being that Tyson Fury has yielded to the money and signed a reported £80-million-pound-five-fight-deal with Bob Arum and ESPN, consequently and concurrently nixing the immediate rematch with WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder in the process; of the Fury, Joshua, Wilder triumvirate, the recent developments have benefitted ‘AJ’ and Wilder the most.
Despite having 3 of the 4 major belts, Joshua found himself at the back-end of 2018 and entering into 2019 in the unexpected and precarious position of being at-least-temporarily frozen out of the biggest fights in his weight class. Fury and Wilder were supposedly tied up in facing each other, with both publicly mocking him for allegedly avoiding them. And he faced accusations of doing the same to Dillian Whyte, pricing him out of a rematch with a paltry financial offer, with this potential fight also being one which many of the casual paying public expressed limited interest in (it is important to acknowledge here that discerning boxing writers and fan largely welcomed the Whyte fight, understanding the credible and serious challenge a revitalised and rebuilt Dillian provides). This ultimately led to the comedown cancellation of April’s Wembley date for the rebranding of an American takeover, where he will fight 23-0 Jarell Miller at Madison Square Garden on 1st June.
Miller’s record is comprised mostly of unknown Americans – Tomazsz Adamek being his standout KO victory – but he provides the marketable blend of bolshy trash talk to compliment the usually reserved and dignified Joshua. He is also a native New Yorker, which further builds the American takeover narrative.
Deontay Wilder’s stock, risen since the draw with Fury in December, has retained positive momentum. Having been largely perceived as keen on an immediate Fury rematch and not the one to preclude its expected occurrence, public opinion towards him has remained favourable. He has been subject to lucrative bids from both ESPN and DAZN to broadcast his future fights, but instead decided to continue headlining the Showtime network; a smart business move which places him on equal footing with AJ (broadcasted by DAZN and Sky Sports), and Fury (broadcasted by ESPN and BT), as not sharing network resources with a rival, and keeps him entirely separate, in his own lane as his own man.
His next defence is against Dominic Breazeale, who at 20-1-0 has a marketable record, with his only KO loss being to Joshua; and whilst there was frustration in certain quarters that Breazeale got the fight over Dillian Whyte, Wilder and Brezeale have a chequered history, with the visible animosity between the two likely to help sales and promotion.
For the time being, we as boxing fans and consumers are losing the fights we want at a time when the fighters we want to contest them are in their prime years. The numerous networks are locked in a delicate balancing act, attempting to maximise current sales for fights that their champions should all win whilst gambling on increasing future sales for the fights we want to see and that they tease us will soon happen.
Their motivation for doing this is purely financial and is a dangerous and greedy strategy given that momentum and popularity is/was already there. It will only take one or two surprise loses to nix the entire thing; and with Oleksandr Usyk moving up to heavyweight, there is the real-world possibly of all three of them being out-boxed and beaten within the next two-to-three years.
It would be what the networks would deserve, and a large part of this writer would enjoy witnessing it happen…if, at the same time, another part would lament and mourn the iconic fights that we could have enjoyed.
It also seems risible to refer to the man who signed the (reported) £80 million broadcasting deal as also losing out, but that is entirely the current feeling behind Tyson Fury. After a year of faultless PR and a measured comeback – where expectations were tempered and public respect and support gained through his overcoming of personal struggles, his desire to associate with and support those in difficulty; and his vocal criticism of Joshua and Wilder for not engaging in the fights that we all want to see – he has now retired back into hypocrisy, doing the very thing he derided the other two for.
His next fight is against unbeaten, unknown German, Tom Schwarz, who has an unblemished record but with no one world class upon it. He has a square jaw and the physique of a boxer, but Tyson will be able to beat him anyway he chooses, and any point. It was laughable to read journalists and commentators telling fans to ‘hold off on booking flights and hotels’, once Schwarz was named as Fury’s next opponent, but with the date and venue still being finalised, as anything more than alighting the sofa to turn on the tv would be more exertion than this fight deserves. Of course, I will still be watching…but from said sofa.
Where do things go from here?
Should all three come through the prospective challenges, a fight next between Joshua and Wilder seems the most likely. Joshua desperately needs to get one of them in the ring. The winner should then fight Tyson Fury.
So if in eighteen months’ time, the Lineal champion has fought three times and beaten either one of AJ or Wilder, he will have proven all the doubters incorrect and will be shown to be as flawless in business as he can be in the ring, but at the moment, in the wake of his new broadcasting deal and facing fresh horizons, we as fans and the public are still left clamouring for fights that we are regularly promised but that have no concrete guarantee of happening.