Not Down For The Count: The Future of Boxing

Photo by Attentie Attentie on Unsplash

This guest post comes our way from Jose Izquierdo, former General Secretary of the World Boxing Organization. Mr. Izquierdo is a San Juan based attorney, specializing in sports law with a focus on boxing. He counsels world-class athletes, corporations, and international organizations on a range of legal, strategic, and developmental matters.

Hard though it is to believe now, it was just a little more than three months ago that Tyson Fury claimed the WBC Heavyweight Championship by utterly outclassing, outmuscling, and obliterating Deontay Wilder in one of the most eagerly anticipated prizefights in decades. At the time of that seventh-round stoppage at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, it seemed almost certain that the all-important heavyweight division— and boxing in general— was in the midst of ushering in a new era, reminiscent of its illustrious past. 

While fights of the kind that transcend boxing are, at least for the immediate future, outside a logistically and financially feasible range, last night marked the return of televised boxing in the US. Top Rank Boxing and its indefatigable CEO Bob Arum were back in Las Vegas on Tuesday, putting on a successful first card on ESPN. While the fights were, as expected, lopsided affairs, they showcased former Olympian and now featherweight world title holder Shakur Stevenson. The young and exceptionally talented southpaw thoroughly dominated the tough, but overmatched Felix Caraballo from Puerto Rico, who ultimately succumbed to a left body shot in round 6. Also of note, Cuban Robeisy Ramirez— a former two time Olympic gold medalist who shockingly lost his professional debut last year— continued his winning ways under the tutelage of trainer Ismael Salas, with a 54 second stoppage. While not the most exciting of fight nights, it was great to see live boxing again.

To be sure, a pandemic is, by definition, a hugely disruptive global event. But as we’ve already seen in the sports world, the pandemic also presents the opportunity to foster innovation. But just how changed a sport boxing will be when the opening bell rings and moving forward in these deeply paradoxical times, depends on who you ask. Here are what I think are some of the more pressing issues the sport will have to deal with as it cautiously proceeds with its comeback.

For starters, last night’s show put to test the much-discussed idea of creating a “bubble” environment— devoid of fans and media (at least initially)— replacing the expansive 16,000-seat multi-purpose arena with tightly controlled and monitored convention space. The plan focuses, first and foremost, on ensuring the health and safety of ring participants and everyone involved in the show’s production. Speaking on new fight week safety protocols, Arum notes that COVID-19 testing for each event alone will cost an excess of $25,000. This, in addition to the hotel rooms, special security, and meals offered within convention quarters. It will be a couple weeks before we can really gauge the success of these measures, but things seemed to run smoothly.

 Although this may not prove an impossibly difficult task for the operations experts of the major companies concerned, it does require an unprecedented level of outside coordination. Pugilism has been historically notorious for its tendency to self-regulate. That is to say it has, as a global industry, seemed always content to accept the present form of piecemeal state and local regulation. But now more than ever, the sport is reliant on the guidance of doctors, public health experts, and even elected officials who must carefully weigh in boxing’s need to recuperate lost momentum with avoiding situations that could potentially spread the virus.

While this first series of Las Vegas cards received the unanimous approval of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, it is important to note that neither features a world title fight. It remains to be seen what additional jurisdictional challenges will come into play elsewhere, especially in cases where the interests of all of the necessary elements of a world championship contest, including sanctioning bodies, need to be reconciled. Now, more than ever, boxers, managers, television networks, state commissions, and international sanctioning bodies will need to work together. 

Beyond the obviously noticeable differences, what kind of fights can we expect? There has been talk of staging boxing fights behind doors since mid-March. Such conditions, however, would not be at all suitable for clashes of the magnitude of Fury vs Wilder 3 and other big-time fights like the long-awaited lightweight unification between the reigning WBC, WBA, and WBO champion Vasiliy Lomachenko and undefeated IBF titleholder Teofimo Lopez. Just recently, the Top Rank boss discussed the possibility of doing the fight in September at the new home of the Las Vegas Raiders, the $1.8 billion Allegiant stadium.

That fights like these must wait a while is understandable, given that presenting fights at the most elite level also requires live gate revenue, in addition to media and sponsorship dollars. In fact, many boxers, not only the biggest names, have contractually guaranteed purse minimums. Will promoters— who have no doubt taken huge uninsured losses— be able to honor them without crowds in attendance and in the context of other coronavirus limitations? Or will higher than expected television ratings (with fans everywhere yearning for live sports, any sports at all) help mitigate this effect? And when world championship fights eventually resume, will fighters be able to pay the substantial sanctioning fees involved? Will sanctioning bodies respond with lowering fees to renew interest and incentivize participation? Or are their own organizational livelihoods at risk? Will weekday fights become the “new normal,” giving a new crop of young fighters the opportunity to shine on important television platforms?  Again, it remains to be seen and these first couple of fights will provide clearer indication of the economics of the industry and the ultimate impact on its stakeholders.

Finally, expect that in the absence of live audiences, and with no media initially in attendance, there will be a renewed spotlight on boxing judges and judging in general. The scoring of bouts is perhaps the most recurrent source of controversy in boxing, underscored by some particularly egregious episodes engrained in the collective consciousness of fans. Just last month, the World Boxing Council (WBC) rolled out a new protocol that would potentially allow judges to score live fights from their homes, instead of ringside, as a safety precaution due to the pandemic. Now this is clearly a case of creativity gone too far. And it is highly unlikely that any state commission in the United States would adopt this plan.

The idea of having judges “isolated” so as to not be swayed by factors like fan noise, is certainly not new. Yet, unless the most basic principles of judging drastically change, there’s no place other than ringside for a judge to be. Isn’t the whole purpose of having judges at ringside, in close proximity to the action, precisely to hear, feel, and more adequately asses the effectiveness of punches thrown? Measures like these would deprive them of this and cannot be considered a serious solution to the need for better judging.

The return of boxing will be of scant consolation to all that currently ails the world, but those who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make it a reality truly deserve our credit. Boxing is back. And I hope with it a renewed commitment to what makes the sweet science so sweet: pushing forward with the best fights possible against all odds. Congratulations to all those involved, especially the fighters.

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