2016 approaches and boxing is booming, we are told. Triumphalist press releases are met with hearty approval by the nodding dogs of social media, people who love to attach themselves to perceived success, like pilot fish on the back of a shark. After the recent Joshua v Whyte event at London’s O2 arena, shown for a viewer outlay of £16.99, one fast Eddie fan tweeted to his hero that “if the show is that good, I’d be happy to pay for it twice.”
Welcome to the brave new world of the internet sycophant – a time of unprecedented UK glory (with 12 recognised world champions) and heightened public interest in the sport. Boxing is again on the lips of the masses. Public transport and saloon bar conversations can be heard extolling the virtues of AJ, the swagger of Chris Eubank Jr or the illiberal outpourings of Tyson Fury. Even radical feminists are writing about it, albeit with crayon-wielding levels of insight.
Meanwhile the Sky / Matchroom axis has solidified its powerbase via slickly-packaged, blockbusting pay-per-view offerings, as Queensberry, Hennessy and others look on with envy. It is easy to knock those at the top and usually valid to do so, but the truth is that all of them aspire to emulate this promoter / subscription broadcaster unholy alliance. This is the 21st century, after all.
Forget trickle-down economics. That was in the 80s. We’ve given up pretending that it’s for everyone’s benefit now.
Here’s something to blow your mind. It used to be accepted wisdom, but that wisdom has been twisted by half a century of corrupting influence… People who value money above everything else are arseholes.
Yes, all of them.
In one sense, the chaps churning out marketing materials for corporate sports and broadcast entities are right. The current boxing situation is a vast improvement on the bleak reality of recent times. It is incredible to think that after our pre-eminent fighter of the last few years, Carl Froch, beat Jean Pascal for the WBC Super-Middleweight title live on ITV in 2008, he then embarked on the super-six tournament that cemented his place in the upper echelons of the global 168lb rankings without a TV partner. This meant that among other epic encounters, his classic with former middleweight kingpin Jermain Taylor was unseen by the vast majority of Brits until it turned up on Youtube.
To re-emphasise, only 6 years ago those wishing to watch the nation’s top fighter in a series of world-title unifications had to search for streams online because no UK broadcaster was prepared to invest. This was the parlous state boxing found itself in. Many around the game were gloomy as to its future prospects.
For that reason all the criticism of Sky’s naked profiteering, deserved though it may be, must be tempered with an acknowledgment that without them, no-one in the UK would have been showing boxing for much of the last decade. The withdrawal of the BBC after chucking bad money at Audley Harrison, followed by ITV’s retreat and the demise of cable competitor Setanta meant there have been several stretches of the last few years where Sky were the only option. They have certainly been the only consistent one.
So as the pay-per-view model takes hold, we should, as boxing people, be able to thank Sky for their continued support for our sport, but we should also be able to recognise how they are cynically exploiting their position. A generation of young fight fans now exist – 30 and under – who do not remember anything else. For them, Sky’s claim to be the ‘home of boxing’ is true. It is no coincidence that in recognising this captive demographic, the businessmen have tailored their coverage and advertising accordingly. Broadcasts have been dumbed down. Respected contributors such as Paul Dempsey and Ian Darke disappeared, to be replaced by the wooden banter and American ‘grin n hype’ style of the current presentation team. Thankfully after years of decline and Adam Smith repeatedly insisting that Josh Warrington boxing anonymous Argentinians in front of 20,000 coked-up football fans equated to “exciting times indeed”, Ringside was scrapped. But what really remains as we look to the future?
BoxNation has already staked its claim to follow the PPV route. Mick Hennessy is keen to wet his beak. What sort of boxing will be left for the standard subscription shows? And where will the bar for PPV be set?
It can probably be taken as read that anything involving poster boy Anthony Joshua will only be on Sky Box Office from now on. I have nothing against him, but why should I pay £17 on top of my regular bill to watch an unproven prospect fight for the British title? Just because a bunch of easily inflamed youngsters can be conned into it with manufactured rivalries and promo-pieces? I have to say, I resent that. I do.
This leads to a bigger issue and how boxing’s problems feed off each other. Common interests are served by those whose income outweighs their conscience and the mess of multiple organisations, for so long a blight on the sport, has become beneficial. Have you ever wondered why it doesn’t change? Fans have been railing against the alphabet boys and their nonsense for years, but here’s the rub. The promotional and TV companies like it that way.
In an era of 17 weight divisions, with 6 potential champs at each weight, if fans accept a world championship as a pay per view event, that’s a hell of a lot of potential profit. Sanctioning fees for the governing bodies and package buys for promoter and TV. Everyone’s a winner!
Let’s be realistic, not for the sake of negativity, but honesty. Of our current crop of 12 world champs, who can really be considered elite? Tyson Fury, with his WBO and WBA Heavyweight titles can certainly claim so, having defeated one of the most dominant fighters of recent years. IBF super-middle titlist, James DeGale, while probably not the world number one, is very likely in the top four at the moment. The same could perhaps be argued for Terry Flanagan at lightweight, Frampton and Quigg at super-bantam and Jamie McDonnell at bantam. Kell Brook or Lee Selby? Perhaps.
That is not to knock the achievements of the others, who all beat good opponents and can be proud of their achievements (I must admit to personally rating Billy Joe Saunders very highly, but he needs more fights at world level) but they are all recipients of a system in which almost any good fighter can hope to win a world belt, rather than spending their career as a contender as would have been the case until the 70s. To use their contests as collateral for extorting more money from fans during a time of austerity degrades the sport, not boosts it.
The new internet generation may not agree with me, tweeting out backslaps to the bigwigs who rob them blind, but I remember watching Muhammed Ali, Barry McGuigan, Larry Holmes, Lloyd Honeyghan, Mike Tyson, Hagler, Leonard, Duran, Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank and all the rest for free. So for some this may be a new golden age, but it’s not one I feel able to celebrate.
I wish a happy new year to most connected to boxing, but my spirits of the season do not extend to those who package exploitation in highlight reels and montage, who use boxing’s political shortcomings as a tool to beat down the consumer and who sell inferior products at inflated prices.
My wish for the new year? Boxing to be reorganised in the interests of fans and fighters. But now you know I’m dreaming…
My last book ‘Journeymen, the other side of the boxing business’ has been longlisted for the William Hill Sports book of the year award and named one of the sports books of the year by The Guardian. It is still available from all usual outlets.