It’s getting harder and harder, as the relative golden age of the 80s and 90s fades into distant memory, to write about boxing without moaning all the time. The top end of the sport, especially in the UK, has morphed into such an absurd cartoon that you can attack its crassness and imminent self-implosion forever. Yet oddly, considering it receives less attention, real boxing does still exist.
The genuine boxing fan – what the Twittersphere calls the ‘hardcore’ – wants to see fighters with highly developed skills or stunning natural attributes competing for honours within the same weight class. They want bouts which have a genuine air of intrigue, in which big questions may be answered. Will the jab-and-mover beat the puncher? Will footwork or stamina be key? How strong is that guy mentally?
Most of all, for purists, the noble art has always been at its most compelling when the passing of rounds reveals something new about a fighter. We love it when they bare their souls. The Rumble in the Jungle is not remembered and eulogised because of the amount of money it generated, but because it stripped away the layers of braggadocio to show Ali’s ingenuity, will and astute gamesmanship. A similar point could be made about the Leonard v Duran no mas encounter, Mike Tyson’s obliteration of Michael Spinks or Hagler v Hearns. That elusive quality known as character was displayed every time.
This sort of boxing does still exist, to some extent. Recently the Kovalev v Ward bout presented an intriguing clash of styles, although a controversial result. Lomachenko forcing Nicholas Walters to quit at the weekend carried obvious echoes. Frampton might have ducked Rigondeaux but his fights with Quigg and Santa Cruz were genuine and interesting. But for the new breed of fan, such contests are boring.
It is not without relevance to all this that our current era has been defined as one of ‘post-truth’. In politics, business and of course sport, honesty has become an inconvenient side issue. People say what is needed to promote their own ends – does it make pounds and pence? Then it makes sense. And within that context, another sort of boxing event altogether has become the most highly prized – the marquee PPV.
These have developed their own status and bear little relation to real boxing. You put 2 names known to the public in a ring. First, of course, you invest a lot of money in promo. You get them to create a buzz. The relative merits of the two boxers are irrelevant.
Across a mass-media which is so debased as to be a glorified marketing department, public perception has been dulled. ‘Buy this if you don’t understand what we’re really doing,’ is the core message. ‘Of course if you do understand, you always have a choice not to buy.’ But this is the key point. Worryingly, those responsible don’t seem aware of the corner they are backing into – the choice they offer the disillusioned hardcore, is to stop watching boxing altogether. No long term business alienates its core market, not if it wants to survive in the future.
While news of the latest Sky / Matchroom PPV offering hit the genuine boxing fan like a slap, boxing’s future continues to be sold for short-end money. Yet as those who have followed the sport for years wallow in sorrow, others lap it up. There are literally hundreds of thousands of people, it seems, who genuinely believe that Tony Bellew and David Haye hate each other, that the whole thing has not been a get-up from the start and even that Bellew has some sort of chance. They will all eagerly pay £16.95 in March to watch.
Then, when it all proves to be a huge disappointment, which it will be, when the DJs have finished playing, everyone has had photos taken with reality TV stars at ringside and Haye has won in a round or two, after hurting Bellew with the first full-blooded punch he lands, there will be a small reaction. There always is. And it is fascinating to observe.
Despite the ham-fisted attempts of Adam Smith, Johnny Nelson and the rest of the Sky team to placate those they have effectively swindled, some fans, feeling cheated, will Tweet Hearn to complain. Some of them will be unsatisfied with Eddie’s shoulder-shrugging and inability to accept blame and will retain their feelings of negativity. A percentage of them will then begin to twig what is going on.
In exactly the same way, many of these less educated fans, known pejoratively on social media as casuals, really believed – because that’s what they were told – that Charles Martin was an actual heavyweight champion, that Brezeale or Molina were top notch challengers or that Kell Brook could somehow match Golovkin. And every time, some of those people who were sold hollow lies by slick marketing and integrity-stripped presenters got a touch wiser. You cannot fool everyone forever and there will come a time, in the not-too-distant future, when the short sightedness of this approach is made clear.
In the business world, which has dealt in post truth for longer than the rest of us, this all has a name – “profitable deception”. You can look it up. A May 27th cross university paper with the very appropriate title “inferior products and profitable deception” said:
in a market with multiple products, since a superior product both diverts sophisticated consumers and renders an inferior product socially wasteful in comparison, it guarantees that firms can profitably sell the inferior product by deceiving consumers.
Of course there are people working between the scenes at Matchroom Sport and Sky Television who understand this perfectly. They probably have degrees in it. They know that their PPV offerings offer little real boxing and they don’t care, because right now they are doing very nicely selling their inferior product to a different audience.
Yet in doing this they ignore another iron law of the marketplace, which is that dissatisfied customers will sooner or later be lured by competitors. Undiscerning punters shelling out £16.95 for argy-bargy and slapstick violence, who find themselves let down, will gravitate towards WWE. With that, you know exactly what you are getting. Others who buy into the claptrap that Brook or Khan or Bellew can beat far bigger, more powerful men, only to be disappointed again and again and again, will turn to the UFC. In that combat code, the best really fight the best and are properly, appropriately matched.
When that happens, and eventually it will, this business model will collapse. Then real boxing (and real boxing fans) will be all that is left once more. But after years of being ignored and ostracised, how many of them will there be? Meanwhile their sport will have been diminished, a poor relation in the world of combat disciplines, a footnote of its glorious past.
The casuals don’t mind, and nor do the select few making millions, but PPV by PPV and little by little, boxing is digging its own grave.
My book ‘Journeymen, the other side of the boxing business’ was nominated for the William Hill Sports book of the year 2015 and named one of the sports books of the year by The Guardian. It is still available from all usual outlets.
My next boxing book, ‘Into the Woods, one man’s journey through a life of violence’, about former light-heavyweight world champ Clinton Woods will be available to pre-order shortly.
Please listen to this excellent and very topical podcast about the darker side of boxing, featuring interviews with Ryan Rhodes, Paul ‘silky’ Jones, Glyn Rhodes MBE and Jerome Wilson.