“Whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours.”
— Hermann Hesse
I don’t know about anybody else, but boxing, and particularly UK boxing, has been trying my patience of late. Like many people I occasionally go through phases where I fall out of love with the sport, often when there is a serious injury. But this is different.
Lately I have experienced a steady, relentless accumulation of apathy. Every time Matchroom and Sky start hyping their next PPV and their media nodding dogs yap and wag their tails, the fire in my guts grows colder. As a kid, nothing stirred me like a big fight. I remember when Benn v Watson was announced, or even Hagler v Leonard. I thought about little else for weeks. As an adult, nothing is more certain to get me rolling my eyes and looking for something else to do than a non-event being being brainlessly hyped for pound notes. And 90% of the time, it seems, that’s all we get. I know it is the system that’s at fault – don’t hate the player, hate the game and all that – but who of our top fighters has bucked this trend?
I wish the guy nothing but success, but the pantomime around Anthony Joshua is an insult to our national intelligence. Amir Khan has made it quite clear that his only concern is his bank balance. If PPV rights were offered, he’d play thumb-war with Hulk Hogan or arm-wrestle Vin Diesel rather than build an actual welterweight career. Kell Brook took the short-end cash against Golovkin rather than fight Errol Spence Jr. Carl Frampton ducked Rigondeaux. David Haye has become a cartoon character. Tyson Fury? Maybe, but he’s all over the place, bless him.
You know things are in a bad way when Tony Bellew has become the most exciting domestic world-level fighter. That might be unfair – the McDonnell brothers and Terry Flanagan are real, hard-working guys who deserve respect, but in the 21st Century it seems as soon as people reach the very top, all the sport is lost from our sport.
Perhaps because of that, we don’t seem to have many boxing fans left. What we have are boxer fans. True appreciation of the noble art, much like modern jazz, to paraphrase George Foreman, has always been an uncommon quality, but now it has all but died. Millennial fight followers, with their skinny jeans and smartphones, attach themselves to particular fighters in the same way they attach themselves to a particular make of underwear, or deodorant. They’re happy to pay through the nose to watch them compete, as long as there are lots of exciting promos and theatrics to keep them interested. In truth, it’s not really boxing they’re into, but brands.
It’s a product. They are consumers. And that breaks my heart a little bit.
Further afield, even the tail-end of Floyd Mayweather’s career – and he was a brilliant fighter, no question – was completely cynical, while his loadsamoney public image plumbed new depths of classlessness. Could anything sum up boxing’s condition better than the May / Pac pay-per-view? $100 to watch two multi millionaires do the cha-cha for twelve rounds. Between them they had everybody’s pants down.
It seems that everywhere you turn, boxing is selling its soul, giving away every last drop of its magic, in a desperate dash for cash.
And I don’t have any time for smug old journos who try to claim its always been like this – no, it hasn’t. Money has always been a big part of the game, but at the top end, boxing used to have genuine events. It didn’t have to hype up fake ones.
But then, just when it reached the point that I thought I would no longer bother. When I might move all my boxing books to the top shelf and put memories of great nights to the back of mind, something changed. In the blink of an eye, it changed.
From the minute the Sergey Kovalev v Andre Ward fight on the 19th November was made public, I got the same tumbling feeling in my guts I used to get as a kid. This isn’t champion against a challenger who shouldn’t be in the same ring. This isn’t “let’s just put two big names together regardless of their weight divisions”. This isn’t ripping off the public with slick marketing. What this is, is probably the biggest fight that could be made in boxing right now. Two unbeaten champions, of contrasting styles, both dominant, both with it all to lose.
Kovalev has proven himself the best light-heavy in the world. A rangy, well-balanced wrecking machine. Krusher has supernatural power. He killed a guy in the ring once, Roman Simakov in 2011. Plenty of others have been left twitching on the floor.
Andre Son of God Ward, on the other hand, as well as being one of the most likeable men in boxing, is also one of the most gifted. Since Mayweather’s retirement he is most certainly up there with Roman Gonzalez, Guillermo Rigondeaux and Vasyl Lomachencko as the game’s remaining technical geniuses.
Will that be enough? Does skill see Ward home or will Kov bully him? That’s the question, and for the first time in years, I’m finding myself watching interviews with both fighters, going over their past performances for clues and genuinely looking forward to an intriguing, high-end 50/50 contest.
This is what boxing should be.
We needed this fight. Boxing needed this fight. Next week this page will run a full preview and prediction…
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.
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.