If Pay-per-View shows no signs of abating in this country, perhaps there is a glimmer of hope from abroad. On the same night that Sky / Matchroom poster boy Anthony Joshua laboured to a seven round win over sluggish Dominic Brezeale, Shawn Porter and Keith Thurman served up a fight-of-the-year contender on free to air TV in the US. If the received wisdom remains that what starts in the States comes to the UK in the future, there might just be hope for long-suffering fans.
I am going to be honest and admit that although I have watched all of them, I have not paid for a Sky PPV show for quite a long time. With free streams readily available online or via Kodi TV devices I fail to understand why anyone would. Saturday’s show at the O2 followed the now familiar pattern of AJ v a stiff, and a few undercard names like Chris Eubank Jr, Connor Benn and George Groves to arouse the interest of casual fans. The continued success of this approach, if it is continuing to be successful, is mystifying.
The only fight of any real interest on the night was that between Groves and Martin Murray, yet even there, Murray had done little at super-middleweight to suggest he could beat someone as good and big as Groves. While Murray has always looked a little fleshy at 168, Groves could box at light-heavy if he wanted to and the size difference was always likely to be telling. Not that Murray would cave in, he is far too tough a customer for that, but if the show was being sold on the basis that this was its real, trade, marquee fight, it represented very poor value for money for £16.95 on top of a subscription.
As seems customary of late, top of the bill saw some truly toe-curling pre-fight theatrics. AJ’s ringwalk and soundtrack, with the embarrassingly manipulative Muhammad Ali tribute, summarised most of what is wrong with the Matchroom / Sky axis. In the ring, Joshua put in a solid, patient, competent performance, yet Brezeale was a challenger incapable of posing a serious threat. Stiff, upright, heavy legged, all the American offered was resilience and in lasting until the seventh he confounded many pre-fight predictions, but that is the extent of the pride he can take. At no stage was he in the fight in any way.
For any serious boxing fan, the insufferable hype with all its talk of legacy, the comparisons with Ali, Tyson, Holmes and the rest are an affront to everything they hold dear about the sport. Joshua is a world title holder yet to box in true world class. That’s ok, it is what it is, but the promotional deception is not.
It is unclear how well this latest show sold in the UK, but the behaviour of Sky Sports on Twitter offered some indications that all may not be well in paradise. Tweets appeared throughout the night with pics of AJ warming up and exhortations like “How can you not want to watch this man? Buy the fight NOW!” Even this morning further attempts were made. “Did you miss AJ last night? Order NOW to watch the replay!”
Heart-warmingly, these desperate sounding missives were met with vitriolic responses from a public clearly losing patience with high-cost, high-glitz, low-action evenings of boxing. How about saving on the fee for star MC Michael Buffer and using the money to get some better opponents? Sky clearly have a target market of celeb-gazers with no boxing savvy, but if they continue to alienate true boxing fans, the whole, sorry edifice will surely come crashing down before too long.
Conversely, our American cousins have many things to answer for. Personally I still haven’t forgiven them for the birth of Justin Timberlake, but it may be that after developing pay-per-view, popularising it, then enabling its spread to these shores, they are also now beginning the move away from it. If that is the case, it is to be truly welcomed.
The last big fight televised live by the CBS TV network in the states was Ali’s shock loss to Leon Spinks in 1978 and yet Porter v Thurman, a battle between two of the top 5 welterweights in the world found its way to the channel in 2016. The Premier Boxing Champions model established by Al Haymon has received mixed reviews since inception, but at least appears able to apply a bit of forward thinking. By putting huge fights on free-to-air TV, the boxing audience grows, thus lifting up everybody connected to the sport. This is the sort of strategy that should be applied worldwide, by anyone with boxing’s best interests at heart. Short-end money does not last forever.
Eddie Hearn, Rupert Murdoch and Adam Smith, please take note.
With a TV audience measured in millions rather than thousands to entertain, and purses of over a million dollars each, (not stratospheric in today’s terms, but still very good money)Thurman and Porter served up a real boxing match. Not an inflated name against a no-hoper, not a fake title fight with a stacked undercard of mismatches, but an actual 50-50 contest between two evenly matched, highly skilled, truly elite operators.
Reaction from the boxing world was euphoric, promoter Lou DiBella described it as a “classic… a fight that lived up to expectations and you didn’t have to pay 75 bucks for it. I love boxing tonight…You love that’s what CBS got. This is a good night for boxing.”
Journalist Dan Rafael said “they let it all hang out”.
Mauricio Sulaiman of the WBC described it as “boxing at its best!”
Speaking after his UD victory, Thurman said. “I don’t want to be on pay per view. I want everybody to see.”
This is something of a quiet revolution. Would anybody connected to the sport speak in those glowing terms of Saturday’s bill at the 02? Or indeed any of Sky’s recent pay-per-view cards? If Hearn and the boys don’t up their game, they may soon find their golden goose overcooked.
Change is in the wind.
My book ‘Journeymen, the other side of the boxing business’ was longlisted for William Hill Sports book of the year 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.