The recent surge in returns to boxing for damaged, older fighters – although not entirely new – is surely linked to our tolerance of loud, aggressively marketed ‘fights’ between dot-com, trending athletes.
There is a time, place, and a forgivable motive for a return to a professional career that’s long past its prime. For example, during the recent Covid-19 pandemic, retired anaesthesiologists and other medical professionals were implored to return to the frontline worldwide; saving their nation’s health service from taking the knee, and putting themselves in the danger they had earned the right to eventually turn their backs on.
Boxing, often described as a lonely, selfish and (or) crooked business, isn’t quite the same righteous crusade. Yet here we are. A sport that is quick to condemn, demean and destroy its participants and its fans, can only watch on, as it is infiltrated by forward-thinking tech-celebs from a new age. The advent of the ‘YouTube boxing’ phenomenon has breathed hope into the lungs of some of boxing’s most vulnerable, but why wouldn’t it?
Just weeks removed from two monstrous legends Mike Tyson and Roy Jones – both in their fifties – headlining a shambolic event, we have witnessed the serious returns of former world champions Felix Sturm and Sergio Martinez.
Our eyes are swelling and closing over, as posters of the legendary Evander Holyfield and former cruiserweight world champion Glen McCrory are harshly brandished with the word ‘BAREKNUCKLE’. In for a penny, in for a pound.
Oscar De La Hoya, Enzo Maccaranelli, Nigel Benn, the list of impression-hungry announcements goes on and on; proud, strong men desperately shadow boxing the cobwebs off, hoping their sweat gives them a gleaming, fresh appeal for the modern audience. Not everything shiny is new.
But ask yourself this: if and when novice gate crashers can seek heat under the brightest lights of our punishing, draining sport, then why wouldn’t its past devotees take up residence as chained, dancing bears? Sold to the highest bidder, dropping down a dollar after every unreturned phone call.
I can vividly remember speaking to a former heavyweight champion’s newly appointed (and grossly under qualified) manager, in disbelief, as he confidently proclaimed, they were seeking a one-off fight to the tune of $3,000,000. After that didn’t work, he was reported elsewhere as claiming they wanted one million dollars; then, months later, I was copied into an email where he’d proposed a $750,000 pay check. The fight never happened.
“Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.” – Wayne W. Dyer.
The surge, and creation, of the YouTube celebrity is, to all intents and purposes, a fairly recent happening. Its growth has been exponential, streaming through the weights and capturing an audience of billions. Names like KSI, Logan Paul and his younger brother Jake are wealthy, notorious online figures and, as such, command attention even from key figures in the sport of boxing. They have created their own market and have brought an audience of millions to the doorsteps of some of the sport’s wealthiest promoters. Boxing isn’t used to ready-made, intangible success; its audience has always been hard-fought, so it could hardly say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
What started with headgear, squabbling from internet rivalries and a YouTube Championship Boxing belt has now led to professional boxing licenses/records and a bout with Floyd Mayweather Jr. It’s upset boxing fans, but has stoked the flames of certain men who seemed comfortable in their silk pyjamas.
Promoter Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Boxing has staged these events, shamelessly challenging critics by asking, “Why wouldn’t I?” And it’s hard to disagree. Money talks. But Felix Sturm, for example, isn’t coming back for big money; he’s fighting in a boxing gym in Germany behind closed doors. Sergio ‘Maravilla’ Martinez isn’t headlining a card at the MGM in Las Vegas, like he once used to.
Are these legitimate, returning champions seeking their own dot-com payday? Or do they truly and inconceivably believe they can scale the mountain once more? I mentioned recently that I was of the opinion that a fighter’s innate self-belief lasts longer than his punch, and maybe that’s got something to answer for. They always believe they can do it one more time.
It seems impossible to have one without the other, to have the ‘internet men’ without the faded champions, or vice-versa.
There’s an argument that we need neither, but a partial and weak shout from the Devil’s Advocate might claim boxing’s elder statesmen have earned the right to live the latter stages of their existence taking punches to the head, if it’s “what they want to do”. It seems more plausible that they wish they had done things differently then, but are struggling to accept it now.
The YouTube boxers, however, might have their value. Hearn’s claims that they are building boxing a whole new audience seems far-fetched. There are plenty of things I watch on YouTube, but I wouldn’t commit myself to watching a sports host I was familiar with if he began hosting a home baking show. Yet just a look at the boxing media’s coverage of the KSI vs Logan Paul II event shows the internet’s immediate worth; Boxing Social, for example, had their first video amassing over one million views.
Can you guess who was being interviewed? Clue: it wasn’t a boxer, a trainer or a promoter.
The profile and widely reported pay packets offered to young novices who practiced throwing jabs online will always tempt middle-aged champions back into the gym; those unhappily retired men who can barely clench their fists or punch keys on their laptops will always fancy a tear-up for fast cash, that’s just the sad truth. The more we glamorise YouTube boxing; or NBA stars boxing; or English cricketers boxing; or footballers boxing with television backing and sponsorship; the more our retired, dedicated fighters will feel that food is being taken from their plates.
Things are done differently now – that’s just a part of life. But life also moves on. Both Jake Paul and Mike Tyson attracted faux outrage when storming boxing’s inbox uninvited; both men fought and sparked millions of mixed reactions. Not everybody is that fortunate and most will be left behind. While fashionable non-boxers are awarded professional licenses and granted spots on huge events, expect old, bitter fighting men to tread dangerously towards the ring once more.
You can’t have one without the other – not anymore.