The Covid-19 virus means that we live in unprecedented times and we are seeing falling viewing figures across some sports as sporting events need crowd colour to survive and thrive on TV.
Back in 2011, Sky TV made the decision to hand sole control of their boxing content to Matchroom, which seemed a fitting move at the time as no one has ever doubted how effective their business model is and continues to be.
Boxing, though, is also a sport and by making this decision Sky effectively created a monopoly and monopolies, like empires, rise and fall over time. It also meant that Matchroom had to develop a stable almost overnight as they had previously put on a handful of shows per year as part of Sky’s multi-promoter deal, one that at the time was led by Frank Warren, their major promoter.
I recall being in the studios of a local radio station when Kell Brook phoned and told the host, Barkery Jammeh, that he was leaving Warren and joining Eddie Hearn. This was before the huge increase of stories being broken on Twitter etc., so I could go home, write it up then present it as a news exclusive, of sorts.
This led to my worst period as someone who loves, follows and tries to write about boxing as I ended firmly up on the news beat, which is why I eventually ducked out of the news side of things and went back to writing features. The toing and froing became repetitive and tedious.
Over a period of time, fighters moved between both camps, but let’s be honest here, most of them headed to Matchroom, an organisation that has pulled in huge figures when it comes to crowds and also led the way when PPV made its return to the sport.
The problem, and again this is just how I see it, is that it led to what is effectively a Cold War between Hearn and Warren. You have the two best fighters in a division: one fights under Hearn, the other for Warren, so they don’t get to meet. If one of them holds a British title the Boxing Board of Control can hold purse bids yet depending on who wins it the champion will either vacate the title or announce they are moving on to fight for new, bigger titles.
This means that the two fighters in question don’t fight. They don’t get to learn from fighting each other. They don’t push on. They don’t become world-class. At this point, some of you are going to say that our shores are full of world-class fighters. We have some very, very good ones, but, and given how good some of our fighters potentially are, where are our Mayweathers? Where is our Canelo?
We have Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury, who are both in a position to claim elite status yet who are yet to meet. If they met once, twice or three times, you and I both know that the fights would produce a genuine elite-level British fighter, which doesn’t happen all of the time.
Everyone you meet in boxing claims that they love the sport and many are pretty much working for free. Why can’t these boxing loving altruists get it right up to the level that it needs to be? Go into any pub and once football is out of the way there are two other topics of conversation: politics and boxing. There is a thirst for boxing, this is why it always prevails, yet the situation that has been created by Lockdown is the worst it has faced.
Leeds-based IBF featherweight titlist Josh Warrington was hoping to unify this year. Warrington came up on small hall, off-TV shows. These shows are not taking place at the moment and it is untenable to ask the promoters who put them on at a loss at the best of times to lose even more money during this, the worst of times. So where is the next Josh Warrington? Is he relying on sponsors to see him through or is he back at his day-job wondering if his career will ever get going again? Where is the next Terry Flanagan, who also came through on local shows?
Then you have factor in that this won’t be an Olympic year, so there are no medallists turning over on eight or 10 fight shows that allow the undercard fighters to get out, develop, learn and earn. If you look at both the top and the bottom end of boxing, the conveyor belt is at a real risk of grinding to a halt.
Are promoters to blame for this? They aren’t, not completely. Both Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren have managed to produce shows during unprecedented times yet both must realise that all those fights that were either being marinated on the backburner or weren’t affordable (because only in boxing can you say that there is more money than ever but the fights can’t be made due to a lack of it) need to be made.
Granted, Warren’s recent open letter to Hearn may seem pointless — all open letters are pointless, I don’t know why people bother writing them — but if restrictions start to ease then better fights have to be made across all of the levels, and fighters need to be aware of this so that they, or their trainers, managers or advisors don’t put up any additional barriers.
The problem as I see it is that boxing is suffering from years of serious mismanagement or at the very least a weakness in management from Sky Sports, who at one point had the promoters in-house yet either wouldn’t or couldn’t afford to make them make the fights or force their hand. We are looking at the effects of a cause. That cause is years of complacency and drift. We live on the lingering thrill of the handful of major fights that do get made and make us forget the endless list of ones that have, and will continue, to slip the net. There is a reason why so many boxing fans revisit old fights so often. It is because they were worth watching again and again. We fall into nostalgia quickly and easily because we often do not have anything better on the horizon.
Networks should have the power to make fights. It we are lucky we are facing the beginning of the end of the promoter, maybe it is time to step out of the shadow of Tex Rickard. In no conceivable world would Sky or BT Sport go to a meeting with football chiefs only to be told: “We’ve decided not to put on Liverpool against United at Anfield this year, we’re waiting to see how big it can get for the following year’s season.”
I will get hammered with stats, finances — the Hearn family are brilliant when it comes to them and that is not something that should be held against them — and the old chestnut of 90,000 people packed into Wembley stadium for an Anthony Joshua fight. Those days are gone, for now, so it is time for either another model for boxing or for the promoters to promote the sport itself, rather than themselves.
It means ending the Cold War by any means necessary. Both camps have got fighters who they want to keep unbeaten, they also have fighters that, and I hate to say this as it sounds horrible, they don’t really care about and who were going to be used for specific reasons, to build one of their own fighters or fill an undercard slot, so pit them against each other.
The people who like to play virtual boxing accountant online will disagree with all of this. They will say the sport is in a good place. Long-term I would say it isn’t — and I did predict all of this in 2011, just to lay my shithousery aftertimer credentials on the line — so either the promoters sort it out or the networks kick them out and then figure it out themselves. Do what most industries do when the product isn’t 100%, make the necessary changes.
However it goes, I want to watch some proper fights and to see the UK finally tap into its boxing potential, not just by making money, but by producing elite fighters. Make it so.
Photo: Matchroom Boxing’s ‘Fight Camp’.