DAZN EVP Joe Markowski talks to Boxing Social about all things Canelo-Saunders and why the atmosphere on Saturday night in front of 70,000 fans in Texas will be “off the charts”…

Around 15 months ago, when I first interviewed DAZN’s Joe Markowski, the global streaming giants were on the verge of announcing a showdown between Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez and Billy Joe Saunders, a match-up which was expected to take place on May 2, 2020 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

“Yes, it was mid-March and we were literally fine-tuning the press release,” Markowski recalls with a wry smile, as he speaks to Boxing Social via Microsoft Teams from his New York base.

“From a global and from a DAZN perspective, it’s been an incredible period of time the last 15 months. Looking back, I see it in three stages. There was stage 1, which was crisis management. I think every business in the world went through that to some extent – from corner shops to the boardrooms of FTSE 100 companies. Everyone had to react and we had to react by cancelling events and handling the communications around that.

“Then we went into what I would describe as a strategic reflection in the summer of last year. We had contractual conversations going on with rights holders all around the world, as every broadcaster did. We had management conversations. We had to make some tough and difficult decisions which were necessary for the business.

“We restructured our business at a very senior level too, all with the future in mind, which enabled us to move into the third phase, which we’ve been running with for the past six or seven months, which is growth in the new world.”

DAZN have certainly come back firing from the unexpected thunderbolt of a worldwide pandemic. 

They launched as a global platform late last year, and have since featured pound-for-pound king Canelo twice, as well as a host of other exciting fights, including Ryan Garcia vs Luke Campbell and the classic rematch between Juan Francisco Estrada and Roman Gonzalez, as well as some marquee match-ups in women’s boxing, notably Katie Taylor’s titanic battle with Natasha Jonas last Saturday.

This weekend, however, sees arguably their biggest event of all since the company’s inception back in 2016.

Just over a year to the day since it was originally scheduled, Mexican icon Canelo finally meets the enigmatic and somewhat divisive figure of Saunders in an eagerly awaited super-middleweight unification fight in front of 70,000 fans at AT&T stadium in Arlington, Texas.

“Our business is healthier now than it was before the start of Covid in every way,” Markowski argues. “Our boxing programme and our global platform business generally are in extremely strong shape. We’re very excited to be on the front foot.”

As he turns his full attention to Canelo-Saunders, Markowski positively purrs with excitement. “It feels like a big event for a number of different reasons,” he points out. “Number one you’ve got the fight itself – obviously any Canelo event is huge but this is a particularly big one.

“Secondly, it feels like this is the start of the end – in the US at least – of Covid. The vaccines are flying out, the restrictions are easing everywhere, hence the fact there will be 70,000 people in the stadium. That in itself is a story, right?

“If this isn’t the biggest sports event in the world since the start of last year then it’s one of the top three. The atmosphere is going to be incredible. I mean, the atmosphere was incredible for Canelo in Miami against [Avni] Yildirim [in February] and there were 14,000 or 15,000 there for that, so 70,000 in [Dallas] Cowboys stadium in a very Mexican-American hub on Cinco de Mayo weekend… it’s going to be off the charts! We’re very excited about it and from a DAZN perspective we’re ready to go!”

Markowski is of the opinion that in the highly skilled and well-schooled southpaw Saunders, Canelo is facing the stiffest possible test available at 168lbs. 

“Maybe not in terms of power punching but in terms of awkwardness and style, yes, Saunders is the biggest challenge for Canelo at super-middleweight and that’s why Canelo has sought him out,” he explains. “Canelo genuinely called for this fight, he was very clear about who he wanted to fight.

“He knows it’s a big challenge and he recognises that Saunders is the next opponent on the route to that undisputed status at super-middleweight. It’s a huge challenge for him, but knowing how he trains and how the Reynoso gym operates he’ll be fully prepared, so Billy Joe has got his work cut out no doubt.

“Having said that, there’s a confidence that Billy Joe has going into this that is going to make it a very interesting fight for fans on both side of the pond.
As well as the intriguing contrast in personalities and fighting styles of the two protagonists, it is undeniable that the buzz engendered by the massive crowd that will flock to the AT&T Stadium on Saturday night has created a palpable sense of expectation that feels extra special after the rigours of lockdowns and the increasingly tiresome sight of boxing operating in the atmosphere vacuum of ‘behind closed doors’.

“Whenever we’ve done any shows with a limited crowd – and we’ve had three or four now – we’ve seen there’s a pent-up demand for live sport events,” Markowski notes. “That’s great for [promoter] Eddie [Hearn] who is selling lots of tickets.

“There has been a huge flow of sales. We’ve been north of 60,000 for several weeks now and there’ll still be some walk-ups this week so we’ll be at full capacity in terms of what we’re allowed to sell, which is fantastic and speaks to the fact that people want to get on with life now. It’s been a weird 15 months or so and people now want to get back to normal and Texas has embraced that.

“I think there will be an incredible atmosphere which will come through on the broadcast. There will be a great fight on the top of the card. There will be huge spectacle around the fight, knowing how ambitious Canelo is with his ring walks and I think Billy Joe has some stuff up his sleeve too which will be crafted in his own unique style.

“Fight week could be pretty interesting, too,” Markowski adds with a laugh [he is speaking, incidentally, before all the shenanigans surrounding the ring size which exploded across boxing and social media this week].

“I’m slightly concerned about what might happen at the press conference. I might take out some sort of personal insurance in case chairs start flying and tables start getting flipped!

“I think Tyson Fury is going to be knocking about at some point which will probably bring its own mini soap opera with it, too!

“Above all I think it’s going to be a fantastic event and a great night of boxing. For British fans in particular I’m excited to point out that there’s three ways they can watch the fight, They can stay up until the early hours and watch it live and exclusive. Then we are having an ‘as live’ rerun on Sunday morning and, as always, there is a catch-up on demand option, too. And I think it’s fantastic value for a UK audience at just £1.99 for the month. I think that’s an unbelievable offer given the size of the fight.”

Once the dust settles and the victor’s arm is raised on Saturday night, Markowski remains determinedly optimistic about the future of boxing and DAZN.

“Eddie’s got a two-fight deal with Canelo. He’s on the second fight of that run. We’re working on a fight-by-fight basis with Canelo. We will sit down after the fight as we did post-Yildirim and have a conversation with him.

“He’s seemingly very content with Matchroom’s promotional work, the relationship between those two organisations is very strong. That isn’t surprising to me because Matchroom are the best promoters in the world in my opinion and they look after their fighters superbly well.

“Collectively, as a trio, I think we respect each other’s ability to help each other and commercially we make a good team so I’m hopeful that we can continue to work with Canelo.

“We’re in month five of 2021 now and we’ve been outing out a large number of great shows and events. There have been fights on undercards or as co-mains that have been great fights. That’s a reflection of the commitment we’re making to boxing fans.

“We want to bring value to boxing fans and that’s about high-quality shows that justify the subscriptions and foster loyalty among boxing fans. We’ve been delighted with the take up that we’ve seen globally since the launch of the global platform in December.

“We’re very happy with the state of our US subscription business, it’s in a very healthy position. So we’re in good shape and we’re very excited to announce more and more this year. Obviously there’s the big one – AJ vs Fury – coming down the pipe and Eddie’s not a million miles from announcing that we hope. He’s almost there. 

“The effect of Covid on boxing circles seems to be that it’s created a higher willingness to make the fights happen that people want to see. The stress that Covid injected into the system I think has made people want to get to the point of big fights a bit quicker! I think that’s reflected in the schedule you see.

“There doesn’t perhaps seem to be as much ducking and diving as there was pre-Covid so definitely from our perspective nothing has changed. We’re always pressuring our promoters to make the best fights possible.”

In a business as jaded and cynical as boxing, Markowski’s sunny outlook and can-do attitude are certainly a breath of fresh air.

As the boxing world emerges, squinting and jaded from lockdowns and social distancing restrictions, what better way to move forward than with a big stadium fight on a Saturday night involving the sport’s biggest name and one of its most gifted but enigmatic talents, and maybe a beer or two as well.

As Markowski himself admits: “Once the broadcast starts and my job is done I’m looking forward to toasting the fans and the event with a couple of Tecates!”

For details of DAZN’s special Canelo vs Saunders ‘Face The Fearless’ NFT Drops check out www.daznboxing.io