Relatively speaking, top level boxing has come through Covid-19 almost unscathed. To find those in our sport who really felt the sting of the pandemic, we have to look to the grass roots – the small halls. Reliant on ticket sales rather than broadcasting rights, small hall boxing has suffered. However, it’s often the case that crises drive innovation and that may well be the case for UK small hall boxing in 2021. 

The recent arrival of Fightzone – a streaming service that aims to deliver a fight night every Friday night for £4.99 a month – has the potential to breathe new life into the lower echelons of the British boxing scene. 

Ricky Hatton has already put his voice behind the project. ‘The Hitman’ said: “This is what boxing has been crying out for. There’s a part of boxing that’s been forgotten over the last few years. It’s where these people come from, from the grass roots and it’ll be nice for us to be able to see them again.” 

Sheffield promoter Dennis Hobson has led the project in promotional terms, with Kevin Maree and Sam Kynoch both signing up their stables to compete on the platform. 

Maree gave Boxing Social his insight into the platform as it takes its first steps.

“It could be massive. It’s got unlimited potential because you can purchase it all around the world, but we need people to put their money where their mouth is,” said Maree. “I’m really heavily involved in the sport and all I hear from fans is: ‘We miss Friday night boxing’. Well, now it’s here.

“I know the team who are putting this together, Dennis Hobson and his team – I’ve always really admired Dennis. During lockdown we could either sit and do nothing or you can make something happen. Dennis epitomises that can-do attitude. What he’s done in boxing is fantastic and he doesn’t wait for things to fall in his lap. With Clinton Woods, he took him out to America and kicked doors down and got these big fights with Tarver and Jones, and he does these tremendous things. 

“In December of last year, when we were really in the worst possible time, Dennis wanted to get a show on to get these guys out, get active, earn some money. He got a big car park, people in cars – and even me as a real optimist was sceptical – he wanted to do a show outdoors in December! Everybody said it couldn’t be done. But he did it. The boys all got paid, the trainers all got paid and he earned even more of my respect. So now, Dennis has come up with this concept of Fightzone with his business partners and it’s really going to fill a gap.”

Of course, Maree is trying to sell a product that he’s very much part of, but he’s right that Fightzone could fill a gap for boxing fans. Previously, most shows equivalent to Fightzone’s offerings would go completely un-broadcast. Some might end up on YouTube, with little in the way of production value, but others would be seen live by a small crowd and then condemned to the annals of Boxrec. 

For devoted boxing fans who know the appeal – and show-stealing potential – of local rivalries and area and English title fights, this is a huge bonus. It’s potentially another income for fighters, too, and may help some to navigate the notoriously difficult route from boxing obscurity towards title contention and – more importantly – making a living in the sport they love.

Schofield vs Ellison is Fightzone’s next offering on Friday.

While Fightzone is attempting to remedy the ills of small hall boxing, Maree himself claims to be something of an antidote in the managerial world. 

“I was always involved in boxing and I was managing a few fighters. I was going into gyms and visiting the fighters I was managing and I was hearing a lot of horror stories in these gyms,” he said.

“I’ve heard about managers taking high percentages out of their fighters wage and lying about how much they’ve been getting paid. That’s criminal. I hear of fighters who haven’t had a fight date for six months and haven’t even spoken to their manager. I hear of fighters who have never met their manager. All these things are just mind-blowing to me. It’s bonkers. It’s something that boxers need to look at more seriously.”

By comparison, Maree says he regularly visits his fighters in the gym. He watches them spar. He helps out with coaching when coaches are away. He knows their families, their partners and their life stories. 

Sounds too good to be true? The numbers speak for themselves. Until a couple of years ago, Maree only managed a small stable of fighters. Then, after selling his hotel business and going into boxing full-time, Maree’s boxing journey quickly gathered momentum. 

“When I sold my business, at the time I was managing about 10 fighters. A year later, I was managing 20 or 30 fighters and then when I built the fighters and made sure I could get the fighters out, we now manage 80,” he said.

“It’s funny because people say to me ‘You manage 80 fighters, you’ve got possibly the biggest stable in the country – certainly one of the biggest – and we don’t know who you are?’ and I say ‘Good’. You shouldn’t. My boxers do, but why should you? It’s contradictory ‘cos I’m doing this interview, but it’s not something I pursue. When I’m contacted I’m happy to talk, but I keep a low profile. I do my work and my talking with my boxers.” 

Notions of sporting philanthropy and ‘doing things the right way’ aside, Fightzone will need fans to put their hands in their pockets in order for the platform to reach its potential. At a time when boxing fans so often criticise YouTube fighters and the offerings of platforms like Triller, Fightzone represents a chance for boxing purists to support something that is truer to the sports roots.  

Maree made the point in no uncertain terms: “It’s a massive shot in the arm for boxing in this country, at a time when we really need it. If you’re a boxing fan, please get behind it. This could do wonders for the sport of boxing.” 

The platform’s initial shows have been entertaining without setting the world alight but the potential is there for all to see. Conah Walker and Levi Ferguson entertained in a well-matched Midlands Area title fight in Sheffield on Friday night. Mark Jeffers impressed, too, and Kash Ali cruised to a third-round stoppage win for the IBF European heavyweight title. 

The week before, Myron Mills beat Lucas Ballingall in a closely-contested English title bout at lightweight and Maree’s charge – and Southern Area champion – Ian Martell became one of a select group of fighters to stop dependable journeyman Elvis Dube. Lyndon Arthur and Liam Conroy are both on the short list of fighters who have halted Dube inside the distance in recent years. 

All fans of UK small hall boxing will hope that Fightzone can build on this start and go from strength to strength. The mere fact that we’re seeing promoters and managers cooperating in order to get the platform off the ground is remarkable in itself – as any boxing fan will appreciate. Maree made the point that this cooperation opens the doors to a whole host of exciting cross-promotional fights and added: “It’s not a closed shop”. Other promoters and managers are very much welcome to join the Fightzone movement. 

Maree was keen to emphasise the importance of this and it’s refreshing to hear boxing promoters and managers talk about actionable cooperation. He explained: “I’ve been involved in every different facet of boxing, from fighting, to coaching, managing and promoting – and I’ve been involved in lots of different businesses in different sectors – but boxing is the weirdest one because generally people don’t want to work with each other. 

“What I always say to managers and promoters is: ‘We’re not fighting guys. The boxers are fighting. We’re trying to do business that we all benefit from’. We all need to work together, but for some reason, because we’re in the sport of boxing and people hit each other, everyone thinks they need to be hyper-aggressive, not work with each other, be nasty with each other. That’s what I’m trying to change in this sport. Let’s change this mindset. The boxers are fighting. We don’t fight.” 

Only time – and the bottom line – will tell, but there is plenty to like about Fightzone. Cross promotional fights, promoters working together and the return of fan favourite, Friday night boxing. Watch this space for more as the platform develops. 

Main image: Burnley Express.