The conveyor belt: Why small hall boxing must survive

I can’t be mithered with arena shows. Post-lockdown I probably won’t attend any, either. It had reached the point where I thought to myself that if I wanted to sit in a row of self-obsessed egomaniacs I should probably just start going to church again. I’d get to sing Colours Of Day rather than Sweet Caroline, which was in the running for the worst Neil Diamond song ever then took the top spot once you had to listen to it at every big show you attended.

The one thing I do miss is the small hall shows. I always go through the same process before attending them. I ask John Evans if he is going. Then I ask him for a lift. Then I tell him I can’t be arsed. In the end, I go anyway and get asked to do a bit of commentary. I complain about that for a while. Then I sit down with Luke Madeira, and I forget that people can listen to what I’m saying and analyse a few fights. Then John has to give me a lift home and I say: “I’m not doing this again – it is shit.” Then I do the exact same thing a few weeks later.

Small hall boxing is where I earned my spurs. At one point, the arena shows were the reward for all that spade work, but they are boring, sterile experiences where you have to do the “Hail, fellow, well met…” conversation over and over again with a rotating cast of people. You could end up sat next to someone who will say, “That was a nice reverse checkmate up jab thrown from the mid-to-orthodox southpaw stance”, and you end up double checking the feet of the fighter in question just in case the person you are sat next to has absolutely no idea what they are looking at it and has got it twisted.

In contrast, off-TV shows have got a bit of bollocks about them. I worry about the small hall shows, though. I worry about them because I’m a selfish prick who wants to watch live boxing. I want to be in the “close proximity of violence”, but without running the risk of being arrested at my local convenience store for punching someone who is paying four utility bills and cannot decide which lottery numbers they want to use.

Imagine the scene. The lockdown is over yet we have to adhere to social distancing rules and the regulations set out by the British Boxing Board of Control and their consultation document that outlines how boxing will operate behind closed doors. 

The highlights include the following: the venue must be cleaned to a ‘medical standard’ prior to the event; essential officials must be cleared a fortnight in advance; people over the age of 70 with certain medical conditions are not allowed to attend, one of the conditions prohibits ‘people who are seriously overweight’; pregnant women are out of bounds; people who have been abroad recently are not allowed in. Then you can only have five fights per card. Oh, and ‘no Championship contests will be considered initially, however, this decision will then be reviewed by the BBB of C’.

Anyone in attendance in an official capacity will be asked to do a medical questionnaire five working days prior to the show. What happens if they get Covid-19 in the meantime? The document itself doesn’t really answer that question, it just states that: ‘Covid-19 testing will take place two days before the show and you must then self-isolate in a hotel’ – who pays for that? Answer: ‘The hotel provision is the responsibility of the promoter.’

The promoter also has to ensure that the security teams and other people working the show are tested and cleared. The broadcasting teams must also be tested. PPE must be provided. Boxers will only remove them once they are inside the ring, which is cool if you are Dereck Chisora, who is too crazed to contract this virus. I get it, every recommendation is put in place to minimise the risk of getting Covid-19, but they also ramp up the cost of putting on a show, and the cost will be too much for small hall promoters unless they get help or some income from either TV or a streaming service.

Upon arrival: ‘[A]ll attendees will have their temperature taken and [a] pre-tournament medical questionnaire reviewed.’ Seats will be 2 metres apart. Officials will observe this also. Dressing rooms must maintain social distancing. No ring girls – sorry, lads – and no MC. No Michael Pass jokes or any of his ridiculously entertaining stories. No camera work in the corner. No long sleeved shirts, we must all be bare below the elbows, plus hand washing facilities must be widespread throughout the venue – and on it goes. This may work for TV, big shows have money behind them and therefore the capability to adhere to these recommendations yet what about the small, off-TV ones I mentioned earlier?

As for me, I arrive at the venue for my first post-lockdown show. They ask me who I am, I tell them I am an acclaimed boxing writer who hasn’t applied for a pass and has turned up on spec. A few phone calls later I have to fill in a form saying that I’m not over 70, which might be hard to prove depending on when I last shaved, usually six-months ago, and don’t have any pre-existing medical problems, or least ones that I know about. I sign the form. I am in. 

Ticket sales are now kaput. This is a leisure centre so even if that guideline is relaxed and you can let fans in they will have to half the capacity so the sales wouldn’t be up to the level needed for, say, Steve Wood to make a little money or break even. Steve will lose money on his shows. A lot of money. This is the story of the small hall boxing going forward.  

However, I digress. I’m in. I’ve got my wristband. I can go anywhere I want to go. Apart from the dressing rooms, where social distancing is in full effect. You have a five fight bill, two dressing room areas, and the people in them have to stay two metres apart. Whoever suggested that has either never been in a dressing room at a small hall show or doesn’t care that this suggestion, straight from the Board, is completely impractical.

I go down to ringside. I see Jamie Moore. I’ve not seen J-Mo since that time we met in a dressing room and hugged out a minor dispute. We have to keep a distance between us. I’m looking at him, he’s looking at me, tears well up when he realises we cannot hug, handshake or bump fists. The next thing you know tears are flowing down his little face.

I can’t take it so I look away. Nigel Travis is to the right of us, Nige is clearly struggling with it. His lower lip is bubbling away as he tries to fight back the tears. We have formed a pyramid of isolation as we realise that things have changed for the foreseeable future. We are grieving the future of small hall boxing as it might be a long, uphill struggle to get these shows back up and running again on a regular basis, and this would be a long-term disaster for boxing.

Steve Wood of VIP Promotions has been on the circuit for decades, he is an integral part of the conveyor belt: Scott Quigg, Terry Flanagan, Josh Warrington and many, many more started out on his shows. He has looked over the Board’s recommendations and is still none the wiser as to how small hall boxing begins again, and what will be left of it.

“We could try a YouTube show, but will the fans watch it?” he said when speaking to Boxing Social. “Without a gate it really is impossible. They are talking about a fighter and plus two, so just his trainer and cornerman. Listen, they [the Board] need to have some flexibility or changes to what they’ve outlined. They are trying to get boxing back, but it is for the TV money and big promoters, us small hall promoters are not in the position to follow the recommendations. The TV companies just want some live content.”

Like many in the sport, promoter Steve Wood is concerned for the future of small hall boxing.

Boxing’s major problem when it comes to shows boils down to logistics. If the Board are advocating monitoring who attends shows and whether they have pre-existing health conditions then how do you police that? If people under the age of 70 are no longer allowed to shows how do we get that down to an exact science? Will attendees be expected to bring passports or other forms or proof of age?

“I’m presuming that people will have to sign a disclaimer before going into a show,” said Wood. “You have to follow these processes and procedures. We need to find a vaccine before we get mass gatherings in the way we need them. We need to get that so we can even get the small things going again in the rate we need to do them. My worry is will Joe Public want to go to mass gatherings? I don’t know.

“We will have fewer shows with fewer fights. We are looking at procedures being put into place for behind closed doors TV events, not ones that are off-TV. We need advice on how to do those type of events. It isn’t just boxing, we have to see what happens in all sports. I have an engineering business, I need to get it through this and see if we can handle the inevitable recession that is going to follow. I’m also conscious that I’ve got 65 fighters who want to fight, I want to get as many as possible fighting on these shows behind closed doors. Once I’ve got the green light for them to fight I want to give them that opportunity, but I can’t see myself being able to do behind closed doors shows.”

The lockdown has been tough for everyone yet many of us still hold on to the hope that a magic wand will be waved, the restrictions will come to pass and we’ll be in a venue screaming “Fucking chin him!” as soon as they are lifted. Woods, though, thinks we still have a long way to go. “I’ll be happy to get going in November or by the Jolly Boys [his popular annual dinner show] in December, with five to a table, and I just want to be able to do that,” he said. 

“Listen, I’ve had heart stents fitted recently after suffering two strokes and a heart attack so am good physically, but, financially, I’m at the age now where I’ve been losing money on boxing for years. I don’t want to do the sums and realise I can’t go back to it so I’ll have to look at the ground rules and reassess.”

“Fighters need to be fighters,” he said when asked what we need to do to get things going again. “In the past they took fights on seven days’ notice and jumped in to take their chance. If people don’t want to do that and jump into 50-50 fights then the fights that they want might not take place. It could be a possibility that when all settles down fighters will have to take fights that they wouldn’t usually take.

“You’ve read the Board’s document, there is nothing in it that talks about preparing fighters for a fight, nothing about how they get back into the gym to prepare for it and get fighting fit again. There is no mention of title fights. If fighters want 50-50 fights with nothing on the line do they expect them to do that without any sparring?

“TV money will cover what Eddie [Hearn] and Frank [Warren] have got to pay to get fights going again, but they are now paying for five fights instead of 10, so I don’t think when it comes to money TV fights will suffer yet it might be that they all become pay-per-views.”

Wood may also have to go down the PPV route, albeit in a different way, by putting on shows that simply slake the thirst of boxing fans up and down the country who want to see live boxing again. “I’m thinking of doing it for £1.99 per show, we don’t have any big names so would just have to provide content,” he said.

“I also don’t know how we would work around the rule that we have to keep fighters in a hotel before the fight. It takes two days to find out the test results, so what do they do for those two days? It is hard to manage something if you don’t know what you are managing. It is all too soon. Even if you test negative you could still be a carrier and then you take Covid into the ring with someone you are swapping blood and sweat with.

“It isn’t just boxing. Look at what is what is going around in the world. You feel like taking your head off, giving it a shake, and asking what is normal and will normal ever come back? I don’t think it will. This is the new normal. We are estimated to lose at least twenty-five percent of pubs after this – it is happening across the board.”

Wood is not giving up, though. He has poured his heart and soul into boxing, he may see the finishing line yet he is not prepared to call it quits. Steve Wood is a promoter who thinks like a fighter, and he’s been fighting the good fight for years. He has lost money, he has had his lows, fighters have left him for bigger promoters, yet the highs have come against all odds and he has savoured them all. Come hell or high water, he wants to remain in the game. 

“No,” he declared when asked if this is the ideal time to walk away. “I’ve been committed to this for over 20 years. I sign kids and expect a bit of loyalty from them and ask the same in return. Yes, I have an exit strategy for the next few years, but it I’d never let down a boxer I’ve signed on – I’ll always see out my side of the contract.

“Most boxers used to think it is only them who is unlucky when a fight falls through or someone comes in overweight so they can’t fight. They think they are the unluckiest fucker in the entire world. If a fight falls through it impacts on us all. You’ve seen me having to explain why a fight has fallen through on the day of a show. That is the nature of the beast. Now we can see it has effected everyone: promoters, workers, sports people and anyone else who has been impacted. It is a whole new world.”

It is a new world. One of isolation and drift. Each day blurring into the next. We need boxing. We feed off it. We are all wondering when the big, world title shows will come back. I’m waiting for the small, local ones to return, because if we lose them we lose everything. If boxing doesn’t come back, the next time I hear and see the impact of a fist hitting a face I could end up getting arrested and dragged out of my local shop, and where would the game be if that happened?