Idris Virgo: The checkmate scenario

A boxing career will typically be embarked upon for either money, legacy or both. Rarely will a boxer turn professional just for the fun of it, there is an end goal. Although many may have the aspiration of life-changing money, when the lights go out at night and they are left with their own thoughts, few will truly believe that payday will come.

It is not always the most skilful who earn the highest salaries. Unlike football, where performances and statistics link to worth, boxing relies on an element of self-promotion and the ability to create your own headlines, especially if you aren’t the main event.  

Polarising characters are nothing new in the sport. Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather distinguished himself in the role of pantomime villain. He knew the worth in being brash and flash, especially when such a stark contract could be drawn in his mega-fight with Pacquaio. It also helped that he was blessed with an elite level skillset and partnered it with a burning desire to be the best.

On a more local level, Ohara Davies carved the early part of his career out of being the bad guy. To this day, there are postcodes where he wouldn’t be welcome. Billy Joe Saunders recently cited his ability to sit the wrong side of the moral compass as being key to his notoriety amongst boxing fans worldwide.

So, earlier this month, when former Love Island contestant Idris Virgo crossed the table in a head-to-head interview and emptied a bottle of water over journeyman Scott Williams, a man who has yet to taste victory in a professional ring, the boxing scene took note of a new bad boy. We are accustomed to arrogance and showmanship, we embrace it or boo it. But something didn’t sit right, when the person on the receiving end wasn’t there to be competitive.

The unbeaten Virgo raised eyebrows with his antics prior to facing Scott Williams.

Boxing is a rare sport where some individuals take part to not be competitive. Their goal is the money, not the legacy. Scott Williams is a journeyman. There is no shame in the role, one which has been designed to help those new to the sport develop their skillset and offer new challenges.

The unspoken truth is that their role is not to win, they are paid to lose and develop their opponent. So when Virgo poured the water over a man who was there to ultimately benefit his career, it prompted a reaction from those who understood the roles at play.  Less putting out a flame with the water, more stoking a fire.  

The backlash has been widespread. It seems fighters from all over the country have come to the defence of Scott Williams. There have been no shortage of offers from his fellow professionals to right what they deem a wrong. Liam Williams, namesake and a man in line to fight for a world title, has actively sought details of Virgo’s gym and offered to spar the Love Island participant. John Docherty, the undefeated Matchroom super-middle, has thrown his name into the ring. But there is one offer that has stood out from the rest. An offer that has been made publicly and now in private, that with it offers both reward and legacy. The perfect mix for any boxer.

Step forward Brad Pauls, Southern Area middleweight champion, 14 fights and no defeats. The offer put forward by his manager, Steve Goodwin. A purse for Virgo, on either a home or away show, and a bonus on offer of £100,000. On top of that, an additional £25,000 should Virgo stop the Newquay Bomb. £125,000 on offer, on top of a fight purse. All for a man who has yet to fight for a professional title against a fighter who holds a regional belt. Too good to turn down, right?

Virgo was made a huge offer to face Southern Area champion Brad Pauls (above).

No, it would seem. Virgo found a multitude of reasons not to accept the offer. The reasons varied from holding out for more, to not receiving the offer via the correct channels, through to advising Goodwin where he should be using his money instead. Impressive philanthropy from Virgo, but why? Putting it simply, Virgo isn’t ready. That is an obvious point, but it is true.

He has only had eight fights, none of which are against a boxer with a winning record. He is fighting journeymen, which is fine as he learns his craft. But the unspoken rule is that you respect the role. Instead, Virgo is crafting his own path, making his own headlines in his own style. Whether that style takes your fancy is down to personal choice, but his die has been cast.

There is, however, a fundamental issue with the behaviour. Many a Twitter commentator has sagely noted that Idris Virgo is on the wind-up, as if their insight has somehow passed over the heads of those who have lived and breathed the sport for years. It is true, of course; Virgo has found the pantomime villain costume and tailored it to his frame. In doing so, he has made more headlines than his record deserves.

He has had bigger financial offers than his record deserves. He has caught the attention of better fighters than his record deserves. This article alone is perhaps more screen space than his record warrants. His plan has worked. Until the point it came to backing it up. A case of the pantomime villain’s new clothes. They simply weren’t there after all.

Despite having a TV promoter in Mick Hennessy, Virgo’s last fight wasn’t part of the live broadcast. Why? Simply it wasn’t deemed worthy, which is a fair reflection of him and his opponent. The point is, Virgo isn’t earning mega-purses. His pay will be akin to others of a similar level. He has done well, no doubt, to align himself with a promoter that is still running shows in the current boxing landscape.

For that there is nothing but credit. The income will be small though. Yet in front of him, with a formal offer now made to his manager Jon Pegg, is the opportunity to take home a six-figure payday. Without knowing the details it is conservatively 10, maybe 15 times his highest payday. All he has to do is win. Do it in style and he wins more.

Any boxer worth their salt would surely take up such an offer. Yet the offer has been refused. Turned down. Rejected. If the fight was ever to be signed, Brad Pauls would start as favourite, but it should by no means be a one-horse race.

Ignoring the self-driven hyperbole of Virgo, the fight should still be a relatively tight affair. Neither man has gone past Area level and the chance to earn such high rewards for minimal risk would surely be jumped at by a man so confident in his abilities. Worst case scenario, he still picks up his purse.

There is a lesson to be learned here. Virgo has made headlines by the latter of two available routes; either boxing superbly or acting the villain. Although it is safe to assume that he knew what the reaction would be, he probably never realised that someone out there would be willing to make a substantial offer. In Steve Goodwin, Virgo has found his match and, in turn, had to retreat.

The behaviour came too soon. Virgo has years ahead in the sport, he should have waited. He has created a moment that he wasn’t ready for. Further down his career path, maybe he would have been more willing to accept the bounty put on his head. As it stands, his opportunity appears to be passing.

The limelight doesn’t last long in boxing. Attention spans are short, fans’ tolerance low. Having raised the bar of provocation so high, so early, Virgo will have to go to some depths to beat it in the future. Without doing so, he loses the interest of the public. If he does, he risks the wrath of the Board.

It is a checkmate scenario. Take the fight and likely lose. Ignore the fight and the next ring walk is against another journeyman, and that says a lot about Virgo’s self-confidence. The opportunity of a career-high payday will be gone and, with it, the brief moment of interest from the boxing public.

May this be a lesson. Headline grabbing actions by boxers, despite the manner in which they occur, are typically a good thing. But be ready to back them up, because you never know when someone is willing to call your bluff.