Boxing’s desperate search for relevance shows no sign of stopping

The November 9 fight will serve as a sad indictment of the current state of boxing

On August 25, 2018 renowned YouTubers KSI and Logan Paul sold out the 21,000 seater Manchester Arena. This event was not some kind of collaborative Youtube video. In fact, it was an amateur bout which would go on to be billed by the Radio Times as the “biggest white collar boxing match ever”. Not only did the pair fill one of the United Kingdom’s most iconic venues, they managed to transcend their own profession by drawing in a global pay per view audience of two million. For a YouTube fanbase which lives to be a part of an era saturated with “fake beef” and melodramatic spats, this physical confrontation was undoubtedly a welcome next step. 

That is not to say that it was a welcome next step for boxing.

The idea of two amateur “fighters” being given a headline slot on a platform which the majority of professionals had only dreamed of disturbed few and repulsed many. The boxing world passionately dismissed the match-up as nothing more than an elaborate circus. One of the most vocal critics at the time was maligned promoter Eddie Hearn, who proudly declared that he was too much of a “boxing enthusiast” to “stand up and sell something like that”. His pride soon dissipated once the money started rolling in. Now, following a majority draw, Hearn will promote the Staples Centre rematch on the November 9, where two Youtubers will headline a card which includes former world champions, namely Billy Joe Saunders. If that doesn’t seem right, it is because for a lot of fans, it isn’t. 

“They are eyes which came for celebrity, and once that aspect is gone, they will remain shut for the foreseeable future”

The hypocrisy of this turn of events is self evident. Not only that, it is indicative of just how far boxing has fallen. Although justifications used by Hearn, including claims that the fight will “bring new fans to the sport,” or that he “fell in love” with the passion he felt in the Manchester Arena at the first fight may be convincing to some, the underlying reality cannot be disputed. This is about the money. It would be naive to suggest otherwise. And while it may be understandable for a business, Matchroom Boxing, to pursue the biggest payday, this “casual fan” based model which boxing has sought to utilise following a major decline in its popularity is only serving to hurt it even more. Events such as the KSI v Logan Paul rematch will undoubtedly bring fresh eyes to the sport, but not the kind of eyes which are going to stick around. This is partially because there is not much to stick around for in terms of a clear World Title structure, but more importantly because they are not eyes which came for boxing in the first place. They are eyes which came for celebrity, and once that aspect is gone, they will remain shut for the foreseeable future. Herein lies the naivety of boxing’s seemingly endless search for a place in contemporary culture. 

The decline in the popularity of boxing has been well documented in recent years, with factors such as corruption and an absence of star power often cited. One of the more important contributors from the outside looking in, as a self confessed casual fan, is the sport’s obviously desperate attempts at relevance. The first example of this was August 2017’s Mayweather v McGregor spectacular. The promotion of this event was shamelessly braggadocious about what it was trying to do, going so far as to call it the “Money Fight,” and placing a fabricated “Money Belt” on the line. Although criticised, fans of combat sports were sufficiently intrigued. Could an MMA fighter really box? Which was the better sport? It posed actual questions. It also had the respective Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather factors. In this regard, it passed the litmus test as an event which was worth having. Yes, it was money orientated, but at least it was toeing the line of having some kind of tangible affiliation with boxing itself. It was clearly a cash grab, but it was one which you could rationalise. 

“Would Manchester United offer Kim Kardashian a contract?”

The same cannot be said for KSI and Logan Paul. Perhaps the most adequate representation of what is at stake is to imagine similar circumstances in a different sport. If the Premier League declined in popularity, would Manchester United offer Kim Kardashian a contract? If rugby’s viewership was decimated, the IRFU would surely not turn to Marty Morrissey to play at scrum half. Even though such moves would undoubtedly bring, as Hearn said: “new eyes” to the respective sports, they are sporting bodies which despite being shamelessly money orientated and suffering from their own corruption issues, are yet to stoop to promoting celebrities over people who have dedicated their lives to their craft.

This is the key point which boxing is missing, and which has been highlighted by the continuation of its circus-like promotion tactics. In order to build and maintain a fan base, it must revert to the traditions which brought it to the fore in the first place. It must demonstrate that it builds up its athletes, so that fans can have someone or something to cling to. In order to get people to participate, it must give them something that they can participate in, that they can strive towards. The Logan Paul fight itself is not the issue. The issue is the extent to which boxing is relying on this kind of ploy. It is becoming a sport based on ad hoc solutions. It is pumping all of its resources into once off fan frenzies, leaving its decreasing number of aspiring stars with than nothing. How are young boxers meant to contend with the sheer power of fame? Fanbases already constructed, money already earned, these celebrities have every advantage before they even step into a ring.  

The November 9 fight will undoubtedly bring more eyes to a boxing related event than has been the case since its last instalment. It will also serve as a sad indictment of the current state of a sport which once created political leaders such as Muhammad Ali, and countless inspirational stories. Indeed, the Staples Centre may be full, but true fans of the sport will continue to claim that they are left feeling empty.

Jonathon Boylan

Jonathon Boylan is a Deputy Sports editor of Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister Law student.