Whose Sport Is It Anyway? The Celebrity Era Has Boxing On The Ropes

Jake Paul, Oscar De La Hoya and the never-ending circus
17:32, 25 Aug 2021

Another weekend, another major boxing card headlined by fighters you won’t find in any of the major world rankings. YouTuber Jake Paul brings his 3-0 professional record to the ring against former UFC champion Tyron Woodley, who is making his pro debut. The undercard is a mix of genuine quality (unified champion Amanda Serrano, Daniel Dubois) and bizarre curios (Tommy Fury fighting Paul’s 0-1 sparring partner Anthony Taylor). Despite a headline fight that lacks any sporting merit, the card will rake in the pay-per-view buys. Paul’s last outing, a second-round knockout of a washed-up Ben Askren, garnered over a million buys.

The circus is unlikely to leave town any time soon. Two weeks later, the great Oscar De La Hoya returns to the ring to face former UFC star Vitor Belfort. Aged 48, and retired since 2008, Oscar’s return was originally announced as an exhibition. It has since been upgraded to a sanctioned pro fight that will feature on the record of ‘The Golden Boy’. The undercard too is littered with fights that could only be possible in this strange boxing landscape.

David Haye faces friend and entrepreneur Joe Fournier, the pair essentially charging money to watch the settling of a pub wager. UFC legends Tito Ortiz and Anderson Silva meet in a fight that is well-matched, but feels like it is taking place in the wrong sport. Why are two icons of the Octagon choosing boxing as the amphitheater to finally meet? The answer is, because the middle-aged warriors would no longer be allowed near the Octagon, whereas boxing is enduring a period where it accepts all comers as long as they have a slither of name-value.

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As with much of modern boxing’s neuroses, the seeds for this unusual period in the sport’s evolution were planted by Floyd Mayweather. When ‘Money’ chose to ring in his historic 50th fight against global MMA megastar Conor McGregor, rather than marking the milestone by facing a top boxer, the die was cast for much of what has followed. The fight, a mildly competitive 10th round knockout victory for the half-trying Mayweather, proved you did not need two boxers to sell a boxing pay-per-view. The presence of two fierce, opposing personalities was a box office bonanza, irrespective of what the fight offered in terms of sporting significance.

The stars of YouTube would take this theory and run with it all the way to the bank. The first of these fights to garner mainstream attention occurred in 2018, when KSI faced Jake’s brother Logan Paul. The pair took to the streaming service with sub-WWE histrionics that would make even Vince McMahon blush, hyping what they called “the biggest amateur boxing match in history". While the event didn’t quite replace the Olympic finals as the biggest event in the history of the unpaid ranks, it did sell 21,000 at the Manchester Arena, and garner 1.3 million PPV buys. For better or worse, boxing has never been the same since.

It did not take long for retired pros to see potential in this sea change. No longer needing to come close to their former peak to make money in the ring, you could fill an International Boxing Hall of Fame class with the fighters who have been tempted into a semi-comeback. Mike Tyson exorcised his demons in an enjoyable exhibition against Roy Jones Jr. Julio Cesar Chavez went to war with Jorge Arce in a surprisingly vicious curiosity bout. ‘U.S.S’ Steve Cunningham beat former Brock Lesnar-conqueror Frank Mir. Floyd himself offered up a tame but hungrily-consumed exhibition with Logan Paul, in a dream “fight” between two of the innovators of the dubious concept. The trend shows no sign of abating either, with former champions Evander Holyfield, James Toney, Riddick Bowe and Glenn McCrory among those eyeing a payday in the high-paying world of celebrity boxing.

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So what can boxing do to retain interest in the genuine, competitive element of the sport? The answer is simple to identify, but complicated to implement. Boxing promoters and governing bodies need to work together to make sure the strongest match-ups, the dream fights that fans crave, are made. Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury is a no-brainer, an all-British scrap for all the marbles at heavyweight, but it still has not happened. Unbeaten champions Errol Spence Jr and Terence Crawford could face off in a huge welterweight clash, or perhaps pair off with Manny Pacquiao-conqueror Yordenis Ugas or the gifted Shawn Porter? Teofimo Lopez leads a lightweight division littered with mouth-watering combinations, with Vasyl Lomachenko, Devin Haney and Ryan Garcia all matching up well. 

Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez is the exception that proves the rule. The unified 168lb champion has been relentlessly active, seeking down frequent fights against all his divisional rivals. His reward is a deserved position as the most popular boxer in the world. If the sport of boxing is going to wrest attention away from the glitzy but soulless celebrity fights and exhibitions, it needs more of its champions to follow Alvarez’s lead.

Until that day comes, we will have more of the same. Apparently Saturday’s card is set up to engineer a Jake Paul-Tommy Fury fight. Buoyed by ‘surviving’ against a barely-present Floyd Mayweather, Logan Paul will surely be back to take people’s money in exchange for doing very little in the near future. Beneath these icons of Generation Z, an honour roll of retired ring greats will scrap for any dropped crumbs from the table, gloving up and doing bleak impersonations of their former selves for a few dollars and fifteen minutes of relevance. For professional boxing, the mission is clear. Time to step up, and take your sport back.

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