Matt Lewis asks whether boxing could do more to rebuild from the pandemic and its own self-sabotage

Even though it’s warmer than it should be in December, I’m still cold, and am grateful for the second coffee of my day. I’m sitting outside an empty café in south London on a quieter-than-normal high street, symptoms of renewed social caution as the latest Covid variant hangs ominously over everything, including boxing.

Opposite me sits Adam, Managing Editor of Southpaw Jab, who has just joined me. He looks weary, but it’s good to see him; much has happened since we met previously at a pub down the road after reviewing a fight night in London a couple of years ago- Before It All Changed. We talk about how tired we both are, and about how the pandemic has impacted our jobs. He’s rejoined the health service since I last saw him, and his stories paint a grim picture; exhausted doctors, stressed staff, dying patients, angry families. Sobered yet unsurprised by his experiences, I want to offer some empathy yet I know I can’t, so I just listen instead, drinking coffee quietly. 

Somewhat inevitably, the conversation turns to fighting. There’s lots to catch up on, and Adam has kept his finger admirably on the pulse despite everything. It’s a familiar mixed bag. Hannah Rankin’s big win over Maria Lindberg in the summer is a welcome positive note. The new super-welterweight champion has finally added one of the Big Four world titles to her CV, and the WBA and IBO belts will surely bring her opportunities in the new year. A mooted unification fight against Patricia Berghult, who beat Rankin in 2019 and who now owns the WBC title, would receive deserved attention and be a worthy headliner of a televised card. 

Conor Benn, with his demolition of Chris Algieri recently, might now be Britain’s next world title challenger. We admitted our early doubts of Benn – the laboured wins against Cedric Peynaud at the start of his career were cause for concern – but with big, early victories against Algieri and Samuel Vargas this year, along with a points win over Adrian Granados, a title shot may well be in the works for 2022. He will need more than his usual rough-and-tumble tactics against the elite class of Errol Spence or Terence Crawford, but when it comes to welterweight, he’s the best the UK has to offer at present.

However, in keeping with the times, the news wasn’t all good, especially when it came to the small hall fight community. Someone we both know has soured his relationship with a promoter and thrown a promising career in serious doubt. Someone else had their licence revoked on medical grounds. Someone else has just come out of prison. Somebody else was bed-ridden for months with Covid. Somebody else recently lost their wife to it. The local circuit is, of course, the side of the sport most exposed to this pandemic, and the side that has been hit hardest by it. The driving force, the lifeblood of the small hall event is ticket sales, but with restrictions on events and no TV to compensate, the shows simply haven’t happened, and the community has fragmented as a consequence.

As Adam and I reminisce about some of our favourite small hall memories, I find myself wondering what the boxing future (my boxing future?) looks like. I haven’t seen a live fight in a long time, I haven’t followed Matchroom onto DAZN and the next show I could cover as a journalist will be in March (at the earliest). Perhaps my waning interest has more to do with the events taking place in the meantime, like David Haye vs multi-millionaire friend and businessman Joe Fournier, or the ill-fated Jake Paul vs Tommy Fury, or the utter circus that was Floyd Mayweather vs YouTube star Logan Paul, or the incredibly sad exhibition fight between Vitor Belfort and Evander Holyfield, the latter of whom lost via stoppage inside the first round. 

Seriously, did anyone get any real pleasure from this? Who, for example, genuinely enjoyed a 55-year-old Mike Tyson fighting 52-year-old Roy Jones Jnr at an event that included YouTuber Jake Paul, viciously knocking out former basketball player Nate Robinson inside a round? A quick check of the PPV numbers confirm that, predictably, plenty of people enjoyed it. In fact, the 1.6 million people who bought it ensured that the event was the biggest boxing PPV event of 2020, generating $80 million in TV purchases alone.

But there is more to be disappointed by. Example; the WBO Global belt. Oh God, why. As much as the WBO might protest the validity of their newest title, no one can convince me that the sport needs another meaningless world title. “The WBO Global belt is [not] another world title”, explained WBO representative Jack Leigh to Phil Boxing. “It is just like the Intercontinental …title. It was created specifically for competitors from Australia, New Zealand, Russia, and the eastern European countries”. Perhaps Mr. Leigh could explain, then, why a) the WBO settled on calling it a “Global” title, and b) why there have been WBO Global champions from Britain, China, South Africa and Namibia at various points across the weight classes since the belt’s inaugural contest in 2018.

Not to be outdone, in a give-with-one-hand, take-with-the-other move, the WBA recently announced their interim titles will no longer exist, but their ‘regular’ world titles will continue to do so, as will their newly invented title, the WBA ‘Gold’ belt. This can, apparently, be contested either over 10 or 12 rounds, and seems to hold greater weight than the WBO Global title, although it’s hard to tell for sure because some weight classes have only seen the belt contested on a single occasion. 


The ghosts of Kell Brook and Amir Khan will finally meet in a now lukewarmly-anticipated clash in February next year. In the real world, neither man should find himself back at the top of the division with a win, but they will believe this of themselves regardless. They had to be separated at the first press conference (of course they did) and the social media exchanges are already warming up nicely. Well… they’ll need to if the tickets are going to inflate the wages they will undoubtedly earn for this cash’n’grab stunt. They know, we know, and the media at large know that this fight should have happened years ago. And yet, they’ll make millions from it. The 150,000 buys for Holyfield-Belfort prove that people will literally buy anything these days. 

As Adam and I get up to leave, I wonder perhaps if I am missing something here. Perhaps boxing hasn’t started to decline in recent years, and perhaps it hasn’t started selling its soul for easy money and false status. Perhaps it was ever thus. 


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