By Tris Dixon
Styles make fights but personalities make attractions.
It’s long been known that little sells in boxing like conflict, grudges and vendettas that can only be settled in one place – the prize ring.
It is why there is more money on the table for B-list fighters who play the bad guy and talk smack than A-list fighters who could not care less if they are popular, whether they have a large social media following or court any kind of controversy.
That talented bunch, highly skilled but shy, quiet, unassuming or less than comfortable speaking English, often fail to cash the largest possible cheques while the aforementioned big mouth, after a couple of years of effing and blinding and shoving opponents at weigh ins, might at least own their own homes by the time their career ends.
Of course, there is a lot more to it than that but you catch the drift. Talking sells. Smack talking sells even more.
Some of those who know how to talk the talk are aware of the difference it makes, being able to talk a good game.
In this era, of five second Instagram clips, instant social media messages and TV networks and promoters needing to package their products in order to ‘sell’ them, the ability to divide increases one’s chances of conquering.
Yet the good guy-bad guy dynamic is nothing new.
Sonny Liston knew it only too well. The often-sullen former heavyweight champion said, “A boxing match is like a cowboy movie. There’s got to be good guys and there’s got to be bad guys, so I’m a bad guy.”
It was probably Mike Tyson in the 1980s, though, where the balance in boxing shifted. No longer did we want clean cut Sugar Rays, we were enthralled by menace. We were drawn in by a fighter, who many believed was a reincarnation of Liston, did his brutal talking with his fists. A generation became hooked on intimidation. It was not about golden smiles, more dark alleyways. And we paid good money to watch the public muggings.
Of course, the international cultural bias towards the dark side of a rivalry has shifted substantially in the last two decades.
Hollywood these days will sometimes allows the bad guys to have the starring roles, for us to be drawn to them, empathise with them and support them. Other entertainment avenues, including professional wrestling when Steve Austin was supposed to be a ‘heel’, saw the crowd pulling for the man they would once have rooted against.
It does not always pay to be the good guy.
World heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua has successfully created a wholly positive brand but so many others understand that a quick social media clip or a headline slamming an opponent or potential rival will speedily make them relevant.
Many loved to hate Prince Naseem Hamed. It was the same with Floyd Mayweather.
Tony Bellew knows the game and he has played it. So, too, has Ohara Davies, the outspoken London super-lightweight who continues to attract controversy.
He was pulled from Matchroom’s upcoming February 3 show at the O2 Arena and suspended by his management team.
Davies had praised The Sun newspaper, which in itself doesn’t sound too extreme.
But he did so in the context to raise the ire of future rival Tommy Coyle, who has criticised the newspaper, like tens of thousands more around the UK, for the way they reported the Hillsborough football Disaster in 1989 when 96 people lost their lives.
Davies, who’s always relished the bad guy role, said he would wear the newspaper’s logo on his shorts and work with The Sun to promote the fight.
He subsequently deleted the ill-advised tweets and apologised.
He may not have known the seriousness of what he was saying. He reckoned he was trying to get Coyle to face him on February 3. But the 25-year-old must learn. There are boundaries. You cannot use a national disaster where people lost their lives to publically goad opponents.
So where are the lines and what is crossing them? David Haye repeatedly threatened to send Bellew to hospital ahead of their first fight. Curtis Stevens opted to put Gennady Golovkin’s initials onto a casket and picture it for social media before they met.
None of this makes one particularly proud to be a boxing fan, nor have there been meaningful punishments for those who have stepped out of line.
I’ve known big-name British fighters who have agreed to split the difference on any fines they would get in order to draw more money at the gate and on pay-per-view.
Once more, boxing pays for its lack of uniformity and organisation. What may go punished in one jurisdiction will go unnoticed in another. Each indiscretion is either dealt with individually or not dealt with at all.
It is another reason why boxing is the wild west of sports. And, as we know, in all good westerns you have good guys and bad guys.
And these days, the good guys do not always win.