By Thomas Gerbasi
The fight game may slow down around the holidays, but as soon as Evander Holyfield’s The Real Deal Boxing announced their WBC welterweight tournament just before Christmas, company COO Eric Bentley’s phone and email got hot.
“We’ve had about a dozen to a dozen and a half applications thus far and I’ve probably had about 15 to 20 different fighters reach out and ask for more details,” Bentley said last week. “So it’s been going pretty well so far.”
So if everything ended there, the new promoter on the block will at least have enough fighters for the eight-man tournament, but odds are that Bentley will continue to get swamped by up and coming 147-pounders before the application deadline on Jan. 12. And that’s a good thing – not just for the promoter – because it’s a bold step with a lot of positives.
First, it adds a level of interest to fights that may not have received that kind of attention outside of a tournament format. Second, it’s an opportunity for fighters without major connections to earn a WBC ranking that could lead to bigger fights down the line. And third, it’s a chance to make a star over the course of three nights in 2018, and yes, Bentley is determined to make sure this tournament starts and finishes this year and in the same venue.
“I think that’s extremely important,” he said. “Most of what I’ve been successful at in my life is observing people before me and learning from their successes and failures. People have tried tournaments before. Some have worked, some haven’t, but I feel from my standpoint as a fan, you have to be fully invested in it, and if you’re having different fights from one tournament on different cards, granted, a lot of these fights are main event-worthy fights and I understand why they’re on different events. But in fairness, why does one guy get two extra weeks or a month to train for a fight? We want everyone to have a level playing field, we want it to be something where no one can really have any excuses as to why this guy beat them or that guy had a better day than they did. Also, in terms of momentum, it’s important to lock in a venue where we’re gonna have all three fights. We want to pick the venue that’s going to be best for our show, but I think in terms of continuity and consistency, if we’re looking to build something, we should build it all in the same area.”
Holyfield’s company has already drawn positive notices for putting on entertaining shows with competitive fights since its debut last year, but this tournament can take it to another level, mainly because the resulting media attention will bring to light some of the more unique aspects of their operation, which includes a focus on the health of their fighters. And in the tournament, all participating fighters, not just the ones signed to Real Deal, will have access to extensive testing and monitoring.
“The Real Deal medical team is actually taking on a major role with the handling of the fighters on this,” said Bentley, a former director of boxing for the New York State Athletic Commission. “So when we have them all in town for the initial press conference, we’re going to do baseline imaging and neuro testing all the fighters. We’re going to do it consistently throughout, and this is essentially what we do with all the fighters we have signed. We have our own staff of doctors who maintain health records throughout a fighter’s career, so then we’re able to monitor any changes. And everyone in the tournament is going to be afforded the same opportunity to be part of this. It’s probably the most important thing we do in the tournament.”
It may be the most important thing the company does in and out of the tournament. So this is all good news, but this is boxing, so what’s the bad news? Well, there is the proposed usage of open scoring, but as Bentley points out, he’s open to suggestions regarding the format of it, and he’s not married to a particular system at this point.
“I think it’s important that the fighters know at a certain point in a fight where they are,” he said. “Just in recent memory, if you were to ask Tevin Farmer after the fifth round of his fight if he thought he was winning or if he knew he was losing, maybe he would have adjusted his strategy and said, ‘What am I doing wrong? Maybe I can do something different to show the judges why I should be winning this fight.’
“I don’t necessarily want to see round by round scoring or see somebody knowing they have it in the bag at a certain point,” Bentley continues. “If it were completely my decision, it would be at one point before the halfway mark, just for these guys to know what the situation is and whether what they’re doing is working or not. It’s not a science; we’re going to try it out, see if it works, and if it doesn’t work, then back to the drawing board and maybe somewhere down the line, if we have to revisit it, we can. I just want to give every opportunity we can to make sure the right guy comes out on top.”
That includes a judging system that employs the usual three judges, along with a fourth judge at ringside and a fifth who will utilize a TV monitor with no audio commentary. All five judges’ scores will be used in determining a final decision.
“People are sitting back and have been complaining for so long about how bad judging and bad scoring are ruining the sport and no one’s really doing anything about it,” he said. “Do I know if this is going to work? No. But if you think about it logically, adding two more competent judges to a fight can offset if two judges are having a bad day. I don’t think it can hurt. It’s something we can build off of and figure out the good parts about it, and if there are any bad parts that get exposed, we can always tweak the format however necessary.”
In other words, Bentley and company are giving this a shot, which beats the alternative of bitching for the sake of bitching. Will it work? It just might, and in the process, there may be a fighter out there with no connections and no immediate prospects for changing that situation who will get his shot to play with the big boys. And as much as fans and media like to rail against the sanctioning bodies, for those aforementioned fighters, a WBC ranking can all of a sudden lead to a big fight, and with three televised fights, whether on a network or the internet – or both – everything can change. And isn’t that why everyone fights, to change their life?
“First and foremost, it’s about an opportunity,” said Bentley. “It’s an opportunity for the fighters and maybe guys who don’t have a promoter backing them or don’t have a promoter who has any kind of juice with the sanctioning bodies or the networks. We’re willing to work with other people, and this is an opportunity for us. It puts Real Deal on the map. It’s obviously a huge risk we’re taking and this isn’t World Boxing Super Series money, but for a startup company, we’re taking a big risk in what we’re putting forth. We’re trying to better the sport with some of the rule changes we’re looking to implement and some of the innovative and interactive tweaks we’re trying to put on it, from the fan polling to different things we’re going to announce leading up to the tournament in terms of how you can view the fights.
“It’s really what we’re standing for: good quality fights, fan involvement, opportunities for the fighters, getting our name out there, and working with other promoters that are interested in working with us. We’re hoping this will expand beyond one welterweight tournament. We want this to be a regular, consistent venture for our company.”