The ongoing global pandemic has forced everyone to get comfortable with being at home. For some, that’s meant taking up a new hobby, trying new recipes or binging a new series. For boxing fans, that’s meant a lot of daydreaming and fantasy booking of fights that could potentially happen once social distancing measures are loosened.
As we’ve been locked down, we’ve had to teach ourselves to be more resourceful, to be more mindful of supporting local businesses, and generally to be more appreciative of the little things in life. For fight fans, those will be valuable lessons to carry on into boxing’s eventual widespread restart, because just as the coronavirus has made us appreciate what’s close to home, the early stages of boxing’s return will likely lean on local rivalry bouts out of financial and medical necessity.
Last week, live boxing returned in Nicaragua and South Korea, two countries with vastly different approaches to COVID-19. Inside the ring however, the products were similar. The South Korean event was mostly novice fighters, some even winless, slugging it out in four rounders. In Nicaragua, the level of talent was higher, but it too was an array of local talent, with the main event being a rematch to settle a regional rivalry. Obviously at the moment, no travel is possible, so the only fights conceivable even in countries where distancing sanctions are being loosened are between those who live in the same place. But that may also be the case for some time—whether that’s due to legal provisions or simply out of medical precaution.
In Canada, promoter Lee Baxter is, like his contemporaries everywhere, envisioning how to restart boxing events in the fastest, but safest way possible. Athletic commissions in the country are at least fielding inquiries regarding potential events, and examining how best to give athletes an opportunity to work while also not putting them or the public at risk. One of the keys to this is, of course, keeping travel to a minimum, which limits the number and the types of matchups that could conceivably be made.
In Baxter’s mind however, these parameters are simply a reason to make the types of fights that have been avoided in recent years.
“I think that the upside and the benefit coming out of this is adding value to things that have lost value. Canadian titles, television, local rivalries, fan base support. A lot of that stuff has dwindled down because the right fights haven't been made, and now we're almost forced to make the right fights,” said Baxter. “We should go back to the way it was 10-15 years ago when there were strong provincial rivalries.”
At the moment, those local rivalry bouts are the only ones that can be considered, even for logistical reasons. As one can imagine, boxing trails far behind hockey in Canada in terms of popularity and impact on local economies, and even the NHL isn’t being given a green light from the federal government when it comes to international travel.
At a recent press briefing, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discussed the possibility of housing the NHL in “hub” cities in Canada, with Toronto and Edmonton being suggested as possible locations.
"I think it's a question we'll have to look into. Certainly at a strict minimum, anyone who arrives from another country will have to follow all the rules of quarantine in an extremely strict manner," said Trudeau. "We recognize that it's a possibility, but it depends on an enormous amount of things, and I don't want to speculate on this until there's more discussion."
Even in a theoretical world where Canadian promoters were able to fly in international talent, the cost of keeping them quarantined for the prescribed time period would be cost prohibitive. At the moment, the finances of boxing in the short term are being re-thought. As many promoters have stated in recent interviews, putting on a mega fight right now without an audience and the live gate that would normally come with it is next to impossible based on the conventional boxing business model. The sport’s superstars simply command too much money to make the scenario profitable.
Another thing getting in the way of big fights in boxing in an “interim” COVID world, so to speak, is that even if distancing measures were released, how many fans would be comfortable traveling long distances to attend a fight? Major cards in Nevada and those staged in stadiums depend on fly-in traveling fans. And even if those fans were willing, how many could actually afford it, after being ravaged financially during the pandemic? The state of the economy is as bad as it’s ever been, and promoters and fans alike have felt the pain.
But in a partially reopened economic scenario, competitive fights involving fighters from the same province (or state, or region) or neighboring provinces could potentially be made affordably and staged in a manner more responsible for everyone.
“You've got to take from one section and put it to the other. But I think if you're smart with it, there's a way that revenue can come in to afford it,” said Baxter. “If you think about it, let's say you cut out all of the international expenses, but you also cut out the venue expenses. The venue is huge, especially in Toronto, those costs are huge. But if it's off-site, and it's just on television, it could be anywhere.”
Baxter’s company Lee Baxter Promotions promotes middleweight contender Patrice Volny, who in December was scheduled for a title eliminator in Phoenix that ultimately fell through. That kind of opportunity abroad is likely off the table for a while, so Volny has been engaged in a back and forth in the Canadian media with recent world title challenger Steven Butler. The two are both residents of Quebec, where promoter Yvon Michel recently told the Canadian Press he has a date held at the Montreal Casino for a potential event, meaning there is a precedent to at least explore the option of such a fight somewhere in the province.
While it’s fun to dream up mega fights while we spend 60% of our days sitting on our couches, the reality is that the boxing we will get right out of the gate will be a lot closer to what we saw in Nicaragua and South Korea last week—and there’s nothing wrong with that. A few decades ago, regional and national title bouts were meaningful, and produced a lot of fun television fights (see: all of the USBA title fights over the years on Tuesday Nights from the Blue Horizon in Philadelphia). Over the years, those types of fights have been devalued and have become less common for a variety of reasons: An increased value placed on being undefeated, the watering down of titles in general, and simply the ease of access to broadcast boxing. As fans, we’ve become spoiled, and have diluted the value of competitive local fights.
That will have to change, because the cards most likely to happen in the near future (“near” is a relative term, of course) will be ones involving minimal travel that can be televised or streamed inexpensively. The good news is that as those who attend shows know, local rivalry fights are often the most evenly matched bouts on the card. So even if what we get won’t be fights between the biggest names in the sport right away, what we’ll be satiated with might actually be even more competitive.
Just as the edict has been to support local businesses during lockdown, as a community there should be a movement to support grassroots fighting as the world moves towards opening up again, because perhaps even more than it was before, it will be the lifeblood of boxing.