When people discuss the problems with modern boxing matchmaking, the most common complaint is that the best fighters aren’t matched up against one another as regularly as they should be.
In the current boxing landscape both promoters and networks lay exclusive claim to entire rosters of fighters. Without wholesale structural change to the sport, greater goodwill amongst competing promoters, or simply fully agnostic networks dangling monetary carrots to produce big matchups, there will always be fights that aren’t made at the exact time we would hope they would be —if they’re made at all.
An equally troubling but far more easily remedied issue also exists. All too often, fights are made with only future stakes and plans in mind, with little regard for how the two participants’ styles may mesh in the actual fight booked. There are plenty of entertaining fights happening these days, but often they seem like happy accidents—opponents brought in to lose putting up unexpected resistance, fighters boxing totally out of character stylistically, etc.
This is a change in philosophy from years past. In the 1950s, boxing occurred nearly every night of the week in the United States, and was televised every Wednesday and Friday. That particular time period featured an era of fighters that were given airtime specifically because of their entertainment value, or because of how pleasing their style would be when paired with a specific opponent. Fighters like Gaspar Ortega, Ralph Tiger Jones and Chico Vejar became fixtures on television and household names purely based on how enjoyable their bouts were, despite never capturing world titles.
Fighters comparable to the aforementioned trio, ones that retired with double digit losses, would rarely be seen on a mainstream US broadcast in 2021 in any context other than as fodder for a more highly skilled fighter deemed to have promotional upside. They would almost never be matched up against one another, regardless of how exciting the fight would be. The narrative of television bouts in the modern era is singularly focused—how might this bout help the fighters, but generally just the A-side, progress towards a bigger fight? With that ethos, it is almost antithetical to match an entertaining fight unless a title is at stake, let alone give airtime to entertaining fighters whose title hopes are slim.
Saturday night’s offering from Showtime was a rare instance in which the matchmaker’s acumen for exciting matchups and the promoter and network’s desires aligned in full. The event, staged at the Dignity Heath Sports Park in Carson, CA, featured a trio of thrilling fights: Xavier Martinez-Juan Carlos Burgos, Daniel Roman-Ricardo Espinoza and a unified super bantamweight title fight between Brandon Figueroa and Luis Nery. All three featured top-level fighters, served to set the winners up for an even bigger opportunity, and also produced non-stop action. Top to bottom, it was one of the most entertaining cards presented on American television in 2021.
In speaking to The Athletic’s Sarah Shephard in January, Top Rank matchmaker Brad Goodman summarized the modern matchmaking conundrum.
“When you do local shows you don’t really have to protect guys, you just have to please the fans and you get to think about putting on any kind of match you want,” said Goodman. “Those are the easiest kind of matches because you get to think for yourself and say, ‘Hey what match do I really want to make?’ But when you’re working for a promotion, that’s when it gets really hard because not only do you have the A-side and you have to protect them, and they have to win, you also have to please TV and the people who are watching who want to see a competitive fight.”
Put another way: the most aesthetically entertaining fights happening in the world in a given week are often not actually the ones seen in the most prominent broadcast slots. They’re often the ones Tim Boxeo is sharing on his indispensable Twitter feed.
Hours before the Showtime event, I provided blow-by-blow for an online pay-per-view event on FITE put on by Salita Promotions and SHAMO Boxing from Moscow, Russia. In the broadcast co-feature, welterweights Vahginek Tamrazyan and Meshack Mwankemwa were matched up against one another. The two were 17-8 and 21-9-2 respectively entering the bout, and had in recent years been used as B-sides against top prospects. In this bout however, they were matched with one another for no greater purpose other than producing an entertaining fight, which they did, turning in an extremely pleasing eight-rounder which Tamrazyan edged on the scorecards.
In terms of stakes pertaining to the global title picture, the fight was not applicable. In terms of spirited action, it was far more satisfying than watching a prospect wallop a no-hope opponent. Yet it was likely watched by a fractional number of people in comparison to a premium cable or premium subscription service event.
To be clear, there is a place on boxing broadcasts for prospect-building fights, tune-up fights and everything else. But there is space too for letting matchmakers be free to simply schedule a tear-up to please the audience. That doesn’t mean only airing forehead-to-forehead brawls either, as there are many ways in which a fight can be entertaining and many styles that can be pleasing—but that necessitates matching fighters competitively, no matter the level they’re operating at.
“In the 1950s there were a variety of fighters who were thought of as action fighters or specifically good for TV. A good example would be Joe Miceli. Nobody knows who he was at this point but he was regularly on TV and considered a TV fighter, and action fighter. And he was a mid-level contender,” said boxing historian Patrick Connor, author of the forthcoming book Shot At A Brothel: The Spectacular Demise Of Oscar Ringo Bonavena. “This kind of bottleneck of TV dates makes them more precious, so everything televised is either for some belt or ranking, and the idea of just putting fights on because they’d be exciting seems to be a lost art.”
We are not that far removed from programming that either allowed for, or focused on, this type of matchmaking. USA Tuesday Night Fights allowed club-level brawlers to flourish, ESPN’s Friday Night Fights gave rise to names like Micky Ward and Emanuel Augustus, and even the early days of HBO’s Boxing After Dark, while airing higher level fights than TNF and FNF, seemed to prioritize entertainment value over other interests. In the modern landscape, there are network series like Showtime’s ShoBox and NBC’s Ring City that can honestly claim to hold 50/50 matchmaking and/or good style matchups in higher priority than world rankings or other concerns the majority of the time. It should be noted too that allowing these types of fights and fighters on the air also helps cultivate and give back to a club scene that is the lifeblood of the sport.
Cards like the one Showtime aired on Saturday night will always be an outlier—a world title main event that is also a phone booth war is a stroke of luck and a thing of beauty. But fights with the kind of action Figueroa-Nery, Martinez-Burgos and Roman-Espinoza provide don’t have to be rarities in terms of television bouts. In an unprecedented era in which more boxing is being filmed and broadcast than at any time in human history, there is plenty of room for pure entertainment without a greater agenda.
Boxing is a sport, but it is also entertainment, and a well-matched action fight can provide more bang-for-your-buck than any other sport in the world. We ought to make them more often.
Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, ON. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman