Boxing has been back for a few weeks but the sport still awaits the return of its bigger stars in significant action.
Those stars, some tentatively being pencilled in for bouts in the late summer and early fall, haven’t aligned yet. While we are seeing some smaller title fights in the interim, the top of almost every division is currently frozen in a way that hasn’t happened since World War II.
That’s not a bad thing.
COVID-19 cases hit a new record for a single day in the United States on Wednesday. Already, we’ve seen the virus interfere with some of the fights in the ESPN series. It is risky physical and financial business to plan a bigger event, the sort that might end up on pay-per-view, with the chance it could all evaporate at the last minute.
There are multiple dimensions to the waiting game going on. It’s too easy to say that the higher end of the boxing economy is waiting for the best paydays to return.
We’re seeing modified returns of Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association coming to fruition. The NFL will have a season. Lebron, Trout, Brady...one way or another, we’re getting all of them again in 2020.
Big time boxing, the kind that puts names like Fury, Alvarez, Pacquiao, or Spence on the marquee, doesn’t have their business model to work off of. Each event is its own entity. Yes, all those names have to be compensated, but to bring them back also means putting promotional muscle into the events they headline.
The question of live crowds, and gates, might really be secondary. Beyond the physical risk inherent in gatherings right now, the idea of investing millions into a major show only to have a postponement erupt from a secondary camp member testing positive, much less one of the fighters, just hours before the show would be a special kind of anxiety.
Thursday night, we will see Jose Pedraza-Mikkel LesPierre on ESPN just a couple weeks after its postponement. Something like the intended pay-per-view discussed for Gervonta Davis-Leo Santa Cruz might not have the same wiggle room. Delays could be longer and harder to reschedule.
For as long as the virus continues, and boxing continues to provide content in its wake, this tightrope walk will persist. The reality of the new surge in cases and the fact of boxing’s return raises the question of what the best case scenario for the rest of this year might be. On social media, fans hopes for some bigger stuff as the year wears on is unmistakable. Outlets slower to return certainly have time now to plan ahead.
Perhaps camp quarantines for bigger events two weeks out from fights will be the answer. Zoom press conferences won’t produce shoving matches, but it’s better than nothing.
It could also be a case where we won’t be getting much of the big stuff the rest of the way this year, period. Top Rank’s Bob Arum has projected hopes for dates for Vasyl Lomachenko-Teofimo Lopez and Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder III in the last third of the year.
If both find their way into 2021, would anyone be surprised?
That doesn’t mean we can’t get good stuff. Last week’s twin appearances (pun intended) by the Moloney brothers provided quality fist fighting. The announced flyweight title fight between Julio Cesar Martinez and McWilliams Arroyo for later this summer would be welcome among hardcore fans any year.
Lower weight classes, where even their big fights could be more easily rescheduled barring travel issues, could be a source of quality in general for the rest of the year. It won’t produce the sort of viewing numbers high profile, larger contemporaries might yield but good fights are good fights.
It might be where more conversation should occur.
The obstacles to the return of big time boxing may be getting higher rather than receding.
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Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at email@example.com