Haney vs Kambosos, Charlo vs Castano, Spence Jr vs Ugas, these battles between champions remind us of the beauty of our sport. But they have now become the exception and no longer the rule…
As a boxing fan, you’ve probably heard the question from someone outside of boxing, “Why isn’t so-and-so fighting so-and-so?” If it’s not a heretical match-up between two boxers from different eras or different weight classes, this question is often pertinent. Why don’t these two boxers – popular enough for a neophyte to know them – fight each other?
Stakeholders with diverse interests
If confrontations between boxers don’t always take place, it often has to do with the difference in interests between the parties that control boxing. The 4 world federations have different rankings and champions, which complicates the unifications. Each of the federations has its own classification, when a boxer unites several belts, he has to face several mandatory challengers with the risk of losing one of the titles. When the world wanted to see a reunion fight between heavyweight champions Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury, the WBO forced Anthony Joshua to face his challenger Oleksandr Usyk† Joshua has since said he would be willing to drop a belt if needed to make the Fury fight possible.
In addition to the approval of the federations, the promoters must find an agreement so that their boxers can fight. Premier Boxing Champion earned the infamous boxing guard reputation for his lack of concessions. The headliners usually fight among themselves. Al Haymon has set up a closed circuit to represent his interests in the best possible way. The rare outing vouchers he offers his boxers relate to matches where the benefit outweighs the risk. This was the case when Andy Ruiz was contacted by Matchroom to fight Anthony Joshua after Jarrell Miller was sanctioned for doping. On the one hand, Joshua played his first fight in the United States and it was better for him to fight an American. On the other hand, Andy Ruiz and Al Haymon had a chance to win 3 belts while securing a huge wallet. The interests of all parties then converged.
An economic logic that surpasses the sporting logic
Another case of divergence, this time internally, between promoters and boxers explains to us that the difficulties of reaching agreement also lie in the economic aspect of the fights. After his win over Oscar Valdez, Shakur Stevenson declared his desire to fully unify the super feather category, to which his promoter replied, “f*ck champion be united”. Bob Arum’s words are explained by the lack of fame of the two other champions of the time, Roger Gutierrez and Kenichi Ogawa, and thus the low purse that would result from these fights.
On the other hand, a fight between an established champion and an undefeated young prospect is more interesting if the prospect is at the top. For example, it would be more beneficial for Errol Spence to face Jaron Ennis once he has achieved greater status. On paper, this strategy is smart, but a few examples show that risks are to be expected. The fight between Mayweather and Pacquiao came too late from a sporting point of view, because the 2 boxers wanted to wait for the most lucrative moment.
For Dana White, president of the UFC, the observation is clear: “One of the biggest problems with boxing is that these guys are overpaid. Every fight is at a loss. You don’t build a sport like that.” For him, it’s the entire economy of the sport that is damaging. The system has created financial monsters that no longer fight under a certain amount. Conversely, because the superflies are little known, only collisions between the best give them more visibility. In the past ten years, 11 fights have pitted against 2 of the top 4 super flyweights. The last of these saw “Chocolatoto” and Estrada go head to head, bringing in $800,000, which is an exception in this category. Following on from this example, we may wonder if the boxers get the real value from the opponents they face.
Could a closed competition, such as the UFC, be a solution? Leading organization in MMA, its position allows it to sign the best fighters. However, the terms of the contracts it offers give its athletes little freedom. They are forced to face the opponents imposed on them by the UFC at the risk of being ousted and ending up in another organization where the exchanges are far less interesting. This system makes for great fights, but gives fighters a salary well below what they generate.
In boxing, the absence of closed competition implies that boxers have more freedom and a choice of multiple promoters with similar weapons. A fighter at the end of the contract with Top Rank may very well extend it or leave for Matchroom or PBC if they offer him a better contract. Stars can become “free-agent” and lose a promoter by negotiating fight after fight to be as free as possible, as Canelo has done since the end of his contract with Golden Boy Promotions.
Between the limitations of closed competition and the differences between federations, promoters and boxers, the ideal system seems difficult to find. However, the future is bright, for example Devin Haney agreed to box Kambosos at home in Australia for a lower wallet and do it with the aim of making history by becoming the first unified lightweight champion. He preferred sporting logic to the detriment of his economic interests and that paid off. Let’s hope this situation serves as an example for his peers.