Boxing’s audience widens as the circus rolls back into town

Boxing is a unique sport. Void of a regimented schedule, viewers have the flexibility to dip in and out without any commitment to prolonged fandom. Unlike sports with a traditional season-upon-season backbone, the fight game facilitates the casual viewer more than most others. This is often the case when comparing a team sport to an individual one; it’s a rarity that a Premier League viewer wouldn’t associate with a particular team, but more common for a boxing viewer to watch without the need to pick a committed side.

It’s a sport that can be enjoyed by everyone, with the fundamentals of a fight easy to relate to and even easier to understand; without breaking down the intricacies that us fans thrive upon, to most, it’s two fighters in a ring trying to hit their opponent, and not get hit in return.

This can’t be said of all sports, as I discovered firsthand on a recent trip to Chicago. Trying to navigate the scoring in a Cubs ball game was just as confusing to me as most American’s would find the concept of England and Australia tying The Ashes series after 25 days of cricket over the past summer. A generalization, sure, but let’s work with it.

Boxing is, of course, a huge business, and this business relies on the casual market for the wheel to keep turning year upon year. Promotors are in a constant struggle to satisfy both ends of the market whilst simultaneously keeping their stable of fighters afloat. Shifts in momentum naturally occur with the designation of television networks and streaming services, with viewer and subscriber numbers now fundamental to how successful a fighter is deemed, sometimes above their achievements in the ring.

This ease of understanding coupled with capricious viewing habits of a majority has meant boxing remains widely popular across the globe, but a potential lull in the sport is harder to predict than most others.

The vast majority of team sports rely on their off-season to harness momentum going into the following campaign. Supporters can switch off from their partisan fandom and recharge their emotional batteries for a painful period of freedom laced with longing. Absence makes the heart grow fonder until that first whistle of the season is blown again, and the rollercoaster makes its first descent into another unpredictable ride.

Without this regulated itinerary, boxing is forced into reactionary decisions throughout the year. Periods of disinterest need to be countered fast, and the astute promoter will often look outside the box to pump fresh blood into the veins of the sport. Rightly or wrongly, this has led to a number of controversial additions to the schedule in the last few months of 2019, with opinion-splitting decisions attempting to add to the unpredictable pool of casual viewers.

It puts us — and I label “us” as the antithesis of a “casual viewer” — in an awkward and often frustrating position as we continue to try and portray boxing in the best possible light. “Have you seen that Tyson Fury is fighting a wrestler next,” I was asked by my mate down the pub on Friday night, shortly followed by “so what do you make of this whole YouTube fight next month,” in a blatant attempt to force me into a rant about the whole thing (oh, don’t worry — I obliged).

The hat-trick was secured when Nigel Benn’s name was brought up in a conversation about half an hour later, with my attempts to encapsulate the beauty of the recent Spence–Porter and Golovkin–Dereyvanchenko fights playing second fiddle and falling on deaf ears.


Nigel Benn Press Conference

Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images

The circus is coming back to town, and people are queueing up for a ticket. Converting a non-viewer into a casual viewer is deemed a priority for the business of boxing to continue booming, with a dip into the UFC, WWE, and YouTube ponds the latest ploys of two of the biggest promoters currently working in the sport. A concentration on converting the casual viewer into a dedicated one is a harder, more arduous task — a recipe that takes years to concoct, costing millions in the process, but one that is easier to defend whilst protecting the integrity of the sport.

We have just enjoyed back-to-back weekends of Fight of the Year contenders, with pound-for-pound stars including Vasily Lomachenko, Oleksandr Usyk and Canelo Alvarez all entering the ring within the space of two-and-a-half month. Should boxing feel the need to entertain these imminent freak shows?

Compromise is needed on both sides. As long as KSI vs Logan Paul doesn’t stand in the way of an alternative world title fight getting made, Fury’s leap into the WWE doesn’t delay his next fight, or another UFC star crossing over doesn’t allow Mayweather to scoop a “51st victory,” then putting our hands over our eyes and fingers in our ears in the interim may suffice.

The ends will continue to justify the means for boxing as a business, with the money generated papering over the cracks that are created in the process. Roll up, roll up: the circus will continue to come to town.