BECAUSE boxing is ultimately a sport predicated on matchmaking as opposed to, say, a league table, or a structure which promotes competition, we should never criticise any boxer for being ambitious, taking risks, or looking to test themselves against the very best in their division. It is much easier, after all, to just sit back, allow a manager or promoter to plot the path of least resistance, and then bag a belt of some kind which you will later describe, with a straight face, as a “world title”.
The boxers who refuse to behave in this way – that is, the ones who want to test themselves against the best – deserve credit and should always receive it. However, be that as it may, there is still a fine line, one increasingly stretched, between a boxer wanting to take risks and a boxer who has decided (or perhaps had it decided for them) that securing a payday in an unrealistic fight is permissible so long as they call the mission “daring to be great”. It is in that instance, when a boxer apparently dares to be great, they are basically accepting the fact they are out of their depth – due either to a lack of ability, a lack of experience, or some kind of physical disadvantage (weight or otherwise) – but willing to overlook these factors in order to get paid.
There is, on the face of it, absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to get paid, of course, not even in a mismatch, particularly given boxing’s inherent risk and the short shelf life of each boxer. Yet when it comes to selling these fights, these mismatches, all we ever ask is for a little honesty, which, alas, is something a boxer and their promoter can easily hide behind perfunctory and ambiguous phrases; like, for example, “daring to be great”.
The notion of daring to be great came into focus again at the weekend when not one but two fighters in headline fights dared to be great only to come up short. The first, Jordan Thompson, was thrown in deep against Australia’s Jai Opetaia, the world’s best cruiserweight, and appeared overmatched the moment the first Opetaia back-hand landed. It then only got worse for Thompson, brave though he was, before he was put out of his misery by referee Howard Foster in round four.
That stoppage, in truth, could have come a round earlier. Moreover, it told us nothing new and was nothing those in the know didn’t expect. Only Thompson and his team, in fact, seemed surprised by the course the fight took, though one wonders to what extent they believed in their chances of pulling off an upset in the first place. Certainly, based on Thompson’s pre-fight words and demeanour, he was, superficially at least, up for the challenge, yet if everybody else questioned his lack of experience – a non-existent amateur background and only 15 pro fights to his name – surely the same concerns would have been weighing heavily on Thompson, whose best win is a stoppage of Luke Watkins, in the days, hours and minutes leading up to the fight.
That he gave it a good old go on the night, and tried exchanging with Opetaia (albeit futilely), is a testament to his courage and, in some ways, his naivety. But what the fight also served to demonstrate is that a fighter like Thompson, someone who has been sold the dream and been built up to believe he is maybe something he is not, sometimes requires a dose of honesty; if not a lesson in patience.
Even Opetaia, the victor, told me the week before the fight that he believed Thompson had been “fast-tracked” and had been “fortunate to get the title shot given his lack of “experience”. The implication, when saying this, was that Thompson, on account of holding the IBF “European” cruiserweight title, had been manoeuvred into a position he both didn’t necessarily deserve and, for the betterment of his career, didn’t necessarily want. As well as this, Opetaia, the IBF world champion, mentioned Thompson’s age (30) and said that perhaps that explained the sudden need to rush the challenger, whose career to that point had been one of the low-key variety and pedestrian in its progression. “I’m younger than him by two years and he’s only getting this shot now,” said Opetaia. “And it’s only because things have fallen into place for him.”
Heavyweight Daniel Dubois found himself in a similar position last month. He, like Thompson, was a man whose experience, or lack thereof, suggested he would be out of his depth on the world stage, especially against someone of Oleksandr Usyk’s ability, and so it proved when they met in Poland. Yet, in the case of Dubois, he had supposedly “earned” his shot at Usyk and therefore would have been considered foolish to turn it down and, in addition, reject a life-changing payday.
He had earned his shot, by the way, by virtue of holding the WBA “regular” heavyweight belt, a ghastly trinket which, historically, has done more harm for boxers than good. For Dubois, the same can be said. After all, were it not for that ludicrous belt and the position it nudged him towards (Usyk’s mandatory slot), he would have been able to build the old-fashioned way, taking the right opponents at the right time and fixing all the things that led to his downfall – and first pro defeat – against Joe Joyce back in 2020. Instead of that, though, Dubois’ desire to create an illusion of success led him down a path ill-advised, one of false prophets, fake flowers, and opponents like Trevor Bryan and Kevin Lerena who did very little for his development or any sort of genuine self-belief.
As a result, by the time it came to face Usyk in Wroclaw, Dubois was all artificially puffed up, no more than a simulacrum of a heavyweight champion. He had been told that he belonged, and that he was daring to be great, and that he was a heavyweight king, both by the WBA and his promoter, but one must ask, “Did he really believe all that in his heart of hearts?”
Regardless of whether he did or did not, Dubois, at 19-1, was not ready for Usyk and no amount of daring to be great would prevent the Ukrainian teaching the Brit a harsh lesson, one interrupted only briefly by some low blow controversy in round five.
A month on from that, it remains to be seen how Dubois responds and rebuilds – again. The same can also be said for Thompson, whose foray into world-class waters ended no sooner than it started and was initiated without even a float, much less a lifeguard watching over him.
As for someone like Jermell Charlo, who dared to be great on Saturday against Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, there will be less of a rebuilding process, one would presume. For although he was clearly out of his depth in the presence of Alvarez in Las Vegas last weekend, the result and performance had as much to do with the size issue as anything else, which, for a fighter looking to reclaim confidence from the debris of a humbling defeat, is a gift of sorts; an excuse with a pretty bow.
That doesn’t mean Charlo, the world super-welterweight champion, won’t have been dented by what happened against Alvarez – he will have been – but he can explain it away, if just to himself, and start again back at his more natural weight.
Indeed, the only ones who might need an explanation are the ones who paid to watch Alvarez vs. Charlo and expected something other than what it was they were delivered. For it was these people, each having fallen hook, line and sinker for the undisputed vs. undisputed spiel, who were for ten weeks duped by Charlo’s talk of daring to be great and the far-fetched notion that this was ever anything other than a quick cash-grab on the part of the American. Not unlike when Kell Brook agreed to jump from welterweight to middleweight to fight Gennadiy Golovkin in London, this, it be argued, was merely another example of a fighter “having a go” but, in the cold light of day, doing no more than asking people to pay to watch a fight they knew they had very little chance of actually winning.
In such moments, boxing becomes a funny old sport – even more so than usual. Because while “daring to be great” sounds to the ignorant eye and ear a positive and commendable mantra, it is, in reality, and like many things in boxing, instead often a cynical marketing tool and slogan used to conceal what is really going on. In other words, when said by a boxer, “daring to be great” tends to in fact mean this: “Please pay to watch me in a fight I know I can’t win.” Or, if not that, perhaps this: “I will try, obviously, but it’s a dare rather than a proper fight, so don’t judge me too harshly when I inevitably lose.” When said by a promoter, meanwhile, “daring to be great” invariably translates as this: “The money is too good to turn down, so we’ll throw them in and see how they get on.” Or, if not that, perhaps this: “What’s the worst that can happen?”
Evidently, and for obvious reasons, in the game of truth or dare boxing will always opt for the latter.