By Matt Christie
EVERY time we publish a cover that highlights the chaos inside the boxing industry, like last week’s Silly Season cover, I am contacted via email and on social media by a small percentage of readers who are critical of our decision.
Generally, it’s because they feel we should not give contests like Tyson Fury versus Francis Ngannou such a platform and, instead, put something more ‘deserving’ on the front. Upon reading the messages, I want to ask them what they do for a living so I can offer them some advice on a subject about which I know diddlysquat. ‘Ah, so you own a guest house? Personally, I don’t think you should be serving bacon in the mornings because it’s mass produced, unhealthy and the smell is surely difficult to get out of the curtains.’
But I’m too polite to do that. So, I attempt to explain that the decision-making process for the cover is not mere guesswork, nor is the front page an award for those who ‘deserve’ it, particularly during a week when a ginormous event has swallowed the entire sport. The cover is not designed to upset or annoy anybody; it is designed to generate both attention and sales. In truth, it would be lovely if the publishing industry was robust enough to withstand putting anything we liked on the front page so, every week, we could give those unsung heroes their moment.
I also wonder, as I’m told that BN is ‘part of the problem’ for highlighting the problem, if readers of national broadsheets contact the editor upon seeing a front page that focuses on one of the many unsavoury incidents going on in the world with a suggestion that, really, they should have led with the heartwarming tale of little Tommy and his three-legged Labrador.
The BN front page has long been a point of contention. Some in the industry have lost their mind upon seeing it and I’ve fielded countless calls since 2015, predominantly from trainers and promoters, about what they deem to be a massive slap in the face. ‘But my fighter is British and he’s fighting for the [WBO interim] world title [against someone nobody has heard of], how can he not be on the front of the trade paper? He’s going to take this as a massive insult.’ I’m yet to take a call from a fighter who’s taken it as a massive insult, however.
It should have been no surprise that we put Fury on the front cover last week given the magnitude of the event and the insane PR drive that surrounded it. Yes, I understand the complaints, but it was, by a considerable distance, the biggest story in a sport that this publication was long ago designed to report upon. How could we not put that on the cover? We made our feelings about the event very clear in the process, too.
Were those feelings correct? On the surface, given that Ngannou almost defeated Fury, one can conclude we were way off. What we presumed would be a one-sided waste of time turned out to be competitive and, because it exceeded all reasonable expectations, entertaining. The fighter we presumed wouldn’t be able to lay a glove on his opponent landed the heavier shots and scored the only knockdown of the bout. What transpired, when the WBC heavyweight belt-holder took on a debutant, was truly shocking.
But was it a worthwhile event or, as we stated on last week’s cover, just plain silly? The jury is still out on that one. It was an incredible event that bordered on the obscene given the amount of money behind it. If you have a spare £500m knocking around, you too can stage something similar. That level of expenditure is eye-watering and proves that the entire world of sport, not just boxing, is at the mercy of those with the most cash. For now, that’s the Middle East. And though some will say the criticism of that region is hypocritical if you’re not going to reference gun crime or the death penalty in America when fights are staged in Las Vegas, there can be no doubt that Saudi Arabia’s reputation ensures that every fight being staged there comes with a certain amount of baggage. And boxing has quite enough of that already.
Ngannou, meanwhile, will be welcomed back to the sport with open arms and he’s set to embark on the next stage of his adventure, back in Saudi, on December 23. Though any leading heavyweight – including likeliest opponents Zilhei Zhang or Joseph Parker – should be favoured to beat him, considering the way Fury’s shots bounced off the African and how quickly he got the hang of hurling a hook, his progress will now be taken seriously. Does all that make this a worthwhile experiment, though? Do we really need another heavyweight? Maybe we do. At least this one seems to be taking the sport seriously.
Purely because Fury-Ngannou was within a point or two of ruining Fury-Oleksandr Usyk we can justifiably class it as silly, however. I’d argue the sport could have lived without Fury-Ngannou and that both Fury and Usyk may now wish it had.
This time last week, Tyson was a fearsome unbeaten heavyweight who would have been favoured to beat every other heavyweight. Not anymore. Consequently, though the importance of Fury-Usyk remains, at least in a historical sense, the feeling that Tyson is in decline has certainly taken some gloss off that fight. You may disagree on that final point, but should Usyk beat Fury will he get the credit for doing so or will it merely be presumed that he finished something that Ngannou started? Furthermore, should Fury whip Usyk will the Ukrainian then be accused of being a worse boxer than the MMA star?
Another point to consider on Fury is whether we were wrong about him. That was the seventh time he’s been dropped. His body has been through the mill, inside the ring and out. His critics can now claim that he caught Wladimir Klitschko at the right time and Deontay Wilder was right for Fury all along. Closer to the truth is likely this: Ngannou provided Fury with his first competitive action in two years and it came as something of a shock, both physically and psychologically. Whatever happened, Tyson’s stock took a serious hit.
But this is not about Fury, not really. Boxing had long needed to get its house in order before it started to invite the neighbours over. And though us boxing hardcore can claim, without foundation, that none of the guests will be able to do what Ngannou proved is possible, we’d be wise to brace ourselves for a full-on invasion. And whether or not we choose to embrace it, front-page news it unquestionably is.