THE fight between Leigh Wood and Josh Warrington highlighted how wonderful boxing is when contests are well-matched. It’s a simple premise, albeit one too frequently ignored by promoters, broadcasters, managers and even the boxers themselves.
The carrot of a ‘world title’, in this case the WBA featherweight strap, was undeniably a crucial tool in getting both Wood and Warrington to agree to fight. Yet the belt, I’d venture, was far from the primary selling point for fans.
When witnessing fights as good as this it makes us yearn for more. And whether a belt is on the line or not is largely inconsequential; ‘world titles’ simply don’t carry the gravitas of old for reasons explained ad nauseum in this publication before.
We like evenly matched fights, and it helps the interest level if it’s an all-British affair. The same logic applies to any part of the world, by the way. Therefore, domestic pairings like Wood-Warrington should be taking place far more regularly than they are – at all levels of the sport.
There are more than 1,000 British and Irish fighters who can claim to be active. Check any division on BoxRec and look at the leading 20 or so British and Irish fighters in each weight class. The potential matchups are vast. Plenty would be can’t-miss affairs.
So why aren’t they fighting each other more frequently? We broadly know (and understand) the answers: Rival promoters and networks struggle to work together; boxers are encouraged by their managers – keen to get significant returns down the line – to not take too many chances on the way up; sanctioning fees are paid to contest bogus international belts against unknown opposition for the privilege of a higher ‘world’ ranking; in turn, the British title is not held in nearly as high regard as it used to be or should be; glossy unbeaten records are treated like gold dust.
Already, any promoter reading this will be rolling their eyes. ‘This is the boxing business,’ they might observe – and quite right too. This is indeed the boxing business, but any business must modify and listen carefully to what the paying customer wants. It can be argued we’re now seeing the consequences of that failure to adapt with the steady rise of influencer boxing. Though we can grumble that it’s bastardising the sport, which it clearly is, it’s also a nod to the modern audience’s wish for competitivity and familiarity and, crucially, the promoters of such events giving that audience what they want. The ticket-buyers know both fighters from each contest and they don’t know who’s going to win. To this new breed of fight fan, that’s markedly more appealing than Ticket Seller versus Unknown Serial Loser or Hot Prospect versus Unknown Middling Import.
There are unspoken rules when it comes to developing fighters and this is not a plea to stop that process altogether (I stress this because the last time we mentioned this subject on these pages it drew significant irk). It’s an art when executed correctly. A good case in point would be the development of Josh Taylor who was forced to take risks to progress. Yet not many can ever be as good as Taylor. So, the young boxer will fight a southpaw, they’ll fight someone tall and someone small, but they’ll nearly always fight someone who is deemed to have no chance whatsoever of beating them. And then one day, when the education is complete or a lofty sanctioning body ranking has been secured, a superstar might emerge.
That’s all completely understood. I get it. But aren’t we missing a trick here? What we have is a sport that can generate more thrills than any other when it’s done well. The more fights we stage that cater for that desire for excitement, the more fans we’ll then attract. Therefore, and I realise I’m likely looking at this too logically, let’s try to build the sport as opposed to building unbeaten records. The superstars will still emerge, of course they will.
It’s difficult to break that prospect beats no-hoper cycle, however. And every promising boxer who turns professional without question needs some seasoning along the way. But how many promising boxers do we currently have with records of, say, 10-0 who are being protected from promising boxers with almost identical stats? How many times do we have two (or more) contenders operating in the same weight class who will not fight each other? How often are we still seeing bills entirely comprised of prospect/ticket seller versus a boxer who only wins a fight once every couple of years? Furthermore, even on the televised shows, it’s not difficult to predict 80 to 90 per cent of the action we witness. That is indeed the boxing business. It’s barely sport.
There is hope and signs of awakening. National and Area titles are again being regularly contested at small hall level. We’ve also seen some tremendous battles atop televised shows and we’ve seen young starlets being matched tough (albeit against opposition that even the hardcore would struggle to recognise).
The feeling is that the steps we take are still too small to prevent boxing – real boxing – losing its way because it’s finding old habits so difficult to break. As much as we all love this sport, do we really like sitting through four or five hours of an undercard where all but one or two of the bouts are home bankers? At small hall level, can we justify shelling out £40 to watch one-sided four-rounder after one-sided four-rounder? Even if we can find enjoyment, it’s a difficult sell for new fans.
Yet we should cheer for fights like Wood-Warrington and cherish every reminder of how great this sport can be. Wood, too, will undoubtedly reflect on his career and be grateful that he didn’t allow any loss to derail his progress nor think twice about taking tough 50/50 matchups on the way up.