AS shocking as it was to see Nottingham’s Leigh Wood change a likely defeat into certain victory against Josh Warrington on Saturday (October 7), it was not a patch on the shock of seeing DAZN inform its audience that “four icons of the game” – “game” presumably meaning boxing – would fill the same slot on their channel the following weekend.
These four icons were of course not Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran, but instead something else. Something other. Something alien. Something confusing, unsettling, and rather depressing. Their game, unlike the game of the Four Kings, is not boxing at all, or at least not the boxing we all recognise and tell ourselves is still boxing; that is, a sport still thriving, relevant, and important. It is not, for example, the same boxing we saw on Saturday night, when Leigh Wood and Josh Warrington appeared on DAZN and delivered for their audience one of the most compelling fights held in Britain this year.
And yet, although it is clear to anyone with eyes and a semblance of good taste, that two things called “boxing” can be very different, the shameless ease with which platforms like DAZN blur the lines make it increasingly difficult to these days tell them apart. When, for instance, words like “four icons of the game” are used to describe an event featuring YouTubers/influencers/reality TV stars KSI, Tommy Fury, Logan Paul, and Dillon Danis, it is, at best, a form of brainwashing designed to trick the emptiest of minds and, at worst, an example of false advertising; a lie in every sense.
Not only that, when a promo for this event runs before both a promo for Devin Haney vs. Regis Prograis, a title fight between boxers on December 9, and an actual fight between Leigh Wood and Josh Warrington, one is left feeling as though all the previous talk of these two “games” being separate entities is just that: talk.
Because there can be no denying now that real boxing and influencer boxing are being treated as one and the same, running side by side, and that the ground influencer boxing has made in just a couple of years has been exponential in terms of this. No longer a novelty, or a farce, which is how it was seen in its infancy, influencer boxing has instead now gained legitimacy and widespread interest by virtue of two things: one, the large numbers it draws, and two, the desperation of those within boxing – promoters, TV bosses – to defibrillate back to life a sport they insist can, despite evidence suggesting otherwise, survive and flourish without the influence of influencers.
But that is surely how and why this has all happened. It’s why on Saturday night this show on DAZN will be treated as though it matters and, worse, as though it is boxing. It’s also why those within boxing, the ones who were originally noncommittal or even dismissive about the circus when it first rolled into town, are now peering into the tent, counting the number of people in attendance, and somehow seeing diamonds in the piles of steaming elephant shit, as well as a certain beauty in the sight of juggling dwarves riding unicycles.
If you can’t see where that all leads, you’re perhaps not looking close enough. Or, if not that, you have perhaps, like some promoters, lost your sense of smell (as well as taste) and therefore can no longer detect the smell of elephant shit. It is hard, though, if you still retain these senses, to prepare to watch a fight like Wood vs. Warrington on a Saturday night and see minutes before it a promo for something you know is not boxing yet are being told that is precisely what it is. On the one hand, in that moment you find yourself confused, almost doubting yourself and what your eyes have seen on account of its ridiculousness, yet, on the other, there is an element of feeling insulted by the sheer temerity of those liberally telling such lies. Because a lie is what it is. “Four icons of the game have their judgement day,” we were all told on Saturday night. “Four icons of the game.”
Now if of course by “game” they mean the game of promotion, or the game of influencing, or the game of social media inanity, yes, an argument can be made that KSI, Logan Paul, Dillon Danis and Tommy Fury do indeed represent four quote-unquote icons. Yet to think the “game” to which that DAZN promo referred has not a thing to do with boxing is naïve in the extreme, particularly given it was shown on a boxing broadcast and before a proper fight between two proper boxers. Much more likely, then, when the hostage/narrator says “icons of the game”, they in all seriousness meant it. They meant it like all the other lies they present as facts with a straight face. They meant it because, in terms of the audience they are targeting, the truth is something not just irrelevant but something largely unknown. After all, what do words like “icons of the game” even mean to the sort of people who will be watching voluntarily – that is, not ironically, or as a dare, or as some sick joke – random blokes like KSI, Logan Paul and Dillon Danis pretend to be boxers for a few rounds? (Tommy Fury we’ll let off in this instance because, in the words of Mrs Doubtfire, he “used to be one”.)
To these people, the Four Kings stand for nothing. In fact, to these people, the Four Kings are still active, only they are no longer known as “Sugar”, “Hitman”, “Marvelous”, and “Hands of Stone”. They are also now more relatable, both in terms of access and boxing skill. They do away with technical proficiency and talent and just give it to you straight and quick, requiring on your part no patience, knowledge, or even any real interest in what it is they are trying (and failing) to do. You certainly won’t have to focus on the new Four Kings the way you had to focus on the old Four Kings back in the days of 15-rounders, rankings, world titles, and all that other nonsense.
This, as a product, is faster, sharper, slicker, and better, they’ll tell you. This is boxing getting with the times. Oh, and if getting with the times is a little too scary for all you miserable purists, remember, it’s just a bit of “harmless fun” as well. “Whether it’s your cup of tea or not,” tweeted Eddie Hearn at the start of “fight week”, “this is going to do huge numbers!!”
It probably will, too, yet never once has that (numbers) been the basis of the argument against boxing opening her legs like this. Numbers are a given with these characters; characters for whom numbers represent their entire identity, the foundation of their income, and their supposed relevance and importance. However, it’s worth pointing out that some of the very worst things in the world – either to see, listen, or read – generate big numbers and great interest, and yet not always is this a justified reason for them to be promoted, especially not at the expense of those who do that same thing properly and well.
To act in such a way sets a worrying precedent. If, after all, the only thing that really matters to the promoter and his paymaster is drawing big numbers to activities falsely sold and advertised as “boxing”, where does this relentless pursuit of personal wealth actually end? Do we at some point have to entertain the prospect of promoters and talkSPORT presenters putting their wicked banter to one side and at last squaring off in the ring? Or do we perhaps see men fighting women? Or do we just really go for it and get animals involved, and maybe have boxers fighting orangutans until faces are ripped off and, symbolically speaking, the mask is once and for all removed?
As extreme as that sounds, it’s where we’re heading. Because if you allow boxing to sell and debase itself and become merely a platform for famous people to make money, you walk on very shaky ground. Not just that, you pretty much undermine what it means to be a boxer, and what it takes to be a boxer, and you make it a sport so accessible – both to watch and to do – that any and all quality will ultimately and inevitably become secondary to the goal of numbers, numbers, numbers.
The sad thing is, in an age of convenience and content, influencer boxing, when you actually boil it down, is a modern-day promoter’s wet dream. It requires very little effort on their part, it is cheap, it brings in big numbers, and it is being pushed to an audience so apathetic and undiscerning that there is never any danger of criticism or even being held to any sort of standard or account. It is for this reason promoters end up sounding somewhat disingenuous when they pretend to prioritise the “traditional code” over influencer boxing and pretend the latter is some sort of nuisance or a bit of fun they must reluctantly accommodate just because some out there happen to enjoy it.
On the contrary, if these men had it their way, most promoters in boxing would be quite happy to serve up influencer boxing on a weekly basis. They are promoters, after all. Promoters of self. Promoters of others. Promoters of events. They are not and never have been solely promoters of boxing.