IT is neither on social media nor around ringside on fight night that you receive the most accurate barometer of boxing’s popularity and relevance in the real world. It is instead, at least in my experience, in the changing rooms at Sunday league football, where it just so happened that yesterday, and not for the first time, I was asked by someone whose face was straight and intentions sincere, the following question: “Did you have to write about the fight last night?”
Exhausted already on account of running around for 90 minutes, it was not a question I had expected to be asked at that moment, nor one for which I was adequately prepared. Not knowing how to answer it, or indeed even which fight was deemed The Fight, it took me a while to figure it all out.
At first, having earlier that morning written about both, I thought about Tim Tszyu and Zhanibek Alimkhanuly, but was to eradicate these sick ideas no sooner than they emerged in my mind. How peculiar, I thought, would it have been for my teammate to have watched such niche fare in the middle of the night, with a football match the following morning, no less. Moreover, how peculiar would it now be for me, in all my arrogance and pretentiousness, to propose that The Fight to which this teammate referred involved a Kazakh southpaw who had successfully added to his WBO middleweight belt an IBF version snatched from an overmatched German whose unbeaten record, we discovered on the night, was largely deceiving.
No, it couldn’t be that – or them. It had to be something else. It had to be something men in changing rooms on Sunday mornings would, if not watch, at least be conscious of and talk about if lacking other things to say. It had to be something people, normal people, were discussing in more general terms; something that asked of the masses no knowledge or appreciation in order to either enjoy it or have something to say about it.
Then, of course, it came to me: The Fight.
It was, to men in changing rooms on Sunday mornings, the only fight of any real note or interest that weekend. Which meant, despite my sigh and overall disappointment, I was able to forgive being asked such an imprudent question. I also found myself oddly relieved by the wording of the question for it at least showed an awareness and some sensitivity, suggestive of someone suspecting the question itself could be a bone of contention. “Did you have to write about the fight?” I was asked. “Have to,” he said.
That was important. It was important if only because it implied doing so would have been a chore, or some great undertaking, and, as it turned out, his appreciation of this proved enough for me to stop at a sigh. Rather than next debate what constitutes a “fight”, I instead asked him if he had ever heard of Zhanibek Alimkhanuly and then, when he asked for it, spelled the name of the Kazakh southpaw, first and last, nailing it as though it was something I had rehearsed or been writing all morning. “They sometimes call him Janibek as well,” I said. “With a J.”
I wondered after that, as I sheepishly left the changing room, what it would have been like to (a) actually watch the KSI vs. Tommy Fury fight and (b) have to subsequently write about it. A great ordeal, no doubt, both to watch and put into words, any motivation for doing so must have been purely monetary, I thought, whether in the old-school sense or the sense of today: content, clicks, impressions. There could be no other reason for such perverted behaviour, surely. Why, after all, would you put yourself through it on a Saturday night? There are so many other things to do and so many other ways in which to experience pain. For the extroverts, there are places to go, people to see, and substances to make you a bit more interesting or your life a bit more bearable. Even for the introverts, those more likely to be at home on a Saturday night, there are countless books you have not read, films you have not watched, and parts of your home you have been meaning to clean but seemingly always never have the time.
To watch any Misfits event of one’s own volition – when not being paid to do so – seems a feat almost remarkable to me; a demonstration of strength, staying power and suspension of disbelief which leaves me, frankly, in awe. Because there is only so much gaslighting any human being can endure at one time and when, during these events, you are being told you are seeing something you know, deep down, is not what you are seeing (sometimes by people we wrongly associate with “proper” boxing as well), it can feel, at best, demoralising, and, at worst, a little bit insulting.
Then again, as often I am told, this is not a product for me. Nor, to that end, are these personalities – let’s not start calling them “fighters” – men and women with whom I have any sort of connection; that is, I don’t know much about them and therefore don’t really care for their opinions, much less their manufactured rivalries.
On some level, too, I appreciate that this makes me the anomaly, the misfit, the one who just “doesn’t get it”, and that the investment the Misfits audience has in these characters suggests they are doing something right, at least promotionally. Indeed, far more experienced and far less discerning men than me can see that as well. It’s why, despite being associated with traditional boxing, they will still write about this stuff, and they will still talk about this stuff, all because they can see its potential as perhaps a future earner for them. No fools, each of them realise the sheer ridiculousness of it, in addition to maybe the dangers, but what good will it do them to point this out at this stage? More likely, just as they know that for boxers no amount of belts or respect can help them in retirement, they also know that for journalists honesty and integrity and insight no longer pays the bills in 2023. It pays therefore to simply play along. It pays therefore to call it a “bit of fun” and reiterate that it does no damage whatsoever to the traditional code. It pays therefore to point out boxing’s myriad issues – yeah, like prospects fighting journeymen, and too many belts, and drugs and stuff – and pretend this is in some way relevant to the issue of allowing anyone and everyone to lace up a pair of gloves and mendaciously exploit the ignorance of the masses in order to sell it as “boxing”.
As so-called “media”, or gatekeepers, we are probably to some degree responsible. We have, after all, in a short space of time allowed content creators to enter our domain and ultimately determine and dictate what is important, with this importance forever predicated on numbers rather than, say, insight or quality. As a result, you will invariably get products like Misfits, designed, rather perfectly, to cater for and reward this shift and open the door wider for everyone: not just for the unathletic to become boxers but also the for uneducated to become reporters. It is a sort of mirroring, in effect, and everyone involved in it is complicit, pretending. Like nurses in a home, or, more accurately, an asylum, everyone in the building is playing along, doing so either to make them feel a bit better about themselves (and make money) or give the main characters this belief that what they are doing is actually of value. Just as dear old Percy can be told on a daily basis that his box room in the home is in fact his old dental surgery, for example, so can the likes of KSI, Tommy Fury, Logan Paul and Dillon Danis be told over and over again that yes, it’s true, you really are boxers and, yes, all this stuff you are doing, because it makes us money, really matters.
With time, such are the egos, they can easily believe it. Their fights become real fights – real in the sense that WWE will always be real to those who love it – and their rivalries become real as well. Inside this bubble, in fact, there is every chance the Misfits can one day create within boxing what the UFC did within mixed martial arts, only without the same level of talent, skill, competition, or any sense of meaning or purpose. That is to say, they can use boxing as the platform to manufacture and promote rivalries between influencers and reality TV stars, all battling for Misfits belts, and cultivate an audience whose priority is not seeing any kind of boxing prowess but rather, and they get this in abundance, access and engagement and pre-and-post-fight shenanigans.
That’s a recipe boxing created, of course, before selling it without knowing it. It started, it seems, with the notion of pay-per-view being its life support machine and then it rather perniciously crept in when promoters, getting lazier by the year, started accusing boxers of being “boring” or “unmarketable” if they didn’t behave like Tyson Fury and issue either a call-out video or a retirement statement on Twitter every couple of weeks. That, right there, should have told us that the priorities in boxing were starting to shift and that promoters and TV networks were less interested in the quality and meaning of boxing matches than they were the personalities involved and the audiences these personalities could bring to the table (defined, typically, by their social media following).
Now, if anything, setups like Misfits are doing no more than taking this idea and running with it. Not just that, they have taken it to the extreme and figured that in a world in which nobody has the ability or inclination to focus on or think about anything for any length of time, they can quite easily get away with leaning in and celebrating the messy, chaotic and often appalling standard of their product.
Who, after all, really cares? Certainly, the audience – the audience they are targeting, that is – couldn’t care less so long as they have something to either watch or capture on their phone. What’s more, even in those who moan about it yet attend these events or simply watch them, there remains enough of a curiosity, based again on the personalities involved and their selling power, to ensure they will watch whenever the circus comes to town and either social media or a podcast begs for their opinion.
It’s all as genius as it is tragic really. It has somehow turned boxing into its own abuser and capitalised quite brilliantly on its constant need and desire to be loved, wanted, seen. This need, a sad and rather desperate one, will only become greater, too, once those within the sport – promoters, journalists, et cetera – begin to realise that each weekend The Fight in question is not the fight they think it is, or wish it was, but instead something else.
It is then, when asked questions by men in Sunday league changing rooms, one will, like a robot, say, “Yes, I did have to write about it. I even had to attend it. It does numbers, you see, and these days numbers are all that matter.”
It is then this same robot will remember the time, halcyon days now, when he woke up on a Monday morning to write just shy of 2,000 words about an event he never even watched, in the process hating not KSI or Tommy Fury but only himself.