EXHIBITION can mean different things. It can mean a public display of items of interest. It can mean a display of a skill or quality or emotion. In boxing, it essentially means that anything goes. It means that regulations do not exist. It means that common sense will not be applied. It means that 58-year-old men can be pummelled by younger men, and it means, in perhaps the only nod to an acceptable definition of the word, people will watch.
Ryan Kavanaugh and his Triller outfit – who staged Vitor Belfort vs Evander Holyfield in Florida – have no place in boxing if this is how they plan to move forward. I don’t care how many new eyes they bring to the sport.
In last week’s issue, Kavanaugh admitted, almost proudly, he doesn’t know a great deal about boxing. He admitted that he has seen a gap in the market that he plans to exploit. The gap, I’d argue, is caused by big fights consistently falling out of bed, by the best not fighting the best, by too many belts and in turn too much confusion. So Kavanaugh had two options. One, he could attempt to negotiate the unnegotiable politics of boxing in an effort to create the kind of fights that would immediately close that gap or, two, he could invite impressionable faded retirees, with proven box office appeal but without contractual obligations to promoters or broadcasters, and create the illusion of marquee contests. From his point of view, it was a no-brainer. In defence of his business plan, he tells us that these old warriors are getting paid exceptionally well.
But creating this new precedent, which essentially says it’s okay for boxers who long ago realised they shouldn’t be boxing anymore to come back and take more punches, is not just irresponsible, it’s deadly.
Boxers retire, rarely because they want to, but because they know they’re not the same anymore. They are conditioned from an early age to accept they cannot fight into old age. They retire, often begrudgingly, because they know there is no other option for them. Yes, boxing history is littered with boxers fighting too long and those who come back at advanced ages, but never before has there been a platform like this. More and more, retired fighters are talking about coming out of retirement. Fighters that not so long ago would have dismissed such a notion. ‘Well, if it’s an exhibition,’ they’re now saying, ‘just a harmless little exhibition, then it’s okay.’ But it’s not, is it? We should forever be in debt to yesterday’s heroes, the warriors who gave this sport everything. We should look after them, not wreck them some more. And that duty of care includes ensuring they do not fight again, even if they want to.
Blame Triller or Ryan Kavanaugh for dreaming up this grisly spectacle. Blame the copycat promotional groups who have announced similar events involving the likes of Riddick Bowe and others. But the buck, at least on this occasion, has to stop with the Florida Athletic Commission (FAC). It was initially reported that Belfort-Holyfield would be a sanctioned bout. Certainly, the fighters approached it as such. Afterwards we hear, ‘Relax, it was just an exhibition.’ Garbage.
What is perplexing, and deeply concerning, is that Holyfield was permitted to get in the ring by the FAC just eight days after being drafted in as a replacement for 48-year-old Oscar De La Hoya. The original site of the event was Los Angeles. That changed to Hollywood in Florida when the California State Athletic Commission rejected the notion of Holyfield stepping in. Tell me this: How could the commission in Florida, in the space of two days (from De La Hoya pulling out to Holyfield being confirmed as his replacement), possibly have carried out the required physical and mental tests to ascertain that Evander was in a suitable condition to fight? Well, they couldn’t and they didn’t.
It was clear in fight week that Holyfield, though unquestionably ambitious, was trapped inside a damaged body. Anyone who knows even the slightest thing about boxing – like, it involves punches being thrown – could see that Holyfield should not have been anywhere near combat of any kind. This was a man who was deemed a danger to himself many years ago, after all.
Holyfield is one of the greatest of them all. From the moment he beat Dwight Muhammad Qawi in a gruelling yet glorious 15-round war in 1986 he forged a reputation as a warrior. Even without seeing him today, even without watching him struggle to move his feet while attempting to hit pads, even without listening to him talk or even without examining his brain, it should be crystal clear that a fighter who engaged in gung-ho battles with Qawi, Michael Dokes, Bert Cooper, George Foreman, Riddick Bowe, Michael Moorer, Ray Mercer, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis in the last century has no place fighting in the 21st year of the next.
Enough is enough. One hopes that, somehow, Holyfield looking horrendous but emerging unscathed – at least to the naked eye – is a blessing in disguise. That all those fighters who have recently declared their intention to come back watched one of the most miserable spectacles in sporting history and remembered exactly why they retired.
Because if they don’t realise and boxing exhibitions are allowed to remain in their current form – essentially, the exhibiting of old men taking punches to the head – the sport that stages them is on the brink of a catastrophe that will not only kill a fighter, it will kill boxing.
This is not hyperbole. Not some overzealous opinion. It is a fact.
We all know young and fit boxers are always at risk of death inside the ring. So, surely, we must also know that risk is substantially higher when applied to the old and worn out, whose brains are more susceptible to serious injury. And when an old and worn out boxer dies, when their brain bleeds or their heart gives out, nobody will call it an exhibition. It will be an execution.
One that boxing will never, ever, recover from.