“I don’t want boxing to become a joke”: Is entertainment more important to boxing fans than skill?

By Ally McDowall
May 5 2020, 11:00

The sport of boxing has a history that spans centuries and is far more compelling than a simple test of strength and will. 

A host of eccentric characters, controversy and corruption, and an ever-present prospect of glory or tragedy. 

The perseverance and mental fortitude required from a successful fighter is unique from other sports and athletes can train for decades to hone their skills and perfect their craft. 

It is undeniably one of the most entertaining sports on the planet. 

However, recent newcomers and events have posed the question: do fans truly value skill and dedication over the spectacle of bitter rivals settling bad blood? 

For better or worse, a pair of world renowned internet personalities traded punches late last year in a fight that drew as much attention as it did criticism from the most loyal of boxing fans.

With a combined following of more than 40 million subscribers on Youtube, Logan Paul and KSI sold out the Staples Center to settle a long-lasting grudge and grant the victor the moniker of ‘the world’s biggest entertainer’. 

This was the much-anticipated rematch from their first encounter the year previous that ended up having 24 million views on Youtube and 1.3 million pay-per-views buys globally. 

It became the 13th best-selling pay-per-view event in the history of boxing. 

In front of a global audience of millions KSI claimed a split-decision victory that was dripping with controversy in a fight that was dubbed the biggest event in internet history. 

The iconic Michael Buffer was ring announcer, former world heavyweight champion Shannon ‘The Cannon’ Briggs was Paul’s trainer, celebrities turned out, with Justin Bieber ringside, and American rapper Rick Ross performed 26-year-old Brit KSI’s walkout to the ring. 

The main event was the subject of so much attention that world champion fighters like Billy Joe Saunders and Devin Haney had to play second fiddle on the undercard. 

Only in the carnival world of the fight game could a professional event involving celebrity amateurs take over top billing as a virtual pay-per-view and force actual professionals down the card without complaint. 

Fury-Wilder it was not, but it contributed to DAZN’s most successful year of streaming: they saw a 98% jump in the number of hours watched from 2018 to 2019. 

KSI vs Logan Paul II at the Staples Centre in November 2019

Matchroom boxing promoter Eddie Hearn labelled the entire buildup to the event ‘a circus’ but regardless of what you thought of either fighter’s ability, personality, or what potential damage it did to the sport, it clearly still drew people in.

In fact, the historic event sold more pay-per-views than Anthony Joshua’s devastating loss to Andy Ruiz Jr earlier that year. 

A few months removed we were given another internet battle to dig our teeth into between fellow Youtubers Jake Paul, Logan Paul’s brother, and Ali Loui Al-Fakhri, otherwise known as AnEsonGib, a long term friend of KSI. 

Speculation is now mounting of a bout between Jake Paul and KSI in the near future as internet celebrities are now gaining solid ground in the world of combat sports. 

Jake Paul (left) and Logan Paul (right) taking part in a charity baseball event in 2019

If you’re thinking this will go down as a black mark on the sport then I’d ask you to reconsider because, in reality, we’ve watched these kinds of personalities enter the ring for decades now, it’s not too far out of the ordinary.

Look at Muhammed Ali, Mike Tyson, Prince Naseem, more recently Tyson Fury, and even in the world of MMA, Conor McGregor has used his notoriety in the UFC to become a global superstar.

These are all world class athletes who have all had their controversies and have captivated us with their antics over the years, they just so happened to have the skill set to back it up.

An argument can be made here that skill is less important to the people that tune in than ever before and that storylines and sports entertainment akin to that of WWE has taken its place.

Purists would adamantly refute this but just take a look at the biggest fights in combat sports over the last few years. 

Mayweather vs McGregor, Khabib vs McGregor, Fury vs Wilder, even Logan Paul vs KSI, in every case the major selling point wasn’t world class fighting, it was storied rivalry, redemption, and on the odd occasion pure hatred for each other. 

Even current heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua isn’t immune to it. If we go back to his unification bout with Wladimir Kitschko in 2017, he spoke of putting on a show for the fans when this was the most important fight of his life.

It’s easy to see how purists can be frustrated by the emergence of these internet celebrities who can turn professional and headline events having put in hardly any time at all in the boxing gym, but there are two sides to every coin. 

Whilst these fights haven’t provided classics for all of us to fondly remember for days to come, it has undoubtedly opened the sport up to a new generation which could very well help secure its future.

I spoke with recently turned professional Arran Regan from Catford and to say it’s been a bumpy road for him would be an understatement. 

The 25-year-old believes that so long as relative strangers to the sport can maintain a balance between providing entertainment and respecting the art with hard work and dedication then there could be a lot to gain for the sport.

He said: “There’s two sides to it. It does take away from the dedication, the blood, sweat and tears, people who have put their whole life into boxing and I feel it takes away from the grit of the sport. 

“Professionals who I know have never had a day off and on that basis it is gut-wrenching that these guys can be put on pay-per-view straight away just because they’re social media influencers. 

“It takes years and years of grinding to get to the very top for the vast majority of us.

Regan in the corner taking advice from his coach in between the rounds

“But the other side of the coin is that it’s exposed boxing to a lot more people, there’s a lot more fans that have come to it or rejoined it and it did bring a different element in terms of entertainment. 

“Even McGregor Mayweather, it’s a different kettle of fish because he had training for years and years and years but it was a cross combat sport promotion primarily for the purposes of entertainment even though it was a much better fight by comparison.

“You’ve got to look at it like this, if KSI ever came to me and said ‘I want to box you’ you’d best believe I’m taking that fight. That secures my money, that secures everything.

“But we need a balance. As long as we can maintain a balance of 50% entertainment and 50% competitiveness, it should be fine.

“They need to realise people can get seriously hurt, look at what happened to Gerald Mclellan, a very experienced fighter and now he’s in a wheelchair because of one slip against Nigel Benn. 

“I have a friend of mine who went into a coma for two or three years because of what happened in the ring; so we’re now talking about safety and not just the entertainment side of things.

“So long as we don’t lose the respect for the sport and people who get the privilege of headlining these events take the time to learn the craft and learn the intricacies, I think it’ll be okay.

“I just don’t want it to become a joke, because boxing is not a joke, you don’t play boxing.”

Arran’s journey up until this point is quite unique with plenty of trials along the way.

Starting out at the local boxing gym at just eight years old, It was initially a means of getting rid of some pent up energy, but soon after his love of the sport grew.

It was Lennox Lewis’ victory over Mike Tyson that lit the fire and from there it was full steam ahead.

Arran preparing for one of his amateur bouts

He got his first card to compete at the age of 11 and went on to fight 25 amateur fights.

But even with the weight of experience behind him and a passion for the sport, he decided to move away from boxing at 18 and took a six-year hiatus from the sport venturing into several different careers instead like sales consultancy, recruitment and signal engineering.

Part of the reason he earned a living this way was to support his family, particularly his mother who suffered a number of health concerns including a severe heart attack last year and so the dream had to be put on hold.

However, a sense of wasted potential drew him back in earlier this year and when recent matchroom boxing signee 22-year-old Ellie Scotney spoke with him he discussed it with his family, and was convinced to take the plunge, quit his job and reignite his pursuit of a professional boxing career.

Regan made an incredible transformation after deciding to cut the weight going from 13.4 stone to 10.5 in the space of just eight weeks. 

This is down to his intense training regimen pushing him to his limits: he’s training two or three times a day six days a week and has been sober for eight months.

He insisted that going into the professional game requires a mental toughness that isn’t present in other sports and that should not be taken lightly.

He said: “It’s not about just getting in there and hitting someone, it’s about a rhythm and the movement, it puts a smile on your face when you’re able to do things that other people cannot do. 

“The chat with Ellie was really helpful for making me realise that the money wasn’t working and that how happy I was was more important; it pushed me and I’m so grateful for it.

“I know a lot of professionals, I’m friends with a lot of them and former professionals always say to me it’s a really hard game and you’ve got to have your head screwed on properly. 

“I know how hard I had to work to get the weight off and be strict with my diet and having will power to see it through; I believe in hard work over talent.”

Arran’s completed his extraordinary transformation in eight weeks

The 25-year-old acknowledged a shift in mentality as his driving force and credits a video featuring Nir Eyal explaining the requirements of turning from an amateur to an expert. 

Regan said: “A lot of people go into the training side of things wanting to be an expert but they don’t have the expert mindset.

“They’ll do an hour’s run on a treadmill and burn 300 calories and go ‘I deserve a milkshake’.

“The mindset to become an expert has nothing to do with indecision, it’s not a case of should I have a milkshake, it’s not even a question.

“That’s the mindset I’ve implemented for eight weeks now. I’m a boxer, boxers don’t eat sweets, they don’t do things that other people do and if I want to make something of this I have to sit in that uncomfortable zone until it becomes comfortable.

“I’m so grateful I had that time out because if I had turned professional as an 18-year-old I wouldn’t have had that life experience to help me, I wouldn’t have dealt with rejection, and understand what I required to be able to do this; I don’t think I would’ve taken it seriously.” 

There are plenty more who have had to sacrifice and endure to make it up the ranks like Arran and it is easy to sympathise when you see social media icons walk in for their first professional fight in front of 15,000 at the Staples Center.

You don’t become a highly-skilled professional athlete trained in the art of boxing overnight after all. 

However, it is fair to say there is a balance to be struck. Dedication, hard-work and relentless determination are necessities if you’re going to make it to the top, but the sport will never survive if the fanbase can’t invest in the fighters and enjoy it. 

So long as newcomers truly dedicate themselves to training and learning the sport to do justice to those who have toiled all their lives to accomplish their lifelong ambitions, then boxing can go on with its integrity intact and hopefully then we’ll never have to worry about it becoming a joke.

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