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Control your narrative
THE LONG READ
I can’t lie to you. I watched Jake Paul vs Tommy Fury, The Truth in Diriyah, on Sunday night.
It seemed like almost everyone did. Amongst my own network of friends and family, there was more interest in this fight than for any major boxing bout in recent memory. Boxing purists might scoff at that notion, but it’s the truth - no pun intended. The buzz for Fury vs Paul was objectively huge. Mainstream media swarmed over the bout in both the build-up and post-fight. It must go down as the biggest money fight between two guys with less than 10 pro fights in the history of the sport.
Let’s be honest though. This was an eight-rounder between two novices, one of whom had never previously fought a full-time professional boxer, and it very much looked like that. The fact that both were essentially untested lent an intriguing air of uncertainty to proceedings - but this was, in the end, two young fighters with a lot to learn, with some positive attributes and also clear weaknesses. It wasn’t a complete embarrassment, it was a learning fight for fledgling boxing careers.
Tommy was clearly the more skilled boxer in both form and function, and for me won the fight handily even taking into account the jab knockdown Jake managed to score - and it was definitely a legitimate knockdown - in the final round. If we’re honest though, Fury will do well to win a British title let alone a world title. Given how much money he can make from the crossover side of the sport, however, who knows if he will even attempt to go down the traditional route.
And yet, Fury-Paul managed to capture the imagination. This was an international pay-per-view headliner between two young boxers who have managed to craft a situation they have no right to be in.
With multi-million purses for both - huge basic paydays bolstered by pay-per-view buy percentages on top - you have to admire it from a business standpoint. This will be one of the biggest-money boxing matches of this year no matter what else is confirmed over the next 10 months. Although it sounds ridiculous for a novice eight-rounder, there is a rematch clause, and in all likelihood, this becomes a long-standing box office bonanza rivalry.
Certainly more people in my own life were interested in this fight than had been for the truly elite-level boxing events I’ve been waffling on to them about recently, despite the quality of the in-ring action being considerably lower in the Saudi Arabia main event on Sunday night.
Even if they might be boxing beginners from a sporting perspective, the Paul-Fury feud has demonstrated that they (in particular Jake) are already masters of something boxing is getting progressively worse at. Hype.
The narrative for Fury-Paul was objectively engaging.
A hugely wealthy and notorious ‘influencer’, with a massive pull amongst younger viewers, goes into the ring for the first time against a full-time professional boxer (albeit one who has a presence in the Love Island influencer world himself). For differing reasons, this was the biggest test of both men’s fledgling careers. Throw in a couple of cancelled fights and years of back-and-forth, with Paul having dedicated himself to the sport admirably and Fury coming from one of boxing’s most high-profile fighting families, along with the jump into the unknown boxing can deliver when well-matched, and you have a clear recipe for a successful event.
Sure, there was a fair-sized serving of nonsense to go with it. This is boxing, after all. The battle of the novices headlining the show above a legitimate WBC cruiserweight title fight between Badou Jack and Ilunga Makabu was silly from a sporting perspective, if understandable from a business one. The fact that Jack rolled back the years with a pretty thrilling 12th-round stoppage win was hopefully an engaging watch for some of the new boxing viewers tuned in to the show.
Speaking of the WBC, Mauricio Sulaiman’s outfit not only decided that the winner of Fury-Paul would be added to their cruiserweight rankings, but also created the Diriyah Champion belt for the victor, a move which only further makes a mockery of the concept of titles in a sport of which they are supposedly custodians.
At a time when the WBC’s highly questionable decision-making in the Conor Benn affair has been bringing the sport into further disrepute, this was not a good look. But hey, at least we can give kudos to Domino’s Pizza for some incredible social media work on that subject, even if the joke is very much on those parties with the most power in the sport…
The sheer scale of the Saudi-backed sportswashing in the overall presentation of Fury-Paul was also pretty off-putting. Large parts of the fight week and main show were a bit of a circus, with a seemingly endless roll call of current and former boxing stars joining in line to get their share of the gold at the end of the Saudi kingdom’s rainbow whilst parroting the PR lines of the nation’s highly contentious regime.
But money and attention talk, perception is reality, and - whatever finer details might have perturbed long-time boxing fans - tens of millions across the world were hooked in by the spectacle of Paul-Fury despite the negatives. Most probably didn’t even notice them. Boxing has so often been unable to engender such large audience interest in recent times.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not extolling the idea of a full-frontal switch to the ways of the influencers, rather reiterating the importance of an engaging story to hook in to.
As a counterpoint, the crossover boxing space also demonstrated exactly how NOT to do it this past weekend with the somewhat embarrassing sight of Floyd Mayweather Jr. facing Geordie Shore’s Aaron Chalmers in a pointless eight-round exhibition before an almost empty O2 Arena.
Without any sort of hook, any narrative, any jeopardy to drive interest, Floyd was left carrying the can for a totally lackluster spectacle.
The way that boxing presents its product and reaches out to its potential viewers can and should evolve with the times. The Paul-Fury story ark has expertly exploited the brave new world of media touchpoints to make their fight feel unmissable to a mainstream audience. Boxing is a sport, but it’s also a form of entertainment and it’s competing for attention with more alternatives than ever before.
Boxing used to be able to do this kind of thing better. From the timeless rivalry of Chris Eubank Sr. and Nigel Benn, to the TV studio barbs which ended in chaos between Lennox Lewis and Hasim Rahman prior to their 2001 rematch, and Floyd Mayweather creating the ‘Money’ character as the eternal bad guy who never quite seemed to face his comeuppance, it felt like there was a conveyor belt of moments in my youth which made the fights themselves unmissable. This is what hooked me into boxing.
I mean, just bask in the glory that was the live TV studio contract signing for Eubank-Benn I and just imagine the multi-platform madness their build-up could cause in the current era…
Clearly, it used to be easier - or at least more straightforward - in some ways.
Before technology revolutionised the landscape and the internet splintered generational audiences beyond recognition, the singularity of the news cycle (and therefore the unified lived experience) meant that a message could be delivered without too much difficulty. The internet wasn’t central to everyone’s lives, and the combination of newspapers, magazines, TV and word of mouth helped to build up interest amongst fans, both keen and transient. But the same templates of effective promotion - evenly-matched fighters, with an engaging backstory and rivalry, given the opportunity to drive as much engagement as possible - can still very much be transferred to the modern day. This was ably demonstrated by Paul-Fury.
Even if the in-ring ability on display is invariably outstanding, the pre-fight promotional hype for genuinely elite boxing fights these days is often as dull as dishwater. Perhaps the boxing business is happy becoming an increasingly niche outlet, but the build-up to a showdown between two supreme talents fighting each other shouldn’t ever feel boring.
Reflecting on his own boxing journey, Naseem Hamed succinctly surmised just why his own character helped him go from Sheffield leisure centres to headlining pay-per-views in Vegas…
“If all I did was sit at a press conference and say things like ‘I’ve trained hard; I’ll do my best’, no one would care. But when I’m loud and cocky, it makes people switch on their televisions and that means I’m doing my job.”
That’s entirely the point. Was the real Naseem Hamed exactly the same as the conceited ‘Prince’ character? No, although the lines did blur somewhat to his detriment late in his career. But did Hamed take elements of his own personality to build a persona which would instantly make him stand out from the pack and drive eyeballs to his fights? Absolutely. Boxers don’t have to become someone else entirely, but they can utilise social media to accentuate certain things, and in turn hook in a wider audience to establish their own fanbase more effectively. Give them a worthy foil of an opponent and the potential is enormous.
Hardcore boxing fans will always be there, purely for a love of the sport itself. By combining engaging characters with effective storytelling on the right platforms, however, so many more casual viewers will be drawn into the sport on a more consistent basis…
Of course, boxing has an issue with not making enough of the fights fans really want to see. On the bright side, though, at least one of the matchups for 2023 I waxed lyrical about in the last edition has now been confirmed.
Last week saw the announcement of a fight between two major names at the upper echelons of the sport - both with a considerable presence on social media and, crucially, amongst the next generation of potential boxing fans - which feels like it should be tailor-made to buck this trend.
Gervonta Davis against Ryan Garcia, one of the most exciting and high-profile matchups possible in boxing today, has been set for April 22nd in an as-yet-unconfirmed Las Vegas arena.
This is not only an outstanding pitching of two of the most exciting young fighters active today, but this is also a bout with legitimate beef that is likely to feature a build-up more akin to the classic boxing feuds which drew so many of us to the sport in the first place. Crucially, you can make a clear case for both to win. The storyline for the Davis-Garcia resolution has been laid for years, with their respective talents meaning that the fight itself could live up to the promotion.
Without a world title on the line, in an era when boxing so often fails to strike while the iron is hot, all involved deserve praise for getting Davis-Garcia over the line, especially when both fighters could take on lesser challenges and still be compensated handsomely.
On a slightly less high-profile level, I love the upcoming matchup of Caleb Plant and David Benavidez, taking place on March 25th at the MGM Grand in Vegas.
A meeting of two of the top five current super middleweights with legitimate, long-brewing bad blood, this has the feel of a real old-school showdown. In theory, Plant-Benavidez has the ingredients to cross over and enhance the standings of both fighters whilst reiterating exactly what boxing can do uniquely to any other sport. In all likelihood though, boxing’s lack of cultural penetration - and the fact that the fight is behind an expensive pay-per-view paywall in the US, with no confirmed broadcaster yet in the UK - might see this genuinely heated showdown be seen by little more than boxing aficionados.
In the UK, and at the other end of the spectrum, perhaps a large part of the reason for Anthony Joshua’s comeback fight against Jermaine Franklin next month seemingly selling so poorly is that there is absolutely nothing to engage the average fan. With such a litany of choices at our disposal, a product needs to be actively engaging in some form to stand out from the crowd. It might end up being an in-ring classic but the complete lack of build has seen the O2 Arena return of AJ completely pass most people by. Uninspiring narrative + very expensive tickets = very tough sell…
Hope springs eternal that the age of calculated avoidance in boxing is coming to at least a temporary impasse, although the political machinations of the sport mean a full stop isn’t realistic. Even if the best matchups can be made more often, however, the sport and its protagonists need to find a way to hook viewers into the journey towards fight night.
In the modern age of social media and round-the-clock connection with their audiences, public figures are - whether they like it or not - their own brands. Just imagine if elite-level boxing could more regularly capture the imagination of the wider world in the manner Jake Paul vs Tommy Fury did, and then actually deliver the world-class in-ring action that fight lacked.
Not every event could come close to the level of attention afforded to this past Sunday’s show, of course, but boxing, and the fighters themselves, can still do a much better job of extolling the virtues of their product and personalities to the wider world.
Despite the splintered state of boxing in 2023, this year has already seen some cracking action. Beterbiev-Yarde, Wood-Lara, and Nery-Hovhannisyan have all been barnburners, and this weekend’s showdown between Brandon Figueroa and Mark Magsayo for the interim WBC featherweight title could easily be another to add to the list. Very few people, however, give too much of a hoot outside of the extremely niche group of boxing obsessives who follow everything as standard.
Given the insane level of hype, the inexperienced battle of Fury and Paul was never going to be able to live up to its billing. Afforded even a percentage of that same spotlight, however, boxing at the top level of the sport often could.
Totally agree that there needs to be more fighters who can use their personalities to cross over into the mainstream - I do think PPV holds some of this back, there's such a fun cast of characters right now that people don't generally know of because the average joe isn't going to pay $50 for one event.
Good article, Jake. Certainly some good fights on the horizon. Gervonta vs. Garcia is a cracker, can't see it going the distance. Plant-Benavidez, Haney-Loma, Lopez-Taylor. Shaping up to be a decent year so far.