“I don’t know him.”
Manny Pacquiao’s response to discovering that he was going to fight Jeff Horn was exactly the same as that of the entire boxing world. When Horn’s promoters first proposed the fight to Bob Arum, he said “no way.” One of the greatest fighters of his generation and one of the most marketable sportsmen of all time would not be getting into the ring with an unknown. How then was he able to convince himself that this fight could be sold?
Great fights sell themselves easily, good fights rely on a bit of a narrative while poor fights need it spread on thickly. “Give me something to work with!” would have been the plea of an average promoter given the task of building up this fight. Arum saw that the biggest thing about this fight was its utter implausibility. Instead of seeing that as something to hide or deny, he trumpeted it. The message wasn’t “here’s a world class boxer (who for unclear reasons you’ve never heard of) who’s going to shock Manny Pacquaio”. Instead, it was “Would you believe it! A teacher, that’s right a teacher, is going to take on the great Manny Pacquaio.” At this point, the boxing hardcore rolled its eyes and asked the seemingly obvious question: “Why?” Just another bit of poor matchmaking, noteworthy only for quite how poor it was.
But you don’t need the hardcore onside to make a successful fight, just the legions of casual fans. So Arum, assisted by an eager media, has told the story that Hollywood has told a million times before: The tale of the almost hopeless underdog. Like all the best sells, thousands have been convinced because they want to be. Plenty watch sport for the same reason they watch movies: to escape. Look at the facts of this fight and it’s hard to get excited but for some it’s more fun to ignore them and ride the hype.
Of course, Arum is a pro. He has squeezed every drop of fairytale out of Horn’s life story. He is constantly referred to as a teacher because it’s a “good guy” profession that everyone can relate to. Much has also been made of the fact that Horn took up the sport as self-defence after having been bullied at school. It’s an almost too perfect feel-good story that would seem too corny in a film.
While Arum has worked his magic, the chutzpah that made this fight possible came from Horn’s trainer, Glenn Rushton, and his promoter, Dean Lonergan. It was they who sat down back in 2014 and settled on an an ambition to have Horn fighting in front of a sold out SunCorp stadium. Whatever you think of this fight, it is hard not to admire the audacity of these two boxing outsiders who were willing to make Arum an offer when all the talk was of far bigger names. He may have ignored it at first but as other options fell through, they remained ready and grabbed the opportunity when it finally came. It’s a fight built on Arum’s hustling and some Antipodean dreaming, two different types of entrepreneurship.
It looks to have worked. Rushton and Lonergan look close to getting their sellout, the biggest sporting crowd in Queensland’s history. Maybe Manny Pacquaio will suddenly get old and those spectators will get the improbable ending. If, as is overwhelmingly likely, they don’t and it’s a one-sided rout, many will feel angry and cheated. Rather than being a boost to boxing in Australia, it may be a blow to its appeal. That of course is the cost of selling fairytales without the ending.