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Boxing facing major changes and need to adapt during and after COVID-19

How will boxing be forced to adapt in the coming months?

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Demetrius Andrade v Luke Keeler - Press Conference Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

As humans, we adapt. A “new normal” will emerge in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with very few exceptions across society.

Wearing face masks, social distancing, and working from home are all expected to feature under the sizable umbrella of changes to day-to-day life, with boxing, like any other business, forced to remodel if it is to survive.

Change is scary but necessary. As soon as governments across the world give boxing the green light, a race will ensue for fighters, promoters, managers, and all involved in the sport to clamber back to their feet and agree to box on.

Events are expected to be staged behind closed doors for the foreseeable future, with promoters tasked with providing the best, and safest, content for fans unable to attend. UFC 249 last weekend provided a blueprint for boxing. Dana White’s bullish response to the pandemic has received praise and criticism in equal measure, with his role as the guinea pig a considerable benefit to boxing’s contingency planning.

“My guys are savages,” White boasted on the Pug and Copp Boxing Show this week, concerning the efforts of his team to restart UFC events. This display of machismo is commonplace in combat sports, but the unwavering determination to keep his business afloat is one that will resonate across the globe, despite the internal conflict concerning broader safety.

Progression towards this “new normal” can be a balancing act. Short term thinking would deem sport, and boxing, secondary to the health of everyone involved in reviving events in this current climates. A need for medical professionals on-site may be perceived as selfish when considering how stretched they have become during this global health pandemic.

Long term thinking would see the necessity for a return to some form of boxing to protect the livelihoods of employers in the future. Lives depend on careers and careers depend on a regular income to support family members, with mental health another hugely undervalued consideration as unemployment and redundancies grow.

Robert Smith, General Secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control, has been briefing the media this week on how he expects boxing to return in the UK. Smith expects a higher level of safety precautions reached than the show seen in Nicaragua a couple of weeks back with the use and availability of PPE essential for boxing’s restart.

Testing fighters, their teams and sparring partners will all prove logistical hurdles along with sourcing a sterilized environment to fight. Still, Smith seems determined to get the necessary measures in place as soon as possible.

Promoters will need to think on their feet in reaction to barriers lifted. Eddie Hearn has speculated to BBC Radio 5 Live about opportunities to adapt during this period, citing the Fyre Festival as a warped inspiration.

“There’s going to be so many barriers to overcome,” he told the BBC. “There’s going to be disasters, people having to pull out, if it’s outdoors it’s going to pour down with rain, but that’s part of what we are going to create. I don’t want it to be boring. I don’t want it to be easy. I want it to go down in history.”

A “quarantine house” where fighters are filmed the week before an event looks to be the angle that Hearn is visualizing. Reliance on the “narrative” of this situation could outweigh the importance of the fights inside the ring, as Hearn looks to innovate with a Matchroom Boxing stamp on the events. A boxing Big Brother?

“We’ve got to be groundbreaking, not like anyone else is doing,” Hearn confirmed, hinting at the possibility of drones flying over the ring to record the action.

Matchroom’s head office in Brentwood, Essex, seems an obvious choice for this dream to become a reality. Significant cost-cutting can be made for promotional outfits to hire studios, or outside areas when no fans are permitted. Visually, UFC 249 looked great, but a 15,000 capacity arena was unnecessary.

Fighters, too, will have to change their expectations and possible career paths. With cards limited to domestic battles due to restrictions in air travel, unearthing potential talent may be quicker and more cut-throat rather than newly professional fighters enjoying handfuls of cherry-picked opponents.

Boxing’s return is a movable feast, a feast where not everyone is guaranteed a seat at the table. Adapting fast could save our sport in the short term, with concessions needed and the acceptance of a temporary “new normal.”