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Boxing’s back, and in better shape than first feared

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Tuesday and Thursday night’s Top Rank shows eased a few concerns, as a fan, of boxing’s life after COVID-19.

Shakur Stevenson v Felix Caraballo Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank via Getty Images

This week marked the long-awaited return of boxing post-pandemic, as Top Rank blazed the trail for the sport to clamber to its feet. Since mid-March, boxing has laid motionless on the canvas, gazing up in a nostalgic haze at the twinkling stars of yesteryear.

Tuesday and Thursday evenings saw Shakur Stevenson and Jessie Magdaleno both register victories in their headline slots, as their overmatched opponents played third, even fourth, fiddle to the overriding story of the sport’s new appearance.

A body assault from Stevenson was followed by a balls assault on Thursday, as Yenifel Vicente got dropped twice by Magdaleno during a messy encounter that saw the away fighter DQd following three low blow penalties. Adam Lopez and Louie Coria undoubtedly stole the show in an absorbing 10-round war which saw Lopez shade a majority decision victory.

Just a handful of dignitaries — all previously tested with negative COVID-19 results — were allowed inside the MGM “bubble” this week to witness the curtain-raiser of boxing’s new normal. This bubble was the result of months of planning by Top Rank COO Brad Jacobs, as he and his team won the race to deliver a safe return to action.

“I’ve been in this business way longer than I want to admit,” Jacobs told ESPN. “And this has been, by far, the most difficult process I’ve been through.”

The action itself, albeit predictably non-competitive, in parts was easier to digest than expected. Having spent a couple of weeks trying to stomach the German Bundesliga football without a crowd, the intensity of a fight still seemed to resonate and penetrate to the viewer at home.

Once the camera pans down on the ring, the absence of hundreds or thousands of spectators didn’t seem as apparent as first feared — certainly from a visual perspective. Perhaps we’ve already been conditioned over the years, watching the opening fights on cards that start far too early for a crowd to assemble.

The audio atmosphere appears the critical omission to fights behind closed doors. The rise and fall in harmonised roars from the blood baying crowd will inevitably weaken the spectacle for the viewer sitting at home. Still, with that loss, the ability to hear punches land at such proximity is a new, exciting bi-product.

Jessie Magdaleno v Yenifel Vicente Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank via Getty Images

The thud of the glove on skin, accompanied by the exhaling “tssh” and “acch” of each fighter gives the fan a closer understanding of how the fight is playing out, less reliant on a ringside commentary team drip-feeding you exclusives throughout the contest.

“Even when fighting, and there was no crowd, it was different,” Stevenson, now 14-0, spoke after his latest victory. “I would catch him with mean shots, and there would be no ‘Ooohs’ or ‘Aaahs.’”

Timothy Bradley and Andre Ward suited (top half, at least) and (we assume) booted in their living rooms added that extra drop of adaptability to the concoction. Ward, choosing to position himself in front of a career’s work of boxing trinkets, comparable to that of politicians boastfully brandishing their book collections when they are interviewed for news channels via Zoom.

It felt a little disjointed at times, and with an average of 397,000 viewers tuning in to Tuesday night’s opener, criticisms will inevitably surface. The cancellation of Mikaela Mayer’s contest with Helen Joseph, as well as Zavala–Vasquez next week, also underlined the risks that are involved in boxing’s restart.

If nothing, Top Rank has acted as a successful guinea pig for others to follow. Robert Smith, British Boxing Board of Control general secretary, met with Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren Friday to discuss the protocol for boxing to resume in the United Kingdom.

“If we have good ratings, good fights, and everyone is safe and healthy, I think that that is definitely the definition of success,” Brad Jacobs concluded.

It may take a few more events to tick those three boxes with any authority, but the sport is tentatively moving in the right direction.

Follow Lewis Watson @lewroyscribbles