2021’s glut of exhibitions and freakshow fights, which continue to be stunningly lucrative endeavors, may leave dedicated boxing fans bewildered and furious. There is a deep, abiding solemnity to the art of consenting adults punching each other for money, and a YouTuber decking a retired wrestler seemingly flies in the face of that.
Speaking as someone who deeply loves this deeply stupid sport, that ship has long since sailed. From Primo Carnera to Mike Lee, vaudeville is hard-coded into boxing’s DNA; “Two Ton” Tony Galento didn’t fistfight a bear for pundits to decry the declining dignity of this most noble pastime.
But more than that, didn’t modern boxing do this to itself?
Fight fans have inured themselves to the most bafflingly inane “normal” of any major sport. We just accept that the best actually fighting the best is a rare and praiseworthy deviation, that elite fighters will happily fight only once or twice a year without prodding, that we can go into major fights knowing with absolute certainty that the judges are going to be incompetent and face zero repercussions, that we need to sign up for at least three subscription services and be willing to shell out for regular pay-per-views to properly follow along. Everything outside of the actual fisticuffs is so profoundly fan-unfriendly that you can’t blame people for latching onto a spectacle.
I mean, hell, just look at the sanctioning bodies. The WBA and WBC are out here inventing titles from scratch and showing the most grotesque favoritism on a weekly basis, all while spewing disingenuous and self-aggrandizing garbage, and the IBF has made an art out of dredging up unknown, unworthy contenders that seemingly exist only to delay unification bouts. This isn’t like the NBA or NFL or MLB, where the agencies are integral to the sport’s core logistics; these organizations literally only have the power we’ve given them. There is nothing stopping boxing’s major players from telling them to shove it except this weird acceptance of their parasitism that has turned increasingly depreciated hardware into the only currency that matters besides raw cash.
The concept of sanctioning fees really doesn’t hold up when you really think about it.
Boxing was already in a difficult marketing position just based on how rarely viewers get to see their favorites compete; I can enjoy dozens of hours of fresh LeBron James action every year, but I’m lucky to get 50 minutes of Terence Crawford. Add to that an at-best frustrating and at-worst actively hostile viewing experience, sprinkle in a galling financial barrier, and top it off with an obvious disinclination to actually fix any of it; does Jake Paul fighting Ben Askren really seem so appalling next to that?