The many ways to kill a boxing match
To fans of other sports, it’s just so obvious: the Spurs face the Heat in the NBA Finals because of course they do; the Spurs won the Western Conference and the Heat won the Eastern Conference and the two winners decide the champion.
In boxing, it is never so simple, and it is especially complicated this year, which makes it almost a miracle that in November we will get a meeting between the , Bernard Hopkins and Sergey Kovalev, in a bout that, by the standards of the sport, particularly the standards of the sport in 2014, should have been semi-impossible. In fact, .
You see, “prizefighting” behaves only nominally like a sport. It’s easier for a fight to not happen than it is for it to actually happen. There are an endless array of things that can kill a boxing match and no one entity that can force a bout to happen. These are some of the more common categories of fight-murdering factors.
Pick your favorite throughout history, collect them and trade them: Bob Arum v Don King, Arum v Oscar De La Hoya, Arum v Al Haymon, Andre Ward v Goossen Tutor. figures carry grudges around like they’re tattoos, never to be erased. At any given time, boxing’s biggest promoters are in the middle of another blood feud, refusing to let their fighters face a rival company’s fighters.
For the past decade or so, the most common feud has been Arum’s Top Rank v De La Hoya’s Golden Boy, with two long stretches of Cold War, marked by a great deal of kinetic warfare and very little harmonious peace. The latest iteration of the Cold War appears to be thawing, with Golden Boy Promotions parting ways with CEO Richard Schaefer, who hated the temperamental Arum more than De La Hoya, who is more inclined to forgive and forget, which then paved the way for Hopkins v Kovalev. But Arum still despises puppet-master manager Al Haymon, which forecloses a range of fights, as Haymon manages the biggest stable in the sport, which overlaps to a considerable degree with the Golden Boy stable. As Haymon and Schaefer were close, it’s also very possible that Haymon-managed fighters without official contracts with Golden Boy could soon become off limits to both Top Rank and Golden Boy. Just because the Cold War might be going away doesn’t mean some new threat of a skirmish isn’t rising – it pretty much always is.
Fighters themselves, too, sometimes find themselves in a war with their own managers and promoters, holding out on some meaningful bout or the other as a result. The biggest example at this moment is super middleweight champion Andre Ward, who can’t stop and losing his attempts to free himself from Goossen Tutor and thus not fighting in the meantime, thereby making appetising bouts such as Ward-Gennady Golovkin impossible from the start. Others in this situation: Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., a popular boxer, and Mikey Garcia, a talented one, are both at odds with Top Rank right now, which puts them on the shelf.
The two top networks in the US are Showtime and HBO, and at times both lock up fighters to exclusive multi-fight deals. It’s why Lennox Lewis v was hard to make for a while, and why both networks had to agree to air the bout in a rare joint pay-per-view venture before it could happen.
In recent years, Golden Boy has aligned with Showtime and Top Rank has aligned with HBO, further bifurcating the sport and making some of the best bouts inconceivable. We never got Abner Mares v Nonito Donaire, for example, over this.
It led, in part, to the demise of light heavyweight champ Adonis Stevenson v Kovalev on HBO in one of the best match-ups in the whole sport, because Stevenson was more interested in facing Hopkins on Showtime, and now with the latest version of the Cold War warming up, Hopkins is going to fight Kovalev on HBO instead.
Nobody in boxing has to do anything they don’t want to, and not even the four main outfits that hand out scads of title bouts can force them. A high-level fighter, when “mandated” to fight a top-ranked challenger via, say, the WBO, can simply drop his belt if he doesn’t feel like facing that challenger.
What’s more, the competing sanctioning organisations sometimes force their “champions” to pick their belt over another, which means that so-called unification bouts are rare. And since some of the best fighters in a given division hold competing belts handed out by competing organisations, the chase for and desire to keep a title belt from these money-grubbing organisations means that the belts are an impediment to various bouts happening in practice.
Risk and reward
Most boxers, and those affiliated with them, are usually trying to figure out the following: how can I make the most money with the least risk of losing and/or looking bad? It’s very capitalistic, of course, but it’s contrary to the notion of sports, which are meant, in part, to see who’s best, period.
Very few fighters want to face the best in their division until it’s the absolutely last big-money option, and even then they avoid it in favor of smaller purses without as much risk of losing. It’s why Mexican superstar Canelo Alvarez, a huge attraction in boxing who could make a ton of money fighting any living soul, was to be commended for facing Erislandy Lara, a hugely difficult opponent who by virtue of his Cuban heritage has a very small fanbase in America.
It’s also why Golovkin, with his huge knockout ratio and Kazakhstani heritage, isn’t in much demand among elite middleweights, and won’t be until he commands massive live audiences and huge purses, or until he moves up to a division where his punching power isn’t so frightening.
So many things about a fight can be negotiated. It’s not like the NBA where the rules are consistent: the basketball is the same size in every game, the court is always set at 94 feet long, the home and away games are determined by the league far in advance without any mechanism for appeal.
In boxing, everything is up for grabs: glove weight and brand, ring size, bout weight, who walks out first, whose name is first on the poster, bout location, whether it’s on a fighter’s home turf or whether he has to fight before an audience of people rooting against him, the referees and the judges. Almost all can be determinative (at least the parts that aren’t related to just pure ego), which is why it’s all so frequently negotiated.
Let’s say you’re power puncher Marcos Maidana, set to fight slick boxer . Mayweather wants the gloves used to be heavily padded, as he has suffered hand injuries and doesn’t punch that hard anyway. Maidana wants the gloves to have little padding, because less padding enhances his knockout power and thus his chances of winning before the match-up goes the scorecards, where he’s less likely to win thanks to Mayweather’s sublime boxing skills impressing judges.
This particular dispute – which should have been negotiated upon the signing of the contracts – came inches away from killing their first fight at the very last minute, and apparently it still hasn’t been resolved for the rematch. And this is kind of amusing, darkly; boxing matches tend to have contracts signed at the very last minute even when agreed to in principle, which means fight terms are still being debated until moments before the fight.
The biggest fight term, of course, is money. If there’s not enough to go around from the start, say if HBO isn’t offering a big enough fee to split such that the two sides consider it worthwhile to take the bout, then the bout might never get off the ground. Then, fighters have to subjugate their egos to decide who gets the biggest share of the pie. If the split isn’t satisfactory, one side might walk away. And if a fighter can make a sizable chunk of money fighting someone else besides the best — Asian fighters tend to fight the best Asian fighters rather than the best overall fighters in a division, because they do great television and live gate figures no matter what, so why risk it against someone who will bring less money? — then often he will.
In other sports, say, the NBA, if the team that won the Western Conference comes into the Finals with their best player injured, then it’s too bad. The game must go on. In boxing, an injury in sparring – and they’re not uncommon, although injuries are sometimes cited as smokescreens for other reasons to pull out of a fight – can ruin a bout. Or, a fighter failing to make weight can lead to a cancellation. Who wants to start a boxing match with a broken hand?
But various kind of catastrophes can ruin a match-up, as well. Golovkin’s father died and he pulled out of a bout this year because of it. Andre Berto once pulled out of a fight with Shane Mosley because his native Haiti was suffering from the aftermath of an earthquake. Fighters sometimes have trouble getting visas until the very last moment, which nearly killed Brandon Rios-Diego Chaves.
There can be a ripple effect here as well. Should a main event fall through due to injury or other catastrophe or accident, then the rest of the bouts scheduled for the undercard can be ruined.
Shared trainer/family/other affiliations
The best bout at cruiserweight is Marco Huck v Yoan Pablo Hernandez. It won’t happen because they share the same trainer, who refuses to let the two meet. Likewise, for the longest time, Wladimir Klitschko and Vitali Klitschko were the two best heavyweights, yet refused to meet one another because the siblings promised their mother they never would. Less defensible: for the longest time, Haymon wouldn’t let fighters he advised/managed get in the ring together, because if one beat the other it diminished a Haymon property that could have beaten another fighter without diminishing another Haymon fighter.