Boxing has continued at the top level in the face of a worldwide pandemic but promoters and fighters without TV contracts still face a long and arduous battle to remain in the sport, writes Elliot Worsell
IT’S only natural to see men and women throwing punches on television during the COVID-19 pandemic and think that boxing, the toughest of all sports, has bravely weathered the storm and come back stronger; that, as is its tendency, it was up no sooner than it had been knocked down. But no, not quite. If back in the ring throwing punches, the sport’s punches are, at this stage, best described as arm punches rather than power punches. Heard but not felt, the arenas in which they are thrown are empty, fights tend to be watered-down fare, and bills are often cut-price and downsized to suit. The fighters are fighting again, some with more fire and desperation than ever, and the television promoters have done a fine job of resuscitating, but there is still something missing, and it is more than just bodies in seats. Sadly, though the TV screen offers the illusion of a Rocky-style comeback, boxing’s small hall circuit – the stuff they don’t show you – has been out cold since March, both in the UK and in other parts of the world, and it’s this reality that creates the truer image of a sport throwing punches without a base, without its foundation, without its legs. Arm punches.
Due to the ongoing crisis, boxing’s building blocks have crumbled and now left behind is the scaffolding, sturdy enough but not to be confused with a home. It has, since adjusting, become a sport of eerily silent TV shows, ‘bubble’ banter, Zoom chats, hysterical pundits, and a million podcasts, all doing their best to lighten the collective mood and have us forget the absence of small hall shows, amateur shows and packed gyms.
And the worst thing is, just as nobody is to blame, nobody saw it coming.
“This year started fantastically for us,” said small hall promoter, trainer and matchmaker Carl Greaves, owner of Carl Greaves Promotions. “We had a couple of brilliant shows in March, both sell-outs, and we had Leicester’s Morningside Arena booked, 3,000-capacity, for a 16-fight card. But then Covid hit and I had to cancel it. Since then I’ve just not been able to do anything.
“It’s sad really. I’ve got loads of great prospects coming through, 18 unbeaten fighters, and at least 10 of those 18 I believe could become a British champion. I want to do what the TV promoters do with their fighters: build them up and progress them the right way. But I can’t right now. It’s just heartbreaking for those sorts of lads.”
Greaves has managed to stay busy doing some personal training, as well as working with the pros in his stable, but accepts there is zero hope of him promoting any of his own shows in the near future.
“It’s not possible for me to promote without TV and without a crowd,” he said. “But even if we do get crowds back, there’s every chance we will still all have to be tested – the fighters, the officials, the trainers – and it’s just not possible for a small hall promoter, even with crowds, to do it. You have to think about the cost of the testing, the hotels and everything else that goes into it. It’s not going to be possible until it’s safe enough and all testing is stopped. If a vaccine works, then we can get going. Until then, we can’t even make any plans.”
Fellow small hall promoter Steve Wood, owner of VIP Boxing, has priced up the testing and hotel costs for a hypothetical small hall show in 2020 and reckons, for a six-fight card, he would be looking at a bill in the region of £18,000, a pie-in-the-sky amount for small hall promoters in the UK.
Kieran Farrell, whose March 14 show in Bolton was the UK’s last before the sport closed for business, has been doing the same sums.
“I was planning on doing a show and had been in touch with quite a few people to sponsor us and probably raised about £15,000,” Farrell, boss of Kieran Farrell Promotions, said. “That would have still been less than half the money needed. You’re looking at a proper big hit on the financial side of things [if you go ahead]. It wouldn’t have been worth it. It’s like [General Secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control] Robert Smith said in Boxing News: it would be ‘financial suicide’.
“As it was, the girl I was doing the show for, Amy Timlin, was someone I could pass over to Dave Coldwell. I said to Dave, ‘If you’ve got a TV show to put Amy on, we’ve got a fight.’ I had made the fight in December. He’s then phoned Eddie Hearn and said, ‘Look, we’ve got two unbeaten girls for a fight here.’ Eddie liked the sound of it and Dave got it done for us. That saved me a lot of money.”
Without that opportunity on a TV show, Timlin would have been consigned to an extended spell of inactivity along with the majority of other professional boxers in the UK this year. For the rules in 2020 are clear: if you’re not boxing on TV, you essentially don’t exist. “There are probably 90 per cent of fighters not active at the moment,” said Greaves. “You’ve probably got a hundred active out of a thousand registered boxers [in Britain].”
“At BCB, we’ve done okay,” said Errol Johnson, Head of Boxing at Black Country Boxing. “Our fighters have been able to take decent fights on TV shows and we’ve made sure they have stayed fit as best we can.
“As for the small hall shows, they’ve been non-existent and half of my fighters are at a standstill. I’m still getting new fighters and ticket-sellers wanting to go now but we can’t do anything about it. They can’t progress. You’re just hoping they stay in the sport.
“We’ve got some okay lads who could progress but a year out of the sport is a long time, isn’t it? The TV fighters are moving on, or at least still moving, but a lot of our boys can’t.
“Most of mine are willing to box the better kids and most of them box well against them. We’ve only had a couple not turn up but most of them do. The TV kids who need progressing are getting their four-rounders and six-rounders in but ours aren’t. If it stays like this, it will just come to a standstill and we won’t be able to provide the opponents.”
Daryl Sharp from Manchester is one such ‘opponent’. He used to wear that title with pride, happy to provide a test for any home fighter up and down the country, and last year boxed a staggering 25 times. This year, however, Sharp, 28, has boxed just three times, with each outing coming before the small halls closed their doors in March.
Sharp, a super-middleweight, now spends his days working in a warehouse, all the while waiting on potential welding jobs. He doesn’t expect to box again until the middle of next year, though concedes he would take a fight at cruiserweight tomorrow should such an opportunity arise. “It’s had a massive impact on me,” Sharp, 28, said. “I miss being in the gym and training, and I miss fighting. But it’s the money as well. Losing that has had a massive impact on me and my life. I was fighting basically every other week last year and then this year it has gone all the way down to zero.
“Now I’ve had to go and get a f**king warehouse job just to make ends meet. Hopefully I’ll be doing welding jobs now things look to be going back to how things were but it’s still really hard. Welding was my trade before becoming a boxer. I gave that up to box.
“You start thinking, What do I do now? It was so regular last year and I was so used to that way of life. It was hard when that suddenly changed. It had a big impact on me mentally, as it has done for everybody really. It’s been hard for journeymen but also the home fighters. Nobody has had it easy.”
Like everyone else, Sharp continues to watch boxing on television but admits it is hard not to imagine himself as the person walking to the ring each time he does. He still trains, for now only running the roads, and says his main concern is supporting his family with a reduced income and no guarantee of it picking up anytime soon. “I’m making a third of what I did when I was boxing all the time last year,” Sharp said. “I’ve got two kids, a boy and a girl, and I’m just trying to get as much work as I can now. When the fights were coming in, it was good. I would fight one weekend and know that something else was coming up either the following weekend or the weekend after that. Now I’ve just got to graft my a**e off to make pennies.
“I just pray that a phone call will come. I’m always at the end of the phone. But, unlike last year, it isn’t ringing.”
Steve Goodwin, manager and promoter at Goodwin Boxing, has, despite the impact on his boxing business, been able to continue his work as a financial advisor during the pandemic. Better yet, he has used insight gleaned from powerful connections to keep his boxers in the loop throughout this problematic time.
“Because of what I do by trade, I knew about the vaccine situation back in March and was therefore able to tell the boxers what was going to happen,” he said. “I told them they wouldn’t box for 12 months and could guide them in terms of what was real and what was not. That was only because of the connections I have in my other line of work. I was ahead of the game. I told all my boxers about this vaccine coming out weeks ago and I told them all in March to go and get other jobs.
“What has annoyed me in boxing are the small hall promoters who have been telling their boxers there could be shows in July or September or October. These boxers have then been training for fights that were never actually going to happen. That has really peed me off. I feel for the fighters who are just being totally misled. What’s that doing to their mental health when they are being told this bull***t? That’s been frustrating to watch from the outside.”
Another worry, of course, is that the longer this period of inactivity lasts, the more likely it is that fighters will find in their new jobs the kind of money and security they cannot possibly get from boxing.
“There are a lot of fighters turning away from the sport,” said Farrell. “They make more money doing regular jobs, especially this year. It’s only passion that keeps a lot of them at this level going.
“It’s scary to think that if things don’t get back to normal soon, there will be very little money to be made in this sport. We all need boxing to get back to normal. If fighters aren’t earning money, their manager isn’t earning money, and their promoter isn’t earning money. Nobody is really winning right now.”
“Some [boxers] aren’t responding to messages anymore,” Greaves said. “I normally train 10 fighters and sometimes I’ll get only three or four turning up [at the gym].
“You’ve got to remember that boxing is a big sacrifice. When you’re in it and constantly active, you’re sacrificing a lot. You’re not going out with your mates, you’re not socialising, you’re training hard and you’re dieting. Once you let yourself go and get back to normality, it’s hard to switch back.
“The saving grace here is that they aren’t living a proper normal life because of the lockdown. But they’re still going to be eating normal foods and putting weight on, aren’t they? They’re still going to be thinking, Is boxing really worth it? A year out could be the end for most of these boxers. It’s a shame really. I’m just hoping we don’t lose too many.”
Goodwin, in contrast, has seen a spike in the number of boxers wanting to sign with his company. “I’ve had one pack it in because he’s had a child and has reflected on his life and thinks he needs a more stable income. I get that,” he said. “But, generally, we are seeing a rise in numbers and they are all good quality boxers. We’ve signed around 27 boxers during lockdown and every one of those came to us. That tells me boxing is not dead. It is still there. We have more and more people wanting to sign with us and have been busier than ever.”
For now, each of the 27 boxers signed by Goodwin will presumably have to wait their turn and impress with patience before they can do so with punches. One or two might get an opportunity on a TV show but, chances are, the majority will spend the next few months watching others do the very thing they would quite like to do themselves.
On the subject of the TV shows, Goodwin said: “Boxing needed to come back to stay relevant. Has it been on the whole as good as I’ve wanted it to be? Probably not. The quality, at times, has not been competitive enough. I applaud the promoters doing it, because they have lost gate revenue, but there have been some shows that were so bad they have not enhanced the sport. Some shows don’t help matters and are better being kept off the screen. But there are others that have been excellent.”
“The boxers getting on the TV shows are very fortunate and, to be honest, many of them aren’t even TV-level fighters,” said Greaves. “They are just getting on these shows off the back of others. There are many better fighters on the small hall circuit not getting the opportunities they should be getting because there are easier fights to be made on these TV shows.
“Sometimes it’s not a case of what you know in boxing, it’s more a case of who you know. You get a TV-level fighter and to keep him and his manager happy you put his manager’s fighters on your TV shows. They then get beaten and you realise they’re novices and not up to much. But it’s those kinds of fighters taking the spots that could be given to far better fighters from the small hall circuit.”
One of Greaves’ boxers, light-heavyweight Dec Spelman, has been fortunate enough to box twice during the pandemic. He fought Lyndon Arthur in July, then Anthony Yarde in September. He lost both, the first on points and the second by stoppage, and now must overcome an obstacle that wouldn’t even have been an obstacle last year. Those losses, as well as a 2019 defeat to Shakan Pitters, have conspired to leave Spelman, a former English light-heavyweight champion, 0-3 in his last three fights and, crucially, with no cards on which to grab himself a much-needed win. Those opportunities used to arrive on small hall shows, the likes of which no longer exist. “Normally I’d get him a win and build him back up,” Greaves said, talking idealistically. “But every TV job he gets offered now is going to be a tough one.”
Another tricky issue is that of the pro debutant, who, unless a high-profile amateur star, won’t be gifted their first bout on a TV show and will instead be forced to wait months to get off the mark.
“I’ve been training Matt Bailey, a flyweight, who has just turned over,” said Farrell. “He really wanted to sign with me but thought I wasn’t that interested because I wasn’t forcing the issue. All I was thinking, though, was that he wouldn’t be fighting until the crowds came back. I didn’t want him paying a load of money for all his medicals and then have to pay it all again later, because it’s pretty expensive.”
Unfortunately, such is the nature of a global pandemic, ‘later’ doesn’t have a date.
“Without a vaccine, there won’t be any small hall boxing,” said Goodwin. “The scientists have done their job because you have three vaccines that are going to be approved. You have the Moderna one, the Oxford one, and the Pfizer one. The issue now for boxing is all linked to how quickly the government can distribute these vaccines and how efficient they can be. That’s what we’re dependent on and, judging by their performance this year, I wouldn’t have great hope.”
Goodwin continued: “You’re going to get people now thinking they can plan shows in February. But it’s not going to happen. It’s really not going to happen. In reality, if you were being ludicrously optimistic, and I’m not, someone might try to run a show in March. But they will probably do their brains. People won’t be ready to go by that point.
“An intelligent man’s option would be May. We’ve got dates booked for weekends of boxing ready to go in May. We need to get our boxers out. But even that is totally dependent on how quickly the government roll out the vaccines.
“Remember, the boxers have to have a lead-in period to sell tickets for small hall shows. They’ve got to have a minimum of two months to do that. They need to be selling from March to do a show in May and by March the [British Boxing] Board will have had to announce, based on the government’s efficiency, that they are going to relax the rules. If they’re still doing ‘bubbles’ for shows, it’s not going to happen.
“To get it back in May, you’ve probably got a 40 per cent chance. You’ve got a 50 per cent chance in June and a 100 per cent chance in September, in the format we know: York Hall full up, maybe some testing at the door, maybe those who have refused vaccines not being admitted. I think that’s a realistic timescale.”
What isn’t realistic, at this point, is to think that boxing can survive on TV shows – that is, arm punches – alone. Because although arm punches can still land and occasionally look good from a distance, the impression is never as great as it would be if they were thrown correctly, with a base and foundation supporting them. There is impact, yes, but not the kind ever likely to last.