On Feb. 2, two heavyweight titans met up for what some described as the most anticipated boxing match in 20 years. My personal excitement for this fight was driven by an interest in boxing that began with the Andy Ruiz-Anthony Joshua fight this past summer. Boxing had grown on me after the initial shock of watching a shorter, heavier fighter like Ruiz hang with the physical specimen Joshua and knock him down to the canvas. After watching numerous videos breaking down their fight, I realized that boxing is much more than two brutes giving and receiving bloody blows to each other’s faces. The sport is nearly artistic, and the best fighters use rhythm in their movements, swaying side-to-side while bouncing on their toes. The combination of punches are a free-form, creative expression of the individual throwing them, and the varying styles can produce spectacular back-and-forth battles.
Boxing quickly became without a doubt the most fascinating sport in my eyes, and I spent time watching old Muhammad Ali footage, the man who coined the phrase, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” The idea of dedicating a life completely to one purpose and sharpening one’s physical, mental and spiritual form to achieve it is something appealing — particularly to a young, driven college student like myself. The ultimate beauty of the sport, however, is the antithesis of this complex and involved preparation: The primitive act of sending the man standing across from you down to the canvas. The merging of the sport as it is today, with its modern-day top fighters representing our time and culture, with an archaic practice and craft is what makes boxing entertaining but restraints it from brutality or savagery.
A rematch between Ruiz and Joshua occurred a few months later, during which Joshua was able to, through tactical but somewhat passive boxing, reclaim his belts and avenge his loss. This reestablished him as one of three big names in heavyweight boxing — the other two being Tyson Fury, a British boxer of Irish heritage known for his trash talk and awkward but brilliant style of fighting, and Deontay Wilder, a raw fighter out of Alabama who has what many consider to be the most powerful punch in all of boxing. After a roller coaster of a fight in December 2018, during which Fury got up following an effective right-hand, left-hook combo from Wilder in the 12th round, the final result was a controversial draw. A rematch was announced this February, and I could hardly wait, watching interviews and training footage months before in preparation.
As the fight approached, I couldn’t help but experience a slight feeling of loss in not having anyone to talk about my excitement with. The boxing fandom is a niche crowd, and finding someone well-versed in the sport is not likely to happen on campus unless one goes to a bar on fight night or spars on the heavy bag at their local gym.
I knew there was no shortage of sports enthusiasts at the University of Michigan, as evidenced by the historic turnouts at football games despite adverse weather and the sold-out student section at U-M basketball games. With combat sports on the rise as Ultimate Fighting Championship and Mixed Martial Arts popularity surges, I was surprised that it was so difficult to find people that gravitated toward boxing. In my mind boxing is more technical than sports like football or basketball, as there are more restrictive rules that make the competition less of a free-for-all and place more emphasis on tact.
As I contemplated how alone I was in my passion for boxing in my social circle, I thought of how the boxing industry markets itself to the outside and sporting worlds. As a sports fan myself, prior to hearing about Joshua-Ruiz by happenstance, I had lived my life with complete ignorance of the happenings in the fight world. If one flips to ESPN and watches SportsCenter, football, basketball, baseball, hockey, tennis and even golf are often discussed among pundits and in news stories. Comparatively speaking, one is much less likely to hear about boxing in a general forum of sports commentators, especially outside of a select few names. The pay-per-view model is ultimately to blame for this, as fights like Fury-Wilder cost between $60 and $100 to watch, a price only a committed fan would be willing to pay.
After sparking some curiosity in my friends, we decided to watch Fury-Wilder II in a bar on campus. Upon arriving at Buffalo Wild Wings, the only place we figured would definitely be carrying the fight, we were met with a sign on the front door reading “We are not showing Fury-Wilder,” and thus were forced to drive to their Boardwalk Drive location off-campus. Even as a fan, this was a difficult thing to commit to for the entire Saturday night.
Pay-per-view is causing a large demographic of college students to miss out on what this incredible sport has to offer. Of course, the top boxers benefit from the current system. Floyd Mayweather is perhaps the ultimate manifestation of the benefits of raking in views. He became the highest-paid athlete of the 2010s by making $915 million from his fights, including the 2017 match against Conor McGregor, which had a reported 4.3 million buys. Ultimately, greediness on the part of these athletes has historically caused the biggest fights to happen much later than they should. Mayweather’s “fight of the century” against Manny Pacquiao happened when he was 38 years old and Pacquiao was 36 years old, both of them over the hill in their careers. However, the recent flurry of heavyweight fights between top contenders indicates a positive trend on this front.
Getting more eyes on the sport is not a matter of getting people to open up to it, but rather putting it more clearly in front of them. Giving context to the fights with an introduction to the fighters and their story arcs would make boxing much more entertaining to a casual fan, and could provide a catalyst to rope viewers in. After that, all it requires is one good fight to pique someone’s interest and get them hooked. This will happen when boxers are put on par with other athletes in their exposure in the media to the general sporting public. Broadcasting companies will only be incentivized to give them this coverage when they can show these matches themselves on their networks. The pay-per-view model should be eliminated entirely, even if it may result in slightly less revenue for boxers and promoters. Even subscription-based services, which are currently on the rise, should not be the primary model for big fights. Outsiders to the sport will not have any incentive to spend money to watch.
In 20 years I would like to be able to retell stories of the legendary thriller where Tyson Fury, after beating crippling depression and losing a hundred pounds just a year and a half earlier, took on the beastly up-and-coming “Bronze Bomber” Deontay Wilder, and performed at a level akin to Ali himself. But more importantly, I want to have a story of watching it in a packed house on campus with my friends as we vigorously cheer a crisp one-two combination.
Arjun Lama can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.