Sportswashing, Long Nights and Unexpected Matchups

When Anthony Joshua put Francis Ngannou to sleep in the early hours of the morning in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia over the weekend, he almost certainly prompted some relief among boxing devotees anxious about the MMA fighter showing the same kind of success that he had against Tyson Fury a few months ago.  

Fury had sought to place himself front and center of the fight week promotion, reportedly almost coming to blows with Ngannou at a private function in midweek. He stated on several occasions that Ngannou should be grateful to him for making the Cameroonian millions of dollars, and he was at least partly right – even if he left unsaid the fact that Ngannou’s gratitude should be for Fury having turned in such an execrable performance when the two men squared off in October. 

Arguably, Joshua should be even more grateful. Had he flattened Ngannou without the former UFC champ decking Fury and pushing him to the limit, the result would have been met with shrugs. But because Joshua did what Fury could not, the talk now is of Joshua being “back” and possibly even being the favorite should the long-touted “Battle of the Brits” ever come to fruition. 

At the same time, those of us who watched the entire DAZN pay-per-view should probably be grateful to Joshua for bringing the curtain down on an unnecessarily elongated broadcast, which was closing in on seven hours by the time Todd Grisham and partners signed off. Ninety minutes into the broadcast, we had had 10 rounds of boxing; one hour later, that had risen to 14. It is difficult to think of a reason why those responsible decided the broadcast needed to be paced that way; it would have made some sense if the idea was to ensure the main event was in the ring at a key time for a key audience, but while Joshua’s win came during prime time for the eastern United States, it was long past midnight in Britain.  

Still, in the grand scheme of things, that was the least objectionable element of the whole enterprise. The repeated, apparently mandatory, expressions of gratitude to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are perhaps only to be expected from a sport that has played footsie with Mobutu Sese Seko and Ferdinand Marcos, that has handed over the keys to the likes of Frankie Carbo and Daniel Kinahan, and that happily staged big events in apartheid South Africa. But that doesn’t make the enthusiasm with which the sport is drinking from a firehose of riyals any easier to take. 

*** 

Given boxing’s history as the theater of the truly absurd, it no longer seems unreasonable  to imagine that the biggest fight of the year may be between a 28-year-old influencer-turned-novice boxer and a former champion who is closing in on his 60th birthday, but here we are. 

In truth, Jake Paul meeting Mike Tyson in June on Netflix is a genius move for those involved. Tyson retains a vice-like grip on the affections of even, perhaps especially, the most casual of boxing fans. There are plenty who assume he is one of the greatest two or three heavyweight champions of all time, or even the very best. 

If this is a sanctioned contest and not an exhibition, and if Paul wins, then rightly or wrongly, it enhances Paul’s credibility as a boxer immensely among that same casual fanbase and reinvigorates a career that has sputtered ever so slightly since he lost to Tommy Fury. It might reasonably be asked how someone who couldn’t defeat a marginal boxer like Fury could possibly defeat a Hall of Famer like Tyson, but 30 years is an enormous age difference. When was the last time Tyson scored a genuinely meaningful win? When Bruce Seldon capitulated in 1996? Paul wasn’t even born then. And sure, Tyson looked decent in an exhibition against Roy Jones, but that was more than three years ago – which, when you’re in your fifties, is an eternity – and Jones was himself closing in on 52.  

But if Tyson is somehow able to summon up the muscle memory to knock Paul out, Paul will be able justifiably to fall on the excuse that he has just begun boxing and was daring to challenge a modern great. If Tyson loses, he’ll shrug, pocket the money and point out that 58 is no age to be throwing punches with youngsters in their twenties. 

Whether it should be happening – whether we should be encouraging young men to beat up near-pensioners, or whether Hall Of Famers should be being dragged out of retirement to validate the boxing careers of influencers – is another matter, of course. There is, as there is always in boxing, the risk that it could all go horribly wrong and that somebody could end up badly hurt.

As for concerns about the integrity of boxing? Entirely understandable. But it’s hard not to feel that ship sailed a long time ago, with any number of characters lining up to take the helm.

The best case scenario is that the event is an exhibition in which both men pull their punches, and the undercard is stacked with strong talent, given a casual, Netflix-subscribing fan base exposure to some quality boxing as well as a hopefully entertaining main event. 

Either way, boxing fans should be prepared for this being the only fight their friends ask them about for the next several months.

*** 

Similarly, the rumored matchup between Terence Crawford and Chris Eubank Jr also makes sense. Crawford badly wants to fight Canelo Alvarez, and to that end he wants to demonstrate his ability to mix it up with the bigger boys. And Eubank would be the perfect foil: not exactly renowned as a hard puncher, the Brit relies primarily on his boxing skills – skills that, while not inconsiderable, aren’t even in the same solar system as the generationally-talented Nebraskan. 

For Crawford, the matchup offers the promise of a very winnable fight that advances his long-term goals. And Eubank lands himself a meeting with the man who is, at worst, the second-best fighter on the planet right now – and there is always the chance he can spring the upset. Stranger things have happened. Not many, but some. 

The other recently rumored pairing, that of Manny Pacquiao and Conor Benn, is more of a head scratcher. Not from Benn’s perspective: here’s an opportunity for a man who still is not licensed to fight in Britain and who has yet to offer publicly a plausible explanation for his failed PED test to share the stage with an all-time great who is way past his sell-by date. Pacquiao’s motivations, should there be any fire to go with the smoke, are more difficult to discern. Perhaps he looked at Benn’s extreme ordinariness in his two most recent outings and calculated that he presents an easy night’s work. Or maybe, with his senatorial career over for now, his presidential ambitions thwarted, and his bank balance presumably drained, he simply needs the money. 

 

 

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*