In This Game, Everything is For Sale

By Jacob Debets Nov 14, 2019


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“The most insidious and dangerous enemies of boxing have not been foes from without, but the terrible breakers-down on the inside. The most serious threats to boxing always have come from within - Nat Fleisher, 1936

Over a weekend that featured a Bellator MMA event in Oklahoma, an Ultimate Fighting Championship card in Moscow and a junior middleweight WBO title fight in Fresno, the majority of the combat sports world’s attention was fixated on the professional debut of two non-combatants. Logan Paul and KSI (real name Olajide William Olatunji) threw down at the Staples Centre in front of a near-capacity crowd, in an event broadcast to millions on Dazn that stands as easily of the highest profile “prize-fights” of 2019.

Paul and KSI, two YouTubers with tens of millions of followers between them across various social media platforms, were “settling” a “beef” that dated back over 18 months. KSI originally “called out” Paul in 2018, culminating in a white-collar amateur boxing match staged at the Manchester Arena and broadcast over YouTube to the tune of over one million pay-per-views at $10 a pop. The rematch, promoted by Eddie Hearn -- never one to do much hand-wringing over the “bigger picture” where big money is concerned -- and his Matchroom Boxing, anchored an otherwise solid undercard, which featured world champions Billy Joe Saunders and Devin Haney making respective defences of the WBO super middleweight title and a version of the WBC lightweight title.

Depending on whom you talk to, KSI-Paul was either a laudable innovation designed to introduce the sweet science to a new generation of potential fans, or a desecration of boxing’s most sacred norms for the sake of quick buck. Both headliners sought out and trained with respected figures from the fight game and proved more than capable at navigating the mainstream sports media, but proved tone deaf when it came to trash talk and expectedly rubbish at fighting. Both paid lip-service to pursuing careers in the squared circle long-term, but made clear that boxing was just one of several entertainment realms they wanted to conquer. Boxing was, in every sense, a conduit and platform for content-creators to create more content, accommodating because of the attached dollar signs but also determined to sell the idea that that it was all for the “good for the sport.”

Combat sports has always been a petri dish for the outlandish, suffering spectacles, contrived drama and unconscientious matches that would simply never be tolerated, much less actively manufactured, in other mainstream sports. Much of this is attributable to the lack of any central league or governing body in either of the principal disciplines, and the corresponding concentration of power in promoters, sanctioning bodies and TV executives. The nature of prize fighting, with athletes fighting a handful of times a year in individually negotiated bouts on stand-alone events, also creates unique pressures and “opportunities” for its stakeholders to experiment.

Historically, these structural features of “sports-entertainment” have manifested in long-standing and insidious ways. A proliferation of weight classes, meaningless world title belts and pay walls have made the sport of boxing uniquely convoluted and difficult to follow, with the best fighters frequently eschewing one another in favour of the easiest fight for the biggest pay check. Narratives and hype, an obsession with records, warring promoters, top-heavy events and a criminal lack of accountability have led to many lifetime’s worth of travesties. A shortlist includes the return of a geriatric Muhammad Ali to fight Larry Holmes for the heavyweight title in 1980, Mike Tyson facing jobber Peter McNeeley in his return to the ring circa 1995, and the lineal welterweight champion Danny Garcia fighting the unranked and unheralded Rod Salka in 2014. Most recently, one of the greatest defensive boxers of all time in Floyd Mayweather Jr chalked up his 50th consecutive win against UFC champion and non-boxer Conor McGregor; it was one of the biggest fights of all time.

In MMA, which has so far managed to avoid being subject to the regulations which were introduced in 2001 to clean up its pugilistic cousin, the “league” model has become entrenched, with in-house titles and rankings giving promotions like the UFC and Bellator unilateral powers over championship matchmaking and titles. There is much less record-padding than in boxing, and today far fewer mismatches at the highest level, but there is nevertheless an embedded fascination with freakshow fights, peaking during the Pride Fighting Championships era in Japan but continuing today with spectacles like Kimbo Slice versus Dada 5000 in Bellator and the “CM Punk” stunt in the UFC.

That begs the question: is KSI vs Paul just more of the same, or does it mark a fork in the road towards something more perilous?

On some level, it’s tempting to take the position of the former: that this is another “fun fight” that came about less because of boxing’s unprincipled stakeholders and more due to an improbable set of circumstances -- including two uniquely transcendent figures in the murky world of internet fame, a legitimate draw in an amateur contest and a rematch clause in the original contract. But that take ignores the very conspicuous fixation of, and acceleration in, spectacles like this, and the reinforcement and amplification of outlandish narratives by sports media and industry stakeholders more broadly.

Logan-Paul happened only a week after the inaugural “BMF title” fight between Nate Diaz and Jorge Masvidal sent the media into a frenzy and ended with the latter calling out Canelo Alvarez. Over the same time period, Tyson Fury has teased a transition to MMA to fight UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic while continuing his foray into professional wrestling. A few months ago, UFC President Dana White claimed he “all in” on promoting a bout between pop singer Justin Bieber and movie star Tom Cruise, while showing a full readiness to fast-track the retired Brock Lesnar -- winless in 8+ years and serving a carried-over drug suspension -- into a UFC title shot earlier in 2019.

These aren’t just deviations from competitive norms and architectures, they are bastardisations; parodies of professional sports that treat athletes and celebrities as interchangeable entities and push the boundaries of what’s sports-entertainment, and what’s entertainment masquerading as athletic competition.

Where does all that take us? It sure doesn’t feel like any place good or, for that manner, sustainable. The constant sugar highs from “fun” fights make their business as usual counterparts seem distinctly un-appetizing, while doing little to hook in casuals over the longer haul. It’s moreover unedifying to see torch-bearers from both sports laying out the red carpet for non-combatants to compete in the prize-ring or the cage -- like it’s an arena-for-rent rather than a stage-fighters spend decades working towards -- and its enabled by a click-heavy, resource-starved media.

And that’s ultimately the story here: that boxing and MMA don’t take themselves all that seriously in 2019, and for the right price, everything’s for sale.

Maybe it’s time we stop expecting that to change.

Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.

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