Sports

Does the coronavirus pandemic mean an end to boxing as we know it?

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There has been no professional boxing in the United Kingdom since 14 March, with the British Boxing Board of Control [BBBoC] announcing three days later that they had cancelled all upcoming events under their jurisdiction due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Since then, the UK has suffered the highest number of coronavirus deaths in Europe. Yet professional sport continues to plot a cautious return. The 2019/20 Premier League season is due to resume later this month. England’s Test series against the West Indies will start a month later. And rugby’s Gallagher Premiership hopes to be back by August.

Boxing has also been working on a comeback. The sport is gearing up for a behind-closed-doors return in the UK in July, with the BBBoC last month sending a five-page consultation document to promoters notifying them of a raft of new safety precautions.


But will the sport of boxing return exactly as we knew it? Or has the coronavirus pandemic irreversibly changed a sport that was enjoying an unprecedented boom period?

To find out, The Independent spoke to six different figures from across the sport, from a world champion, to a rising star, to a promoter and manager. Their thoughts vary markedly.


THE PROMOTER

Steve Goodwin is a boxing manager and promoter who manages over 90 boxers at different levels. His growing stable includes numerous Southern Area and English champions. He also works as a financial adviser.

Boxing promoter and manager Steve Goodwin (Getty)

“I am trying to be as realistic with my fighters as I possibly can be. Because there are going to be a lot of changes to boxing going forward. A lot of boxers are going to retire, or become journeymen, or get knocked out taking crazy fights that they have been forced into. In fact, I think there is going to be far more change than people imagine.

“I have seen some people say that elite boxers will be hit harder than lower level fighters. That’s rubbish. An elite boxer may have got paid £70k for a fight before. Now, they might expect to make around £25k. A lower level fighter might have earned £5k, but now he is going to earn nothing. Small hall boxers are in danger of losing everything. Their careers are on the line here. Their dreams and aspirations. Some of the guys at the top have been getting phenomenally overpaid in recent years and, yes, in some instances they will have to accept less money. But that’s life. People working for businesses up and down the country are having to accept less money. I’m having to accept less money.

“That said, I hope the sport can resume behind closed doors. Because if the sport totally disappears, it will fall behind in terms of airtime and traction. Yes, I know that behind closed doors shows won’t immediately help the lower level guys, but it’s not about the here and now, it’s about making sure boxing is still a big sport when things finally return to normal. Looking forward, it does mean that the only people who will be able to run shows and make money are either Frank Warren or Eddie Hearn. I have had boxers come to me and ask if I am going to put on a show behind closed doors, and I have to ask them whether they are going to throw £35k at it. Because that is what it is going to cost. For most, it doesn’t make business sense.

“What the lower level guys have to remember is that boxers should have jobs anyway. All the journeymen that I manage, for example, all have full-time jobs. The boxing helps them to buy a house, or provide the extra bits. No small hall boxer should be fighting full-time. No boxer should be fighting full-time unless they are British level or above. But it’s their dreams that are being shattered. That’s the sad reality.”

THE WORLD CHAMPION

Josh Warrington has held the IBF featherweight title since 2018. He previously held the British, Commonwealth, European and WBC International featherweight titles between 2013 and 2017. He was set to fight China’s WBA (Regular) world champion Xu Can in a unification fight at Headingley in 2020. That fight has now been delayed.

Josh Warrington is the IBF featherweight world champion (Getty)

“I think that for the likes of myself, things will eventually get back to normal. Prior to this boxing was booming and it’s probably the healthiest the sport has ever been. The likes of Eddie [Hearn] and Frank [Warren] get a lot of stick but when I first started fighting, shows were still being put on at leisure centres. A British title fight was a headliner with an eight rounder as chief support. Now, we have stadium fights every other week. And the biggest names in boxing come to these shores to fight. We have exciting young talent and we have a handful of world champions, too. So I think those careers will resume.

“But it could be a big shakeup for the local boxing scene. And there must be a lot of people in a very difficult scenario. Lads who have fought their way to British level who now want to give up on the day job and had been hoping for 3-4 good fights a year. But those fights aren’t happening now. And those lads might now have to go back to work and put their boxing career on the backburner. So, it’s really difficult for people like that. I sympathise.

“Probably the scariest thing for boxers of all different levels is inactivity. It’s not like a footballer being injured. When they come back they come off the sidelines and do ten minutes, easing themselves in gently. You can’t do that in boxing. It’s not like I can have a steady four rounder at some leisure centre. You’re straight back in at the top level. Also, people may stop pissing around and some of the big fights may get made straight away. Maybe that’s optimistic, but you never know.”


THE WORLD TITLE CHALLENGER

Savannah Marshall is one of Britain’s most decorated amateur boxers. She turned professional in 2017 on the Floyd Mayweather vs Conor McGregor undercard. She has amassed an 8-0 pro record and was set to fight New Zealand’s Geovana Peres for the WBO female light-heavyweight title.

Savannah Marshall was supposed to be fighting for a world title (Getty)

“I was originally meant to be fighting on 4 April for a world title. I got told the fight was off two weeks before. I had done my whole camp, I was at peak fitness and I had sold 600 tickets. And then I was told that it wasn’t happening and that it was being moved to 27 June. It’s not going to happen. So I have been busy refunding £30k worth of tickets.

“I have found that people really don’t have any understanding of how much money you make. People ask me how much I am getting paid for a fight and think that it is a really good amount. They don’t realise that I have to give 10 per cent here and 10 per cent there. Plus I had already spent between £5-10k on my training camp already. I was only two weeks out, so had already spent thousands on sparring partners, the best food, the best physios. And I was hoping to get all of that money back when my fight paid. But the fight never happened. So that is thousands of pounds that I am never going to get back.

“So I have been looking for jobs. I am on the verge of fighting for a world title, but I have been applying for supermarket jobs, just to tide me by. I didn’t even get an interview! I applied for Lidl and I didn’t even get past the application process.

“Fortunately, most of my friends and family have been lucky during this pandemic. But, before I got told that my fight was off and I needed to refund everybody for the tickets, I did have a lot of people telling me that they had been laid off and asking if they could have a refund, because they were struggling. I am lucky to have really good sponsors, but I was on the phone to one of them recently and said that, if things get hard, I would rather they pay one of their employees than pay me. I know they’re going through difficulties as well.”


THE ENGLISH CHAMPION

Linus Udofia, 26, is the reigning English middleweight champion. He beat Tyler Denny in November 2019 to win the vacant title, extending his professional record to 15-0. He is yet to fight in 2020.

Linus Udofia is the reigning English middleweight champion

“This is all a game of chess. I think a lot of older boxers will probably now decide to retire. And then you will have had fighters who were struggling or who weren’t that hungry to begin with, and I think a lot of them will drift away. But, on the other hand, there’s going to be a lot of competitive fights. Lots and lots of competitive fights. Because people are just going to be jumping at whatever opportunity they have, and for the chance to fight on Sky Sports, BT or DAZN. They shouldn’t take them. But they will. That is how boxing is going to comeback. It will get crazy.

“I’m not going to do that though. That’s not me and I am not going to just take whatever people throw at me. I worked to get a title for such a long time. And I’ve been boxing a long time and have been fighting, fighting, fighting. But I am one of the youngest fighters at my weight to win the English title. So I feel very fortunate, especially to win the title at the moment I did. It’s perfect timing. Because if I was still challenging for titles, this situation would have hurt my career a lot more. But right now I’m the champion, I’m holding the belt. I’m calling the shots. Everyone wants what I have and so, in that sense, the timing has worked out for me.

“Away from boxing, I work as a personal trainer. That’s something I got into because I want to build something for after my boxing career. After boxing I want to be a gym owner. I want to own property. And I want to get my name out there in the fitness industry as well. There is loads I want to do. So I was doing a lot of personal training and that was good income which I don’t have anymore.

“Fortunately, I have some brilliant sponsors that have stuck with me. My sponsors are all local businesses here in Luton – D&I Family Butchers, Owatrol UK and Jb Interior Luton Ltd – and they have supported me throughout this and I am very grateful to them. They have helped me through this whole thing and backed me financially. They haven’t missed a payment. So I have to say this has been a good lockdown for me.”


THE REGIONAL CHAMPION

Dean Richardson turned professional in 2016 and last year won the Southern Area Super Welter Title, which he defended on 14 March by knocking out Konrad Stempkowski at York Hall. It was the final fight in the UK before the sport’s shutdown.

Dean Richardson holds the Southern Area Super Welter title (Rex)

“I’m only 24. I have had 12 fights, picked up a title and already defended it. So I had some momentum and luckily the pandemic hasn’t hindered me too much, in terms of time. Obviously it has pushed my plans back, let’s say by a year. But it hasn’t been disastrous. Not compared to some of the older guys, who have turned professional a lot later. You look at somebody like Joe Joyce, who turned professional at 31, and I reckon this could be a lot more damaging and frustrating.

“My last fight was on the 14 March which is the date all fighting stopped. I was really lucky because with the way things are going it could even be the last fight of the year. So I made some money from that, which has really helped me out. Like most people I’m not spending that much money at the moment and I am on the government furlough scheme, which is another good thing. I’m not making too much money but, at the moment, I can’t have any complaints.

“My last day at work was the Monday after my fight. I’m a taxi driver and I put £30 of diesel in at the start of the day, but I came home with about £25. The work just isn’t there. But also I am asthmatic so I don’t really want to be out there. You would have to be completely cleaning the car in between every single passenger, which just puts you at even more risk. Getting ill would obviously damage my career and also I don’t want to risk passing it on to my parents, or my grandparents who are approaching 90. So I’ve just been training at home and doing what I can.”


THE RISING STAR

Shannon Courtenay, 26, turned professional with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing in 2019 and won her first five fights within a year. She is still waiting on her first fight of 2020.

Shannon Courtenay defeated Buchra El Quaissi last time out (Getty)

“At first, I struggled really badly with being in lockdown. I had really bad anxiety because I didn’t have a punchbag. That made me feel like I was missing out and that I was behind everybody else. And I was really scared about how that was going to affect things for me. But now that I have a punchbag I am fine and finding things a lot better. In some ways I am even loving it, to be honest. I have been speaking to my coaches and other people in boxing and we are all just keeping each other sane. Because we are all stuck in the same boat.

“It’s hard to know what is going to happen in the future. But we have to stay optimistic. And, in some ways, I think that boxing could perhaps even benefit in the long term from this. Not straight away. But when the sport is back people are going to appreciate it even more than before. You know, you don’t know what you have until it is gone sort of thing. We might be boxing behind closed doors and, sure, that will be gutting for everybody, especially the fans who will not be able to come and watch us fight. But if they get to watch us on live television then that is still something.

“The thought of boxing behind closed doors doesn’t bother me that much. I’ve boxed as an amateur at places that are practically empty. I have boxed at huge arenas where there was virtually no audience. A few things will be different, such as the ring walk, and maybe you will not be able to get quite as hyped as you are walking to the ring. I know some boxers who live off the crowd and who are going to be affected. But once that bell goes I can’t see or hear anything anyway. So I don’t think that it’s going to affect my performance at all.”

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