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Why the big fights take years to happen

From Floyd Mayweather vs Manny Pacquiao to Anthony Joshua vs Deontay Wilder, the big fights take a notoriously long time to be made. Yet while boxing fans are understandably frustrated, the fighters themselves must consider their own careers. Terry Chapendama examines the factors in making – or delaying – a box office fight... 

You are only ever a single punch, a single misstep from losing your career in boxing.

The litany of boxers that have left the sport well before their time is long. From Anthony Ogogo to Adonis Stevenson, via Erik Skoglund and Nick Blackwell, many boxers have had to leave the sport prematurely without securing their financial future.

With these risks in mind, it is difficult to begrudge them the right to plan out a career that maximises their earning potential?

A boxer’s first objective is to obtain the financial security that enables them to train full-time. Boxing fans would be heartbroken at how hard that is to achieve and how boxers must achieve it.

In reality, the men and women you watch on TV are likely to be the bouncers, taxi drivers or even personal trainers you see in your day-to-day lives.

Left to their own devices, boxers would continuously fight each other until their knuckles were flattened

That struggle for stability shapes the mindset of a boxer. Few fans support a fighter from their debut. In the early years, they build a loyalty to a small group of friends, sponsors and hardcore supporters that help them fight for their dream. Ultimately, the focus on their goal of financial security overrides all, with the desires of the fans playing a subordinate role.

At the same time, there is a deeper conflict within the boxer. The desire to fight any and every challenger is what elevates many of the best boxers above the average Joe. That fighting spirit, often so nakedly visible, draws fighters to each other, fuelled by competition and the desire to be the best.

Left to their own devices, boxers would continuously fight each other until their knuckles were flattened and their jaws liquefied. They always need protecting from themselves, and this is where the advisers they recruit earn their value.

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Risk vs reward

A good manager can make an average boxer a millionaire and a bad manager can make a talented boxer a pauper. It is a role so pivotal in a career, yet so neglected. It is the responsibility of these men and women to navigate their charges through the shark-infested waters of boxing.

Managers understand that the fans want boxers to fight the best opposition out there, every week, but also understand that fans will move on once their thirst is sated. It is a delicate balancing act of spreading out the big fights enough to keep fans expectations and desires high, without waiting too long and risking injuries and defeats.

A decision is usually made on when the fighters have reached peak awareness and interest

It explains why fights between Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder never materialised when fan interest was bubbling. All parties sought to capture whatever residual revenue they could, with other opponents, before having to take on the big fights.

In the case of Joshua, this almost backfired, but his defeat on 1 June helped create another star in Andy Ruiz, adding to the potential revenue opportunity in the heavyweight division. Between the manager, promoter and TV executive, a decision is usually made on when the fighters have reached peak awareness and interest. That will trigger the fight.

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The mental and physical toll 

It is hard to understand the demands of a big fight on a boxer. A gruelling 12-week process is required, punctuated by a heavy load of media and sponsor commitments that often interfere with training. At its most extreme, it can drain a boxer of their energy and hunger for the fight. At this level, more so than the debut, the occasion can get to a fighter. The attention and associated distractions serve to derail all prior preparation. A lot of boxers are simply never ready for this scale of event.

This is why boxers work their way up the ladder of big fight cards, starting off boxing away from the television cameras but still getting all the exposure of fight week. These mental and physical reps help normalise the process until you can do it in your sleep. That ability to use minimal energy in fight week serves as an advantage on fight night. As such, big fight nights only belong to big characters.

The key factor in spreading out the superfights is simply the physical toll that big fights take

The key factor in spreading out the superfights is simply the physical toll that big fights take. Elite-level fights need elite-level training camps, which requires the most extreme training regime. Factor in the high-level sparring partners you need, and by fight night you are at the limit of your physical capabilities. To do that two or three times in succession would shorten any boxer’s career. It is the reason that boxers like Floyd Mayweather could only fight twice every year. A long recovery period is needed after some of these grueling fights. To do anymore creates a moral hazard around using performance enhancing drugs.

A good manager will navigate a career between three pillars: fights the boxer should win, fights the boxer can win, and special fights where they are just as likely to lose. Study any of the greats and you tend to find that only 10-20% of their fights are memorable. Career longevity requires smart career management.

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Personal animosity

The final element, one that remains unspoken, is the personal dimension of boxing. There are cases, usually rare, where there is sufficient dislike between boxers, promoters and managers that neither side wants to help the other make money. They would sooner take less money for a lesser fight than give their opponent a payday.

An example of this was Ricky Hatton’s refusal to fight Junior Witter, who would have been a challenging opponent. The dislike was sufficiently deep that it has lingered beyond their collective retirement. Happily, this is rare and as the economics of boxing improve, it is becoming harder to justify.

While fans become frustrated by how long it takes to make a fight, the big fights will eventually get made, and rarely disappoint. It requires patience and some degree of empathy for the boxer, who is trying to maximize their income in a very short and risky window of opportunity.

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Follow Terry Chapendama on Twitter @highfieldboxing

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