Sports fans have long held a morbid fascination with the idea of “freak show” fights, with boxing matches featuring YouTubers often outselling their highly-skilled counterparts – but is there a place for them in combat sports?
Only the most ardent fans of the pair would argue the point that last year’s Eddie Hearn-promoted KSI vs. Logan Paul boxing match had any competitive merit whatsoever – but it was never really meant to.
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This was a fight governed not by professional records and amateur backgrounds, but by online squabbles and Instagram followings. And for a promoter like Hearn to get involved, it was clear that the fight promised a significant financial bottom line for all involved.
World champion Billy Joe Saunders, never beaten in 29 professional contests, even campaigned for a spot on the undercard of the two social media celebrities, both of whom were making their professional boxing debuts. And when you look at the numbers, it is easy to see why.
KSI vs. Logan Paul II was one of 2019’s most-watched boxing matches, beaten only by Andy Ruiz vs Anthony Joshua II and Canelo Alvarez vs. Sergey Kovalev.
Even Conor McGregor’s boxing match with Floyd Mayweather could be characterized as something of a freak show, and that has gone down in the history books as the most lucrative boxing event in history.
But for anyone who has been paying attention across the last couple of decades, this will be of little surprise.
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Mixed martial arts has given us several offerings: James Toney, CM Punk and a handful of others have tried – and failed – in the UFC, while Japan’s PRIDE promotion did the same on numerous occasions, often placing legendary Russian heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko in the ring with opponents who heavily outweighed him for added dramatic effect throughout his years-long unbeaten run.
This trend is showing no sign of slowing down. World deadlift champion Hafthor Bjornsson, better known as “The Mountain” from Game of Thrones, is set to box his chief strongman rival Eddie Hall later this year after their professional rivalry boiled over into the boxing arena.
The potential fight between the two behemoths is being dubbed the “biggest” boxing match in history, though that is more in reference to the sheer human mass that will be on show, and will come despite Bjornsson showcasing a less-than-impressive training video online.
This freak show fascination has arguably spawned its own upstart fight promotions. Bare knuckle boxing has seen an upswing in popularity not seen in decades thanks to its often unusual matchmaking, often pitting aging boxers against veteran MMA fighters in an exercise of “let’s just see what happens”. Initially promising PPV figures have dipped recently, suggesting that fan interest has somewhat dwindled after an initial period of intrigue.
Elsewhere, promoters are finding audiences for fights involving people with synthol-inflated arms, and morbidly obese boxers.
Even Mike Tyson is falling into this category today. The 53-year-old hasn’t competed in 15 years, but recent videos he has posted to social media suggest that he is seriously considering a comeback.
No one is going to argue that Tyson could even come close to the impact that he had in his prime, but that’s not the point to most. They’re looking for a sequel, not a reboot.
One only has to look towards MMA icon Chuck Liddell for a cautionary tale. His prime fighting years marked him out as perhaps the most vicious fighter on the planet. But, when his skills dulled as Tyson’s did, along came the defeats, the retirement and, ultimately, the itch to come back.
Liddell’s much-hyped return to the cage ended inside the first round, as he was knocked out by old rival Tito Ortiz – the man he had beaten twice with ease several years beforehand.
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In Tyson’s case, it would be heartbreaking to see a similar outcome. The once-controversial fighter has successfully rehabilitated his character to become a pop-culture institution in the United States – and while his return will certainly draw an audience, at what cost to Tyson’s – or his opponent’s – health will it happen?
These fights will remain mostly in the hands of opportunistic fight promoters looking for ways to divine a quick buck, or by Twitter celebs looking to draw a payday after an online beef. (RT)