At the end of last year, many boxing fans were frustrated over breakdowns in negotiations for multiple big fights that would have thrilled them and captured the attention of the mainstream sports world. But ahead of a potentially lucrative fight this weekend, featuring boxing’s biggest star, Canelo Alvarez, the sport has seemingly bounced back in 2023, setting up a host of major bouts that have underscored the sport’s ongoing viability.
This Saturday, Mexico’s Alvarez will take on one of the biggest boxing stars in America, Jermell Charlo, for the undisputed super middleweight world championship at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The fight will air on Showtime PPV, and was set up by Premier Boxing Champions and Canelo Promotions.
PBC has been at the center of many of the biggest fights this year, including April’s Gervonta Davis-Ryan Garcia fight, which had one of the highest gates and pay-per-view sales figures in boxing over the last decade, along with July’s Terence Crawford-Errol Spence Jr. fight, which was another notable success, albeit one with fewer PPV sales. Saudi Arabia has also quickly become a player in bidding to host big fights, and influencer-turned-professional boxer Jake Paul continues to make waves and has helped spawn a cottage industry of celebrity boxing events.
According to data from Google Trends, the two weeks that had the most searches about boxing over the last two years both came in 2023: One was during the Davis-Garcia fight week, and the other was after the Crawford-Spence fight.
Boxing remains a highly complex sport, as Sports Business Journal detailed in January, as the sport came off a year of struggles trying to get major fights scheduled. Some of the issues included getting rival networks and promoters to work together; sometimes outsized payment expectations by fighters relative to their commercial value; and the fight-by-fight nature of the sport, where every bout represents a new negotiation among a phalanx of stakeholders. The rising popularity of MMA, including UFC, has also provided a fresh challenge to boxing amid the competition for mindshare.
The question now is whether the rebound this year indicates that boxing as a whole is solving its most pressing problems, or whether the run of success is coincidental happenstance in a sport that is still deeply challenged.
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“You’re dealing with a little bit of a hangover of probably three decades’ worth of a model that was somewhat hampered by the multi-fight agreements at the premium cable networks,” said Top Rank Boxing President Todd DuBoef. “We’ve tried to work and de-value the loss and make it for the fighter where, ‘Hey, take the risk; if you have a good performance, win or lose it still works out, you still have a future.’ Decades ago, it was, ‘Oh, is he undefeated? He hasn’t lost so he’s the best.’ It created that lack of [ambition for fighters], and the reason it did was because if you lost, that premium cable TV contract could be terminated, so no one wanted to take the risk. We’re trying to de-value that and say, ‘If you lose, it’s OK.’”
Nakisa Bidarian, the co-founder of Most Valuable Promotions and adviser to Paul, said that boxing still has many of the fundamental issues now that it had last year. The difference, he said, has been fighters realizing that they needed to work arduously through all of the challenges that go into setting up mega fights if they want their biggest paydays.
Bidarian also noted that rival networks involved in boxing have worked better together this year. Some traditional fighters could also be motivated in part by seeing Paul, who was a relative novice just a few years ago, earning such lucrative paydays.
“Boxing continues to be fragmented and lacks consistency and above all transparency from my point of view, which is driven by all these different promoters that are playing in the space across different sanctioning bodies and promoters and they have these exclusive relationships with distributors,” Bidarian said. “[The strong year] is being driven by the fighters more than anything else. They have to have a desire deep down to fight each other.”
For example, he noted that to set up the Davis-Garcia fight, “it took a lot of financial structuring to make that happen,” including Paramount Global-owned Showtime working with digital streaming network DAZN so that both could air the fight, because both had rights to one of the fighters.
Regarding the Crawford-Spence fight, Bidarian noted: “That was being talked about for a long time, but Top Rank and PBC couldn’t come to terms. It took Crawford leaving Top Rank and becoming a free agent to negotiate it, so I think it comes back to fighters realizing their biggest paydays come from these more exciting matchups.”
For PBC, which was founded in 2015, the run of fights it’s been on in 2023 has led to its best commercial performance in a given calendar year, according to Bruce Binkow, the former COO of Golden Boy Promotions who now serves as a consultant to PBC. This weekend’s Canelo fight will mark the first of a three-fight deal with PBC, run by the legendary boxing promoter Al Haymon.
Other big fights this year have included: Caleb Plant versus David Benavidez in Las Vegas in March; two fights from Paul — a February tilt versus boxer Tommy Fury in Saudi Arabia and an August bout versus former UFC champion Nate Diaz in Dallas; Devin Haney versus Vasiliy Lomachenko in Las Vegas in May; and a Stephen Fulton versus Naoya Inoue bout in Japan in July.
Former UFC heavyweight fighter Francis Ngannou is also going to make his first attempt at a crossover boxing match by fighting world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury in Saudi Arabia next month.
“Sometimes, the business elements conspire to make it difficult, and sometimes things come together,” Binkow said. “There are a lot of individual decisions that go into making fights, so it’s a combination of perseverance, good business savvy and a bit of luck just making sure all the stars line up.”