How Boxing Moves Forward Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

Boxing has a small advantage over some of the other sports impacted by the coronavirus, but there are still obstacles ahead.
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On the corner of Santa Monica Blvd and Vine Avenue in Hollywood sits a boxing institution: Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Club. Since 1995 fighters of all skill sets have crowded into the gym run by Roach, a Hall of Fame trainer. World champions like Manny Pacquiao and Miguel Cotto have called Wild Card home, joined by weekend warriors who pay the $5 daily rate. Save for a handful of holidays, the gym is always open. On Monday, Wild Card, by order of the city of Los Angeles, closed its doors until March 31.

Over the last week, as the coronavirus spread across the U.S., the sports world ground to a halt. The NBA and NHL suspended their seasons. Major League Soccer, too. Major League Baseball ended spring training and announced the start of its season would be pushed back. The NFL has postponed offseason activities indefinitely.

Boxing has been similarly impacted. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that all gatherings of 10 people or more be postponed for the next eight weeks wiped out the boxing schedule. Shakur Stevenson’s featherweight title defense last weekend was the first to go. Top Rank has canceled all events through April. Showtime did, too. Matchroom Boxing scrubbed its anticipated April show headlined by a pair of recent 140-pound champions, Regis Prograis and Maurice Hooker. Canelo Alvarez’s return, scheduled for May 2, has been pushed back.

“I appreciate the call looking for answers,” Top Rank CEO Bob Arum said in a telephone interview. “But we’re as blind as everyone else.”

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For now, boxing promoters are left with few alternatives. “There is no immediate path forward,” said veteran promoter Lou DiBella. Soon, though, they may. In two months, if the CDC raises the recommended limits on gatherings, boxing promoters can put on shows, at least shows without fans in attendance. Top Rank has a gym in Las Vegas that Arum says can put on televised events. DiBella suggested the Paramount on Long Island or the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York. “The only advantage boxing has right now,” says DiBella, “is that except for a few guys, live gates don’t matter.”

Overseas, there are already emerging options. While the U.K. appears poised to formally ban mass gatherings, reports indicate crowds of 500 or fewer will be permitted. Eddie Hearn, the managing director of Matchroom Boxing, is already contemplating a series of smaller show that would air on his British broadcast partner, Sky Sports. “It’s boxing every night of the week,” Hearn told SI.com. “If we can find a facility where we can churn out fights, there is an opportunity for rights holders. You could keep fighters active and plow through it.”

That won’t work for all fighters, of course. Alvarez’s fight against Sergey Kovalev last weekend generated a live gate of more than $8 million. Anthony Joshua, who is scheduled to defend his three heavyweight titles against Kubrat Pulev in June, routinely generates live gates in excess of $10 million. Fighters on that level won’t surrender those gates until they are left with no other choice. “AJ’s brand, the whole experience has been built on huge live crowds,” Hearn said. Hearn says Joshua plans to fight twice in 2020. To accomplish that, he can delay his first fight as far as the end of August.

Other fighters could have options. Health and safety is the priority today, but if things improve, broadcasters will want fights. “And if you are a broadcaster, you don’t care how many people are in the arena,” says Hearn, whose U.S. fights air on streaming service DAZN. One possibility for promoters is to approach a fighter with two options: sit on the shelf until it becomes it becomes safe to hold a normal show, or fight behind closed doors—for a purse that reflects the loss of the live gate.

“The [gate] is important, but it’s more important to put on a show for television,” says Arum, who has an output deal with ESPN. “We’re looking at a lot of different things.”

Promoters need the revenue. But fighters need to make money, too. The top-tier boxers are financially solvent enough to survive an extended hiatus. But the vast majority of fighters live paycheck to paycheck. At some point, says Hearn, “it’s not sustainable at a certain level to be a professional fighter.”

Getting fight cards off the ground will be complicated. Even on a sound stage or in a closed door gym, there are obstacles. “You need state cooperation,” says DiBella. To meet crowd size limits, the size of fight cards may have to be reduced. Fighters and their teams may have to travel to a venue in waves. Fighters will have to be tested for the coronavirus. Members of their corner will have to as well, and there is currently a significant test shortage.

“Training, sparring, interacting with corners—all of that has to be evaluated in terms of greater good there,” said Stephen Espinoza, president of Showtime Sports. “There has to be a cold hard evaluation of whether that is the right thing to do from a community health perspective.”

Indeed, boxing’s road back won’t be easy.

“It’s going to be a different way of doing things and it’s going to take more than one meeting to figure it out,” says DiBella. “Here’s the thing though—right now, we have the time to do it.”