It is a hard truth of boxing in the 21st century that fight fans are so starved for meaningful competition that matches which once upon a time would have been viewed as little more than standard fare are now pumped up into supposedly extraordinary, awesome, must-see events. So it was with Spence vs Porter on Saturday night. As our own Patrick Connor remarked prior to the bout, “Realistically, and I’ve said this before about a PBC welterweight extravaganza mega-event ultra-fight: it’s really just two welterweight contenders squaring off.”
So true. Discard the meaningless shiny belts from the various sanctioning bodies, trinkets which fewer and fewer people pay any attention to, and Spence vs Porter was, on paper, a good fight, nothing more and nothing less. Neither pugilist had looked particularly impressive in their most recent outings and no one could claim that this was a showdown between the two top welterweights in the world. The 147 pound division is currently one of boxing’s most intriguing, but a legit best vs best match doesn’t have Shawn Porter in it. After all, while everyone shied away from this truth so as not to undermine the upcoming “mega-event ultra-fight,” fact is Porter was extremely fortunate to get the decision against Yordenis Ugas last March.
But at this point, your average world-weary boxing fan is resigned to the fact bullshit always wins and that the whiz kids in the marketing department will of course find a way to misrepresent an otherwise honest sporting contest in order to make more money. And so it is that Spence vs Porter, a solid match-up and really nothing else, found itself on pay-per-view with a price tag of some eighty bucks or more depending on your location. Call me cheap, but that’s a lot of cabbage to pay just to see a fight between two guys most people have never heard of, with one of them the recipient of a gift win his last time out.
But at the moment the early reports indicate that the hype worked, at least to a certain degree, and Spence vs Porter generated something in the neighborhood of three hundred thousand pay-per-view buys, in other words a gross in excess of twenty million dollars. Talk about a lot of cabbage. To mix my metaphors, that’s a big juicy pie to split up and pass around and, as they say, no one can argue with success. Even so, that doesn’t undermine my argument. Namely, that putting Spence vs Porter on pay-per-view is a short-sighted move, a lost opportunity to grow the sport of boxing. And bake an even bigger pie.
The reasons for this are obvious. First of all, Saturday’s bout turned out to be an excellent donnybrook, a contender for 2019’s Fight of the Year. In other words, exactly the kind of bout that creates new excitement and wins new fans. And second, while three hundred thousand buys represents roughly a million or so hardcore sports fans watching the fight, if it had been on free TV, we’re talking millions more, and not just boxing junkies, watching Spence vs Porter and getting caught up in the action and excitement.
After all, isn’t that a big part of what Premier Boxing Champions was supposed to be about? Okay, yes, the truly huge matches that spill over into the mainstream, say Wilder vs Fury, put them on pay-per-view and make a ton of money. But Spence vs Porter wasn’t that kind of fight. Instead it was the perfect match-up to help create a legit “mega-event ultra-fight” for down the road.
The same can be said of course for Spence vs Mikey Garcia, a bout we all want to forget about and pretend like it never happened. And yes, it too, did over three hundred thousand buys and, despite the bout being a total stinker, everyone involved banked some big pay-checks. But again, PBC was supposed to be about increasing boxing’s popularity, making it more accessible, attracting new fans. Errol Spence Jr. on pay-per-view is proving to be a solid way to make money, but not a way to make boxing mainstream fare again.
When PBC kicked off back in 2015 they brought legends such as Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard out to help hype the new venture. Seems to me the brainiacs at the company need to take a closer look at the business model those guys were a part of because, guess what, boxing in the 1980’s was massive, a part of mainstream sports entertainment and the larger zeitgeist.
But the way it worked back then was like this: serious fighters got in the ring four or five times a year, and the best vs good match-ups, ie. Spence vs Porter, were on free TV. And then, when a match-up came along that everyone couldn’t wait to see, that’s when you put together an ultra-mega-super-extravaganza fight. And everyone cashed in huge. Mind you, they didn’t have pay-per-view back then, but instead closed-circuit telecasts at movie theaters, but the basic logic was the same. And the key point here is that they didn’t get a mere three hundred thousand “buys,” but millions upon millions of ticket sales for true superfights such as Leonard vs Duran and Hearns vs Hagler.
And that’s because normal people, regular sports fans, not just boxing fanatics, were curious about these matches and couldn’t wait to see them. By the time these fights happened, the participants were not just athletes but celebrities, people of interest. The public cared about Ray Leonard, was fascinated by Roberto Duran, had great respect for the hard-won success of Marvelous Marvin Hagler. These guys were crossover stars, not just boxers, because over the course of many fights the public got to know them.
I hate to break it to the brain trust at Premier Boxing Champions but, in my humble opinion, they’ve so far done a lousy job of turning their top fighters into people the public knows and cares about. But this past Saturday night was a perfect opportunity to help make that happen. That is to say, a perfect opportunity that was wasted.
Had Spence vs Porter been on free TV, but with the same level of hype and anticipation, there can be no doubt that the audience for the match would have been much larger. We’re talking millions of sports fans getting to see a truly exciting and highly competitive championship fight, but also one which showed that Errol Spence Jr. is more than an elite level talent, but an interesting person, a dogged competitor, a deserving champion. He had to dig deep to get that win and that’s the kind of performance which endears an athlete to the public. There’s no way to prove it, but I would argue had Spence vs Porter been on free TV, you’d be able to point to Errol Spence Jr. as not just one of the best welterweights in the world but also as a potential star, whose future fights are bound to attract ever more interest from the sports world.
But it wasn’t and something tells me the guys at PBC aren’t seeing the bigger picture at all as they count their money from Saturday night’s pay-per-view receipts. Spence vs Porter was a lost opportunity for boxing but the people making the decisions don’t even know it. From their point of view there’s a sucker born every minute and Saturday night just confirmed that fact. Now they’re trying to hype Spence vs Garcia, a pointless match-up if there ever was one, a fight no one outside of hardcore fans can get excited about. But the business model now is take the money and run, and to hell with making boxing history. Prediction: we’re never seeing Spence vs Crawford, because why screw up a good thing. Isn’t 21st century boxing great? — Neil Crane