Why boxing, thanks in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, is primed to cap off another incredible year

Why boxing, thanks in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, is primed to cap off another incredible year
Why boxing, thanks in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, is primed to cap off another incredible year

If the midway point of the boxing calendar in 2022 has taught us anything, it’s that the overall health of the sport appears strong for the second straight year as a seemingly equal number of exciting fights have played out just as new must-see matchups continue to be rumored or booked.  

If this is what prosperity is supposed to feel like for a boxing fan, it’s a relatively new one. Or, at the very least, a feeling that hasn’t been seen or felt for any length of consistency in a handful of decades.  

For most of the past 15 years, hardcore fans have typically been forced to deal with the unofficial “every other year” phenomenon, where every strong 12-month stretch for the sport was typically followed by a barren one. This wasn’t just big-name fights not living up to expectations but often them not even taking place at all.  

Such is often the reality when a disorganized sport is so reliant upon those in power on opposite side’s of boxing’s network and promotional divide to actually work together for the future health of everyone else. Everything from exclusive network contracts to curmudgeon ignorance can be to blame.  

But something has happened in response to the partial shutdown that took place in boxing over the first half of 2020. And whether it’s directly tied to the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic or not, boxing continues to build a stupid amount of momentum heading into what could be a spectacular stretch of fights to close out 2022. Again, some of this optimism remains, at least partially, a very big if. But why kill such an optimistic buzz with what ifs when things are looking this good?

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The financial reality of the pandemic and how that has affected boxing in its 18-month aftermath seems to make sense. Very few sports or leagues matched the aggressiveness of Dana White and the UFC during the darkest days of the shutdown and most of 2020 saw boxing struggle to get things going in a timely manner amid travel shutdowns and the expensive need to insulate and test within a bubble.  

Although Top Rank made some early in-roads with its bubble series from the MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas and Matchroom Sport created quite a memorable backdrop with its backyard series outside of London, most of boxing was slow to get back in gear. Because of that, and the revenue lost due to the restrictions of having a live crowd, 2020 will be looked back on as more of a “lost weekend” than anything else.  

That was then, of course. But this now and boxing isn’t just kind of hot at the moment, it has become a consistent viral hit of late, even going as far as becoming a new kind of catnip for casual and uninitiated fans. Some of that could be traced to the celebrity boxing movement that broke out over the exact same time period, led by everyone from Jake and Logan Paul to a returning Mike Tyson and a new legion of pro sports crossovers from the NFL and NBA.

But some of that is just the reality as to what happens when promoters and networks have more of a focused need to make money now as opposed to slow building toward something much later. Better fights start to get made and better results start to become the norm. Some of that initial urgency post-pandemic to get the show back on the road and make the big fights available right now seems to still be leftover as fuel.  

While it’s still not cheap to be a committed boxing fan with pay-per-view proving as viable as ever during this new era of streaming (with even DAZN pulling a 180 to get on board), most of the supportive elements for the sport to be successful remain in place.  

Boxing is still considered bargain live programming in this era, which is why each major promoter is linked exclusively with elite terrestrial networks (Fox), cable giants (ESPN), premium cable outlets (Showtime) or upstart streaming apps (DAZN). That means high visibility in spaces already occupied by other non-niche sports.

Yet even with this kind of foundational dysfunction due to the broadcast splintering of major powers, fruit continues to be born in a handful of seemingly unrelated upswings. Sworn enemies have seemingly been more willing to work together for the right events and even the much-maligned sanctioning bodies, when not caught up in another firestorm questioning their integrity, have made it easier of late for star fighters to unify titles as one undisputed champion continues to get crowned after another.  

Everything from the legitimacy of world-class women’s boxing of late (think Katie Taylor-Amanda Serrano) to the health of the U.S. amateur system on the Olympic level has only helped fuel this growing feeling that maybe this timeless, broken and unforgiving sport can have nice things, too.

Potential and expected fights over the next six months

Jake Paul vs. Hasan Rahman Jr.  Cruiserweights Aug. 6
Oleksandr Usyk (c) vs. Anthony Joshua 2 Unified heavyweight titles Aug. 20
Claressa Shields (c) vs. Savannah Marshall (c) Undisputed middleweight titles Sept. 10
Canelo Alvarez (c) vs. Gennadiy Golovkin Undisputed super middleweight titles Sept. 17
Errol Spence (c) vs. Terence Crawford (c)* Undisputed welterweight titles Rumored
Jermell Charlo (c) vs. Tim Tszyu* Undisputed junior middleweight titles Rumored
Artur Beterbiev (c) vs. Dmitry Bivol (c)* Undisputed light heavyweight titles Rumored
Ryan Garcia  vs. Gervonta “Tank” Davis* Lightweights Rumored

A look ahead to the calendar of what’s next only confirms these positive feelings as Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua are set to rematch on Aug. 20 for a trio of heavyweight titles while bitter rivals Canelo Alvarez and Gennadiy Golovkin prepare for a Sept. 17 trilogy bout for Alvarez’s undisputed 168-pound title. Jake Paul returns Aug. 6 inside New York’s Madison Square Garden for his toughest test to date as a professional against Hasim Rahman Jr. and former amateur rivals Claressa Shields and Savannah Marshall do battle on Sept. 10 for all four middleweight titles. 

Then there’s the can’t-miss matchups rumored to be soon that could go a long way in taking boxing to the next level to close this calendar year. Such a discussion begins and ends with the welterweight undisputed bout between unbeatens Errol Spence Jr. and Terence Crawford, which has most recently been rumored for November.  Not to mention a Jermell Charlo-Tim Tszyu showdown, targeted for January, for all four 154-pound titles.  

But what about a fantasy pairing between young, unbeaten lightweight stars Gervonta “Tank” Davis and Ryan Garcia? Although, admittedly, not an easy fight to make, both have publicly pitched their collective interest. The same could be said for Dmitry Bivol’s interest, fresh off an upset win over Canelo Alvarez, to unify all four belts against fellow unbeaten champion Artur Beterbiev. And don’t sleep on Stephen Fulton Jr.’s hope of luring fellow unbeaten unified champion Murodjon Akhmadaliev into an undisputed summit at 122 pounds.  

Then there’s Teofimo Lopez Jr.’s path to redemption at 140 pounds, Vasiliy Lomachenko’s return from the frontlines in Ukraine and what might be next for undisputed lightweight king Devin Haney. And did I mention that unbeaten Jaron “Boots” Ennis looks ready to ruin everyone else’s plans at 147 pounds? 

Some of life’s greatest moments can come after one is forced to step backwards and take stock of a situation from a distance. The pandemic became that catalyst for boxing in 2020 and whether it’s directly related or not, the fallout continues to be gold for boxing fans.  

If you build great fights that can’t help but deliver, the general public will come. And they will keep coming back to look for more.