Boxing’s Return is Imminent: How Safe Will The Sport Be After the Covid-19 Pandemic?

Boxing is one of the sports hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Like other sports around the world, boxing has been on hiatus. Yet, while soccer, mixed martial arts, and even baseball in South Korea have resumed, boxing has just developed a definitive plan on returning.

With the sport on hiatus due to the coronavirus, gyms around the world have had to cease operations until it is safe to return. Fighters have also had to suspend their training and anyone who had bouts schedule will have had them canceled. For some boxers, the amount of money lost to canceled fights has been catastrophic. It isn’t just the fighter that is affected when a bout is canceled. Coaches, trainers, sparring partners, and managers all feel the squeeze as their earnings come from the prize purses their fighters compete for.

Right now, the coronavirus pandemic continues to be a part of life. Until a vaccine is tested and put onto the market allowing individuals to prevent themselves from contracting the disease, social distancing and wearing facemasks is an everyday part of life.

Despite the possibility of contracting the coronavirus, life has begun again for some. In the United States, a number of states have opened up businesses once more. Germany’s top soccer league, the Bundesliga, has begun playing matches with fans banned from attending. A number of other leagues around Europe are starting back up. Meanwhile, North America’s NHL is also putting plans in place to finish out the 2019-20 season. So, when will boxing safely open up after the coronavirus pandemic?

When can boxing return?

One of the chief rules that has been implemented for sports following the coronavirus pandemic is that fans are not allowed in attendance. While it does take away from the atmosphere that is created by persons watching a live event, it would create an unnecessary hazard for those attending and those individuals they come in contact with.

With the way in which viruses are spread, the coronavirus could be passed from a small group of people to a wider swath of the population in a matter of days. Therefore, any boxing events held would need to be inside an empty arena.

The empty arena is perhaps one of the biggest issues that promoters have with running a boxing card. Promoters rely on ticket money and gate receipts to make a living. Without live audiences, one source of income is unavailable to a boxing promoter. The return of live audiences could be a catalyst to the safe return of boxing. This is especially true at the lower level of boxing were local and regional promoters put on shows with up and coming fighters. A large promotion company or even a television network could produce a small fight card. Yet, the competitors would need to be at a certain level that is capable of attracting sponsors to pay to support the show.

The UFC has been able to hold shows in the state of Florida since the beginning of May. The MMA promotion’s return has been fueled by the financial contracts it has with television networks and sponsors. Boxing doesn’t have this luxury. Boxing organizations merely govern a championship and do not run a singular promotion like the UFC does. The UFC has the ability to oversee everything it does in the sport of MMA. Meanwhile, the IBF or WBO are reliant on individual promoters to take care of setting up fight cards. The UFC’s ability to promote and run its own shows void of an independent promoter makes it far more capable of putting certain standards in place regarding coronavirus safety measure. Or does it?

The UFC is back, so why can’t boxing resume?

Right now, boxing fans, fighters, promoters, venues, and anyone associated with the sport is in the dark over a definitive full return to action. The sport has already been on hiatus for around two months and even when fight cards can resume, bouts must be booked and boxers train for their return to the ring. Many of the sports fighters have stayed in training over the hiatus. Training without a fight in mind, however, isn’t ideal and boxers will lack the motivation needed to step into the ring when matches can take place once more.

On May 9, the state of Florida allowed the UFC to hold its UFC 249 event. Florida made headlines allowing both UFC and the WWE to hold shows in the state as long as no fans were in attendance. UFC 249 was the first major American sports event to be held following the breakout of the coronavirus pandemic and measures were taken to ensure everyone’s safety as best as it could be.

Thanks to the MMA promotion’s partnership with ESPN, subscribers of the channel’s ESPN + were able to watch the show for their $64.99 subscription fee. Other price points allowed fans to gain access to the show at home on pay-per-view while international broadcasts of UFC 249 were made available. BT Sport subscribers in the United Kingdom are able to get nearly all of the UFC’s major pay-per-view events as part of their subscription package. The simple fact that the UFC has the television network deals that it does is one of the major incentives for the promotion to return. Boxing just doesn’t have the same television network money pushing it to get back to business. Although specific promoters do have their own deals.

UFC introduced a five-point plan for safety ahead of its UFC 249 show in Jacksonville. It called for social distancing, Covid-19 screening and test procedures to be conducted on all parties involved, protective guidelines to be followed along with self-reporting procedures put in place, cleaning to be thoroughly completed, and medical procedures to be outlined to keep each person safe.

The promotion’s five-point plan was already calling for some heavy-duty work to be done and for strict rules to be adhered to. The five-point plan, however, was just the beginning as all competitors and their fight camps had to arrive in Jacksonville on the Tuesday or Wednesday prior to the Saturday card. All members of a fight camp had to complete medical screening which involved a variety of tests including “diagnostic swab coronavirus test, antibody test, temperature check, and interview”. Fighters and members of their entourages were not to associate in large groups and had to self-isolate as best as possible until their Covid-19 test results returned.

The scope of the measures taken was huge, but there was still more that had to be done for UFC 249 to run. Each fighter was given his/her own workout room during the week. A supermarket was on the hotel’s premises allowing everyone to remain on site to complete their shopping. Room service was also available for 24-hours as reducing the chances of catching the infectious disease was everyone’s motivation. Sanitizing products and PPE were also available to everyone.

One of the featured bouts at UFC 249 was canceled due to Jacare Souza testing positive for Covid-19 just days before his match. According to reports from the UK, fighters were threatened with not receiving their prize purse if they criticized the promotion’s return. All this led UFC president Dana White to claim the media was sabotaging the UFC’s return.

Putting things into perspective

The UFC has been heavily criticized by many in the sports industry for its quick return. Other sports in the US including the NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball are still on the sidelines coming up with plans to return when things are a little safer. Boxing is sport that is slowly getting off the sidelines and if the UFC is anything to go by, big-time boxing has learned what not to do.

Hundreds of boxing shows can take place in the US each month with multiple boxing events occurring on the same day of the week. Of course, the same can happen in MMA, but with UFC as the top dog in the combat sport, it takes center stage. A wealth of boxing cards can happen with only a handful shown on nationwide or worldwide television. Therefore, the incentive to hold cards, especially none nationally televised cards, may be lacking.

In an interview in March, Seattle-based boxer David Benavidez summed things up by saying that he was “not even leaving the house”. Benavidez may be a solid fighter in the pro ranks but doesn’t have the name to bring in big pay-per-view revenue streams on his own. Consider that in boxing a big-named fighter draws the crowd to watch in person or on television. In the UFC, it is the brand that draws people to watch. If a promoter doesn’t have the named fighters, right now, there is no reason to put everyone at risk of Covid-19.

After the postponement of Benavidez’s fight in April, he sent his sparring partners home. It cost the fighter thousands of dollars to have sparring partners available in the lead up to his fight. Unfortunately, Benavidez may have saved himself money, but the partners that trained with him are out of work.

Promoters are in between a rock and hard place currently. They could schedule an event for a future date, but rather than make plans, promoters do not want to cancel or postpone more cards in the future. Top Rank canceled seven fight cards between mid-March and early May. The fight promotion’s vice president Carl Moretti summed up the organization’s stance quite well stating: “How do you make provisions based on what is happening when what is happening is not over yet? We haven’t found a lot of answers yet because this thing is still moving. While we would like to move this fight to that [date] and plan on this or that, you can’t do that because that could all change momentarily or tomorrow or next week.”

The return of boxing

Moretti’s quote is quite brilliant. While White and the UFC rushed back to the octagon to deliver combat sports, boxing has waited patiently on the sidelines. The sport’s promoters and competitors should be praised for not rushing back while the UFC has left itself open for criticism.

Souza, who test positive for an asymptomatic case (not showing visible symptoms), was around UFC doctors and other individuals at the promotion’s hotel in Jacksonville. Those doctors then presumably tested other fighters competing at the event. Souza’s two cornermen also tested positive. Consider that the three individuals flew or drove to the event in Florida potentially infecting others is outrageous. According to MMA Junkie, even with the protocols in place at the UFC hotel and for the face to face weigh in, Souza was around other people and failed to adhere to social distancing.

After Souza tested positive, UFC released an official statement to show just how well its protocols worked. The statement read: “As per UFC’s health and safety protocols, all three men have left the host hotel and will be self-isolating off premises, where UFC’s medical team will monitor their conditions remotely and will provide assistance with any necessary treatment. The response to this development is indicative of the effectiveness of the health and safety measures UFC has put in place for this event.”

Unfortunately, the promotion not only let Souza interact in the hotel with others but the fighter had remained on the card prior to the test results being made official. Souza was even allowed to attend the weigh in alongside White and opponent Uriah Hall. Despite wearing a facemask and gloves, Souza still fist bumped both men and even hardcore MMA fans have called into question just how many people Souza and his two cornermen may have infected. Perhaps one of the scariest aspects about Souza being on hand at the UFC 249 hotel was that his presence was out of desperation. The fighter needed the prize purse to ensure his family were not forced to live on the street. This despite stating previously that some of his family members “may” have had coronavirus. With boxing and combat sports a hand to mouth lifestyle for so many, his desire to fight can be understood. 

So, what does this all mean for boxing? Well, quite a lot actually. Boxing and MMA are both one to one combat sports. But the manner in which the sport is conducted in the ring or octagon has little to do with the Covid-19 pandemic. Boxers are just as likely to contract the disease from a fighter as they are from someone in transit to the arena. They are then capable of transferring pathogens to someone else whether it be an opponent, referee, or the hotel staff that brings their room service.

The pandemic is a unique situation in which we have not experienced. There are questions but definitive answers are in short supply. Unfortunately, it feels like too many organizations are trying to get back to “normal” without weighing the impacts.

Once again, Moretti summed up the rush back to normalcy quite well: “You go back to the drawing board, but you can’t go back to the drawing board because there is no drawing board because nothing like this has ever happened. Is everything going to be normal in 30 days? Who knows? What’s our conversation like two weeks from today? You don’t know. The hard part is we don’t know. Who the hell knows?”

The protocols for a return

In early May, protocols for boxing’s return to the ring in Britain were revealed by the BBC. Fights are scheduled to return in July with several rules in place to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. The sport’s return could still be up in the air as the UK government could step in to alter boxing’s resumption.

All fights for the foreseeable future with be behind closed doors. Referees and cornermen must wear protective facemasks throughout all events and thorough Covid-19 testing will be used. Laying out the protocols for boxing’s return is one thing, however, seeing that they are carried out is another. Promoters across the UK received a five-page document from the British Boxing Board of Control outlining the rules fight cards must follow. Rules include:

  • Events must have no more than five bouts and no “championship contests”
  • Fight cards to begin without fans present
  • Boxers, referees and cornermen will be transported to the venue wearing personal protective masks
  • A boxer can remove his/her protective mask when inside the ring
  • Referees and teams in the corner must keep PPE on at all-times
  • Boxers may not spit at anytime
  • No ring announcers, ring girls or TV cameras inside the ring
  • All proposed venues must be reviewed and “cleaned to a medical standard” before the show
  • Only “essential” officials, promoters and broadcasters may be in attendance
  • Individuals in high-risk categories such as pregnant women, those “seriously overweight” or people with diabetes should not attend
  • Everyone at an event must be tested for Covid-19
  • All boxers, trainers and referees must be tested for Covid-19 a minimum of 48 hours before the show and self-isolate at a hotel until their test result is known

Although Top Rank’s VP Moretti was clear about boxing’s wait to return, the promotion will also begin fight cards once more. Boxing in the US can resume as early as June with Top Rank set to hold cards in Las Vegas over a two-month period.

Top Rank will hold the shows at the MGM Grand. Yet, while British boxing has outlined rules for holding events with the safest of standards, Top Rank has been short on details of how it will ensure safety. The only thing that the promotion has stated in the media is that it will provide Covid-19 testing. Compared to UFC’s return and the criticism it got, it seems boxing’s planned return has almost flown under the radar.

Top Rank will hit the ground running with a number of summer fight cards to air live on ESPN and ESPN+. The sports network, like sports channels around the globe, have been desperate for content. Networks have scrambled to show old sporting events, have discussion shows featuring pundits in self-isolation, and worked out deals with esports gaming brands. The return of Top Rank and big-time boxing to ESPN will bring a smile to the network and fans around the US. It will also put money into the pockets of people within the industry from trainers to referees to fighters.

The Nevada State Athletic Commission must still meet to iron out a few details but the first date for Top Rank’s ESPN fight cards is June 9 from behind closed doors at MGM Grand. It seems realistic to believe Top Rank and the NSAC will enact rules that mirror the UFC’s in Florida and possibly reflect some (or all) of those in the UK. Still, as Mike Tyson stated, “Everyone has a game plan until they get hit”.

What can boxing learn?

The UFC’s decision to rush back to work should be used by all boxing promotions when they resume fight cards. Although Top Ranks MGM Grand return will be around just a month after UFC’s return, there is plenty to learn from the situation. UFC mishandled a lot of items behind the scenes and in front of the camera. Those mistakes should be used by the world of boxing to put on far safer events.

Perhaps the biggest problem the UFC had when it returned – other than Souza testing positive for Covid-19 – is that high-profile members of the company’s staff did not follow safety protocols. Dana White didn’t wear PPE at the weigh in when it was outlined, he must. The New York Times then ran an article on May 13 that stated, “UFC officials and fighters routinely deviated from the outlined procedures in the days leading up to UFC 249 and on the night of the pay-per-view event itself”. Commentator Joe Rogan even touched fighter Justin Gaethje after his win versus Tony Ferguson. Of course, it is difficult to change human nature and the way we have done things for years. However, blatant disregard for the rules that were outlined are dangerous, not just to one person, but to millions. Boxing has the fortune of going second in the resumption of combat sports after MMA’s return courtesy of UFC. Hopefully, the sport’s promoters will learn from the mistakes already made and put together a safe set of standards to provide high-quality boxing for fa

Ricky Balladares

I was introduced to Boxing at a very young age and spent most of my time in the boxing gym watching, learning, and studying the sport. After years of learning from some of the greatest boxers in the game, I decided to pursue my dream; I am now a licensed Boxing Manager and would love to share all the knowledge and skill that I have learned over the years with you.

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