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The Beltline: Usyk vs. Joshua II and the cost of boxing crisis

On the day it’s announced Oleksandr Usyk vs Anthony Joshua II will land on Sky Sports Box Office, Elliot Worsell asks, “At what cost?”

THE cost of watching Oleksandr Usyk try to repeat his 2021 win over Anthony Joshua, only this time in the middle of a desert, will be £26.95, it was announced by Sky Sports today.

For that price you get the same two heavyweights you got last year, when paying £24.95 for the privilege, but will this time be spared all the ceremony and sound delivered by those in attendance at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Instead, what you now will get for your £26.95 is Usyk and Joshua doing battle in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where there will be plenty of wealth on display, yet little in the way of passion, atmosphere or heritage.

Still, all that aside, the fight itself remains a great one. We can say that at least. What we can also say, now that it has been confirmed, is that Sky Sports have pulled a masterstroke in landing the exclusive rights to the fight here in the UK.

That seemed an unlikely prospect when Anthony Joshua pledged his career to DAZN not long ago, yet little did we know the broadcast rights for this particular fight were not part of the deal and would therefore essentially be auctioned to the highest bidder. Moreover, whereas Sky Sports were determined to treat the LIV Golf tournament held in Saudi Arabia with the disdain it deserved, we did not know they would be just as determined to see two heavyweight boxers promote the virtues of Saudi Arabia in a boxing ring this summer .

Of course, boxing often holds up a mirror to society and here, in this case, nothing could be truer. Reflecting a dynamic and disparity with which we are all now sadly familiar, while the majority of boxers and promoters struggle for both support and funds in 2022, there is seemingly not a hint of awareness, much less sympathy, at the top table, around which people sit in expensive suits wearing expensive watches mastering only the art of platitudes and turning the other cheek. Then again, maybe it’s not their job: to help, to care, to think beyond the immediate.

In fact, if the circumstances in August were different, and the setting different, you wouldn’t begrudge two brilliant heavyweights, both from working-class backgrounds, making an inordinate amount of money risking their lives in a boxing ring. However, because the circumstances and setting are as important here as the fight itself, in terms of ensuring it happens, they cannot and should not be ignored. Nor, for that matter, is it easy to ignore where a lot of the money generated by this fight will ultimately end up going.

Which begs the question, how much money is enough? The answer to this I’ll never know, but clearly the idea of ​​making more money, the kind of money that can only be produced in the Middle East, is one that appeals to everyone involved in this August 20 promotion. Good for them, you might say, yet the issue that will arise as a result of such greed is that the bar is continually being raised and therefore the possibility of these men – and men of similar standing – receiving comparable paydays in the UK, or even America (that Promised Land of old), is reduced quite considerably. Then, of course, you face the same problem with which football will soon have to wrestle: players being paid more in a week than some lower league clubs are worth in total and transfer fees and wages being driven up until even the biggest and most historic clubs are on the brink of financial ruin.

Oleksander Usyk and Anthony Joshua at press conference (Picture By Mark Robinson)

As for the price point, Sky Sports Box Office has gone from £16.95 to £26.95 in five years, which, given everything that has happened in that time, should come as no surprise. They are, after all, like everything and everyone else in this country, impacted by both inflation and the economic collapse and clearly their boxing business is reliant on events such as this. For that reason alone, the price hike is one of the easier aspects of Usyk vs. Joshua II to both stomach and understand. But still, despite that, you wonder where it stops.

Interestingly, so punishing and unforgiving is the profession, it’s almost sacrilege to say boxers get paid too much, yet still it can be true. For while there is no disputing that at the bottom end of the sport these men and women deserve not just every penny they receive, but considerably more than they receive, it is also true to say that sometimes at the top end of the pyramid fighters are being paid too much and, in turn, crippling the infrastructure and damaging the future of the sport.

That’s hardly their fault, granted, nor a problem theirs to worry about, but it’s a reality nonetheless. In fact, this very issue was something one of today’s leading promoters warned me of back in 2014, when he, like anyone else with an interest in the sport’s long-term health, raised concerns that paychecks were starting to spiral out of control.

Now, eight years later, the purses offered to boxers to box for 36 minutes have reached such obscene and astronomical levels we – the sport, I mean – find ourselves having to beg, borrow and steal from the most unscrupulous of sources. Now, as you look around and watch events take place in empty arenas and wonder why everyone still appears fairly content, if not delighted, you start to ask yourself questions. Questions like this: Where is the money coming from? Or this: Why does it not seem to matter whether tickets are sold for this promotion? Or perhaps this: Is any of this money, or this version of boxing, actually real?

Take it away, this sudden cash injection from sugar daddies and silent benefactors, and you fear for what’s left as far as British boxing is concerned. Is it, with the pot empty, just a string of sad, desolate arenas and six-fight cards dominated by (typically good) women’s world title fights (alas, cheaper to put on), YouTubers, and prospects bullying Eastern Europeans (they will always be welcome)? Are big fights, like they tell us, at this point impossible to make without it? Without it, we must then simply settle for big-name boxers avoiding each other, instead tipping the risk-reward scale in their favor by choosing to perform ‘exhibitions’ against fellow big names from other sports? Do we still have to be grateful for what we are given?

Anyway, best just to ignore all that. With August fast approaching, the far more relevant and important question is this: Can Anthony Joshua be more aggressive second time around and get revenge over Oleksandr Usyk?

Oleksandr Usyk
Usyk and Joshua in London last year (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

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