Three Heavyweights and the Boxing Revolution
After many disappointing decades, American boxing fans once again have the thing they always seem to want: an undefeated homegrown heavyweight star with a big mouth and a big punch. His name is Deontay Wilder, and he appeared this week at Gleason’s Gym, in Dumbo, to endure a workout, or a reasonable facsimile of one. The audience was a few dozen reporters and hobbyists, who were crowded on the ring apron, and who were there to help Wilder spread the word about his upcoming fight, this Saturday night. Not all heavyweight boxers look like professional athletes, but Wilder does: he is six feet seven, lean and muscular; in person, he more closely resembles an average-sized basketball player than a tall fighter. While his baby (also a heavyweight) snoozed ringside, Wilder shadowboxed and then punched some mitts, and then, during a brief media scrum, he mused about his desire to change children’s lives and, a few seconds later, his desire to end his opponent’s. “This is not a gentleman’s sport,” he said. “This is the only sport where you can kill a man and get paid for it at the same time—it’s legal. So why not use my right to do so?”
Since the heyday of Mike Tyson, it has sometimes seemed that the only people who care about boxing are hardcore fans—the obsessives whom you couldn’t drive off if you tried. And it often seemed that boxing was, indeed, trying. Major fights appeared late at night on premium cable, HBO, and Showtime; the biggest ones were available only on pay-per-view, a system that was well suited to a sport with a relatively small but absolutely dedicated audience. Fans were expected to pay fifty dollars per event, or more; non-fans were expected not to even know a big fight was happening.
The emergence of Wilder has coincided with the emergence of two other heavyweight kings, both British: Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua, both of whom are also undefeated. It has coincided, too, with a revolution, as yet unfinished, in the way that boxing is broadcast and sold in America. Last year, HBO, long the premier broadcaster of boxing, announced that it was leaving the boxing business. (Full disclosure: I have done some reporting on the sport for HBO.) Showtime, by contrast, has remained dedicated to the sport. This Saturday night, Showtime will be broadcasting Wilder’s fight against Dominic Breazeale, a decent though perhaps not élite heavyweight, live from Barclays Center, in Brooklyn. Meanwhile, two other outlets have emerged. Boxing has recently become prominent on ESPN, which, in 2017, signed a broadcasting agreement with Top Rank, a leading boxing promoter. And there is a new player, an international sports-streaming platform with a name that sounds like a turn-of-the-century dot-com startup aimed at third graders: DAZN, pronounced, “Da Zone.”
Three exciting heavyweights, three ambitious platforms for boxing—what’s not to love? Indeed, this new era has already produced an enormously entertaining match, between Wilder and Fury, this past December, on Showtime pay-per-view. In the twelfth and final round, Wilder seemed to knock Fury out; everyone in the arena, including Wilder, seemed astonished when Fury somehow got back to his feet to finish the fight, which was ruled a draw. Fans immediately began asking for a rematch.
But then things got complicated, as things in boxing so often do. Last year, Joshua, who had previously competed on Showtime, moved to DAZN. In February, Fury signed up with Top Rank, which means he now fights on ESPN. And in March, Wilder rejected an offer from DAZN—reportedly more than a hundred million dollars for three fights—in order to stick with Showtime. The outcome was perfectly predictable, and perfectly absurd: the top three heavyweights are now affiliated with three different broadcast platforms. Each platform, having invested in its heavyweight, has an incentive to keep him away from the competition. (No executive wants to see one of his biggest stars competing on a rival network.) So all three are fighting, but they are not fighting each other. On June 1st, on DAZN, Joshua faces Andy Ruiz, Jr., a competent contender. And on June 15th, on ESPN+, an online-only network, Tyson Fury faces an obscure German contender named Tom Schwarz. The Wilder-Fury rematch has been postponed indefinitely.
One of the most significant things about Wilder’s fight with Breazeale is that Showtime subscribers won’t be asked to pay extra for it. Most boxing executives acknowledge that the pay-per-view model, which long sustained the sport, is under threat, as habits and technologies evolve; one of many problems is online piracy, which seems all but impossible to prevent. John Skipper, the former president of ESPN, is now the executive chairman of DAZN. (DAZN is mainly focused on combat sports in the U.S., but it offers different sports in different parts of the world, including, in some countries, the N.F.L., the N.B.A., and FIFA.) When I asked him about pay-per-view, Skipper told me that the model wasn’t quite dead, but that it wasn’t healthy, either. “I think it’s fatally ill,” he said. “It’s just a question of how long it lingers.” DAZN aims to eliminate pay-per-view: its American subscription price is $99.99 per year, with no additional fees for big fights; its roster includes, in addition to Anthony Joshua, Saúl (Canelo) Álvarez, the most bankable star in the sport. Skipper is betting that boxing fans accustomed to paying eighty dollars for a single big fight will be happy to pay a hundred, instead, for a year of fights.
ESPN is making a different bet. ESPN+ costs $49.99 per year, which gives you access to a wide range of programming, including mixed martial arts—ESPN signed a deal last year with the U.F.C., the leading M.M.A. organization, which was reportedly worth $1.5 billion. But the biggest fights, whether boxing or U.F.C., will be available to subscribers only as pay-per-view broadcasts. Likewise, Showtime remains committed to pay-per-view, an aging but still potentially lucrative arrangement, especially in sports that tend to produce a handful of unmissable events every year. “There is a bit of an inconsistency between programming for the network and then putting the biggest fights on pay-per-view,” Stephen Espinoza, who runs sports programming at Showtime, told me. His hope is that, by not sending the Wilder-Breazeale fight to pay-per-view, he is giving boxing fans a reason to subscribe to Showtime, or not to unsubscribe.
Both Showtime and ESPN also have an advantage that DAZN lacks: the ability to draw in casual fans. Any household with a Showtime subscription can watch Wilder on Saturday night; doubtless, that population includes lots of people who have never heard of DAZN, and would never dream of signing up. And Showtime sometimes promotes its fighters on its sister network, CBS; earlier this year, Wilder was prominently featured during CBS coverage of the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament. ESPN can do even more to push boxing into the mainstream. Many sports fans have noticed that, in the past two years, boxing has become increasingly prominent on the network’s news and discussion programs. Seeing boxers discussed alongside basketball players and football players helps create the impression, or the misimpression, that boxing is a major sport.
Not everyone in boxing is happy about ESPN’s dual role as a broadcaster of both boxing and boxing coverage. Skipper, of DAZN, complains that ESPN recently cancelled a series of scheduled interviews with Anthony Joshua, at the last minute, because of the companies’ rivalry. (ESPN executives deny this, and say that the interviews were cancelled because they were scheduled too far in advance of Joshua’s fight.) Espinoza, from Showtime, says that he has “no complaints” about ESPN’s coverage of his fighters. This week, for instance, Wilder appeared on the network’s marquee talk show, “First Take,” where he was—fittingly—celebrated as a homegrown conqueror. But it’s impossible to deny that ESPN fighters get special prominence on the network. Indeed, Matt Kenny, its vice-president of programming, says that this kind of cross-promotion is an important part of ESPN’s boxing business model. “Fans can expect Tyson Fury to appear across various ESPN platforms leading up to his fight on June 15th,” Kenny told me. And then, of course, if they want to see the fight itself, they will have to subscribe to ESPN+. One of the shows that Skipper oversaw, during his years at ESPN, was “Outside the Lines,” an investigative series that has sometimes exposed or criticized powerful figures in sports. But, in the evolving world of sports media, broadcasters are more likely to think of themselves as partners, not investigators. DAZN’s editorial programming leans more toward fighter documentaries than traditional journalism. “I’m probably not getting ready to launch a competitor to ‘Outside the Lines,’ ” Skipper says.
For both DAZN and ESPN+, this interest in boxing is basically opportunistic: partly because boxing is so disorganized, its long-term broadcast rights hadn’t already been snapped up by a legacy media company. When—if—these streaming sports networks mature, they may discover, as HBO evidently did, that boxing isn’t worth the hassles it generates, which can be considerable. Sometimes, the sport seems to consist of nothing but arguments and controversies. But for now there is no shortage of fights, even if they aren’t always the fights we want to see. Although Wilder is expected to beat Breazeale, he has a flaw that makes all of his fights well worth watching: a susceptibility to being hit, which means that Breazeale will be one punch away from a shocking upset, at least as long as he can remain conscious. Any boxing fan should want Wilder to win—and, next month, Joshua and Fury, too, so that all three can fight one another, at the peak of their careers. In the old era, there was an obvious way for rival broadcasters to work together: put on a pay-per-view and split the proceeds. (This was the approach that finally, after years of delays, brought together Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, in 2015.) But DAZN’s promise to end the tyranny of pay-per-view may complicate negotiations for, say, Wilder vs. Joshua. For his part, Wilder claims not to be impatient. “We ain’t chasing no one,” he said, during his appearance on ESPN. “The Fury fight will happen. The Joshua fight will happen.” No one can say when these fights will happen, or how. For now, there are three big heavyweights and three big platforms betting on three different business models. It’s a ridiculous situation, but it is also not the worst problem for boxing to have, considering its recent history: too much of a good thing.