Let’s face it, 2020 was an exploding dumpster fire for just about everyone’s best-laid plans.
Rare is the person or entity that actually thrived this calendar year outside of possibly mask manufacturers, the creators of Zoom and UFC president Dana White.
It’s the latter reference that is most appropriate by comparison for the purpose of this column. UFC, thanks to the boldness of White and the control the promotion has on matchmaking and its participants, was able to produce a year for the ages despite a steady stream of hurdles along the way.
What White and company were able to do was impressive and, in many ways, set a blueprint for things such as safety protocols and quarantine bubbles, which were copied and modeled by many of the team sports after UFC led the way.
The sport of boxing, however, was much slower in its reaction time as far as returning to business as usual, which has gone a long way in making 2020 largely a lost year for the sport despite the small number (countable on one hand) of super fights that were consummated both before and after the initial coronavirus outbreak wreaked havoc on day-to-day life.
Unlike the UFC’s business model, which benefitted greatly from a lucrative broadcasting deal with ESPN and a wealthy partner in Abu Dhabi to make “Fight Island” a reality, boxing is far more dependent upon a live gate and paying crowd to survive. Much of that has to do with the sport’s lack of organization or a monopolistic promoter able to shoulder much of the risk.
Thankfully, the sweet science figured things out the best it could initially thanks to Top Rank’s Las Vegas bubble, Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Sport’s backyard summer series and, later, the PBC’s use of limited crowds in large venues to help offset the risk of staging pay-per-view fights during such unprecedented times.
Still, as we enter award season in boxing for 2020, it’s hard to overlook just how little actually took place. Most big-name fighters competed just one time, which has made typical debates like Fighter of the Year much more difficult to narrow down.
The list of prominent boxers who were ultimately shut out of stepping through the ropes this year was more staggering than you might think, whether that was due to COVID-19 restrictions or a mixture of injury and poor luck: Manny Pacquiao, Keith Thurman, Artur Beterbiev, Dmitry Bivol, Andy Ruiz Jr., Sergey Kovalev, Adrien Broner, Chris Eubank Jr., Tony Harrison, Maurice Hooker, Luke Campbell, Josh Warrington and Nonito Donaire.
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Adding to that list were the names of must-see fighters who did return once but took part in forgettable stay-busy fights that felt much more like a tease: Gennadiy Golovkin, Shawn Porter, Caleb Plant, Josh Taylor, Luis Ortiz, Demetrius Andrade, Jarrett Hurd and Erislandy Lara.
It’s not that boxing’s missed opportunities this year were unavoidable or without justification. It’s just that given how infrequent star boxers actually appear in the ring these days and how short their elite shelf life becomes, it’s hard not to look at 2020 as largely a wasted year.
Don’t agree? Ask yourself how much closer we actually are to the two fights boxing fans covet the most: a Tyson Fury-Anthony Joshua bout for the undisputed heavyweight championship and a welterweight title unification between Terence Crawford and Errol Spence Jr.
Yes, Fury was able to stop Deontay Wilder in their rematch shortly before the pandemic broke out and Joshua passed his mandatory test against Kubrat Pulev to close the year. But both still have one more mandatory title defense to navigate before Hearn and Bob Arum’s confidence that a 2021 showdown is imminent can be manifested.
In some ways, the same can be said about Crawford and Spence. Both passed varying levels of tests in their lone appearance this year but like Fury-Joshua, the lengthy pause in the action caused by the pandemic simply extended the soap opera of having to wait and hope whether boxing politics can figure itself out in time to avoid a Floyd Mayweather-Pacquiao scenario where a super fight comes a bit too late.
Speaking of Pacquiao, the untimely pandemic put a major detour on what had been a remarkable renaissance in 2019 when the Filipino senator scored resounding victories over Broner and Thurman at the age of 40. Suddenly back in the driver’s seat as a PPV draw, there was no shortage of huge fights to make for the PacMan in 2020, including against Crawford or Spence.
Instead, Pacquiao could be pushing towards a two-year layoff when he finally returns next year at the age of 42.
Now, let’s not fall victim completely to doom and gloom here by affixing a Scarlet Letter on 2020 boxing as the year will very likely be remembered for unified lightweight champion Teofimo Lopez Jr.’s breakout campaign and Gervonta Davis’ one-punch dismantling of Leo Santa Cruz. Yet the lament for what could’ve been still lingers just the same.
The best fix moving forward is that the powers that be learn from the chaos created by the pandemic and figure out a way to work together more in order to reward both fans and fighters alike with the matchups that are most coveted now rather than waiting for them to “marinate,” as Arum so infamously found out the hard way with Yuriorkis Gamboa-Juan Manuel Lopez nearly a decade ago.
But then again, this is boxing, the most beautiful/tragic, amazing/ridiculous and exciting/depressing sport that we keep coming back to for more. So, good luck with that.
Legendary journalist and broadcaster Larry Merchant’s timeless description of the sport — “boxing: you can’t kill it and you can’t fix it” — tends to historically ring true. The semi-forgettable year of 2020 notwithstanding.