Editor's note: This is the first installment in our "How to Fix Boxing" series. Mike Coppinger, Ben Baby and Michael Rothstein will address the biggest challenges in the sport and discuss solutions with fighters, promoters and others with hopes of providing realistic solutions.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The annoyance was audible in trainer Derrick James' voice, even in the afterglow of one of the biggest victories of his career.
Earlier on this night in April 2022, Errol Spence Jr., James' long-time pupil, battered Yordenis Ugas to win the third of the four major belts in the welterweight division. It was Spence's most impressive victory in his long run as champion. But, as it usually does, the conversation shifted to the one belt he didn't have and the fighter he had yet to face.
"Of course I get fed up with it," James told ESPN at the time inside AT&T Stadium. "But it's the business of boxing. Fans want to see what they want to see."
Over the past few years, fans have been increasingly restless that the biggest fights don't get made. The matchup between Spence and Terence Crawford, long considered the two best 147-pound fighters in the world, was just an example of the type of bout fans craved but didn't receive.
Until, in late May, after years of chatter and at least one set of failed negotiations, Spence and Crawford at last agreed to terms for an undisputed title fight on July 29 in Las Vegas.
"We're here now," Spence said. "All this stuff in the past, this is the present. We're here. We're fighting each other."
Over the past several years, one of the oldest and most storied sports in the world has been defined by its inability to deliver the best against the best. The explanation is a combination of factors encompassing every player in the sport: promoters, networks, managers and fighters. It's about the level of risk one is willing to take, an inability to work together often enough, out-of-control guaranteed purses that leave fans scratching their heads.
This year, fortunately, has featured the strongest string of quality matchups in recent memory. Some of it stems from the timing being ripe for all the stakeholders involved. But there's also a sense of urgency for those concerned about boxing's long-term viability.
"Boxing and everyone involved in boxing has a responsibility to itself to make big fights happen," DAZN CEO Joe Markowski said. "If it doesn't do that, then fans, particularly casual fans, will continue to be disappointed by the sport.
"And if that happens, then their time and their entertainment dollars will be spent elsewhere."
Data obtained by an open records request illustrates the issue's urgency. In 2010, the Nevada State Athletic Commission sanctioned 30 boxing events. That number dwindled to 13 each in 2021 and 2022.
The blame can be distributed among all of boxing's major parties. But in conversations with dozens of fighters, managers, promoters and network executives, one primary factor was repeatedly referenced: In many instances, the risk is not worth the reward.
"People don't want to hear this, but it's the truth," said Leonard Ellerbe, the CEO of Mayweather Promotions. "Big fights are made when they make sense for both sides. That's when they get made and when they make sense for both sides, it's a no-brainer.
"Until then, there are risks associated with doing things."
Risk vs. reward: Protecting the '0'
Top Rank founder Bob Arum has been around boxing for more than 50 years. The theory of the best not fighting the best, to him, is somewhat mythical.
Not because it isn't accurate. But because the "Four Kings" era -- Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns -- was more anomaly than consistency. The Four Kings perhaps clouded how history is remembered.
"If a fighter is going to take a risk, it's got to be for a reason, for the reward," Arum said. "And if he has to take a risk and there's no real reward for him, he's not going to do it. See, that's what people really forget about the sport."
"What guys need to know today is one loss doesn't really define you. You can just get right back on there, pick up a win or two and you're right back in the mix again. But these guys, they just want to be undefeated for their whole career." Brad Goodman, Top Rank matchmaker
When the Four Kings fought, risk met reward every time. There was attention, mega paydays and the understanding a loss wouldn't do much damage to the rest of their careers. They were already bona fide must-see fighters with loyal followings and national interest. In today's game, this happens less often -- at least on one side of the sport. The top women boxers in the world -- like Katie Taylor, Chantelle Cameron, Claressa Shields and Amanda Serrano -- are often taking the biggest fights.
And then there is the "Mayweather Effect."
Floyd Mayweather, the greatest fighter of the past generation, retired with a 50-0 record. His combination of ring skills and business acumen created a transcendent megastar and, perhaps, a troubling trend.
"Floyd kind of messed up the game with the undefeated record and undefeated is everything," Devin Haney told ESPN's Ryan Clark on "The Pivot" podcast before he risked his clean record in an undisputed lightweight championship defense against Vasiliy Lomachenko in May. "So guys don't want to fight each other. They want to keep their zero."
In 2006, Mayweather turned down a career-high $8 million purse to fight Antonio Margarito in a welterweight title unification and instead opted to buy out his Top Rank contract for $750,000.
"I made him a tremendous offer," Arum told ESPN at the time. "I think Margarito is the riskiest fight for him of anyone out there."
Ellerbe responded by saying that Mayweather wasn't ducking Margarito, a feared volume puncher known as "The Tijuana Tornado." However, the decision played a key role in making him the most lucrative star in combat sports history. Later that year, Mayweather fought Carlos Baldomir for $8 million and dropped just a combined two points on the scorecards in a unanimous decision.
The following year, Mayweather defeated Oscar De La Hoya in a 2007 megafight, the fight that changed his persona from "Pretty Boy Floyd" to "Money Mayweather." It's a model that many now have tried to emulate, but it has come at a cost to the sport as fighters try a similar approach.
"Now they're more like prima donnas where everybody wants to be protected," said Brad Goodman, a Top Rank matchmaker who was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in June. "Everyone wants to be the 'A' side. ...
"What guys need to know today is one loss doesn't really define you. You can just get right back on there, pick up a win or two and you're right back in the mix again. But these guys, they just want to be undefeated for their whole career."
Promoters don't often work together
The Gervonta Davis-Ryan Garcia bout from April and the Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder heavyweight trilogy proved promotions can work together.
It just doesn't happen often.
"There's plenty of blame to go around between management, fighters, promoters, business entities," said Carl Moretti, VP of operations for Top Rank. "Everybody can have a piece of the blame pie if you want."
The business of boxing has stood in the way of making fights. Four promoters have deals across three networks, essentially creating three de facto leagues. There's Top Rank on ESPN, Matchroom and Golden Boy on DAZN and Premier Boxing Champions with Showtime. It has allowed networks to keep their own stars on their own platforms, in places where fans are familiar.
Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza told ESPN in 2021 the exclusivity deals between promoters and networks have made it more difficult to make big fights "because everyone has their own little fiefdom, and they don't cross-pollinate."
If you're going to have a massive fight, the broadcasters -- who foot a lot of the bills -- must generate enough revenue to warrant working with a rival network. There's almost always a first meeting. It's what happens after which complicates things -- if they can even come to an agreement to have a second meeting.
"Obviously, everybody wants to try and see how much leverage they can get in the fight," promoter Marvin Rodriguez said. "So that's when things usually go wrong, because people push a little harder the second time around."
Make it to a second round of discussions, Rodriguez said, and you have a shot as long as some flexibility exists. But each negotiation takes time, which leads to delays and questions over whether or not a deal will get done. The pressure, if it's public, can help.
"It's the networks, it's the promoters," Goodman said. "I think if everybody put their egos to the side and did what's best for the fighters, and what people really want to see, I think it would be much better.
"But we're not in a perfect world. There's certain guys that, you know, you put a ton of money into and you invested a ton of money and you don't want to take that gamble."
There are recent examples of collaboration. The 2002 Mike Tyson-Lennox Lewis and the 2017 Wladimir Klitschko-Anthony Joshua heavyweight championship fights were HBO/Showtime PPVs and the past two bouts in the Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder trilogy in 2020 and 2021 were joint PPVs between ESPN and Fox. April's Davis-Garcia megafight was distributed by both DAZN and Showtime, with different prices on each network (DAZN offered a discount for subscribers.)
With three networks dealing with the top promoters, making the money work can be a tougher part of the overall conversation.
"I think one of the challenges in the media market recently is as much as it's good for the sport to have multiple networks involved in supporting the sport and spreading the sport around, when each of those networks has exclusive arrangements or near exclusive arrangements, it sort of splinters the industry and it makes it harder to make the big fights," Espinoza told ESPN in March.
"So on one hand, I'd like to see boxing on as many networks as possible. On the other hand, if that happens, that does make things a little bit more difficult in terms of making fights if there are more and more exclusivity arrangements that have to be overcome."
Boxing's biggest events often include theatrical entrances -- fireworks, mariachi bands and star-studded rap performances. But like in the case of Canelo Alvarez's Mexico homecoming, that leaves the B-side fighter waiting ... and waiting some more.
When there's two champions facing off in a unification fight, just who walks to the ring second can be a fierce negotiation, yet another stumbling block after the sides agreed to financial terms.
"If one guy's going to do a walk-in that's 30 minutes long and the other guy's going to do a walk-in that's three minutes long, the three-minute-long guy should come last because he shouldn't have to wait in the ring," said John Hornewer, the attorney for Haney, Lomachenko, Oleksandr Usyk and many others. "Sometimes it's common sense, but common sense doesn't dictate."
These ancillary issues aren't always resolved. The order of who walks to the ring is one of many considerations. In the end, the biggest sticking points during negotiations tend to involve the financial split for fighters. That includes stipulations for a potential rematch, which must be negotiated before the first fight.
Usually, only the champion has the right to exercise the rematch clause, financial protection since the challenger is receiving a title shot. But in the case of Fury and Usyk, both fighters are champions so there was a bilateral rematch clause. Alexander Krassyuk, Usyk's promoter, said many considerations Fury wanted were "completely disrespectful."
"Mostly tickets, travel, who walks first, second, [the order of] who steps on the scales -- pretty, petty stuff," promoter Frank Warren said. "We got it all out of the way except for one issue and that was the rematch."
Fury, who did not want a rematch clause, was unwilling to bend on the purse split for the return bout. Usyk said he agreed to a 30% split to fight Fury on April 29 in London but sought 70% in the rematch. That's where talks collapsed.
In the 2007 Mayweather-De La Hoya superfight, Hornewer said Mayweather conceded to his opponent on several issues -- gloves, weight, etc. It wasn't worth the risk of the talks breaking down ahead of a payday that more than tripled his previous high. "Floyd had this confidence in himself that he's going to make the fight," the attorney said. "It could have fallen out over anything.
"And that's really the issue today ... that like with Tyson Fury and Usyk."
Some items are rather frivolous. Billy Joe Saunders threatened to pull out of his 2021 super middleweight title unification against Alvarez unless the ring was expanded by two feet on all sides, a move that favored the slick southpaw. Alvarez agreed to keep the fight intact.
Others are more serious. The fight between Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao was delayed six years after initial talks broke down over testing protocols for performance-enhancing drugs, among other things.
There's also the matter of who's billed as the A-side for the promotion, how many tickets each fighter receives, the quality and quantity of hotel rooms, the allocation and location of plane seats, per diems for the team, training expenses ... on and on it goes. Negotiations are delicate, and seemingly any little squabble can squash a fight.
When Sergio Martinez was set to defend his WBC middleweight title against Miguel Cotto in 2014, Cotto insisted on being the A-side and renaming the event Cotto-Martinez instead of Martinez-Cotto, even with Martinez being the champion. Martinez agreed at the last minute and the fight was announced after that.
"When extraneous bulls--- that shouldn't matter breaks up a fight, there's something else breaking up the fight," promoter Lou DiBella said. "It doesn't break up over that s---. It breaks up over the fact that someone doesn't really want it to happen."
Purses are skewed at the top
Al Haymon launched PBC in 2015 across multiple networks, armed with a $550 million war chest to support his organization. Matchroom Boxing's Eddie Hearn entered the U.S. marketplace two-and-a-half years later with hundreds of millions of DAZN's dollars.
As new entrants enter the marketplace, the influx of money used to gain a foothold and disrupt the sport also creates a disconnect between the amount spent to make a fight and what money it can actually generate.
"The compensation that [fighters] are looking for is unrealistic at times," Moretti said. "And that prohibits a lot of fights from getting made. Self-entitlement and worth, in what a fighter thinks he's worth and what's actually available, is never really close to one another."
The infusion of cash created an artificially inflated market which boxing, eight years later, is still sorting to correct.
Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., one fight after he earned $500,000, pulled in $6 million for a December 2019 bout with Daniel Jacobs, per sources. Hearn then paid nearly $9 million for a nontitle fight between Mikey Garcia and Jessie Vargas a few months later, sources said. Both DAZN main events were intriguing to boxing fans, but featured heavy betting favorites.
In April 2019, Amir Khan, long past his days as a marquee attraction, earned more than $5 million to get TKOed by Terence Crawford in a Top Rank on ESPN+ PPV, according to sources.
The money was good for the boxers themselves, but it created an issue: convincing those boxers to accept similar money for far tougher matchups fans actually crave.
"You can't ask me to make you a guarantee if it's not going to reach that [revenue]," Moretti said. "Why should anybody lose money and why shouldn't fighters be compensated fairly? It all depends on what's coming in and what's going out. It's a simple business when you break it down."
For a fighter's high guarantee request to sync with good business, they must show strong pay-per-view sales, tickets sold or a combination of both.
Haney earned $4 million guaranteed for his disputed decision win over Lomachenko in May. Shakur Stevenson, a potential future Haney opponent, earned more than $3 million guaranteed for an unremarkable fight with little known Shuichiro Yoshino in April.
After Haney's victory, Stevenson stepped into the ring to confront him. It's a fight that fans want to see, but could it generate the business needed to make it a profitable venture?
"If the fighters want it, I feel it can be done," Haney said. "I think the promoters and the managers get blamed sometimes for the fights that the fighters don't want."
If Top Rank wants to put together Haney-Stevenson later this year, how much money is it going to cost? And how much will that pay-per-view cost the boxing fan?
"We take risks but we're not gamblers," Arum told FightHype. "To put up tremendous guarantees for that fight to make a couple of dollars, if you're lucky. ... Why do it? I would rather buy a ticket and go watch the fight."
The upcoming Spence-Crawford bout comes a year after failed negotiations.
The sides were closing in on a deal last year when it collapsed at the 11th hour. Crawford, who is a promotional free agent, ended up with a routine title defense against David Avanesyan in December. He earned approximately $10 million from BLK Prime, per sources, one of many independent promoters that have come and gone over the years with piles of money for one-off events.
In 2020, Teofimo Lopez Jr. earned a career-high $1.35 million for his win over Lomachenko. George Kambosos Jr., who beat Lopez, went on to earn millions more for a pair of losses to Haney in Australia, while Lopez made less for his next two fights.
Now, both Lopez and Kambosos have returned to purses more in line with what promoters expect to generate from their respective summer bouts. Lopez earned $2.3 million for his highly anticipated title fight with Josh Taylor earlier this month, per sources.
Hornewer, Mayweather's longtime attorney, said the former champion realized the marketability of each fight mattered most.
"Here's a guy who would make hundreds of millions and go back to making $35, $40 million," Hornewer said, "which is extraordinary, but [not] compared to what he'd made before."
Where do we go from here?
While many examples of boxing's dysfunction prevent great matchups, recent history has shown ways the sport can produce the best fights.
After years of chatter, Spence and Crawford stood face-to-face, smiling and exchanging words, a surreal moment for those who thought the fight might never happen.
During the first news conference at the Palladium Times Square in New York on June 14, Spence and Crawford acknowledged the night's significance.
Spence, in black-rimmed glasses and a white shirt buttoned to the collar, said the matchup against his archrival is the kind of fight his father, Errol Sr., used to tell him about, historic matchups featuring names like Leonard, Hagler and Felix Trinidad.
But for the upcoming undisputed welterweight championship bout to come to fruition, it required both fighters to ensure that it happened.
"Finally, we're at this point where me and Terence Crawford had to get on the phone, talk about it, and now, it's finally happening," Spence said. "The best fighting the best. I feel like it's an old-school fight."
The eras Spence referenced were ones that featured historic matchups between legendary champions, the bouts that lifted boxing's relevance from die-hard fans to a global audience. Those involved in the sport recognize the need to create the best matchups to satisfy and grow boxing's fanbase.
Spence-Crawford comes three months after the Davis-Garcia bout in Las Vegas that put boxing in the spotlight for casual fans around the world (and raked in $22.3 million in gate receipts).
After T-Mobile Arena had all but cleared out after Davis TKOed Garcia -- but before workers collapsed all the chairs and raked the trash from the floor of the lower level -- Garcia held the microphone in the ring and pondered what just transpired.
"This is what boxing needs," Garcia said, his black Amiri tracksuit still dazzling under the arena lights. "This is why I did what I had to do to make this fight happen. I want this to inspire other fighters to get in the ring together. Let's get the big fights going.
"Win or lose, we're ready to fight. That's all that matters."