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Boxing and Capitalism

Info: 5271 words (21 pages) Essay
Published: 10th May 2021 in Sociology

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Analysing the relationship between Boxing and the media, with relation to capitalism

Boxing is a unique sport in that the drama it presents is like no other, as it can tap into an audience’s primal sense of excitement spurred on by violence. Quoted by De Garis (2010), Plimpton described boxing as “the ultimate confrontation” and “one man versus another in the most basic terms.” Despite this noble exterior, boxing and pugilism is often surrounded my media circuses and larger-than-life characters that news outlets prefer to focus on rather than the sporting merits of boxers and their fights (not to mention scrutiny for its often barbaric and violent nature) (Fissler, 2014). Due to this, boxers and boxing promoters often must find ways to artificially inflate the drama surrounding fights, usually by shows of aggression or mocking towards their potential opponents in public (N/A, 2014). This is often taken further when boxers are scheduled to fight each other, sometimes resulting in physical altercations (Dirs, 2012). This sensationalism is to create media intrigue, which in turn draws in a larger viewership, ultimately procuring financial benefits for all parties involved and the sport itself. While some may find the violence and camaraderie distasteful, they mind find enjoyment in the science and skill of boxing – as such, the sport offers something for a varied audience to enjoy (Pryor, 2013).

Boxing and Capitalism

The inner workings of how boxing operates economically is very much paralleled with capitalism. Boxers must work on their popularity and ability to attain a larger fanbase and higher income, but similar to capitalism some boxers have certain natural advantages. While in a broader sense capitalism favours those born into money (Hutton, 2014), in boxing it favours those with other, more specified details of birth right. For example, heavyweights generally receive the most promotion and money through boxing (Mannion, 2020). This is nothing to do with how hard they work or how naturally gifted they are; this factor can be attributed to genetics. Adding to this, boxing is not unacquainted with nepotism. Marvis Fraizer, son of “Smokin’” Joe Fraizer, was able to secure himself large purses and high-profile fights due to his ancestry rather than his boxing ability (N/A, 2010). Other lesser-known sons of successful boxers, like Conor Benn (son of Nigel Benn), Chris Eubank Jr and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr have enjoyed this benefit. While the mainstream awareness of these boxers is certain to be increased through this, they also have the added weight of their familial predecessors to live up to. If they do not do so, the media and audience may consider them and their career a failure – Chavez Jr is a good example of this (Snowden, 2015). This may not affect their financial draw but will severely harm their legacy in the sport and can affect how much money they can earn in boxing when they retire form in-ring competition. Gwartz and Spence (2019) discuss the gravity of this, weighing up the values of both financial obtainment and personal enjoyment. This is key, as many legends of sports go on to continue with their careers in that sport after retirement, generally in punditry or management roles. It provides them with a career opportunity after they retire and in turn, they lend expert analysis to viewers at home. To draw back to Floyd Mayweather, he himself is also from a decorated and lucrative boxing family (Smith, 2014) but was able to overcome any pressure he may have faced and enjoyed a very successful career, both in the ring and financially.

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In a capitalist system, economies in theory operate on a supply and demand basis (Klein, 1983). In boxing, a boxer is economically viable if they draw large attendances, pay-per-view buy rates and is attractive to sponsorship deals. Anthony Joshua is a good example of an economically viable boxer, as he encompasses all three of these traits (Connelly, 2017). Other examples in history are Muhammed Ali (N/A, 2020) and Mike Tyson (Workman, 2011), who became extremely popular in their respective periods to the point where their fights became almost must see. Through this, they were able to obtain lucrative financial pay outs, although Tyson would become bankrupt due to his habits later in his career (Fermie, 2020).

In contemporary boxing, the two strongest examples of this are Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury. Heavyweights are always at the forefront of advertising in boxing, as they are generally who audiences want to see the most. Tyson Fury prefers the public relations route of comedic actions, often humouring his opponents (Parkinson, 2015). This serves a secondary, more pragmatic purpose in the form of mind games that can lead to boxers gaining an edge over their opponents mentally. Comedy can be used as a form of public relations, as when one is seen as “funny”, this will generally lead to endearment and widespread appeal. This exists in other combat sports and is a large factor into how Conor McGregor attained such a wide-reaching support, leading to him becoming by far the most well-known contemporary MMA fighter (Botter, 2017). While excitement in the ring is a key element in developing a fanbase in boxing, entertainment outside of it is becoming more and more paramount, especially with the advent of social media. Anthony Joshua employs a less grandiose approach, with his conventionally attractive appearance used in public sponsorship deals and the like (Connelly, 2017). Many of his critics descend upon him for being uninteresting in interviews, however, this fundamentally has no connection with his boxing ability. It does theoretically affect his ability to sell a fight, which may cost him economically. However, because some audiences view him as Eddie Hearn’s (promoter of Matchroom Boxing) “cash cow” he does not currently need this ability (N/A, 2018). It was predicted by fellow promoter Frank Warren that both men would suffer economically upon Joshua’s first loss (Downes, 2019), but upon it being inflicted on him by Andy Ruiz Jr, he has since recovered admirably, showing that boxing is not the cut-throat business some believe it to be and does offer second chances.

One must also factor in the role of promoters in boxing. Following a bout, a promoter will generally take 20% to 25% of their respective fighter’s purse (Fiouzi, 2018). However, it is the promoter’s job to make sure these fights take place and to generate enough interest around them draw as much financial gain as possible. Floyd Mayweather has found a way around this, as he is his own promoter and is able to take home most of his fight purses for himself (Smith, 2014).

Use of Public Relations in Boxing

Due to this connection between media coverage and economic growth in boxing, adequate use of public relations is critical for high-level boxers if they wish to earn a large sum of money from the sport. However, PR for boxers is different to how a more mainstream celebrity may employ it. For example, Floyd Mayweather has received numerous convictions and allegations surrounding issues that would no doubt leave most other celebrities in a place of public contempt – however, Mayweather remains the highest-grossing athlete in the sport’s history and indeed one of the highest-earning in all sports (McDonald & O’Neal, 2017). To draw back to an earlier point, this public and media distaste is one of the key reasons why Mayweather was so successful – his notoriety earned his fights huge pay-per view buy rates and he benefitted greatly in terms of money (Campbell, 2015).

Boxing has been viewed as distasteful by its critics in the media. Boxers themselves are often drawn into this, sometimes branded as thugs or inarticulate. It is one of very few sports where blood and violence is not a problem, but an advertisement and an objective (Martinez, 2018). Combat sports have been historically demonised by the media and sections of the public (O’Regan, 2011), which limits its audience and the amount of finance it can generate. However, because combat sports are the only sports where explicit fighting takes place, they have no trouble in the market besides each other. Alongside this, fighters have been known to jump between combat sports and even in some cases to staged combat sports (Osborne, 2019). To pose a counter argument to this, many see boxing as a way for people to exorcise their personal demons in a way that no other sport offers and instils the with a sense of pride that cannot be found elsewhere (Pryor, 2013).

To generalise, the largest part of economic success within boxing is via shrewd public relations. Most of the most famous western boxers across history (Muhammed Ali, Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard) had intelligently crafted PR strategies. In the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” bout between Muhammed Ali and George Foreman, Ali was still coming off a boxing suspension brought about by his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War (Weeks, 2017). His concurrent public perception was mixed in the USA, but as the fight taking place in Zaire, Ali took the opportunity to ingratiate with and earn the support of the locals. Foreman, on the other hand, was presented by the media as an unstoppable monster who would likely beat Ali and cause him serious damage in the process. Ali as a result went into the bout with huge amounts of local support, a factor that some audiences feel aided him in victory (Weeks, 2017).

In view of the exploitative elements that are by-products of a capitalist regime, it is not uncommon for boxers to be treated unfairly by their promoters (N/A, 2016). Promoters create fights, deal with contracts and overall can often decide a boxer’s future and are shown to care more about the financial side of the sport than anything else. Don King is an example of this, with many fighters over the years claiming he has cheated them out of money they earned. Mike Tyson was notably vocal in his criticism of King, blaming him for his financial plights (Meier & Smith, 1998). Promoters can be viewed as faux-spin doctors within boxing, as they build up and present fighters of their choosing in the manner they desire. As well as this, boxers have been known to squander their fortunes accumulated after their careers through mismanagement of their funds. Many have been known to return to the ring at an advanced age due to needing the money, such as George Foreman, although other do this because of their sheer love of the sport and the art of pugilism itself, like Roberto Duran (some audiences believe this was a way for Duran to channel his inner anger, like many boxers do as a way to deter them from a dishonest and violent life) (Ingle, 2015). To summarise, this can be linked back to the criticism of capitalism in that promoters always tend to walk away with their fortunes intact, while often boxers do not – and even so, only the most popular boxers are able to make large sums of money from fights, while promoters (who do not risk their lives in the ring) always take a sizeable share of the money generated (Hutton, 2014).

In a more positive light, boxers may develop their own brands, using boxing as a platform for this. Anthony Joshua has received sponsorship and endorsements from companies such as Lynx and Under Armour, netting him a reported sum of £8.3 million (Boon, 2019). This sponsorship earns them more exposure to the public and a result more spotlight in the media. While this can lead to boxers becoming “over-hyped” is it also necessary for them so they can build up a larger fanbase and further their career. The more expansive a boxer’s popularity is, the more money they can make – they will be able to secure more high-profile fights, negotiate for larger purses and secure more title bouts. Even if they not currently a champion, boxers currently holding belts may still want to fight them to add a big name their resume. 

Some audiences believe that in a capitalist society, the main reason for the existence of sport is to generate profit as opposed to creating positivity within society (Gwartz & Spence, 2019). While it is true that boxing (and sport in general, though in boxing it is most prevalent) gives those who may have led a life of crime to embark on a legally honest career (Marino, 2015). However, ultimately, the prime function of a career in any field is to obtain financial gain. Gwartz and Spence state that there are underlying social reasons as to why one may take up a career in sports, such as personal enjoyment and to relieve stress from everyday life (a notion that is particularly true in boxing). In spite of this, there are boxers who have claimed that they attain little stimulation from boxing and have only pursued a career in the sport because it pays well (Davies, 2015).

There are some boxers who, despite having conventionally exciting matches (positive knockout ratios and high-profile matches are the two key factors for this), never managed to fully grasp the attention and support of the public. A good example of this is Larry Holmes. This could be attributed to him playing a relatively secondary role to the careers of Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, two of the sport’s most well-known icons (Henderson, 2017). He was the only boxer to ever defeat Ali by stoppage and in a twist of fate was himself knocked out by Tyson at in the twilight of his career. Many experts find themselves confused as to why Holmes was never accepted by the wider audience, but some put it down to his defeat of Ali. At the time, Ali was seen as a living legend; to see him humbled in such a manner upset the public and they held a grudge against Holmes as a result. It was something no one wanted to see, least of all Holmes himself (Bracy, 2017). Again, this draws back to the idea that not everyone in a capitalist regime is given an equal chance – it was not Holmes’ fault that his career happened when it did, but his legacy in the media suffered as a result. Ultimately, the demand for high profile boxing was not as present as it had been during Holmes’ career (Klein, 1983).

Farrington (2012) brings up the legitimate point that upper classes have always dictated how boxing runs and this is no exception in the concurrent landscape. He also says that it has been a case of “the poor fight and the rich spectate and accumulate the wealth”. While this could be considered the case for most boxers, top fighters in the sport have legitimate financial pull and do take a large modicum of wealth from their fights in the modern game. However, it is still promoters who are land themselves the most money. Farrington uses the example of plantation owners forcing their slaves to fight and taking all the profit, but this is an archaic example that is a non-factor today. While boxers have been historically categorised as “lower” members of society due to its “primitive” nature, the fact that a boxer is one of the highest grossing athletes ever (Floyd Mayweather) along with many other very highly paid competitors in the sport seems to allude that this is an inaccurate school of thought.

Boxing itself is somewhat of a niche interest when compared to more popular sports like association football (Pryor, 2013), but it can often attract a mainstream audience if promoted sufficiently (Nagesh, 2011). To draw back to De Garis (2010), boxing is a sport like no other and presents the ultimate opportunity for a man to prove his superiority over another. As such, it can be used as a platform for celebrities with rivalries, fictional or otherwise, to clash and attempt to prove superiority over each other without breaking the law (Stokel-Walker, 2018). To draw back to the theory of conscious capitalism, some, more cynical audiences may see this as a ham-fisted attempt at generating revenue and exposure for the parties involved. In this case, boxing is used as nothing more than a platform and any sort of respect for the intricacies for the sport are pushed aside in favour of celebrity appeal. It may also factor in egos where celebrities are concerned – Pryor (2013) says “the ring is a pedestal” and that we hold the fighters within it to “unfathomable standards”. Vogan (2010) describes being world champion as the “apex of masculinity”, therefore a position that is highly coveted by the boxing fanbase.

Conclusion

To conclude, boxing is a sport dominated by populism and is not necessarily economically balanced in some respects. While boxers are expected to make a name for themselves and build up an organic following (in turn increasing their revenue, complying with supply and demand (Klein, 1983)), not all fighters are given an equal opportunity. Heavyweights will always be the highest grossing athletes – even though they may not always be the most technically skilled or charismatic, they generate more income than any other weight class (Mannion, 2020). There are many ways for a boxer to promote themselves, not just through having an entertaining style or success in the ring. This is accurately demonstrated by non-boxers having high profile matches, such as the recent KSI vs Logan Paul event – they were able to gather an audience merely through canny promotion, rather than through their boxing ability (Stokel-Walker, 2018). While purist boxing fans tend to prefer the intricacies of the sport, many of the casual audience merely tune in to see the spectacle and to see what is in their eyes “the ultimate confrontation” (De Garis, 2010).

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