For months, boxing has had to figure out what’s the most effective course of action when it comes to its return. How would boxing and COVID-19 co-exist?
Top Rank Boxing created The Bubble in Las Vegas, where it held several shows throughout a two-month period, Matchroom Boxing turned promoter Eddie Hearn’s backyard in the UK into a mini venue and Showtime had temporarily made the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut its new home.
But just as different networks and boxing entities tried to find ways to circumvent these unusual circumstances, boxers alike from across the globe have had to make major adjustments as well. Ted Cheeseman, who was victorious in the main event of Matchroom Boxing’s first show back from the pandemic weeks ago, was just one of many who thought the pandemic was going to prevent him from fighting for a long time.
“With the way the lockdown has been happening and seeing everything, I didn’t think we would be fighting until 2021, to be honest. Obviously, I was glad to be able to fight sooner,” Cheeseman said before he defeated Sam Eggington on August 1 in Hearn’s backyard.
When boxing was shut down in March because of the pandemic, networks rallied to find a way to eventually bring back boxing. Although the reception to some of the events shown by several networks have been mixed at best, perhaps the one network that has received near universal praise for its lineup of fights is Showtime.
Its robust schedule featured big-time matchups, highly-anticipated main events and even future Hall of Famers in world title bouts. But just like everyone else, Showtime has already had to deal with changes to their schedule. First off, Stephen Fulton Jr. tested positive for COVID-19, meaning Angelo Leo had to find a new opponent for his WBO super bantamweight title fight that would headline the August 1 Showtime Championship Boxing card.
Leo eventually got his replacement opponent in Tramaine Williams and was able to emerge victorious, capturing the WBO title, his first world title. Speaking after the fight, Leo told Fight Game Media that it was a unique experience fighting for a world title with no fans in attendance. In fact, Leo used time cues from the Showtime broadcasters at one point to know when to be more aggressive.
“It was unique in a way for a pro fight, but it also felt more like a sparring session. In sparring, you only hear your trainers and the people around you. I could hear my trainers, I could hear what the commentators were saying. At one point, when there was a minute left, I could hear the commentators say that and so, I was able to push it a little more when I heard that,” Leo said.
However, the loss of Fulton wasn’t the only change to Showtime’s lineup of fights. It was announced weeks later that there has been changes to the two-part pay-per-view event on September 26, bringing in WBO bantamweight champion John Riel Casimero and former world champion Luis Nery to the show. Though no reason for the changes was revealed, Stephen Espinoza, President, Sports & Event Programming for Showtime, did note to Fight Game Media that everything is on the table when it comes to making changes to its fight schedule, but that the network and promoters are trying their best to not stray much from what they initially announced.
“I think everything is an option. The conversation that we’ve had with fighters, with promoters, with our partners has all been about flexibility and the reality is that if we had a more extensive break, then we may need to move fights and create new dates. Our focus is maintaining the dates that we have on our schedule. If fighters have been training for this particular date, then it is important that we kept as many of them as possible on their date without much disruption. That’ll be our priority, but it certainly is possible to create a new date or ship fighters a week or two later. If that’s the best way to get them a fight and keep them from having spent a training camp in the pursuit of nothing, [so be it],” Espinoza said.
Even the pandemic has changed how fight weeks are conducted. No longer are the media allowed to freely go to events and gyms for public workouts. Many press conferences are held via Zoom and phone calls with the media.
To some, the change may be jarring, but the pandemic has given fighters more free time to rest their minds and do things they usually wouldn’t have a chance to during Fight Week. Irish featherweight contender Michael Conlan was all smiles when he described his fight week experience before he faced former world title challenger Sofiane Takoucht.
“If I’m being honest, it’s the most relaxed and chilled fight week I’ve had. Usually, we have the hoopla, the hyperbole, everyone around, having to go here and there to do interviews. It’s been chill at the hotel, chilled out with the team, having fun. This time I actually brought my PlayStation and I’m playing some ‘Call of Duty,’” Conlan said.
Yet, some fighters don’t have the luxury of having such a relaxed environment when preparing for a fight. Some boxers, even world champions, don’t even know when they’re fighting again and can only hold out hope for a potential fight.
Wilfredo Mendez, the current WBO minimumweight champion and Puerto Rico’s sole male world champion, couldn’t train in his home country with strict quarantine protocols and head to Las Vegas. Training in the dry desert heat in Las Vegas was a new feeling for the 105-pound champion. In fact, it is something he is still getting used to.
Though the future remains shrouded in mystery for Mendez, it hasn’t been a complete loss for him. He did get to spar and train with the likes of Casimero and former IBF minimumweight champion DeeJay Kriel.
“We still don’t have a date for a fight. We’re still waiting for a call that could come at any time, whether it would be to defend my title or just have a non-title fight. We’re just trying to stay active, not lower our guard since things are looking bad for now. Some days, it can get worse with the pandemic, the gyms are closed, so we decided to take our training in Puerto Rico and transfer to Las Vegas. It lets us stay ready for whenever the time comes and we get a call to fight. If we had stayed in Puerto Rico, we wouldn’t have done anything really. I couldn’t fight because I wasn’t doing anything. I came here to Las Vegas for new opportunities and see what’s out there,” Mendez said.
That’s really what a lot of fighters can do right now; wait and hope an opportunity comes around. Every fighter’s story throughout the pandemic is different, but none are without its own obstacles to overcome.
No one really knows when things will return to the way they were pre-pandemic or even if they will ever return to normal. This is boxing, or rather the world, in 2020. Whether folks like it or not, this is the environment boxing will likely be in for months.