Anthony Crolla was left a little stunned by a picture he received on his phone last Saturday. It came through at 6pm and had been taken at a place he knows well. He almost didn’t recognise it.
‘Manchester Arena,’ he tells Mail Sport. ‘Loved fighting there. Absolutely loved it.’
And that’s because he’s a Manchester lad, born and raised. A world champion in his day, he was popular. A crowd puller. A good guy who did good things and drew good numbers.
But the image on his screen opened his eyes and put them on stalks, because it was snapped in the prelude to one of the most bizarre spectacles to ever attach itself to a sporting context – the ‘Misfits Boxing’ card headlined by YouTubers, influencers and a chap in Tommy Fury whose prime causes of recognition were his bloodline and a stint on Love Island.
‘A mate of mine sent it to me and the arena was totally rammed and going off with 20,000 people,’ says Crolla. ‘That’s at 6pm. Bloody hell.
Anthony Crolla was left stunned by the picture that came through on his phone last Saturday
The photo showed a rammed Manchester Arena for the ‘Misfits Boxing’ card. Crolla was shocked by the size of the crowd
‘I had title fights there where I might have had 15,000 as the main event at 10pm. Maybe a few hundred or thousand would be in at the start of the show. But this was at 6pm – whether we like it or not, this thing is very popular. Next day, kids in the gym where I do some training were talking to me like they’d seen Joshua-Klitschko.
‘Look, I’m as confused as the next guy by what we’re seeing. A lot of it is utter madness, and it’s embarrassing how they behave in pressers and stuff, but it works for a lot of people, doesn’t it? Is it good or bad for boxing? That depends how you want to look at it.
‘But boxing is a sport I love and some of these behaviours are getting attached to it. That isn’t great. I mean, you watch those press conferences…’
Crolla always was a measured voice in a sport of chaos and he can laugh about what we are witnessing. Like many onlookers he has bounced between revulsion and curiosity when he thinks about the current vogue, because this is a strange new era of the fight game.
Applying a traditional eye to what played out last week in Manchester, or merely a sensible one, it was hard to see much more than a freak show. A wilder version of Barnum’s Circus, but devoid of any cracking of the whip. It was grubby, vile in parts, and rooted in dreadful fights and worse behaviour.
And yet some of the success markers of that Misfits promotion, compiled here, are astonishing and lucrative and speak to changing consumer trends in most walks of life, not to mention their compatibility with boxing, where responses to the bait will always be more exaggerated.
As such, Crolla’s sport and many of its people have dived in, which would also serve to explain the peculiar production being staged next weekend in Saudi Arabia, when Tyson Fury will fight for the first time in 2023. For a purse deep into eight figures, he will take on Francis Ngannou, his equivalent from mixed martial arts who has never previously stepped foot in a professional boxing ring.
It reeks of a jarring exercise at a point when most in his sport and beyond are desperate to see Fury fight Oleksandr Usyk for the undisputed heavyweight title — a bout is apparently agreed but still has no date. Into the void steps a more credible relative of Misfits, but one that nonetheless exists on the same odd side of the family tree. It all raises a question: surely even boxing is above this?
Tyson Fury will fight Francis Ngannou on October 28 in a cross-over fight that has attracted much controversy
Ngannou, an MMA fighter who has never boxed professionally, competes in the bout for a purse dep into eight figures
Most in the sport are beyond desperate to see Fury fight Oleksandr Usyk rather than in a peculiar Saudi Arabian production against Ngannou
But before we attempt to answer that, it is necessary to go back to the Misfits and isolate one scene that spoke to the vibe of an entire concept, which means rewinding to the Wednesday before last, when they staged an open workout. This particular situation centred on Elle Brooke, a peripheral figure on the boxing scene who occasionally fights and is largely known for creating adult content for the OnlyFans website.
In Manchester, she was conducting interviews, and at one stage called over to Dillon Danis, an American mixed martial artist with five million social media followers, and who was scheduled for a six-rounder with Logan Paul (32 million followers) on that card. His promotion of the fight had already seen him post explicit images online of his ex-girlfriend, who is now Paul’s fiancé, but when Brooke saw Danis he took a chance to head even further south.
Would he be willing, she asked, to choke her unconscious. Danis seemed unsure at first, but clicks are clicks. And so he did it, holding her from behind and squeezing his forearm against Brooke’s throat until she went limp and slumped to the ground. She was out cold, but after being shaken back to her senses, she was rather excited: ‘Oh my God, that is so much better than drugs.’
It was a desperately troubling scenario that would go on to generate more than a million views on YouTube, but none seemingly among those who rank as the grown-ups in charge.
Mail Sport put in a call to Bruce Baker, the chairman of the Professional Boxing Association, the fringe organisation who licensed the 14 influential novices taking part. Baker had no idea what we were referring to, much less if it would trigger the disciplinary action that would be issued almost anywhere else. He instead said he hadn’t seen it and added that their remit runs from weigh-in to post-fight and the implementation of fighter safety and drugs testing. But he says they will now look into it, which is something one might suppose.
If it all stinks of a promotion where content is all and blind eyes are turned to anything deeper, then that would seem about right. Because, of course, this was a card topped by Tommy Fury, Tyson’s half-brother. Sources involved in the creation of his bout with Olajide Olayinka Williams Olatunji, who goes by KSI to his 24million YouTube subscribers, tell us Fury earned more than £4million, making him one of the highest paid fighters in Britain.
Naturally, their engagement was dreadful. ‘A load of crap,’ says the former world champion Carl Froch and most of us would make him right, given it just about killed off whatever credibility the younger Fury has in a prize ring.
But another well-placed source claims the show, co-headlined by Danis and Paul, pulled in 1.3m pay-per-view buys at £19.99 a pop, predominantly from that most sought-after of places: the younger demographic. That added to a variety of clips which brought in multiple millions of social media views, including one of Fury’s father John Fury headbutting a Perspex screen in a cartoonish rage against KSI.
Dillon Danis choked out OnlyFans creator Elle Brooke in a desperately troubling scenario that generated more than a million views on YouTube
Is there any concern with the stink that comes with Misfits shows? ‘It is all a bit of a pantomime, isn’t it?’ says Crolla
The broadcaster, DAZN, would not confirm those pay-per-view numbers but there is a plausible certainty that their stream did far better business than any other fight on British soil this year. And close to double what was reportedly amassed by boxing’s biggest star, Canelo Alvarez, against Jermell Charlo last month. It is deflating.
The root of their attraction is obvious from a business perspective, with DAZN having signed up for five years of Misfits shows, but what about concern for the stink that comes with it?
‘It is all a bit of a pantomime, isn’t it?’ says Crolla. ‘I suppose you have to ask if boxing can benefit. Maybe it does if the new people coming in to watch get hooked on the more normal parts of the sport. I’d like to see figures that support that, because we are talking about huge numbers.
‘But throwing microphones, and some of the other stuff they are seeing, that isn’t a good look, is it? I also wonder about the health of the fighters. We saw it the other day in the earlier fights on the night – they are swinging away and can’t defend themselves properly because they aren’t trained. Some of them were allowed to go on too long. What does it look like for boxing if something goes wrong?’
It is a good question. Baker pointed to medical supervision that he claims would match or better that which is implemented by the British Boxing Board of Control, who told Mail Sport on Friday they likely wouldn’t license the majority of those involved last weekend, even if they were formally asked, which they were not. ‘Let’s be honest, it’s a very poor standard,’ says their general secretary Robert Smith.
As an interesting aside that has also raised eyebrows within the sport, the BBC are licensing Tyson Fury’s Saudi exhibition. But returning to Baker’s argument, it does not seem to pay heed to the obvious retort, which is that an ambulance and a hospital on standby is all well and good, but are these ‘fighters’ safe to be in a ring in the first place?
But this is boxing, where sense rarely finds a way past the doorman, and where sense is desperately needed to improve its crumbling reputation.
At a time when not enough of the biggest fights happen, when failed drugs tests are rife and easily navigated, when self-interest governs the broadcasters, promoters and the many sanctioning bodies, and when a wanted man who is accused of being the head of an international drugs cartel — Daniel Kinahan — has had his fingerprints on much of what we see, it all supports the view that boxing has the ecosystem it deserves.
The curmudgeonly among us might see these crossover fights and freak shows as a disease within the sport. But the closer truth is that they are merely a symptom.
A relevant, divisive view in all of this belongs to Kalle Sauerland. His family has been involved in boxing promotion going back to the Seventies, and yet he is the promoter of Misfits. ‘This is a separate space to boxing,’ he tells Mail Sport. ‘It is about doing something different. I didn’t know what to think originally but the possibilities are huge.
‘It’s about looking at new, shorter formats because that is what people want now. I am not saying you do away with 12-round fights and the stuff we love. But boxing was asleep when UFC came along. This is trying new things for new audiences — like tag-team fights, or imagine Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder but across five rounds, throwing the kitchen sink.
The freak shows and cross-over fights are not merely a disease, but a symptom
Mail Sport’s Riath Al-Samarrai discusses the freak shows and indecency seeping into boxing
‘[Traditional] boxing can be frustrating. The best need to fight the best but that doesn’t always happen. We don’t want to see microphones getting thrown, but are there new ways for fighters to build a profile?’
What is plain is that the old side of the fence is horribly dysfunctional and on the new fighters are granting choke holds for clicks. Neither is desirable in a sport that has regularly delivered great moments and is stuffed full of great people who do great things. People who transform lives and communities and who are too often forgotten when we talk about the mucky parts and the awkward ethics of it all.
But in this country alone, there are questions about the appetite of broadcasters amid the challenges of the professional game. It will have been noticed that Paramount, in the US, announced this week they are wrapping up Showtime Boxing after 37 years. It followed the same decision by HBO in 2019. Networks want some certainty in their product; not promises that precede disappointment.
On that front, Mail Sport understands prominent figures within Sky Sports’ boxing operation have feared in recent years their bosses might pull out all together, such has been the questionable quality of their shows and the landscape of the gig.
That has not yet come to pass. Nor have the threats of expulsion for the amateur code from the Olympic programme over its years of corruption. But they stand as exhibits of proof that the sport faces challenges far broader than the presence of attention seekers whose punching skills have no linear relationship with their appeal.
Boxing’s disgrace is that has allowed itself to be a misfit in its own back yard.