The Beltline: Colonel Chris, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a pay-per-view fight in need of seasoning

11 Min Read

FOR a man who has matured into quite the strategist, it appeared a glaring own goal on the part of Chris Eubank Jnr to sit at a press conference to announce a fight against Liam Smith next year wearing a jacket adorned with various emblems and slogans associated with the fast-food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC).

While, on the one hand, it was a continuation of the carefree approach to training he has tried to push in recent times, it also provided the ammunition for people to take shots at his next fight; a fight many believe is unworthy of the pay-per-view tag it will, for eight weeks, now carry.

Indeed, in that respect, the hard work is done. For, let’s be honest, what is Eubank Jnr vs. Smith if not a tasty, appealing Zinger Burger of a fight being sold at a premium price it does not, based on its quality, warrant? It appeals to the glutton in all of us, no question, yet, based on their respective achievements and current standing in the sport, never should a fight like Eubank Jnr vs. Smith be a pay-per-view main event and never, in years gone by, would it have been. Fine dining, alas, it is most certainly not.

What it is, this particular fight, is as good a domestic fight as you will find these days. It is a fight whose appeal lies solely in the style clash it teases – as opposed to, say, its status, its meaning, the personalities involved, or any needle between them – and what could happen when these styles eventually collide on January 21. Both men, after all, like to be aggressive and come forward to impose their will. Both, too, are used to having their way physically with an opponent, albeit at a certain level (just below world-class).

That style blend promises a good fight, absolutely. However, there was a time when it required more than just the promise of a good domestic scrap to sell a pay-per-view, regardless of the power of the surnames involved. There was a time when a pay-per-view opportunity was reserved for not just world title fights but big ones, the biggest ones, the ones conceived only if there were numerous sources of income for both fighters; fighters, that is, with a history of competing and winning at the top level; fighters who could wear the label “superstar” without irony or condemnation.

Unfortunately, as good as they are, Eubank Jnr and Smith have both struggled when stepping up to that next level – Eubank Jnr to fringe world-class and Smith to the very highest. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, of course. Nor does it detract from their capabilities as fighters. But it should certainly offer a reason why neither man, no matter their surname or the fighting histories of their respective families, should be headlining a pay-per-view event anytime soon.

By doing so, too, you risk undermining the quality of the fight. For now, rather than talking about a compelling domestic scrap which will be hard to call, we find ourselves having to judge and rate it in the context of it being something more than that; something greater than that.

As a pay-per-view offering, it has to be judged accordingly and, when judged in those terms, it falls a long way short of what we would usually expect (or want). Then, suddenly, instead of it being a domestic clash to stir the imagination, it becomes something more akin to a cynical cash grab with a forced rivalry leading to a desperate attempt to sell it as something it’s not.

Certainly, Eubank Jnr got the memo. He arrived at Tuesday’s press conference dressed for the occasion and played the same composed and cold character (something between Keyser Söze and Hannibal Lecter) he played expertly in the company of Conor Benn before their ill-fated October 8 fight. He promised something special, or “fun”, and riled Smith by claiming he would come into this fight at 50%, some 10% less than he claimed would be required to beat Benn in October.

This, for Eubank Jnr, had the desired effect: it caused Smith to bite. More importantly, though, it created a little tension and back and forth between them, which is of course a vital component when it comes to selling something that is otherwise going to be a very hard sell.

It’s true. Whether we like it or not, Eubank Jnr vs. Smith does not carry the same appeal – generally speaking – as Eubank Jnr vs. Benn. It might, for my money at least, be the superior fight, but in the realm of pay-per-view sometimes there are factors that trump the mere quality of the fight being sold. In the case of Eubank Jnr vs. Benn, you didn’t just have one fighter cashing in on the name and reputation of their father and his past achievements, you had two of them: a double whammy. Furthermore, while it still felt a little manufactured and desperate at times, the rivalry between Eubank Jnr and Benn was clearly one with more history and spice than whatever Eubank Jnr and Smith will be able to produce in the next couple of months.

Which begs the question: what exactly does it mean to be a “pay-per-view fighter” in this day and age? Have we, as an industry, regressed to such a degree that we are now adopting the reality television model of valuing name power and celebrity over talent and achievements? Have we, without even knowing it, or at least wanting to admit it, been inspired and changed by the YouTubers and influencers who have recently infiltrated the sport?

Because if we could just about accept, grudgingly, that a casual-baiting attraction like Eubank Jnr vs. Benn was of pay-per-view standard, what exactly is the argument for Eubank Jnr vs. Smith? (Or even Tyson Fury vs. Derek Chisora III, which takes place this weekend for the all-time high UK PPV price of £26.95.)

Sadly, it seems we are at a point now where certain fighters, having once been told they are of pay-per-view calibre, carry this belief to the negotiating table for each and every fight, regardless of the opponent and appeal of the fight itself. Fury, as heavyweight champion, can perhaps be excused for displaying such arrogance, yet, for someone like Eubank Jnr, someone who has still to win a world title, one has to question whether it’s a good thing that he is being promoted in this way.

After all, what sort of message does that send, both to him and to others without the luxury of having a famous relation – and therefore brand – on whose coattails they can ride? Play that game and you make role models of personalities like Eubank Jnr, and Conor Benn, and Tommy Fury. Play that game and you merely highlight the systemic issues boxing faces but attempts to deny in favour of peddling so-called “great fights” on various pay-per-view platforms. That’s been happening for a while now, with the fear of what it might lead to something constantly bubbling away in the background.

In fact, it was in 2014 that promoter Eddie Hearn expressed to me his belief that some boxers were being overpaid, as well as his fear that, as with anything in life, the sport would in the end suffer for its perceived generosity (or perhaps naivety/stupidity). He was right about that, as it happened, and, moreover, his own relationship with pay-per-view, both on Sky Sports and more recently on DAZN, has often been a confusing and at times desperate one because of the very issues he saw coming (and some would say created).

Still, that shouldn’t overshadow his initial point: boxers at the top are indeed typically overpaid, just as boxers at the bottom are typically underpaid. It’s seen as sacrilege to even raise this point, let alone agree with it, which is perhaps what ultimately enables the problem to continue. But why, given how important it is, should it be something unsaid?

As brave as they are, when has the bravery of a prizefighter ever been anything other than self-serving? They fight for money, just as the rest of us work for money, and choose to do so having weighed up the significant danger it entails. They risk their lives, sure, but they are not saving any. Far from it.

Mirroring society, something boxing has always done, all greed does is lead to the rich getting richer (both boxers and promoters) and the poor getting poorer. It leaves boxing, meanwhile, hanging on for dear life. Because how healthy can a sport really be if to convince any half-decent competitor to take any half-decent challenge requires you having to entice them financially with added income from pay-per-view sales?

That’s not a sign of a flourishing sport. It’s a sign of a broken one.

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