The Beltline: Okolie and Buatsi weren’t “appy” with the way the game had changed

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WHEN DAZN arrived in the UK in December 2020 they carried with them the slogan “Game. Changed” which, if you could get past the awkward placing of the full stop, seemed to imply they would be the ones to change the game by essentially updating it for a new, more tech-savvy audience.

However, that, almost two and a half years on, has not been the case. In fact, while it was not incorrect for them to predict the game would change, to suggest they, DAZN, would have anything to do with this change was a suggestion both arrogant and audacious in the extreme.

That’s not to say DAZN’s influence on boxing hasn’t been a significant one. It has. But every change witnessed in the boxing game in the past two years has been a change brought upon by its own insecurities, its own weaknesses, and its own desperation to fit in. Which is to say, whether DAZN existed or not, it would be incredibly difficult for boxing to appear in the current climate the way it did 10 or even five years ago. Simply put, the game has changed because the world has changed.

Now, to fully follow boxing, you must be online and hooked up to some sort of device on a 24/7 basis. Now, to get ahead in the sport as a boxer, you must rely not on a promoter to do your selling but on yourself. Your own social media presence. Your own ability to project your voice. Your own ability to lie.

That these changes have come about has nothing to do with DAZN and their plan to change the game. Instead, it is all merely a side-effect of where we find ourselves in 2023. In other words, just as DAZN are not as important or game-changing as they would have wanted you to believe, nor are they as bad as their critics will tell you on their way out the exit door.

Last week, it was the turn of Joshua Buatsi to deliver a parting shot. He said, having left DAZN to sign with Sky Sports, “I want people to say, ‘We know what channel to turn to. I’m not going to tell you to download an app and type in your email. My last fight, I asked myself, ‘How many watched it?’ I don’t think a lot of people saw it. For the blood and sweat I shed it is important to me that people have access to watch it.”

If Buatsi’s issue is visibility, that’s a fair enough gripe. Certainly, based on my own experience, there is still a whole world out there – those from an older generation – who believe the only boxing to be taking place each weekend is the boxing available to watch on Sky Sports or other channels accessible via a television remote. These people do not know about boxing via apps, nor, even if told such a thing exists, do they have the energy or simply the wherewithal to cross that bridge.

This, for someone like Buatsi, must have been a concern. After all, as well as the prospect of all his future fights being shown exclusively on an app, Buatsi will probably, deep down, accept that he’s not the sort of fighter to put himself out there or act as a makeshift promoter. That, he might argue, was the job of Eddie Hearn, the promoter he recently left. Eddie Hearn, meanwhile, might argue that Buatsi’s unwillingness to change with the game – or, put another way, play the game – was ultimately the very thing that saw him slide down the pecking order.

From a promoter’s point of view, too, that’s quite understandable. Because Buatsi, while a talented fighter and 2016 Olympic bronze medallist, has so far failed to really ignite as a pro. He has no fanbase to speak of, as reflected in ticket sales, and he has failed to capture the public’s imagination on Sky Sports (the channel on which the majority of his fights have been televised). That could be due to how he has been promoted, of course, or it could instead be a combination of uninspired matchmaking, vanilla soundbites, and periods of inactivity, which, combined, have made him an easy fighter to forget, both for promoters and fans alike.

Whatever it is, for him to have any chance, one suspects Buatsi is better placed at Sky Sports, where there is presumably less work for him to do and less of a drive to change the game. Moreover, to prevent the same stick again being used to beat them, DAZN have since made themselves available as a television channel (429 on Sky) for those less au fait with the idea of being chronically online.

Buatsi and Okolie alongside Anthony Joshua (Lawrence Lustig/Matchroom)

Lawrence Okolie, by the way, is another boxer who made the same move as Buatsi. He too liked the idea of being a big fish in a smaller pond, where at least he would be seen and fed and appreciated. That led him to Boxxer and Sky Sports.

“You have a choice as a fighter to go where you are celebrated, or go to where you’re tolerated, and I felt like I was being tolerated at my last place,” Okolie told talkSPORT. “And I could be celebrated here depending on how I get on in terms of wins and then we go from there.”

As with Buatsi, Hearn had been Okolie’s promoter since the start of the 29-year-old’s pro career back in 2017. He had, during those six years, given Okolie various platforms on which to shine (big undercards and main event slots) and had also had to watch Okolie more than once flatter to deceive when the lights were turned on. It was perhaps in those moments, rather than when stopping Krzysztof Glowacki to take the WBO cruiserweight belt, or stopping Yves Ngabu to win the European title, Hearn got a sense of Okolie’s ceiling – commercially speaking, that is.

For while there can be no doubt Okolie is a gifted puncher and an awkward boxer to figure out, he is equally awkward in the context of being marketed and sold to an audience whose collective attention span is shortening by the hour. He is likely not helped, either, by the WBO cruiserweight belt he owns, which, quite naturally, serves to give the Londoner an inflated view of himself and his worth, as well as his standing on a global scale.

Sadly, whereas world titles in the past actually meant something, and were indicative of a fighter thriving at the very top of the sport, nowadays they are anything but. Nowadays, you can win a world title by effectively beating somebody of European title standard. Nowadays, you win just one of them and expect to be headlining a pay-per-view show in your first defence.

One could argue that’s another way in which the game has changed. One could also argue that the reasons for recent abdications are merely symptoms of the terms established by the game-changers at the very outset; back when everything was about online presence, and everything was about pay-per-view.

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