The Rise of the Self-Promoting Brawler
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because a new era of boxing could be on the anvil.
By Matt Foley
Fourteen undefeated boxers had gathered inside the Cipriani ballroom in Manhattan in January, as Showtime — in partnership with Premier Boxing Champions — announced plans for 10 main events running through June. But among the fighters, one stood out. IBF welterweight world champion Errol Spence is boxing’s fastest-rising star; with his next fight, slated for June 16 in his hometown of Dallas, he will look to establish himself as not just a boxer but as Texas’ boxing kingpin.
While most fighters hire promoters based in places like Las Vegas, Los Angeles or New York, the self-promoted Spence has plans to launch a Dallas-based promotion of his own, following in the footsteps of Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Oscar De La Hoya, two of the sport’s all-time greats, who have transitioned to superstardom as promoters too.
And Spence, 27, is not alone in realizing the magnitude of influence, as an individual brand and event promoter. MMA superstar Conor McGregor, who — strictly by way of his immense talent and gift of gab — has ascended to the pinnacle of combat sports, last summer crossed over to boxing for a bout with the undefeated Mayweather. “The Money Fight,” as it’s known, became the second-largest pay-per-view event ever and ultimately proved that McGregor — who promoted himself for the event — is a marketable star in the ring or the Octagon. McGregor earned over $100,000,000 for the fight, more than 30 times what he’s been paid for any UFC fight. He has yet to return to the UFC, and claims that he will only do so if the organization names him a co-owner and co-promoter.
Promoting myself gives me a lot of freedom to control my own career while building up some kids in the future.
Errol Spence, boxer
But the blueprint that is drawing a growing number of fighters like McGregor and Spence to the power of self-promotion has been laid out in recent years by Mayweather and De La Hoya. It takes a brilliant business acumen and incredible savvy to build a personal brand that can transcend any sport, and the first step is commanding a loyal following. McGregor excels with all of Ireland’s backing, and De La Hoya used the relentless support of fans in California and Mexico to become one of boxing’s top pay-per-view earners. De La Hoya launched Golden Boy Promotions in 2002 and now represents more than 70 boxers. Likewise, en route to his record-breaking 50-0 career, Mayweather became the sport’s highest pay-per-view earner and most divisive personality. He launched Mayweather Promotions in 2007 and now promotes a roster of nearly 40 athletes. Those are lessons Spence too has picked up.
“Promoting myself gives me a lot of freedom to control my own career while building up some kids in the future,” is Spence’s explanation for going the self-promotion route, a position he articulated following the pre-fight press conference for his Jan. 20 victory over Lamont Peterson. “I see a lot of kids [in Dallas] that don’t have nobody to push them… Once you have the resources to give back, it’s important to do it.”
One Mayweather athlete present at Showtime’s January announcement was Badou Jack. The Swedish-born Jack, 34, credits Mayweather with saving his career in 2011. At the time, Jack was being promoted by DiBella Entertainment and was brought into the Mayweather Boxing Club in Las Vegas as a sparring partner. Impressed, Mayweather negotiated a buyout agreement with DiBella, and Jack has been with Mayweather Promotions ever since. As one of the promotions’ longest-tenured fighters, Jack — whose most recent world title came via a technical knockout win over light heavyweight Nathan Cleverly on the Mayweather vs. McGregor card — is both a mentor to his younger roster mates and an inquisitive pupil. He witnessed the magnitude and pageantry of the Money Fight and realizes that the true path to generational wealth is ownership. “We see what De La Hoya and Floyd have been doing,” says Jack, who next fights WBC light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson on May 19 in Canada. “I just started my new LLC, Badou Jack Promotions. I might host some fights back in Sweden, maybe in Gambia and the Middle East.” As a Swedish Muslim who represented Gambia in the 2008 Olympics, Jack has a substantial following in several regions. His promotional company could serve as a needed boost for the sport in regions that lack historical boxing success. “I need to talk to Floyd and see if I can put some of them on my undercard in May,” he says.
Of course, establishing a profitable company while promoting one’s own career is tough. Mayweather and De La Hoya each spent a decade learning from premier promotions before branching out on their own. Detractors of Spence’s self-promotional route remain, none more than De La Hoya. Last year, frustrated at Spence’s dismissal of a multimillion-dollar long-term deal with Golden Boy, De La Hoya told ES News Reporting that Spence’s lone-wolf mentality has led to an unnecessarily slow rise up the ranks. “I think it’s a shame that Errol Spence’s career has been kind of on the down-low,” said De La Hoya. “If I was promoting him, I would take that kid and turn him into a superstar.”
But Executive Vice President and General Manager of Showtime Sports Stephen Espinoza says that type of risk — and the ability to remain focused without the aid of a major promoter — is exactly what led to Mayweather’s success. Before launching Mayweather Promotions, Mayweather paid $750,000 to buy himself out of a contract with Top Rank. “Without the courage to make that move, without the foresight to make that move, none of the rest of this is possible,” says Espinoza.
The year 2017 was a renaissance one for boxing, with captivating events and the emergence of several bona fide stars. Networks and promoters plan to build on that momentum in the year ahead, but inside the ring, the fighters control boxing’s destiny. When the next garish scheduling announcement is made, look for more self-promoted fighters controlling the game outside the ring too.