How Are Boxing's Next Superstars Making It Big With Hardly Any Fights?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
A young generation of boxers is using a changing media landscape to earn more money and wins — while fighting less.
By Matt Foley
Moments before taking the stage in a ballroom at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, Shakur Stevenson is tweeting. He looks very much like most 22-year-old Americans: flipping from Twitter to Instagram, documenting his movements on this exciting day via IG Stories — set with the proper music and motivational captions, of course.
But Stevenson is hardly normal. He’s here to promote a fight in which he’ll score a third-round knockout in front of his hometown. The WBO featherweight world champion after just 13 fights, Stevenson (13-0, 7 KOs) is among the best young fighters in the world. ESPN rates him No. 3 in the featherweight division. With a deal in place to fight IBF featherweight champion, and ESPN’s top fighter in the division, Josh Warrington, in the spring, Stevenson may soon move further up the ranks. Yet he knows he needs to land punches outside the ring too.
With new streaming platforms and promotions threatening to derail the pay-per-view model that caused a sharp decline in boxing’s popularity, a new crop of rising champions is grabbing hold of success earlier and without fighting as much as previous generations had to. They’re cultivating their voices on social media and identifying megadeals with the same nimbleness they demonstrate in the ring.
How do I maximize my talents now and take as little punishment as possible?
Shakur Stevenson, WBO featherweight champion
Stevenson uses social media more like a seasoned professional these days — documenting his training regimen, thanking his many fans and driving the hype train by calling out fighters like Warrington. He may have two belts before his fourteenth fight and 23rd birthday. His ESPN and top-rank stable-mate, the fast-talking and faster punching 22-year-old lightweight prospect Teófimo López (14-0, 11 KOs), won the IBF lightweight title in New York on Dec. 14.
Meanwhile, 21-year-old California prospect Ryan Garcia (19-0, 16 KOs) already lives the life of a bona fide superstar. He has no belt, but he does have 3.9 million Instagram followers and just inked a deal with Golden Boy Promotions that he calls “one of the most lucrative deals for a prospect” in boxing history. One of the best to ever do it, Floyd Mayweather Jr., didn’t headline his first pay-per-view event until age 28, eight years after winning his first belt. Young stars today think of 28 as approaching the back end of a career.
“It’s a violent sport, so you have to think smart,” Stevenson says. “How do I maximize my talents now and take as little punishment as possible?”
The answer, this new generation of boxers appears to have realized, lies in the sport’s changing media landscape. With HBO stepping away from the sport, longtime rival platforms — and new players — have stepped in to find new ways to broadcast events to fans. Showtime, ESPN and Fox have all embraced a streaming approach that caters to cord-cutters, and monthly streaming service DAZN has quickly become a major player since launching in 2017.
Superstar middleweight Canelo Álvarez has signed an 11-fight deal worth $365 million to fight on DAZN through 2023. In 2018, U.K. promoter Eddie Hearn — the youngest and most media-savvy major promoters in the game — inked a billion-dollar deal to bring the American branch of his promotion, Matchroom Boxing USA, exclusively to DAZN. So every time 21-year-old WBC lightweight champion Devin Haney fights, fans can tune in for less than $10 per month.
Pay-per-views will still attract the hardcore and aging fans who have stuck around, so options continue to exist there too for young boxers. Mayweather protege and WBA super featherweight champ Gervonta Davis (22-0, 21 KOs) fought his first pay-per-view less than three years after bursting on the scene. “I don’t want to be cocky, but I’m the cash cow for these guys,” Davis told Showtime’s Brian Custer while promoting that December bout in Atlanta.
With hundreds of thousands, sometimes even millions, of fans before their tenth professional fight, many young fighters today have a superstar mindset well before their time. “These young guys now want the belts right away,” says Stevenson’s trainer, Kay Koroma.
The pitfalls of that — narcissistic behavior, distractions, impatience — are obvious. “It’s important not to rush to conclusions about these guys when we don’t really know them,” says boxing writer Rafe Bartholomew. “The sheer amount of attention these guys face is a thousand times that of anything most normal people could handle.”
Still, this generation has come along at a time that the sport is enjoying a recent injection of life after a long period when critics were writing its obituary, trying to pinpoint just when it died: Was it when Mike Tyson bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear? Or the pitiful Floyd Mayweather–Manny Pacquiao debacle? A revived heavyweight division — with Deontay Wilder, Tyson Fury, Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr. at the top — is helping, and attracting the new streaming platforms and promoters.
Between ESPN and its streaming service ESPN+, DAZN, Showtime and Fox/FS1, there are more ways for fans to watch fights than ever before. Yet with top fighters at varying promotions, with allegiances spread across the networks, there’s no telling how many fights will be missed because of promotional feuds and stalemates. That means boxers also have to vie harder for attention. So it’s time for them to get vocal.
“There’s not a lot of people you can trust in this business,” Stevenson says. “If there’s a fight to be made across networks, make it happen. … Too many fighters don’t control their own destiny.” This new generation is changing that, one tweet and stream at a time.