The Beltline: Do we hear too much from and know too much about boxers today?

AS well as the possibility of seeing it actually happen, much of the appeal of Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk coming to some sort of agreement regarding an April 29 heavyweight fight was that, in doing so, Fury promised to begin a social media blackout and focus exclusively on training.

Of course, given it was Fury, this was a promise one had to take with a handful of salt, no different than prior ones concerning retirement or the distribution of fight purses to the homeless. But still, for about 24 hours, it did seem as though Fury, so entertaining in small – very small – doses, was going to stay true to his word and leave his phone alone, thus sparing the world any more foul-mouthed callout videos and perhaps even giving us the chance, in his absence, to miss him.

That, alas, was a promise Fury couldn’t keep. He couldn’t keep it because Fury vs. Usyk was a fight destined to never materialise, meaning two boxers fumbled a payday and we, the ones who would have paid, were not only robbed of seeing the two best heavyweights in the world share a ring, but had to then endure additional videos in which Fury called Usyk all sorts of names and blamed his rival for the fight not happening.

For us, the ones watching, it was just annoying. It added insult to injury, it seemed like a desperate attempt to control the narrative, and, furthermore, it acted as a reminder of how dull even the most typically entertaining boxers can be if, in the end, they are selling only wolf tickets.

Because although we are quick these days to equate accessibility to a better product or experience, the truth is sometimes the opposite. Sometimes there is a reason why people, including boxers, should have to earn the right to be heard and listened to. Sometimes part of a person’s appeal lies in an air of mystery, something that shatters the moment they tell you everything about themselves on a daily basis.

It’s a strange dichotomy, I’ll admit. On the one hand we want to feel closer to these athletes, and gain a greater understanding of how they train and what makes them tick, but, on the other hand, it is often when you are granted this kind of access you open yourself up to disappointment, in boxing as in life.

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Certainly, in years gone by this was not even an option. You had the press conference to announce the fight and then you had approximately eight weeks of silence – punctuated, perhaps, by sporadic in-depth and considered written features – until fight week arrived. For big, pay-per-view fights you would later have HBO’s 24/7 and other countdown programmes of that ilk, but, even with those programmes, a lot of what got you excited was the element of mystery and surprise on fight night. The not knowing. The what-if? element. The feeling of being left in the dark.

Then, of course, you would slowly start to see footage of the two headliners in changing rooms having their hands wrapped, and you would see them make their walk to the ring, and you would wait on tenterhooks for the first bell to sound. They were, in that moment, not even human, these men. They were something bigger. Something better. Almost alien.

It probably felt like this because we knew little about them beyond what they produced as boxers in the ring; where, needless to say, they were at their most expressive and their most brilliant. We didn’t, thank heavens, have to read their poorly-written-and-researched opinions on race, gender, immigration, school shootings, celebrity deaths, or vaccines. Nor did we have to see our heroes smiling in front of Anne Frank’s house for an Instagram picture, or read their desperate attempts to explain why OnlyFans is the BEST WAY to bring them EVEN CLOSER to their followers. “Stay away,” we may have said in the event of that. “This distance is just fine, thanks.”

Because if there’s one thing I know, having followed the sport both pre-social media and now, in the mire, it’s that boxers are never more fascinating than when they are either talking about boxing or simply boxing. There is a need for the other stuff, I’ll accept that, but when fight week arrives and the idea of listening to the boxers involved is not something you anticipate but rather something that feels as scintillating as washing up, you know you are dealing with a severe case of overkill.

That’s common these days, too. There are many boxers, in fact, whose obsession with telling strangers their every thought, be it on social media or when facing either a camera or smartphone, has made them almost unbearable to follow, both on those platforms and, in turn, in the ring. These are often talented boxers as well, boxers who 10 or 15 years ago I would have found to be compelling. And yet, due to there being such an emphasis today on becoming a “brand” or a “personality”, they have almost prostituted what was once their unique selling point: their boxing ability.

In the case of Fury and Usyk, as intriguing as it was for a few days, back when it appeared as though it was heading somewhere, nobody really needed to see all those callout videos and hear all those cruel names said. Indeed, even Frank Warren, the fight’s promoter, said to talkSPORT last week, “Do you know what killed this? Social media. All the pissing around on social media.”

What’s more, had Fury and Usyk opted to not engage in a Public Display of Incompetence, many of us would have been none the wiser as to the progress of the negotiations and therefore, when both ultimately made a pig’s ear of it, the backlash, as a result of this ignorance, would have been nowhere near as bad as it ended up being.

Yet, because we are all now chronically online, and because we have all been conditioned to believe that nothing we do is of value unless other people know about it, boxers like Tyson Fury can’t help themselves. And if you think this makes fights harder to arrange, take a moment to now think how hard it will be for these chronically online boxers to one day kiss goodbye to relevance and step away and retire.

Tyson Fury surrounded by cameramen at Wembley Stadium ahead of his 2022 fight against Dillian Whyte (ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

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