It would not be appropriate for this observer not to begin this column without being honest with the reader when I say that I took several days to write this column. Not in the sense that I have been grinding away in the writing process, a process that all writers regardless of genre truly appreciate whether all of us will admit it or not, but in the sense that I needed time to compose myself mentality due to feeling something I have not felt in the two and a half decades that I have been writing about and covering Boxing in addition to other combat sports. The feeling of absolute utter disgust and embarrassment for the sport that I have loved since I was a little kid. A feeling that hit me when I watched the recent pay-per-view event promoted by Triller headlined by an eight round Heavyweight bout between two-division world champion and Boxing Hall of Famer Evander Holyfield and former UFC world champion Vitor Belfort. An event and bout that left not only the feelings I have described, but also made me sick to my stomach.
Why is that? Out of respect for the reader, I won’t rehash the circumstances that led to the Holyfield-Belfort bout as I already covered that in a preview that was released here on The Boxing Truth® leading up to the September 11th event. In short, the event consisted of Holyfield, a man whose health and well-being have been of significant concern for yours truly over the years that had been cited frequently in my various writings through the years, now a month away from his fifty-ninth birthday, stepping into a fight on a little more than one week’s notice and having not competed professionally in well over a decade to face Belfort. A fight that was rejected by the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) both due to Holyfield’s age as well as the physical punishment that he had sustained over a long career. This resulted in Triller moving the event headlined by this bout from Los Angeles, which was to be the original location to Hollywood, FL. While I will not do a full rehash, readers who read the preview for this bout saw me speculate in reference that the move to Florida was licensing motivated.
Although at the time I was merely making a suggestion, it turns out I was very close to being spot on. In the days leading up to the event, I deliberately made the decision to stay away from aspects of a promotion that is normally a fixture for any significant Boxing event during what is often referred to as “Fight Week.” While such things as fighter workouts, press conferences, and weigh-ins are aspects that have frankly become easier to observe for those of us who cover the sport, but cannot travel to events to cover Boxing cards in person, I really had no interest in observing much of this particular card’s “Fight Week” events. Perhaps it was a premonition, but I knew it would likely be better for me as someone who truly cares for the sport and the fighters that risk their lives every single time they get in the ring, to provide the coverage that I did as well as the normal weigh-in report that came the day before the event and to stay away from the aspects that I just did not have a good feeling about. I will not go into the various aspects of the event that surrounded politics as I avoided that as well, but the primary reason I avoided watching things like fighter workouts and press conferences was being I felt if I had watched them, it would have prevented me from doing my duty in covering the bout because those concerns for Holyfield’s well-being that I had written extensively on during the latter stages of his career would surface and I probably would not have been able to cover the bout with a clear mind.
Of course, I would be lying if I said that even with my decision to avoid “Fight Week” events that it removed all concern. Obviously, it was still in the back of my mind, but at least by making that decision, I was able to keep a somewhat “Wait and See” approach as I have made reference to in regard to other fights, I have covered that were subject to criticism and ridicule. It was not surprising to me however, to see and hear the day before the fight as well as prior to the event on the day of, increased concern for Holyfield. While my concern never ceased, I did feel encouraged that at least I was not the only one who felt this way in hearing various people throughout the sport echo the same sentiment that I had. Perhaps the most telling among them came from various reports from various media outlets including noted Boxing journalist Dan Rafael that Jim Lampley, longtime former lead announcer for HBO’s Boxing broadcasts for decades prior to the network’s decision in 2018 to exit Boxing after forty-five years, who had recently signed with Triller to return to broadcasting Boxing, reportedly opted out of calling this event after seeing Holyfield participate in a workout. While only Lampley himself can say why he chose to opt out of what had been an anticipated debut for him on Triller’s platform, much like myself, I feel he likely did not want to see Holyfield get hurt and did not want to be a party to what might have been a tragedy.
Further adding to my concern prior to the event was learning that the Florida State Athletic Commission (FSAC) did not require a CT scan or any other neurological screening for fighters prior to granting licensing. Something that is normally standard in most states that regularly stage and regulate Boxing and other combat sports events. As much as I wanted to give this the benefit of doubt and have that “Wait and See” mentality, as the event neared, I became increasingly angry. More so, because of the appearance that this gave that this was something that was financially driven as opposed to ensuring the safety of not just Holyfield, but all fighters that compete. Despite the anger and uneasy feelings I had, I did what I normally do and prepared to cover the bout.
When the time finally came for Holyfield and Belfort to get in the ring at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, I will be honest in saying that at least visually before the fight started Holyfield appeared to be in great condition especially given his age and the toll a long career in the sport of Boxing takes on one’s body. Obviously, I know that the way a fighter’s body might appear rarely if ever means anything once punches are being thrown, but giving credit where it is do, Holyfield did look like he had been in training. As the bell rang to begin the fight however, my concerns quickly proved to be valid as Holyfield immediately showed an inability to maintain his balance and after being dropped with the first punch he was struck with in the first round, I immediately wanted to see the fight stopped. Evander Holyfield will always be remembered for being a true warrior in the sport. Someone who no matter what always gave it everything he had and never quit. Unfortunately, that mentality that boxers and other combat athletes have can lead to dangerous situations. I was not surprised to see Holyfield get up from the knockdown, but my concern was that I was about to see something tragic. Referee Sam Burgos allowed Holyfield to continue, but as Belfort unleashed a barrage of unanswered punches as Holyfield tried desperately to cover up and block the punches with no balance, Burgos stepped in and stopped the fight.
In the interest of honesty with the reader, I was relieved when the fight was stopped. What had all the appearance of an event that was strictly financially driven and subsequently greenlit by what in all accounts seems to be an inept state athletic commission that appeared to turn a blind eye to not only the preventive actions of the CSAC in refusing to sanction Holyfield, but also a deaf ear to those voicing their concerns throughout the sport, at least Referee Sam Burgos did what the Florida State Athletic Commission wouldn’t. Protect Holyfield against himself and make sure that at least Holyfield could leave the ring under his own power from a fight that should not have been allowed to begin with.
If this point of view appears harsh, I sincerely apologize to anyone who may feel that way including, but not limited to those who work for the Florida State Athletic Commission who may be reading this column. As I have said before, this observer has no agenda beyond giving the reader an honest and objective point of view. As much as Holyfield has meant to the sport, as much as I enjoyed covering his fights from the mid-1990’s through till his retirement in 2011, as much as I was a fan of his prior to my covering Boxing, the man had no business getting in a ring to compete at fifty-nine years of age and there is no bigger picture that one whether they be fans, Triller, or even the state athletic commission could use as a viable argument as justification for what happened here.
Some will make the argument that “Well, it was Holyfield’s choice and he knows the risks.” This may be true however, state regulation of combat sports exists for a reason and it is a state’s athletic commission’s responsibility to ensure not only that rules and regulations are followed, but also that the safety of those who compete is always the first priority even if staging an event might have some economic incentives for a given state. In this case, the state of Florida failed and if it were not for Sam Burgos, this event may have had a more tragic outcome.
As often happens when things like this are allowed to occur, there is always repercussions that occur either through the public, within the sport, or with state athletic commissions that do not want the bad publicity that comes with bad decisions that are made. While as of this writing the FSAC has not issued any statements regarding what frankly is an embarrassment both for the state and the sport of Boxing, I knew despite sharing more own thoughts in the immediate aftermath through my social media platforms that this was the first time in my career covering the sport that I felt utterly embarrassed for the sport I have loved my whole life, I also knew that there would be more that would come out of this in terms of fallout, which was one reason in addition to wanting to give myself time to digest things, I knew in the back of my mind that there would be some fallout from the event.
Earlier this week, an email was sent to yours truly from Denise White who is the CEO of EAG Sports Management, who during the week prior to the event had sent out promotional material on behalf of Triller related to the Holyfield-Belfort event. The subject of this email read simply “ EAG Sports Management is NO LONGER Working with Triller Fight Club or Triller EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY!” Upon seeing this in my inbox, I opened the email to read a one sentence statement Quote “ Feel free to print that!” After reading this email I reached out and asked for a statement further clarifying why EAG Sports Management was no longer involved with Triller. In response, Mrs. White responded to this observer’s request for a statement by answering simply Quote “We had a difference of professional opinion.”
Although this could be wider in scope as simply the fallout of an event that got people talking for all the wrong reasons, the timing of such communication does give the appearance that it does have something to do with the Holyfield-Belfort fallout. This was followed by news earlier this week that Peter Khan, a longtime Boxing manager and advisor among other roles he has had through the years, who was Triller’s Chief Boxing Officer was stepping down from his role. While this was reported by several Boxing media outlets outside of this including Boxing Scene and NY Fights as citing the reason for Khan’s departure from Triller as wanting to focus on non-Boxing related projects, the timing of it does seem at minimum to be curious if not outright coincidence.
Perhaps not surprisingly, news has also circulated through various outlets including Fight Sports that the Holyfield-Belfort pay-per-view attraction did not perform well in terms of pay-per-view buys. While this observer does not have a solid figure to share with the reader, the reported figure could be anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 total buys. It should be noted that this event like all Boxing events that are staged on the pay-per-view medium in the year 2021 comes at a time where the sport is in a period of transition from the pay-per-view/ pay-per-event model to the digital subscription based model where events are offered as part of a full slate of content through networks like ESPN+ and DAZN, this in addition to price points that unfortunately have become a standard of between $70-$80 in the United States for most pay-per-view Boxing cards has resulted in a consistent decline in overall buys for those events that are not offered as part of a subscription model.
Although Triller offers it’s pay-per-view Boxing cards at a $50 price point, the price is likely too much for some Boxing fans in addition to what has thus far been a general lack of competitive bouts offered by the promotional banner. In fairness, Triller’s involvement in the sport has only been under one year in existence and it does take time to build the type of quality Boxing cards that will draw eyes to your events. This is perhaps one reason why the promoter has relied on a mix of former fighters competing in either exhibitions or bouts that could be deemed semi-professional, celebrity bouts, and mixing musical performances into each card it has offered since it’s inception. The package however, does not appear to be resonating with Boxing fans who frankly may expect more competitive Boxing for the price they are asked to pay than what has been offered by Triller thus far.
It is also worth noting that Triller does offer subscription-based options for those that do not want to pay on a per-event basis TrillerPass, which is offered either as a $29.99 monthly subscription or $299 yearly subscription and Trillerverz, which is the recently launched monthly Boxing series from the promoter for $2.99 monthly or $29.99 per year. Both subscription options are offered through Triller’s website as well as their recently acquired FITE TV digital combat sports network and pay-per-view platform. While this is solely the view of yours truly, I believe that if Triller wants to get more traction they should first focus on putting on competitive bouts, but also to focus on one subscription option that is for lack of a better term an all-in-one offering, but it needs to be reasonably priced in order to succeed and they need to be able to stage cards regularly. Of course, the latter is easier said than done in present day due to the ongoing global COVID-19 epidemic, which has caused problems for many promoters through the entire sport and some of the struggles Triller has faced should not be viewed as exclusive to them under the circumstances of the ongoing crisis.
The truth unfortunately for Triller and other promoters that continue to insist on the overpriced and outdated pay-per-view model is that consumers will tend to want more for what they are paying and unfortunately for Triller, staging cards such as Holyfield-Belfort with the hope that it will attract curiosity is not a successful strategy, especially when it is painfully obvious to all that one fighter should have never been allowed to compete. Even though being a promoter in the sport of Boxing is far from an easy task, sometimes common sense is a better approach instead of staging an event that shows everything that is wrong with the sport from inept state athletic commission regulation, to what frankly is an unprofessional presentation in terms of commentary including the use of explicit language from those on the broadcast team, to non-competitive almost novelty bouts to finally the harsh reality that fighters sometimes are forced back into the ring long after their competitive primes if for nothing else, financial reasons, despite the serious risk to their health.
In the days following this event, and quite frankly since the Holyfield-Belfort fight was stopped. I began thinking of one fight in Boxing’s past that could describe what I was feeling in terms of the embarrassment for the sport I love and disgust over what I saw. I thought of the November 1982 WBC World Heavyweight championship bout between Larry Holmes and Randall “Tex” Cobb. Holmes, who was in the midst of a dominant reign as Heavyweight world champion was simply too skilled and overmatched the always “Game” brawler Cobb over fifteen one-sided rounds to retain his crown via unanimous decision. Although this fight was slightly before my time, as a Boxing historian, I have seen the fight more than once via tape and the technology that is available to all of us today. One thing about the utter mismatch that stood out to me was the legendary Howard Cosell, who broadcast this fight as well as many others for many years for ABC Sports here in the United States. Cosell at times rubbed some the wrong way due to his frankness, perceived arrogance, and among other things his vocabulary.
Cosell was however, a man of principle and if one takes the time to go back and listen to his broadcast of that fight, as it went on and as Cobb continued to take an increasingly horrible beating, Cosell became increasingly disgusted so much to the point that when the fight was over, he announced quote “There will be no interviews, not for this fight.” Cosell would never broadcast a professional bout again for the remainder of his career, despite still broadcasting the amateur side of Boxing from time to time.
Quite frankly, I felt and still feel as disgusted as Cosell was that night in 1982 after watching the Holyfield-Belfort bout. My disgust, however, will not result in me stepping away from covering Boxing because in one sense where I disagree with Cosell, who I am proud to cite as one of my many influences is you cannot really effect change in a sport if you step away. While I will always have the utmost respect for Cosell, his integrity, his willingness to stand up for what he believed in regardless of whether it was popular or not, including, but not limited to his frequent calls for Boxing reform in the remaining years of his life before he passed away in 1995, I will continue to bang the drum as loud as I can and much like Cosell, bring to public attention that of which I feel does not benefit the sport of Boxing, the fans that support it, and most importantly, the fighters that risk their lives every time they enter the ring to compete. While it remains to be seen what the future will hold for Triller as a promotional entity in the sport, I hope they are able to adapt and use this experience as a learning one that will help them in the long-term.
For The Good of Boxing, Something Needs To Change.
“And That’s The Boxing Truth.”
UPDATE: As this column was being prepared for release, it was reported that the Florida State Athletic Commission ruled on Thursday, September 16, 2021, that it has medically suspended Evander Holyfield for a period of 30-days. If further action from the commission surrounding this fight is taken, we will keep readers updated on any developments as they become available.
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