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COVID-19 Has Combat Sports on the Ropes

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  • COVID-19 Has Combat Sports on the Ropes

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    By Ryan Sakacs

    By Special Correspondent Ryan Sakacs -- After months of sparring between players unions and league executives, the major American sports have finally overcome the legal and logistical hurdles delaying the restart of stalled seasons. While empty stadiums and shortened schedules will be this year’s hallmark, the financial burden associated with COVID-19 protocols will present a lasting challenge for many combat sports promoters.

    State athletic commissions – charged with protecting the health and safety of fighters and promoting the integrity of competition – will play a critical role in shaping the post-pandemic future of boxing and mixed martial arts. Without a unified governing body, rules and regulations can vary significantly from state-to-state – from trivial topics, such as ring attire and facial hair, to more meaningful matters, including the selection of officials, the use of instant replay, and medical standards for licensing (i.e., neurological and PED testing). Coronavirus testing and distancing policies will also differ considerably.

    Some athletic commissions and promotional companies have taken the lead in developing effective, albeit costly, measures. The UFC was the first major American sport to return to live competition in early May when it held three full fight cards in eight days – an ambitious feat even in a pre-pandemic world. According to UFC President Dana White, the company coordinated with the Florida State Boxing Commission to administer over 1,100 tests to every fighter, second, and staff member at a cost of $150,000 per event.

    Despite the fiscal challenges, the UFC hosted four events at its Las Vegas headquarters in June. Under the supervision of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, the UFC reportedly conducted more than 2,500 tests and implemented strict rules requiring fighters and seconds to self-isolate upon arriving at the facility until Friday’s official weigh-in. The UFC continued to bolster its regulations during its four-event campaign on “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, which featured extensive testing, a “safe zone” off limits to the general public, nightly temperature screenings, and ample on-site medical personnel.

    Top Rank led boxing’s return in June with twice-weekly cards in Las Vegas. According to CEO Bob Arum, the undertaking has been an expensive one – increased testing will cost the company at least $25,000 per event, in addition to the price of extra security, hotel rooms, and specialized dining arrangements.

    While heavyweights like the UFC and Top Rank (with substantial financial resources and lucrative broadcasting deals) can overcome higher overhead costs and reduced revenues, live events may be cost prohibitive for the foreseeable future for local promoters operating on more modest budgets.

    Joe DeGuardia, President and CEO of Star Boxing, expects exponential harm for the sport and beyond. “Even before COVID, club shows in New York were hanging on by a thread. The cost was already increasing. Under these circumstances, with the added expense of testing and no fans, it’s impossible. Losing club shows for a significant period will kill boxing. They’re the lifeblood of the sport. People don’t realize that the local shows fuel the major events. Many of those fighters end up on major cards at Madison Square Garden and Barclays.”

    It’s a story DeGuardia has seen play out with his own stable of fighters. Chris Algieri and Joe Smith Jr. both rose to regional renown in the Paramount Theatre in Huntington, Long Island before achieving major success on the international level. Algieri went on to face some of the sport’s biggest stars in Manny Pacquiao, Amir Khan, and Errol Spence after winning the WBO International junior welterweight title in 2014. Smith, Jr., of course, retained the WBC International light heavyweight title in 2016 with a devastating knockout of all-time-great Bernard Hopkins.

    DeGuardia also laments broader economic effects due to COVID-19 restrictions. “We would pack New York Avenue in Huntington for our shows at the Paramount. Those local restaurants, bars, and hotels will also lose out on money. Before COVID, we had events planned for months in advance. Now there’s nothing.”

    The downturn has already hit the industry hard. For instance, referees, judges, and athletic commission staff in every state have and will continue to lose out on income because of the lack of events – In 2019, California regulated more than 120 boxing and MMA cards, compared to 18 so far in 2020.

    Furthermore, some states also stand to lose considerable revenue.” Last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced, “Combat sports industry has produced unprecedented revenue and economic activity for New York since the introduction of Mixed Martial Arts two years ago.” This year, however, the state has only held three events to date.

    The coronavirus presents another existential crisis for combat sports. The demise of boxing has been touted for years, and its battle for relevance is ongoing. Just a generation ago, boxing was one of the world’s most popular sports, and its stars were some of the most recognizable athletes. Sadly, it now resembles a niche sport, like thoroughbred racing, with casual viewers only tuning in for mega-fights. Meanwhile, MMA withstood intense political pressure and public outcry for two decades before establishing itself as a legitimate international attraction. However, if club shows fall victim to the “new normal,” professional fighting could permanently lose its standing as a main event.


    Ryan Sakacs is the former chief of the Prescription Drug Investigation Unit with the New York City’s Special Narcotics Prosecutor. During his 12-year career as an assistant district attorney, he founded the country’s most prolific prosecutorial unit dedicated to combating the surge in prescription drug diversion, addiction, and fatal overdoses. Sakacs has also served as counsel to the New York State Athletic Commission.

    Pictured: Bernardo Osuna at the MGM/Top Rank "Bubble"--- Photo credit: Mikey Williams

    Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel

  • #2
    Good topic. I know had it not been for local boxing gyms and local fight cards I would never had the experiece of seeing live boxing esp early on when I was young. And most fight fans know how important it is to watch a fight live as opposed to on a screen. yes I grew up with boxing being available on TV on a very regular basis. And fight cards were available to us locally at a cost that we could afford to pay. I do not know what the local gyms are like in comparison to East-Coast West-Coast or inbetween but am sure all are bing hit hard. I never thought the demise of many things would come to pass but boxing on a local level feeds a lot of outlets and entertains a lot of people as mentioned. I am trying to think of a simple comparision the best I can come up with is if all of the sudden it was decided no more little league games not worth it, going to cancel it can not afford the overhead. Hard to imagine ? Not right now not with baseball not with boxing on the level discussed above. Imagine the big money men saying oh we got this no problem. We will work from the top down then they say PPVs is the way to go to keep boxing alive, hey remember how the fighters still active or retired would show up in the ring during the break in local fight cards we will just have them fight exabitions on PPV. AH that would never happen. Crazy thoughts is all.
    Thanks for the heads up.............


    • #3
      I could not read this article because I am so hammered right now. But I disagree with pretty much everything the author said.