Photo: Mikey Williams / Top Rank
Boxing is back. But the sport as we know it has changed for the foreseeable future.
When the going gets tough inside that ring, once the spotlight is burning down brightly, fighters can no longer expect a lift from the electric atmosphere or rapturous crowd watching on. There won’t be one.
Sport as a whole had taken a backseat to more important matters in the earlier parts of an unprecedented year. The global pandemic has caused havoc with major scheduled events including those involving prize-fighting.
But it sadly had more fatal consequences for far too many across the world as well.
Rising star Shakur Stevenson was the one chosen to steer the top level fight calendar back on track and bring back a sense of normality to an unusual situation.
The young American headlined boxing’s high-profile return to American soil, routinely dispatching Felix Caraballo inside six rounds as widely expected with a brutal body attack.
This ever-grinning prodigy’s WBO featherweight title wasn’t on the line either as he kickstarted the series of comeback cards overseen by Bob Arum’s Top Rank promotional stable, while making his first move up to 130lbs.
Boxing had been on the sidelines for three months after the coronavirus had forced a widespread shutdown. But Stevenson has helped usher in its slow return with a new look approach due to the ongoing circumstances.
The 22-year-old fittingly entered the empty arena to the sound of Tupac Shakur’s ‘Changes’ during his subsequently mellowed ringwalk.
It’s a completely unique scenario for the sport, with a new set of established safety procedures involved with this and every other upcoming live fight night.
Combatants are all required to complete the finishing touches to their training at facilities that have been sanitised at the fight venue. They are later isolated in specific areas which is only accessible by those who have tested negative for the virus.
Dated wristbands are also used for fighters and they are permitted just two cornermen on the premises, with no family members allowed. They must remain in their rooms for up to eight hours before learning their test results
Even with such cautious measures in place infections are still possible, as women’s lightweight star Mikaela Mayer learned. She was scheduled to co-feature in Sin City but tested positive beforehand, although was asymptomatic, and was then pulled from the show as a result.
For the fights themselves, there’s an eerie feel to proceedings. Stevenson was on top of Caraballo from the opening bell and the thudding sound of his precise shots landing upstairs and to the body echoed around the virtually deserted venue.
The end came in the sixth when Stevenson softened his overmatched opponent up with a thumping right hook that reverberated around the area, before a sickening counter to the solar plexus called a halt to boxing’s returning night.
There was no celebration from the stands. Not even an applause. An impressive finish from one of the sport’s top rising stars drew nothing more than ringside murmurs from the few actually in attendance. This is the new normal for now.
Fans will eventually gain permission to return to these arenas as crowd gatherings are relaxed in due time, perhaps in the larger stadiums for more high-profile showdowns like Vasyl Lomachenko’s lightweight unification against Teofimo Lopez.
Those types of bouts, involving the leading lights like Canelo Alvarez or Anthony Joshua, require the gate revenue from holding massive crowds and therefore are predicated on restrictions being lifted.
It’s one step at a time but, for now, boxing is back.