The Beltline: Even “fighting men” are now rolling over and performing tricks for the influencers

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IT was always going to happen. Eventually, after catching her sleeping with the enemy, we were, having accepted a half-hearted apology, fated to catch her again and again until it was no longer a surprise. Then, if just to help us make peace with it, she was going to one day say, “Well, if it makes it any easier, you could always watch. You could even join in if you like.”

Which is where, in September 2023, we now find ourselves in the great battle between the purists and the influencers. We find ourselves, specifically, in the corner of the bedroom, sitting down, half turned away, half turned on, as boxing spreads its legs for its latest admirer. Glancing at them but only ever fleetingly, and only because it’s unavoidable, we mumble to nobody in particular: “At least it’s not ‘cheating’. At least it’s not happening behind our backs.”

Out in the open, yes, if not quite accepted by everyone in the sport, the influencers have recently unpacked their clothes, found space in our closet, and been given a spare key. They have, to put a finer point on it, been allowed inside every orifice they hoped to inhabit and now, because we just sat and watched and because we think so little of ourselves and what the sport has to offer to the wider public and the next generation, we are consigned to the corner of the room, where we belong, and where we observe, like a pervert, others have fun at our expense.

At first, you think and hope it’s just a fling; a phase. You think only those easy to buy, whose morals have always been loose and whose eyes have always wandered, would be susceptible to having their heads turned in such a way. But then the longer she sticks around, the more you start to see others begin to crawl in her direction, some of whom are so-called “boxing people”, those who apparently bleed boxing and still value its integrity; those who still consider it an artform. Fighting men, in other words.

Jake Paul and Tommy face off during a press conference in Riyadh on February 23, 2023 (Fayez Nureldine //AFP via Getty Images)

One such fighting man, John Fury, was the other day seen twerking – metaphorically, thank God – at a press conference to drum up interest in a fight between his son, Tommy, and a famous YouTuber, KSI. That afternoon, as the world watched Tyson’s dad flip over a table without just cause or motivation, it became clearer than ever that they had snared even the fighting men, these influencers. Because John Fury, we have long been told, is a man who prides himself on being true to himself and to the sport of boxing. He has fighting in his veins and in his DNA and it is from his very testicles, we are constantly reminded, that he produced the current heavyweight champion of the world.

To therefore see this same John Fury suddenly dancing to the tune of wide-eyed streamers and gamers was to watch your favourite punk band sell out by softening their sound and growing out their hair. It was unexpected, jarring, sad. It had the desired effect, of course, insofar as generating attention for both John Fury and his son’s fight, but from any other standpoint, particularly a boxing one, it felt almost like we had lost one of our own that day. For if they could get John Fury, who couldn’t they get in the coming months and years? Moreover, with the Fury-Verse revealing the following day that John Fury – yes, the same John Fury – will be releasing his memoir through Pan Macmillan, are we at the stage now where even proud fighting men are conceding that fighting no longer pays the way it once did (financially, psychologically, spiritually)? Is fighting, even for them, now merely a means to an end and the vehicle in which they plan to both work on their brand and travel to fancier and more financially fruitful destinations?

Certainly, it would appear so. Taking his father’s lead, Tyson, the current heavyweight champion, will next be “boxing” a 36-year-old mixed martial artist (Francis Ngannou) in the combat equivalent of a kickabout in the Middle East in October and will, before that, be watched by millions of bored mums on Netflix, where you can find his fly-on-the-wall show At Home with the Furys. His younger brother Tommy, meanwhile, has all but given up on becoming a legitimate boxer in favour of messing around with the likes of KSI, who is next up for him in October, and Jake Paul, whom he outpointed in February. He also has a reality TV girlfriend, has made more money than he ever would from exclusively boxing, and is a household name, albeit only in UK households any sane, intelligent person would never want to enter.

At Home with the Furys

Maybe, for them and for others, that’s enough. Maybe, in light of the fact success nowadays is judged according to followers and wealth, the rise of the Furys should be seen as a testament to their ability to translate fighting achievement into lucrative, brand-enhancing opportunities. Yet, even if that’s the case, where does it all end? Furthermore, where does it leave boxing if the Furys, presumably purists at the start and at heart, have now gleefully traded their reputation as fighting men for reputations as men about town or, simply, showmen?

The lure is strong, of that there’s no doubt. In an antiquated sport, where stars are today few and far between and broadcasters care only about pay-per-view events, it is plain to see why so many are happy to act up and twerk for attention. However, to welcome this new take on “boxing” and embrace it as a means of creating interest and money is doing a disservice to the sport itself. It is not, as they will tell you, expanding the audience and freshening things up. It is instead an admission. It is an admission that the sport needs help and that those both covering it and funding it no longer have any faith in traditional fights and fighters – or even themselves. That’s why, without any thought, much less resistance, we have let others into our sacred space and why, having given them the power, we now turn on our cameras, point our phones, and watch from our seedy little corner while calling it “progress” or “something different”. Sometimes, when it gets really rough and guilt starts to creep in, we even offer words of encouragement, which of course only makes it worse. For now there’s every chance they’ll never stop pounding away. Now, to delay both the climax and their departure, they are making eye contact with us and smiling.