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The future or just a fad? After Holyfield-Belfort, what’s in the cards for novelty boxing?

Vitor Belfort stopped Evander Holyfield this past weekend in Florida in the latest installment of boxing’s nontraditional fights. This bout lasted only a minute, but that was long enough for many fans to turn sour at the current state of the sport.

Where do boxing and these lucrative money-making endeavors go from here? Will they be an everlasting and sustainable part of the industry? Mike Coppinger, Marc Raimondi and Brett Okamoto debate the future of combat sports.

Raimondi: Well, we all know where I stand on Belfort vs. Holyfield — I wrote a column about it Saturday night. It felt a lot different to me than previous fights in this apparent new genre of combat sports. I just didn’t see a good reason why a 58-year-old Holyfield was in a position to take concussive blows to the head by a younger, more explosive man. On just a week’s notice at that. Copp, you were there at the Seminole Hard Rock, what were your thoughts on the whole thing?

Coppinger: From the moment the opening bell sounded, it was obvious Holyfield was in no position to defend himself. It was a ghastly sight. Those at ringside with me were all concerned for his safety, and thankfully so was the referee, who stopped it quickly.

When I interviewed Holyfield at The Heavyweight Factory on Wednesday, he said he was comfortable with the assignment because A) he was making a ton of money and B) he could protect himself — because Belfort isn’t a trained boxer. While he did indeed make a pile of money — upward of $6.5 million, per sources — it was apparent Holyfield couldn’t protect himself.

Another thought: There was a lot made of whether this was an exhibition. The fights didn’t count on any of these fighters’ official records, but that means very little. The term “exhibition,” in spirit, signifies a charity-type boxing match in which the participants don’t try to harm each other. Surely Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr. were not throwing punches with bad intentions. Neither were Floyd Mayweather and Logan Paul. Both of those matchups had no judges at ringside and no official winner.

While David Haye-Joe Fournier resembled those two exhibitions, Holyfield-Belfort was far different. Belfort came out firing and was looking for the knockout. Tito Ortiz, who clearly had no business being in a boxing ring considering he could barely throw a competent punch, was knocked cold by Anderson Silva in the first round. Am I the only one who thought Ortiz’s punches resembled Shane McMahon’s? That’s not a compliment. … Anyway, maybe Silva and Belfort should have simply fought each other and we wouldn’t be having this debate right now.

Raimondi: That’s a good point. What does an exhibition even mean then when both fighters are throwing blows with the intent to knock their opponents out? Brett, did you end up watching Saturday night?

Okamoto: I did not watch, no. But I guess in a way, I did, because I was on social media and 30-second clips of those top two fights were basically the entire fights anyway, right? And honestly, that’s the part of all of this I truly don’t get. I legitimately don’t get the appeal here. We’re talking about older fighters who are well past their primes. YouTubers who have good physical ability and fundamental boxing skill (and fighter mentality. I’ll give Logan and Jake Paul that; they have both shown they’ll take a punch if they need to), but this isn’t interesting to me. On any given night, the fights could be terrible — because we’re talking about a 58-year-old man or a YouTube boxer still in the infancy of his skill development. So, if at any given moment the fight could be terrible, we’re tuning in for … what? For Belfort to say he’s going to be Jake Paul’s daddy? For “I got your hat”?

I’m so bored by this. And that to me is the most interesting question: When will others get bored? Did what happened on Saturday lessen any of the interest moving forward in all of this? What’s the ceiling? What’s the life expectancy? For the record, I have a great deal of respect for the entrepreneurialism the Paul brothers have brought to the table here, but I continue to think it’s not going to last. Am I wrong?

Raimondi: I’m not sure you are, Brett. And no one likes a good circus fight more than me. That’s actually one of the questions I wanted to ask here. Is this just a fad, and, if so, what kind of shelf life does it have?

The thing is, even as uncomfortable as the main event made me feel on Saturday, I can’t help but think people will be at least somewhat interested in what Belfort does next. And then there’s Silva, who has turned this gimmick boxing trend into complete career rehabilitation. I think after he knocked out Tito Ortiz and beating Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., people are going to buy whatever Silva does next — especially if it’s against one of the Paul brothers. By the way, those Paul brothers have two of the biggest boxing pay-per-view events of the year already. So there is surely a huge audience here.

Copp, as our resident boxing insider, what do you see as the future of these types of fights?

Coppinger: There surely is a shelf life for these novelty events. I mean, they can only be novel for so long. Do I believe we’re talking about these types of fights at the beginning of 2023? I really don’t. I’ll give them 18 months tops before the money promoters are willing to shell out is exceeded by what these fighters expect.

If Jake Paul wants to fight Silva, I’m all for it. If Jake wants to fight a former champion boxer — not an MMA fighter — and start pushing toward more competitive fights, sign me up for that too. By the way, Tommy Fury barely qualifies as such.

I’m honestly surprised these events have lasted this long. This era started with an amateur bout between Logan Paul and KSI in the U.K., and moved to the rematch in the pros in November 2019. That we’re still here two years later is almost mind-blowing. The end is near. Right? Right?!

Okamoto: Here’s the thing: I don’t think it is. I don’t think the end is near. I think it’s been demonstrated that there is an appetite for this.

Fighters, the real fighters, are super interested, because it’s pretty easy money. When is the last time you guys heard a professional boxer or MMA fighter say they wouldn’t like to fight one of the Paul brothers? That’s not happening. All of these guys want in, for as long as it lasts. And I think it’s going to last for a while still.

Raimondi is the pro wrestling fan. I’m sure he’ll tell us there are plenty of scripts left to write when it comes to celebrity boxing matches.

What I will say is that, again, I give the Paul brothers a lot of credit. It’s not easy to sell a fight, prepare (legitimately) for a fight and then not look terrible in a boxing ring. These guys are talented. I don’t know how many other YouTubers there are out there who can actually take a punch, and who also have the physical ability and skill to not look downright foolish and embarrassing when the fight happens. It’s not as if anyone can do what they’re doing, but I also don’t think they are the only ones. They won’t be the last of this trend, I’ll just put it that way.

So, if I believe this is going to stick around for a while, and if I’m right, then the big, big question becomes — how does it actually impact the two sports? It’s all fun and games when Tyron Woodley, on a nasty losing streak, runs out there for a payday. Or when Mayweather does it for kicks. But what if someone like Nate Diaz, who is not a title challenger but a legitimate name in MMA, tries to get in on this? What if Conor McGregor does? I mean, Kamaru Usman, the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in MMA as ranked by ESPN right now, wants one of these fights. So does Jorge Masvidal. And it hasn’t completely started to impact guys like that yet, but will it?

If that happens, I’ll go from just bored of these things to thoroughly disappointed and, frankly, saddened. Could that happen, Marc? Don’t lie to me.

Raimondi: I think the clear answer here is yes. Of course, one of those names — a McGregor or Diaz or Masvidal — could end up in one of these fights down the line. They likely won’t be able to do it under UFC contract, but Diaz has only one fight left on his deal. Is he a candidate to box one of these other big names afterward? I bet there would be a lot of money out there for him. And if you ask his longtime sparring partner Andre Ward, Diaz would be pretty darn good in the ring.

Anyway, I think Copp touched on this. As long as the money is still there — as long as people continually want to buy these fights — they will continue. The market will truly decide the shelf life. But here’s another question: When does it become too far? I am entertained by the Paul brothers’ shtick and I am enjoying seeing this career renaissance by Silva, but there has to be a limit, and I feel like Holyfield-Belfort was it for me. I’m not sure most people who bought that came away satisfied with how it went, and that could be troubling for future Triller pay-per-view events.

What’s the line here, Copp? And who is responsible for stopping the madness before that line gets crossed and something tragic happens?

Coppinger: I’m not sure what the line is, but we all know what the finish line is, let’s be real: McGregor vs. Jake Paul. It just feels like we’re destined for it in what would be the Super Bowl of novelty fights (well, the second Super Bowl. We did have Mayweather vs. McGregor).

Ultimately, the commissions are responsible for ensuring fighter safety. In this case, Triller went commission shopping. California said no to Holyfield-Belfort, but the state was prepared to sanction Oscar De La Hoya-Belfort. Florida opened its arms to Holyfield. Let’s not forget: Holyfield had his New York license suspended after a lethargic performance against Larry Donald. That was in 2005!

Not only is Holyfield almost 59, he has also had one of the most brutal careers of all time. That’s not hyperbole. His 1992 fight with Riddick Bowe for the heavyweight championship — their first meeting — was named Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year. Four years later, Holyfield received the honor again, this time for his first battle with Tyson.

Holyfield’s win over George Foreman was a violent affair, as were the other two fights with Bowe and even his win over Bert Cooper in 1991. And let’s not forget Holyfield’s epic run at cruiserweight, including two epics with Dwight Muhammad Qawi.

When Holyfield was battered by James Toney in 2003 — weeks shy of his 41st birthday — that should have been it for “Real Deal.” So now it’s up to the commissions to save fighters from themselves. The promoters aren’t going to do it; this is the boxing business after all.

The bottom line: These novelty fights will happen as long as they’re commercially successful. But as I wrote above, I believe we’re getting closer to the point at which the fighters’ demands to participate in such events exceed what promoters are willing to pay as interest dwindles.

Raimondi: Of course, the money will dictate the future of these fights. Boxing is a business, at the end of the day. But independent of that, I actually take no issue with the idea of these novelty fights. I found Tyson vs. Jones Jr., Jake Paul against Woodley and Ben Askren, and Mayweather vs. Logan Paul all pretty entertaining. And they were all fairly harmless, in my mind. I’d argue some of it even brings new eyes to boxing. But there needs to be an adult in the room at some point to stop the likes of a nearly 60-year-old Holyfield from getting in there and putting himself in harm’s way. Brett, you want the last word on all of this? You’re definitely the strongest voice of the three of us against these fights.

Okamoto: Yeah, it’s not even that I’m all that against them, truly. Like you said, the ones we’ve seen have been mostly harmless. And they are great in the sense they provide fighters another option. More opportunities fighters have to make money, that’s great. Even if some of them don’t end up in these novelty fights, they could afford certain fighters contract leverage they wouldn’t normally have.

I’m just saying they are really, really lame. I don’t find the entertainment value in them, as you do, Marc. Which is fine! To each their own. But if we end up losing a couple McGregor MMA fights, or Nate Diaz fights, or anyone else in the sport I still really want to watch compete in their own craft, just so they can go fight Jake Paul and get into “altercations” during fight week when people’s moms are talked about and hats are stolen … that’ll be a bummer.

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