Boxing's industry leaders on how (and when) they'll resume fights

How boxing plans to return from coronavirus pandemic (1:02)

Mark Kriegel reports on Top Rank's initial plans to return from the coronavirus pandemic, which includes boxing matches without fans. (1:02)

With the UFC set to resume on May 9 and only occasional, regional fight cards (such as the one in Nicaragua on April 25) breaking a long stretch without fights, boxing fans are all asking the same question: When will boxing's biggest promotions return to action?

Boxing could follow in the footsteps of the UFC and head to Florida. Television studio shows with no fans appear to be a more realistic short-term plan, but the loss of revenue from ticket sales comes with its own problems.

Boxing's biggest decision-makers have been in constant communication with local state athletic commissions to figure out their best path back to action. They're as anxious as the fighters and fans are to get the sport rolling again. Each promoter has a clear perspective on how they see fights resuming, who will be fighting, where fights could happen and the window of time they're targeting.

Here's what they're saying:

When do you anticipate resuming business?

Oscar De La Hoya, chairman of Golden Boy Promotions: "We've been talking to various commissions all over the country, including Texas, California, obviously Nevada and New York. We've been checking in with venues like Madison Square Garden, the MGM Grand, Fantasy Springs Casino in Palm Springs. We want to get a feel of what they're thinking first, because safety is first with everyone.

"But what is the governor going to say? What is the mayor going to say? We're just getting all our ducks lined up in order. We don't anticipate to go anytime soon, but we're ready to stage a show as early as July."

Eric Gomez, president of Golden Boy Promotions: "We have the possibility of a June return, a July return, an August return. We really don't know yet. It's all up in the air. We have a Plan A, Plan B and a Plan C in place. It really just depends -- we're monitoring the different states, the federal government, the rules and regulations that are coming out. It really depends on them.

"There are some really good, promising signs here in California. They've opened up some golf courses now in Ventura. Palm Springs is going to do the same thing. They're going to start opening up more parks, maybe some trails. So there's some promising signs -- it would just depend on the local commissions."

Tom Brown, promoter for Premier Boxing Champions: "We've got a few plans in place. We've got one where we start in July. It's all just so fluid right now. We're all still waiting -- no one in boxing has announced a date. We've got our plans. We've got a certain schedule if we start in July, with X amount of fights in August, September. Or if it gets pushed back to August, we've got a plan starting there, too.

"Right now, it's all about health and safety and doing it the right way. We're in no race to be first, it's not about that."

Stephen Espinoza, president of Showtime Sports: "[July] seems really, really optimistic. Not that we couldn't be doing events by that point, but the other factor is that we want to present a good product and give fighters a fair opportunity to prepare, and we want to minimize injuries. So you've got to keep in mind a lot of these guys didn't have access to gyms. You can certainly work out in your backyard, run and all that other stuff, but it's not the same.

"So, if we get the green light on May 15 or at the end of May to go forward, we're going to want to give the fighters a good runway, rather than rushing into a fight right away, because the majority of them have not been able to train the way they should have."

Eddie Hearn, promoter and managing director of Matchroom Sport Limited: "I think that anything involving a crowd at the moment is unlikely. So the main question for us is what fights we can stage behind closed doors initially. Anyone that talks about May is lying, because no fighter is even sparring. June, the back end maybe, but we're only a few days away from May, and fighters aren't even in the gym yet. We know they're going out and doing their runs and stuff like that, but I actually think that when it comes down to it, July is a much more likely scenario.

"The bigger, more interesting question is going to be: Does that last until October, November, December, maybe even into 2021? What do the bigger-name fighters, whose purses rely on a gate, do?

"I'm talking about Canelo, I'm talking about Anthony Joshua. I'm talking about all these different people, because, really, when you're talking about $10 million-plus on the gate, and all of a sudden that doesn't exist, it's not like, 'Ah, we'll just do it anyway' -- it doesn't work like that. So, I think that's going to be the really interesting thing. We will be doing boxing in July, and maybe even at the end of June, but the only thing we don't know is when we'll be able to bring people through the doors again.

"Joshua's plan was to box Kubrat Pulev at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London. If that's not possible, where else can he fight that can replace that potential gate? Has the problem cleared up in Saudi Arabia? Does the Far East want to make a statement in world sport and bring the world heavyweight championship there?

"Some of the conversations I'm having with fighters at the moment, really only from a U.K. standpoint: 'July, behind closed doors, there could be a slot for you.' Some are saying, 'I'd rather wait until the crowds come back.' All right, but that might not be until 2021, because we just don't know."

Once you bring back shows, how are you planning on rolling them out?

Gomez: "There's a lot of different scenarios that can play out. We've discussed those scenarios, we've talked to DAZN, which is our streaming partner. We do have our 'Thursday Night Fights' shows that we're doing, and one of the things we've talked about is ramping those up -- even including world title fights on there. So there's a lot of different scenarios that can play out. We're ready to go in any direction."

Bob Arum, CEO and founder of Top Rank, Inc.: "Our plan is to cut down the number of fights per show and do two or three events a week, because there's a desire for live content."

Brown: "We thought about doing events Friday [and] Saturday, even Saturday [and] Sunday. That's working on the worst-case scenario of trying to squeeze in 50 people or less in a room."

Espinoza: "I see doing events with no crowds for a significant period of time, conceivably through the end of the year -- or longer."


Could boxing afford to hold megafights without fans?

Timothy Bradley explains how boxing venues heavily rely on ticket sales, and the idea of megafights without fans seems unlikely.

Would boxing cards, at the beginning, be held without fans?

Gomez: "I think in the beginning, once we start up again, yes, we might have to do that. But as the summer rolls in, I think you'll start seeing some open venues where the public's going to be able to come in and enjoy boxing again, maybe with some restrictions, maybe wearing face masks and [coronavirus] testing [on site]. There's different scenarios. It really depends what the rules are going to be for every commission."

De La Hoya: "Unfortunately, yes. It would have to be staged that way. Who knows for how long? The fear factor is at an all-time high, and for good reason. There's a real pandemic that is serious -- and we should take it seriously. So, I anticipate shows with no audience, absolutely."

Brown: "Not everyone is happy about [having fights without fans], but it's the way of the world right now. It's not good for anyone. I can't say which ones for sure, as I haven't been on all the calls with the different fighters and different management teams, but some people are not happy with the idea. I know that for a fact."

Can you make big fights off the bat?

De La Hoya: "Our approach at Golden Boy has always been to make the best fights possible, and everyone else has to step up their game. Bob Arum's message, Eddie Hearn's message to their fighters must be firm and to the point: 'Hey, you're going to fight for this much, and you're going to fight the toughest guys because we have to deliver more than ever to the viewing audience.'

"This is a perfect opportunity for us to elevate the sport, to take boxing to a whole new level, to show the world, the public, that boxing is what it is because of great fights. Whoever's going to come out first out the gate and stage fights, we must stage the best fights and the best fighting the best."

Brown: "We can get guys to take real fights. We've got different levels with Fox shows and FS1 shows."

Espinoza: "My gut feeling says that we're not looking at a bunch of warm-up fights, because I think fighters and promoters are anxious to get back and get back into meaningful activity. Everyone's been operating under the same circumstances, everyone has been forced to get on the sideline. Perhaps it's a good thing among all this bad -- you heal up some nagging injuries, give your body some rest.

"But I think once we get the green light, I think it's full speed ahead, and I think you'll see a series of big fights relatively quickly as soon as we're back."

Hearn: "You can make great fights. Can you make the marquee fights? That's the better question. And the answer is: Not unless you find a way to make up that revenue from the live gate. So, that could be a site fee from somewhere else, another country. The broadcaster might put up the money. Who knows?

"One thing is for sure: When we first come back, it'll be mid-level stuff. So, initially the plan is come back in July, get the mid-level fights out of the way, then look to do events with crowds in August, September or October. If that becomes impossible, we need a plan in place to still stage those big fights in some other way.

"We're not yet prepared to say to the bigger fighters, 'Sorry -- if we can't get a crowd, you can't fight.' They don't see that as their problem -- that's our problem. We've got to come up with the alternatives to supplement that revenue and make sure we stage those big fights as soon as possible, because the sport is going to need momentum to get back to where it was, and to outperform other sports. We're not all of a sudden just competing with other promoters, we're now competing with other sports. Everything is going to come back at the same time, trying to grab column inches, trying to grab space in social media, digital space, trying to grab air time.

"We've got to make sure the quality of what we're doing, when we come back, is consistent against what we are up against."

Arum: "That depends on the fighters -- some will and some won't. I mean, it's all a matter of choice. How can I judge which fighters want to do it? I can judge that if it was me and I was a fighter, and my alternative was to fight without audiences or not to fight, I would say to fight with no audiences. For now, the choice isn't between fighting without an audience and fighting with an audience -- you don't have that latter choice."

Has there been any discussion of using TV studios or similar venues to stage fights?

Espinoza: "We've definitely discussed different options with fights in a studio. Once you sort of understand that you might be operating without crowds, the safest thing to do is probably go somewhere where you have control of the environment. That means not your typical sports venue, but something like a soundstage, where you can clear it and seal it up when we're not using it. So I think that's probably the most likely scenario in the short run.

"Although, who knows? If Vegas comes back quickly, there's plenty of venues, large and small there, that could start hosting fights."

Gomez: "We've talked about doing it on a soundstage, we've talked about going to the Avalon in Hollywood or the Hangar in Orange County, [California,] with no fans."

How do you think the boxing business will change, given the circumstances?

De La Hoya: "There must be some adjustments -- fighters taking less money, smaller purses. They must understand that we're living in times that we've never experienced before. So that's one, the second is the live gate. We strongly believe that boxing will survive, that boxing will be bigger than ever. Meaning that boxing survives on digital platforms, like a DAZN, like an ESPN+. People want entertainment.

"People want live content, they want to watch fights, and people want to stay home. People are really itching to get back to watching their favorite team, their favorite fighter on TV. Live-sports content is king -- and will always be king. So we feel that part of our business won't be that affected, but our main concern now is the live gate. The live gate is crucial to a fighter's purse.

Espinoza: "There's definitely going to be pressure to have a bunch of shows right out of the gate. The challenge is -- and it will be true for every other sport -- we could be going into a fall quarter where all of a sudden you're talking about the NBA going potentially late, and who knows what's happening in football, but we could have more competition than we typically do, even in the context of a busy fall quarter.

"We're going to have to balance the need to catch up and get everybody the fights that they want with being prudent and doing the biggest fights when you know you have the best chance to have the biggest audience."

How closely are you looking at UFC 249 in Florida on May 9, as well as what other boxing promotions are doing?

De La Hoya: "If the UFC pulls off an event with no audience and it's successful, then everyone else can follow. We have our plans, we want to make sure everyone is safe and we can have the green light from every avenue, and then we'll take it from there. We're already, within our organization, making the phone calls, planning on getting our ducks in order, so that once we get the green light, we're ready to move."

Arum: "I think that when we open, we'd like to do it on the West Coast -- either in California or Nevada.

"We're not going to rush back into anything. Would we all like to be back to work? Yes. But again, I'm content to rely on the science, and so are most people."