On 9 March 2017, during a news conference in the grand surroundings of The Pierre Hotel in Upper East Side New York, the chaotic and often frustrating world of boxing saw the unveiling of a brand new tournament, in the form of the newly-minted World Boxing Super Series (“WBSS”).
Fronted by the Swiss-registered entity Comosa AG and backed by both Richard Schaefer (formerly the CEO of Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions) and Kalle Sauerland (from the powerful German promoter Sauerland Promotion), the WBSS would herald a departure from the traditional boxing model of one-off fights, which can either be mandated by the sport’s various sanctioning bodies or can be agreed on an ad-hoc basis (albeit, with scant regard often paid to the aforementioned sanctioning bodies’ official rankings and after what at times can prove to be tortuous contractual negotiations). Indeed, the WBSS has the stated aim of becoming the “world’s biggest and best boxing tournament”, with Comosa AG said to be committed to three years’ worth of tournaments.
Whilst the full details of the nascent tournament have yet to be finalised, the following has been confirmed:
- It will consist of two separate eight fighter tournaments across two (yet to be decided) weight divisions.
- Once the weight divisions have been selected, the aim is to entice fighters ranked in the top 15 of those divisions (including the world title holders of the various boxing sanctioning bodies) to participate.
- The top four fighters in each tournament will be seeded, with the seeded fighters selecting their opponents from the unseeded remaining four and with the top seed enjoying the first choice of opponent.
- If a participant has a world title from one of the sanctioning bodies, the WBSS will seek to ensure that any required defence of that belt would be incorporated into the tournament.
- The aim is for the Quarter Final stage, which will comprise of eight fights (four in each weight class) to take place in September and October 2017, with the four Semi Finals scheduled for January and February 2018, and the two Finals to follow in May 2018.
- The 16 fighters will compete for a share of $50m of prize money, with the respective winner of each tournament potentially earning as much as $10m for competing in three fights.
- Half of the fights will be held in the US, with the remainder taking place at various venues elsewhere in the world.
Whilst those are the details, what are the prospects of the WBSS changing the landscape of a sport that is riven with disputes between the major boxing promoters – each of whom have promotional contracts with the top fighters in the various weight divisions and television deals with media networks – a contractual and sporting topography which so often prevents fights between the top names in the sport taking place?
It is clear that Sauerland, the driving force behind the WBSS, has given the concept some detailed thought, admitting at the news conference that he has been working on the concept for three years.
Indeed, Sauerland is well placed to ruminate on the benefits and pitfalls of running a boxing tournament. Sauerland was central to the creation of Showtime’s Super Six World Boxing Classic (“Super Six Tournament”), which involved eight super middleweight boxers participating in a round-robin tournament between 2009 and 2011. Whilst the Super Six Tournament had its detractors, with it stretching over a longer period than initially anticipated (which was in part caused by training injuries to some of the participants), it did facilitate a number of notable fights between some of the marquee names in the super middleweight division during that period, including bouts between Carl Froch, Mikkel Kessler, and Andre Ward. Indeed, the tournament arguably helped the eventual victor Ward, who had already won a gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics, to truly emerge on the world stage and establish himself as one of the top pound-for-pound boxers in the sport.
The confirmation that the WBSS will have a pool of “reserve” fighters who will be ready to step in should any of the participants suffer an injury, and the relatively tight time schedules between the three rounds, shows that Sauerland has learned from the Super Six Tournament and is seeking to ensure that the WBSS does not encounter the same problems. Furthermore, by ensuring that the fights are held in “neutral” venues around the world, Sauerland will be looking to prevent the usual arguments between top fighters as to where a bout should be staged and whether or not a proposed location can be perceived to be either of the participants’ “home territory”.
During the announcement, Sauerland and Schaefer were keen to stress that they would work closely with the sport’s sanctioning bodies (whom are responsible for the sport’s various “world titles”), in order to ensure that, should a sanctioning body’s current world champion enter the tournament, any mandatory defences (whereby the sanctioning body itself mandates their champion’s next opponent) are either incorporated into the tournament or delayed until after the WBSS had been concluded. Given the amount of money that appears to have been invested in this venture, the sanctioning bodies will no doubt be happy to agree as long as they receive their usual sanctioning fee for their title being on the line or, alternatively, they receive sufficient compensation for being kept waiting by the WBSS.
Ultimately, given that boxing is one of the toughest and most unforgiving of sports, money talks and, once the two weight divisions are decided upon, the sizeable prize money on offer should be sufficient to interest a number of top fighters in the chosen divisions.
It may seem a trite point to make but fighters wish to fight and get paid handsomely to do so, a desire that can often by stymied by the politics of the sport. A tournament such as the WBSS would ensure that, should a fighter progress, not only will they pocket a win bonus but their next fight would be guaranteed, along with greater financial rewards for that next guaranteed bout. It will also surely not have escaped some fighters’ attention that Froch and Kessler, whose initial bout took place for the purposes of the Super Six Tournament, later fought one another in a highly lucrative rematch outside of the confines of tournament. A memorable fight against an opponent during the WBSS could well lead to another significant pay day further down the line.
Moreover, the promoters of fighters will no doubt be reassured by the fact that the WBSS will not to seek to claim any future rights over their fighters once the individual’s participation in the tournament has come to an end. This means that promoters can ensure their fighters remain active, allowing them to take a cut of the tournament’s prize money in the process, whilst continuing to maintain promotional control over their assets.
The crucial next step for the WBSS will be selecting two weight divisions with sufficient depths of talent to ensure that the planned Quarter Finals stage in September and October 2017 starts off with a bang and captures the imagination of, not only diehard boxing fans, but also crosses over to a wider audience.
Should the WBSS prove to be a success, the landscape of boxing should become all the more interesting.