The battle for the future of boxing takes a pivotal and scandalous stop in Boston
Since the fight card was announced in the summer, it was clear local boxing history would be made this coming Saturday at Boston Garden.
At the time, however, there was no way to know how much bullshit would ensue.
Fight fans got a slight whiff of the controversy this August in Quincy Market, where the air was thick with pugilistic tradition at a press conference for the Oct 20 fight card at Boston Garden. Former welterweight champ Tony Demarco of the North End was in attendance, as was former welterweight contender Irish Micky Ward of Lowell. Even before things got started, it was clear that an unprecedented amount of championship boxing was coming to town.
For the first time in any living person’s memory, Boston will host three championship fights this Saturday, including title fights in the junior lightweight (130 pounds), middleweight (160 pounds), and female lightweight divisions. In all there will be 10 bouts on the card with many of the matchups between fighters from the UK and the US.
Playing into Boston’s history with the United Kingdom, undefeated Providence native Demetrius “Boo Boo” Andrade showed up dressed in a blue Revolutionary War-era jacket, vest, and pants. The Olympian then pointed at Billy Joe Saunders, his English opponent in the middleweight title portion of the main event, and shouted, “The Redcoats are here!”
With Saunders not wearing a red coat, and with Andrade hardly landing the Revolutionary War reference, Andrade’s gag seemed to flop.
“You look like Papa Smurf!” Saunders yelled back.
With both fighters undefeated and among the most technically sound boxers in the middleweight division, the bout appeared to be a major day on boxing’s calendar. But just a few days after their exchange outside of Faneuil Hall, Saunders tested positive for the banned performance-enhancing stimulant oxilofrine and the main event—a title fight in the sport’s historic and most popular glamour division—was put in jeopardy.
Before it was over, there’d be a profane outburst at a state hearing, millions of lost dollars for one fighter, and, finally, a wildcard, an unknown knockout artist who could make everything more exciting.
Boxing vs Bureaucracy
After Saunders tested positive for a banned substance, it was widely believed he would still be licensed to fight in Boston. Promoter Eddie Hearn and even Saunders’ opponent Andrade said they supported Saunders’ application for a license, while the sanctioning body whose title Saunders held—known as the World Boxing Organization—said they would defer to the Massachusetts State Athletic Commission. Without the fight, Saunders would lose out on a career-high $2.3 million payday.
On Oct 9, the commission met to decide his fate. Saunders said his positive test was due to using nasal spray. “The opponent and promoter have accepted that nasal spray won’t give a fighter an unfair advantage,” said Saunders’ lawyer Stephen Heath. “They’ve taken a pragmatic view on this isolated use of nasal spray.”
Bryan Lambert, a state athletic commissioner, punched back: “We don’t leave the opinions of fighters as the sole deciding factor. I don’t see how we license this fight.”
When the commission voted to deny Saunders a license, it meant he would also likely be stripped of his title and certainly miss out on the seven-figure payday for the Oct 20 fight. Saunders, who attended the meeting via conference call, did not immediately understand the result of the vote.
“Am I allowed to box in your state?” he asked twice.
“No, Billy Joe, they denied it,” Heath told him.
Saunders, who was recently fined $13,000 by England’s boxing commission for an incident in which he filmed himself offering crack cocaine to a woman if the woman would hit a passerby, responded by saying, “Well, suck my prick, you penises.”
Since Saunders’ failed test on Aug 30, promoter Eddie Hearn had the WBO’s next ranked fighter, Walter Kautondokwa, on stand-by training for the fight and ready to step in. Saunders-Andrade was a matchup between two of the middleweight division’s top five fighters, but it was also likely to be something of a tactical chess match between the two deeply experienced former Olympians.
Now, after preparing for the slick southpaw Saunders, Andrade will be in the ring with an unknown knockout artist who would rather brawl than box. It is an intriguing main event in a packed 10-fight card that in addition to two other title fights also features a title eliminator, an intriguing rematch, an international superstar, and local favorites trying to reach elite-level status.
The biggest fight, however, might be the one outside the ring to control the future of the sport—and Saturday’s card makes Boston the center of that fight.
A billion-dollar bet on boxing
The card in Boston on Oct 20 represents a fight between old and new media with the future of the sport at stake. In part because it will be the second US boxing event for new streaming service DAZN (pronounced Da Zone), a $9.99-a-month streaming service.
In September, HBO announced it was out of the boxing business after 45 years, leading some sports commentator blowhards to repeat the tired talking point that it’s a sign of boxing’s demise in contemporary mainstream culture. But it’s actually the opposite—HBO chose to compete with Netflix and gave up its losing battle in boxing to new broadcast power brokers ESPN, Showtime, and Fox, as well as streaming services like DAZN.
In one corner of this ring business battle, ESPN is aligned with the longtime dominant force in boxing, Top Rank promotions, which is still run by founder Bob Arum. At 80-plus years old, Arum can brag that he promoted Muhammad Ali in decades past but also promotes some of boxing’s top current champions. Included in ESPN’s new enthusiasm for boxing is its new streaming service aimed at cord-cutters everywhere—ESPNPlus, which no doubt attracted new subscribers with last summer’s Manny Pacquaio fight airing exclusively on the service.
In the other corner of the war over the fight game is boxing’s most mysterious figure, Al Haymon. The Harvard graduate from Cleveland founded the Budweiser Music Fest, executive produced the Eddie Murphy stand-up classic Raw, and moved into boxing as Floyd Mayweather’s manager more than 10 years ago. Haymon, who does not grant interviews or speak to the press, made a half-a-billion-dollar splash in the boxing world in 2015 when he spent $521 million in venture capital money to bring boxing back to network television with Premier Boxing Champions. Armed with that bag of cash and the deepest roster of fighters—more than 100—in the US, Haymon tried to bring boxing back to free television, including a May 2015 championship fight at Boston University’s Agganis Arena.
Ultimately, his effort cost a lot of money and burned bridges with most networks as a result of mismatched fights and declining resources. However, Fox and Showtime still work with PBC, with both networks recently formalizing multimillion-dollar multiyear relationships with Haymon. That includes 10 primetime boxing cards on Fox per year and an expansion of Showtime boxing.
A few years after the attempt to bring boxing back to network television, streaming platforms are pulling in big audiences. Lynn native Rashidi Ellis of the Somerville Boxing Club is an undefeated welterweight whose fight on Oct 13 streamed live on Facebook as part of the social media giant’s deal with Ellis’ promoter Oscar De La Hoya and his Golden Boy Promotions. Less than 24 hours after the fight, Ellis’ seventh-round knockout was already seen by in excess of a million people.
The big disruptor, however, is the streaming service DAZN. Eddie Hearn, whose Matchroom Boxing promotes heavyweight titleist Anthony Joshua, announced last spring he had $1 billion to spend on boxing to help build the streaming service over eight years. When it was later clarified that only $250 million over two years was guaranteed, it did little to dull the interest around DAZN.
DAZN made its US debut on Oct 6 with a low-profile Chicago card fit only to attract the hardcore fans. However, the service signed the World Boxing Super Series—tournaments in overlooked weight classes—and is home to heavyweight titleist Joshua. If they add boxing’s biggest active star Canelo Alvarez, a Mexican middleweight who is a recent free agent with HBO out of the game, they will have boxing’s two most marketable stars.
As for Saturday’s card in Boston, promoter Eddie Hearn said he’d be thrilled to fill the Garden’s bottom tier, which holds 10,000 people. Fights, after all, are often relegated to clubs, with major fights rarely happening here.
“Boxing in the United States is a sport that has been taken to New York and Las Vegas, but our plan is to take major fight nights to major cities,” Hearn told the Dig. “Boston is a city where word of mouth is everything. In New York City you don’t feel it. In this city you feel there is a community and if they come out this will be a regular stop for us. This is the start of something, not the end of something. We’re going to bring the rafters down in Boston Garden.”
With a lineup of fighters that includes recently crowned champs, hungry underdogs, and local standouts in tough tests, he could be right.
An underdog defends his title
Tevin Farmer is entering Saturday’s fight as the super featherweight champion. In doing so he’s making his first title defense—a stark contrast from his humble beginnings when he often entered fights as the underdog. The 130-pounder came up the hard way—a Philly product who rose through the pro ranks with the odds and sometimes the judges against him.
Farmer lost his professional debut and four of his first 11 pro fights. When he finally got a title shot in 2017, many thought he was robbed of a victory by biased judging. When his opponent failed a post-fight drug test, Farmer got another title shot, and in August traveled to Australia where he not only put on a boxing clinic but also won the title by a wide decision against a local fighter. Now, with a title and going on six years without a loss, Farmer is a prized piece of DAZN’s boxing roster.
“I was a B-side my whole life—there have been two parts to my career. But now I have the belt. The main goal for every fighter ever is to become champ of the world, but it’s going to be a better feeling to say this is my first defense,” he said.
Farmer came to boxing late—he started in the sport at 19—but he still possesses a unique skill set based on subtle defensive movement and counterpunching. He chalks up his persistence and attitude to the city he’s from.
“We’re underdogs most of the time, and we’re tough,” he said. “Coming from Philly we don’t have a lot of advantages.”
If he defeats challenger James Tennyson, who has won 22 of 24 fights, Farmer says he wants to take on Ukrainian master Vasyl Lomachenko, the boxer universally regarded as the best in the world regardless of weight class.
Pride of Providence
At the aforementioned August press conference, featherweights Toka Kahn Clary (25 wins, 17 by knockout, and one defeat) and Kid Galahad (24 wins, 15 by knockout, and zero losses) got into a spat during the face-off portion of the presser. The two were pushing each other and had to be separated. But months later Kahn Clary laughed at the scuffle.
“All that don’t make a difference to me. This is the fight game. I’ll be ready Oct 20.”
After all, the Providence fighter’s first name means “war child,” and the five-foot six-inch featherweight has had a fierce fight to survive since childhood. Clary came to the United States from Liberia at age six with his sister to live with his father, but the following year his dad was killed in Philadelphia. After that, he moved to Rhode Island to stay with friends of his family.
“I was living place to place trying to find a stable home,” Clary told the Dig. He was living in an abandoned trailer when a friend brought him to a boxing gym for the first time.
“I was just surviving and struggling through good times and bad times,” Clary said. “I saw little kids training, and I thought one of these little kids could kick my ass.
“My friend couldn’t stay out of trouble and he is in prison right now. … A lot of my friends are doing time in prison or have passed away. Boxing is a sport to strengthen and motivate. Boxing kept me away from the street.”
At 15, Kahn was adopted by the Clary family and went on to have a decorated amateur career—winning 119 out of 130 fights and earning a national Golden Gloves championship, five New England Golden Gloves championships, a bronze and silver medal in the US championships, a bronze medal in the Pan-Am games, and finally a bronze medal in the Olympic trials.
“The amateurs changed my life—traveling, meeting new people, seeing their backgrounds; everybody has a story,” he said.
Clary attracted the attention of an all-time great when he was signed to Real Deal promotions, former heavyweight champion of the world Evander Holyfield’s company. This Saturday, Kahn is in the biggest fight of his professional ring career when he fights undefeated Kid Galahad of England for the right to challenge for a featherweight title.
“I think this is definitely my biggest fight—after this I’m fighting for a title. This is one that will put me on different level—this is the fight to take me to glory. I climbed the ladder. I’m close to it.”
Irish superstar, Boston debut
It might surprise local fight fans that one of the sport’s biggest stars is living quietly in New England.
Katie Taylor isn’t fighting in the main event, but she may be the biggest star on the card. A 2012 Olympic Gold medalist for Ireland, Taylor is the highest-paid female fighter in the world. An icon in her native Ireland, Taylor is more popular than fellow combat sport star Conor McGregor on the isle. And this whole time, this transcendent star has been living in Connecticut.
“I can’t wait to fight in Boston,” she says. “Over the last two years I’ve spent most of my time in Connecticut. Bernom is in the middle of nowhere, it’s a really quiet place and there’s great sparring in the gym. … It will be my first time fighting [in Boston]. I know it’s a big town for the Irish and I’m a Red Sox fan since moving to Connecticut.”
Taylor grew up around boxing—her dad and two brothers were also fighters. As a young woman pursuing the sport, she had to surpass some unique obstacles.
“I had to pretend to be a boy to get sparring. I used to get in with headgear and people didn’t even know they were sparring a female.”
Taylor won the lightweight championship in 2017 by third-round knockout. She says her goal now is to help establish women’s professional boxing worldwide—and Boston is a great place to start.
“When I first turned pro I wasn’t sure how much money was in women’s boxing, but the last few fights opened my eyes,” she said. “I’m focused on leaving a legacy in women’s pro boxing. I want big, big fights. I want to be considered the best of all time.”
Taylor is fighting Cindy Serrano, a respected New York boxer who has not lost in six years and has never been knocked out. At the August press conference, Serrano said, “We’re going to prove that women can fight and we look good doing it.”
Taylor says she is focused on fighting Serrano on Saturday, but would like her next fight to be against Cindy’s sister Amanda, an undefeated pro and one of the most popular women’s boxers in the United States.
“Amanda Serrano would be the most talked-about fight in women’s boxing. I have to go against her sister first. Cindy is a seasoned experienced pro, but Amanda Serrano is the one everyone has been talking about.”
Local standouts, major bouts
The early undercards of a championship boxing match are often boring nondescript affairs with little excitement. That won’t be the case on Saturday, as the early bouts feature fighters affiliated with Murphys Boxing, the fight promotion company founded by Dropkick Murphys frontman Ken Casey. That portion of the card features an undefeated heavyweight, an intriguing rematch, and local boxers looking for the big win to push them to elite status.
Heavyweight Niall Kennedy, the New England Heavyweight champion, is an undefeated fighter who works as a police officer in Ireland. He is fighting another undefeated heavyweight in Brutal Brendan Barrett of Philadelphia. Also Ryan Kielczweski (29 wins, three losses, and 11 knockouts), a Quincy lightweight known as the Polish Prince, says Saturday’s fight against Tommy Coyle (24 wins, four losses) of England is the biggest of his career.
“This guy is known,” Kielczweski told the Dig. “He has knocked out good fighters and he is the Commonwealth champ, one of the biggest belts in UK. He’s the best fighter I’ve ever fought.”
Kielczweski started boxing at age six when his dad took him to a South Boston gym. As an amateur Kielczweski won 118 of 129 fights and rose to a number two ranking in the National Golden Gloves.
“I turned pro at 19, I was sick of the amateur politics … little did I know. I hate the business side of boxing. Ken got me out of my contract with my last promoter after they left me out to dry the last couple of years. Even when I was with the other promoter, Ken would put me on cards. This is my second fight with them and they’re really keeping me busy.”
Kielczweski continued: “Going with Murphys Boxing will reignite the fire. I was fighting once or twice the past couple of years, and even when I did fight I was fighting a bum. When I win this fight, I have to be up there for a title shot and big money. I’d like to fight for the 130- or 135-pound championship. There’s a lesser-known champ from Japan—I’d take a flight there and see what happens.”
Mark DeLuca (21 wins, one loss, and 13 knockouts) is another Murphy’s Boxing fighter on the card looking for redemption. DeLuca, a Whitman native and Marine who served in Afghanistan, is bouncing back from his first loss as a pro. In June DeLuca lost to respected pro Walter Wright, and he says he is determined to even the score Saturday.
“This one is a little more personal than the other fights,” DeLuca said. “We have some history, we fought before and our styles match up well—we make good dance partners. He definitely had a tough style. Walter Wright might not be known to the public, but inside boxing people know he’s a slick, experienced cutie in there, and he’s beaten some good fighters.”
DeLuca started boxing at a young age, and he says the discipline he learned from the sport served him well with the Marines. Injuries, however, caused as much time away from the ring as did his military service. Now completely healthy, he says he will be at his best Saturday.
“He came with his best last time,” said DeLuca, “and this time I’ll be ready.”
The main event
The big show on Saturday was supposed to be a coming-out party for Demetrius Andrade’s incredible talent—a party 10 years in the making.
It is no overstatement to say Andrade is one of the greatest New England amateur fighters of all time—a 2007 amateur world champion and 2008 Olympian who was tabbed for stardom due to his fast hands and big personality.
And early on, it looked like he would get there. He was developed on cable television and made the jump to HBO, winning a vacant title in late 2013, then looking like one of the world’s best in a seventh-round knockout of Brian Rose in June 2014.
Not long after, Andrade and his promoter had a falling-out that led to a 16-month layoff, during which time he was stripped of his world title. He also turned down a multifight contract with Showtime and became embroiled in a lawsuit with Roc Nation Sports. Another deal with HBO stalled after one fight, and in July it was announced Andrade would split ways with his longtime promoter.
The timing was right—Eddie Hearn, armed with $250 million in DAZN funding, was looking for boxing’s most talented free agents. With signees saying Hearn is offering life-changing money at almost $3 million a fight, it seems Andrade’s winding road has ended in a payday worth millions.
At the same time, Andrade is now fighting a much less known opponent, since Saunders failed a drug test then vacated his middleweight title belt. Walter Kautondokwa, 33, the undefeated African middleweight champion, is the late replacement for Saunders. Sixteen of Kautondokwa’s 17 wins have come by knockout, but he has never faced a notable opponent.
Kautondokwa, however, will have the advantage of surprise—he has been training for Andrade while Andrade trained for Saunders. There is little footage of Kautondokwa fights.
It may all work out best for the average fan who wants to see action in the ring—Saunders is such a skilled technician he is rarely in entertaining fights, while Kautondokwa will likely try to force Andrade into an all-out brawl.
Since the press conference, the business and legal battles have been unpredictable bruisers. On Saturday, with any luck, the clashes in the ring will look a lot like all the action leading up to fight night.