This Saturday night in Las Vegas, before the packed bleachers of the MGM Grand Garden Arena and an international television audience of up to 10 million, a soft-spoken former school teacher from Brisbane will step into the ring to do battle with one of the most formidable fighters on the planet.
World welterweight champion Jeff Horn will take on American superstar Terence Crawford in the biggest fight of his career. Horn is expected to earn a purse of over $2 million regardless of whether he is still standing at the end of the bout.
Horn’s rise to boxing stardom out of nowhere has the ring of a classic Hollywood script. Horn was an unknown and an underdog with such an unlikely backstory when he defeated Filipino boxing legend Manny Pacquaio in front of over 50,000 people at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium a year ago, and his ascent stirred passions after judges unanimously but controversially awarded him the win.
Horn came to boxing late, starting training at a suburban Brisbane club at the age of 16. He took up the sport for self-defence after getting beaten up by bullies at MacGregor High School. Marriage to his high-school sweetheart, Joanna, and the arrival of their new baby cement his wholesome media image.
Despite all this, outside of boxing aficionados, he’s largely unknown. In a nation that reveres its sporting heroes, where fighters like Johnny Famechon and Lionel Rose were spoken of in the same breath as the likes of tennis champion Rod Laver and cricket legend Dennis Lillee, mention Horn’s name on the street today and the reaction is likely to be “Jeff who?”
Even as boxing enjoys huge popular interest and engagement as a fitness workout, the professionals have slipped out of the public view, the sport gaining only niche coverage in the mainstream media.
So, what has happened to boxing, and why have sports fans turned their backs on ringside action?
Well, it’s complicated. Sportswriter and boxing nut Alex McClintock blames a combination of long-term factors eating away at the public appetite for the sport. It’s partly to do with celebrity, partly with geography, and a lot to do with money and shifting community tastes.
And then there’s the blood. “A lot of people who don’t get boxing view it with a lot of distaste, and although other sports have more fatalities we do need to be honest and say that boxing is not safe,” says McClintock.
The Australian, British and World medical associations have all called over the years for boxing to be banned because of the health risks. Emerging understanding of the delicacy of brain function, and the enduring effects of even apparently mild injury, have underlined those concerns.
But while McClintock recognizes the safety concerns, he’s not persuaded they have been a major contributor to the sport’s recent declining popularity. It’s been ever thus, he argues. “People have been calling for the sport to be banned since the 19th century, and even during the peak of its popularity in the 1960s.” He expands on other factors that have cost the sport.
“Changing demographics, television deals and the management of the sport overall, have all combined to relegate boxing, which was one of the truly big sports in Australia in the first half and the middle of the 20th century, to being a bit of a fringe sport,” says McClintock. Corruption is also an issue.
“Corruption, the cost of paying for pay-per-views, the fact that it’s difficult to watch if you don’t have Foxtel, not as many live fights are advertised. All these things add up over time to shrink the audience.”
Boxing is also sidelined when it comes to government funding. “A lot of other countries have a bigger population and better financial support for their fighters,” says boxing trainer Gerry Murphy.
From his Murphy’s Boxing Gym in eastern suburban Surrey Hills, he consistently produces national champions who represent Australia at the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics. He beams while recounting in detail the national championship his protégé clinched just the previous night.
But Australia’s promising boxers are up against it, he says. “It’s tough because unlike other countries our guys have to pay their own way to get a trip to a national or international event because Boxing Australia is lucky to get $850,000 a year from the Government.”
McClintock agrees the lack of money is a problem.
“We don’t have the kind of amateur system in place that eastern European and other major boxing countries have because amateur sport is all about funding,” he says.
“There’s a glut of professional boxers in the UK at the moment and that’s down to a significant investment the British Government made in amateur boxing prior to the London Olympics.”
Australia’s outpost status in the sport is highlighted by the reluctance of many of the best fighters in the world to make the long-haul trip. That’s why Horn has been forced to fight his challenger in Las Vegas rather than at home.
Boxing trainer and owner of Melbourne’s CBD Prestige Gym, Predrag Galic, says: “Australia is also fundamentally disadvantaged by the time zone. Many of the biggest boxing events are held in the US and the UK at very inconvenient times for Australian fans.”
In many ways, boxing has also always been very much a star-driven sport that is occasionally dragged into the mainstream by that one-in-a-million superstar. In the Australian context Lionel Rose, Kostya Tszu and Jeff Fenech managed to do it. It’s been a while since a new superstar joined the roll call. Might Horn be the one?
There’s a lot to admire about the way Horn carries himself. He’s the nicest guy in the game, anyone will tell you. But there are some mutterings that maybe that’s just the problem. The few modern boxers who have become mainstream stars all seem to have a few things in common – they are brash, cocky and mercilessly trash-talk their opponents.
In contrast, Horn is cool at his press conferences, rarely puffing his chest out and engaging in a war of words with his opponents, as is often the custom in fight promotion.
Sportswriter Vince Rugari says of Horn that “he doesn’t talk trash and it probably doesn’t help him in terms of selling fights, but that’s just who he is”.
But McClintock points out that “he’s a shy person and he’s not particularly outspoken as boxers go, but I think we have to remember that as much as we can talk about the decline of boxing, 50,000 people did show up to see him fight Manny Pacquaio in Brisbane.
“The sport is totally star-driven, but I think there are different types of stars. You have people like Conor McGregor or Floyd Mayweather who are outspoken, talk trash, but at the same time, Manny Pacquaio was a huge star and he is neither of those things.”
Jeff Horn could still prove to be Australian boxing’s saviour, McClintock argues, because “there are different ways to be a star and when you keep beating people and putting on entertaining fights, then eventually the public will sit up and take notice”.
A win over Crawford in Las Vegas this Saturday, June 9, would cement Jeff Horn into the firmament of Australian champions.
Many Australians won’t want to look. But millions around the world will be glued to the screen as fists fly.