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Managing a fighter’s rise

Image: Managing a fighter's rise

By Scott Bells: I often read posts which talk about promoters and fighters taking easy fights and avoiding certain fighters to protect their unbeaten record. I thought it would be interesting to look at how a young fighter truly should get delivered and offer some insight into the thinking behind the development of a fighter. I will use a number of examples, but will cite heavyweight titlists Deontay Wilder and Anthony Joshua throughout as they are two unbeaten titlists who often get criticism for their opponents.

When a fighter starts off in the pro game the objective for a manager needs to be to help develop their technical ability in the ring, expose them to fight night and the fight in the ring under the lights and, of course protect their unbeaten record at every opportunity.

Therefore, the first few fights (0-5) should be about experience against nondescript opposition; this helps the fighter gain confidence by getting a number of wins under their belt and also allows them to experience fight night and the atmosphere of fighting in front of a crowd in an arena or hall.

During this time, the fighter will be working on developing their skills in the ring, and the caliber of opposition in the early fights will not allow trainers to get too much insight into what the fighter does wrong in the ring on fight night (unless there is a glaringly obvious technical issue when throwing).

Fights 5-10 usually run along the same lines but with marginally better opposition who will provide some more rounds to the fighter and may occasionally fight back. Journeymen serve this purpose well and in all divisions there are fighters who fit this description; they earn an honest living from the work and the good ones often know a number of tricks to avoid getting knocked down in the first couple of rounds. These fights are crucial for young prospects coming through as it can allow them to get used to a few more rounds and, sometimes, not seeing fighters fall over to quickly. A trainer will begin to start being able to see small scale development needs in the fighter in the ring at this point but it is important for match makers to find tough journeymen for this task and ones who will stand up as long as they can.

After a fighter has managed around 10-12 fights, they then move into the most crucial stage of development when they fight people who wish to throwback and try and win the fight. These may be the highest level journeymen or even regional level fighters. Depending on the speed of development for fighters, a prospect may take on a few high level journeymen before taking on someone for a regional/area title. At this stage, a fighter will have learnt what their biggest strength is in the ring (speed, power, timing) and try to utilize this to beat opponents. This is the most crucial stage of development as they have put into practice defensive techniques for the first time and viewers/critics learn very quickly whether a fighter is easy to hit. This also sees a fighter needing to pace themselves in fights more as they start expanding more energy as they focus on both offense and defense for the first time. They will also likely fight fighters who also have good basic fundamentals and may be younger than older fighters they may have been taking on. Heavyweight Champion Tyson Fury fought for the English Heavyweight title in only his 8th fight against John McDermott (actually almost lost the fight) and this, as I say, was one of the most important fights of Tyson’s career as it exposed a number of flaws in his game that needed sorting if he were to move up in levels. At this stage of the career, a manager can decide whether to keep a fighter fighting at that level for more fights than usual to help them eradicate mistakes and technical issues to ensure they are best placed when fighting higher opposition. The value of the unbeaten record at this stage is important and we saw with Tyson Fury him being held back after that fight for 6 more bouts as he sorted his issues.

After winning a regional belt, a fighter will then be moved onto the national level (in terms of opposition) which, in the case of Fury and Anthony Joshua was the British/Commonwealth title level. At this stage, fighters may well be exposed to other unbeaten fighters but certainly they will fight position who have their own skill-sets that will actively challenge the fighter. This provides another layer of functioning for a fighter to deal with in the ring – as you will see, a fighter’s mental fitness is also being conditioned as he moves up the rankings starting from focusing on their own skills and moving towards consideration for the threat posed by an individual opponent.

Tyson Fury and Joshua both fought fellow unbeaten prospects (Chisora and Cornish/Whyte) when they got to British title level and were both severely tested in those fights, again alerting their promoters to slow their progress – incidentally Joshua fought for a world title after but this was more due to the poor opposition holding the title at the time.
Of interest was the fact the WBC titlist Deontay Wilder was held at this level until he stepped up in his 31st fight against Malik Scott; it is not clear why Wilder’s handlers were so hesitant to move him up levels as he has an excellent chin. His hooks and ability to fall over when loading up does make him look amateurish at times but 30 fights did seem rather excessive.

Once you step up to contender level, it is about making fights that are winnable and also provide rankings boosts in the organization that a fighter wants to target. Wilder was steered towards the WBC belt that was vacated by Vitali Klitschko while Anthony Joshua was put in the direction of the IBF which was stripped of Tyson Fury.

Now the ranking bodies have some rather strange approaches to rankings and can often be influenced by potential revenue streams and so bigger promoters have far bigger sway these days. There are also confusing rules around voluntary and mandatory defences and some fighters will vacate belts instead of facing a dangerous mandatory (Canelo-GGG!).
For the fans, this robs them of classic fights, but the promoters have a clear approach. If their fighter can win a world title then new revenue streams open up immediately. Wilder’s first few defenses have been against poor opposition while Joshua has just fought a limited but brave fighter in Breazeale. Both Wilder and Joshua need to develop their skills further before fighting one another as it is too high a risk for them to fight each other quite yet. They both say they want the fight, and Wilder rightfully wants it as soon as possible as Joshua will undoubtedly develop further in the next 12 months which makes the fight more dangerous (but still winnable).

The terms ‘letting a fight marinate’ has been used a lot over the past few years but you can also see why. In order to generate record-breaking gates, you either need a unified champion (as Klitschko was) or two mega stars colliding. Wilder is a fairly big name in the US but Anthony Joshua is definitely a megastar in England and has a very large marketing push behind him which has helped develop him into a PPV fighter from his 15th fight. This does not mean he is the best of the fighters (Tyson Fury has to have that as he beat Klitschko), but he is the fighter that represents the biggest pay check for all other fighters.

Joshua is the exception the rules I have set out as he is still very much learning on the job as champion, but in the main, a fighter’s guidance from newcomer-prospect-contender-champion-marquee fighter needs to be very carefully managed. It is this approach that means fans may well lose out on some big fights or have to wait much longer than they want, but it helps to look at it from the other side.

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