In June of this year the International Boxing Association (AIBA), the sport’s world governing body, announced a momentous decision to permit the inclusion of professional boxers at the Rio Olympics. The decision captured the attention of the media, outraged professional boxing bodies and raised a multiple questions within the wider boxing community about the how and why this was to be achieved. So why then, having recently concluded the last Olympic qualifying tournament, will we only see two professionals at Rio; Thailand’s lightweight Amnat Ruenroeng and Cameroon’s light heavyweight Hassan N’Dam? Where are all the Mayweathers, the Golovkins and the Cannelos of the boxing world? For me, there are three very good reasons why they’re not there.
1. The Olympics is not such a big deal for the Pros.
Northern Ireland’s golfing hero Rory McIlroy MBE has chosen not to partake in the Olympic Games at Rio, despite it being the first time in 112 years that golf has been an Olympic sport. Initially citing the Zika virus as a reason for his withdrawal, he later announced that he wouldn’t even watch the golf. When pressed about which sports he would watch he replied:
“Probably the events like track and field, swimming, diving….the stuff that matters”
So why does golf at the Olympics not matter to the sport’s former world number one and why will Olympic participation not matter to professional boxers? On the whole they see participating in an amateur tournament as a backward step in their career progression. Now those of us ‘in the know’ appreciate that in boxing the terms ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ do not equate to ‘novice’ and ‘expert’ as their titles might imply. They are indeed two different sports and within each sport both types of boxers are experts. Indeed AIBA launched a campaign changing the name of amateur boxing to AIBA Olympic Boxing (AOB) citing that their boxers are not ‘amateurs’ but sportsmen and women who are as dedicated, capable and professional as those who carry that title.
So why then do amateur boxers seek to turn professional and not the other way around? It’s quite simple – the glitz, the glamour, the fame and the money. Unless you are talented enough to be on the Great Britain boxing programme, there is no money in amateur boxing. Most amateur boxers dream of seeing their name in lights and will strive to achieve the highest level in the amateurs in order to gain the greatest springboard into the pros (except female boxers of course but this is a different blog entirely!) We all know that success at the highest level in amateur boxing, particularly Olympic participation with Rob McCracken’s GB boxing, practically guarantees you a contract with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Sports.
So with all the rhetoric we have heard from Amir Khan and his wish to box for Pakistan in the Olympics and the Phillipines allegedly holding an Olympic spot open for Manny Pacquiao, will we not see either at Rio? For professional boxers the risk versus reward of doing so is too heavily weighted towards risk and this is the second reason amateur boxers are not afraid of the pros.
2. Risk to Reputation
Both the IBF and the WBC have threatened immediate bans to any professional boxer who enters the Olympic Games, citing that the safety risk to amateur boxers is far too high and in so doing they imply that professional boxers are far superior in their ability. Now I find this perspective naïve, patronising, hypocritical and quite frankly bulls**t. It’s naïve because in order to qualify for the Olympics you have to be pretty good in the first place. The qualification process for the Olympics is rigorous and it is effective at filtering out those who are not competent to the highest level – there are no bums or journeymen at the Olympic Games, unlike the pros. I find it patronising because many of the amateurs at the Olympics will have boxed hundreds of official rounds throughout their respective careers and hundreds more rounds in sparring, often far more than many professionals will have enjoyed. In order to call yourself a professional boxer you have to prove that you have no underlying medical conditions, you can lace up a pair of gloves, you can find your way into a boxing ring and spar a few rounds in front of a representative from the governing body; hardly a rigorous assessment! When Robert Smith, the general secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control, was asked by The Guardian about his opinions on professional inclusion at the Olympics he said:
“We don’t think it’s a very sensible idea at all and ultimately possibly dangerous……….Professional boxers obviously do longer distances etc, and [have] more experience.”
I find his view grossly hypocritical. The clear mismatches we are presented with at boxing shows on a weekly basis by our professional brethren is testament to this. In fact as I write this blog Jamie Conlan is in the process of defeating a little known Czechoslovakian Patrik Bartos in two rounds without breaking a sweat, looking somewhat embarrassed during his quest. On his win all the pundits on Box Nation could say was ‘well he deserved an easy win’. Well there are no easy wins in amateur boxing because no coach would agree to the match over concerns about the boxer’s safety. The gulf in experiences within professional boxing is further illustrated if you have ever tried to put a bet on a professional boxing bout. Just look how many of the fights are 1/100 in favour of the better known boxer! This can hardly be a fair fight and inevitably a foregone conclusion.
Ukraine’s featherweight, Vasyl Lomachenko, having turned professional after the London Olympics, won the WBO International featherweight title on his first ever professional bout. He contested for a WBO world championship featherweight title on his second bout but lost to an opponent who weighed 11lbs more than Lomachenko at the start of the contest. On his third professional bout he defeated Gary Russel Jnr to win the vacant WBO featherweight title. He is now a two weight world champion in only his 7th professional bout. Does this sound like a novice?
Lets look at the issue of weight in a little more depth. In professional boxing, the weigh in occurs the day before the fight. This gives the boxer 24 hours to re-hydrate and re-fuel prior to their bout. Many of the boxers put on a significant amount of weight, especially if they have dried out to make weight in the first place. Amateur boxers don’t have that luxury, they weigh in on the morning of their bout and not only that, they do it every single day that they box. Could professional boxers adapt to this significant change?
Let’s just look at the GB boxers who turned over after the London Olympics. When Luke Campbell and Anthony Joshua stepped into the ring for the first time in the professional game they were considered novices despite their years of boxing experience as amateurs. They were matched with opponents who were actual novices in the boxing game and we all know the inevitable results in their early professional careers. So if the IBF or the WBC wish to address the risk element to boxers, perhaps they may wish to look closer to home. I suggest that the risk in question does not concern the amateurs but it is the professionals who face the risk – not a physical risk but a risk to their reputation. So despite the rhetoric by Khan and the open invitation to Pacquiao we will not see them at Rio because the adverse risk to their reputation is far too great. It is highly likely they will get defeated at the Olympics and a defeat will ultimately end or at the very least stymie their career. The risk of losing to an amateur is too high for a pro. This brings me on to the third and final reason why amateur boxers are not afraid of the pros.
3. Amateur boxers are better at amateur boxing
The difference between amateur and professional boxing has been likened to the difference between a marathon and a 100m sprint. The boxing rules, the physical demands, the boxing scoring and the competition structure are completely different between the two sports. The two professional boxers who have qualified for the Olympics will have to box almost every day for two weeks and be on top of their game every day to ensure their path to the gold medal. With only three rounds to convince the judges that they are the superior boxer, no longer do they have the comfort blanket of the first few rounds to ease their way into the fight or to measure up their opponent. Amateur boxing is explosive from the first bell and with only three rounds within which to make your mark, the chances of the judges favouring the amateur guy is high.
Amateur boxers train day in and day out to compete in three, three minute rounds. Amateurs at the highest level train to do this almost every day for a week or even two. With the ten point must boxing scoring system, amateur boxers know that every single round counts. Unlike pro boxing with the luxury of 12 round championships, an amateur has only three rounds to convince a judge that he or she is the victor, the chances of close split decisions are high and if you are on the losing side your Olympics is over and so is you career and reputation as a pro.
There is no scope to wear the opponent down and take advantage of his lesser endurance in the later rounds of a competition as there is in the pro game. Amateur boxing is a multiple sprint, not an endurance sport and you can guarantee that every amateur boxer at the Olympics is capable of maximum output for all three rounds, every single day. Olympic boxers face a different opponent in every round of the competition; there is no scope to hand pick your opponent and chose those that best suit your style or maximise your chances of success. Moreover there is no option to avoid those who are the greatest threat as we see, frustratingly, time and time again in the professional game. All in all, the amateurs have the upper hand at the Olympics and this makes participation a huge gamble for the pros, even for a contemporary Mohamed Ali. In the future we are only likely to see two types of professional boxers at the Olympics; those who have nothing to lose or those who’s performance in professional boxing have dwindled in the hope that Olympic participation and success will re-ignite their boxing careers.
Mayweather, arguably, has nothing to lose. He has achieved everything there is to achieve in the professional game and he has more money than he knows what to do with as a result. The only thing he doesn’t have is an Olympic gold medal having been controversially defeated in the semi-final by Serafim Todorov in his amateur days. Is was never going to take the risk for the one thing he has never achieved. His elusive, negative boxing style would not fair well in the amateur game and his chances of reaching the final, if indeed he was to qualify at all, would have been slim. The other types of pros likely to attempt the Olympics are those who’s professional careers have stalled, but are those boxers likely to qualify for the Olympics in the first place, I think not?
So why has AIBA agreed to include professional boxers? Many in the professional boxing world feel that the AIBA president, Dr Wu Ching-Kuo, is making attempts to take over boxing in its entirety. These suspicions are further supported by Dr Wu’s statement that the changes were part of his ‘master plan’. In reality Olympic boxing is the only sport which does not permit inclusion of professional sportsmen and women. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) also has grand plans, and those are to ensure that the Olympic Games is the platform that showcases the best athletes in the world. AIBA have been put under extreme pressure to include professional boxers by the IOC and likely threatened with replacement by one of the professional governing bodies as a penalty for not complying. It’s not surprising therefore that 84 of the 88 of the delegates at AIBA’s special congress in Lausanne, Switzerland approved the decision. The final selections, however, remains firmly with each respective National Governing Body ensuring that any budding professional Olympian is subject to the same selection criteria as an amateur boxer and ultimately ensures each country’s NGB has complete control of its Olympic selection.
Whilst the IBF and the WBC have been unashamedly vocal about their objection to professional boxer’s participation at the Olympics the WBA, by contrast, have been suspiciously quiet. Rumours are that they have signed a contract with AIBA – what will this mean for the future of both disciplines – only time will tell?