Fighting without fans hardly ideal, but some of boxing’s best say they’ll adapt

As the boxing industry waits for fights to come back, key figures in the industry are exploring all of the options at their disposal. The prevailing thought is that, at least at the beginning, the fights that could happen would take place in a studio or other controlled environment with no fans.

There are still major issues, such as where and when those fights can start to happen. Boxing is similarly scalable to WWE, which has been holding closed-set shows for more than a month, and the UFC is pushing forward with similar closed-door efforts for a pay-per-view card on May 9.

For some fighters, the first chance to step into the ring and earn a paycheck will be hard to turn down. For others, such as titleholders and veterans with big enough names and enough fights to have some financial security, it will come down to several key factors and personal preferences as to whether or not they’ll take fights in front of empty seats.

ESPN reached out to several veterans of the boxing world to gauge how important fans are to their fighting experiences and if, given the chance, they’d be willing to take part in fights in closed-studio environments.

Would you prefer to wait to fight until you can be in front of an audience?

Nonito Donaire (40-6, 26 KOs, four-division world titleholder)

“For me, it’s about my desire to fight. When I train, everything has to be silent. I don’t have any music, I don’t have people around, just my people, my trainer. I believe I’m accustomed to silence in training. So it doesn’t bother me, regardless, if there is any crowd, or not.

“I know that it goes hand-in-hand in terms of the crowd and the sport of boxing. But as a fighter, for me, it doesn’t matter if I do fight in front of one or not. I know that I’m going out there, I know what I’m willing to do. I fight because of the fact I don’t want to waste any more time. I just want to go out there, and it’s not so much for the money — it’s about what I want to accomplish.”

Jose Ramirez (25-0, 17 KOs — unified junior welterweight world titleholder)

“It depends on where it would happen. Personally, it wouldn’t be my first option. But then again, if they say, ‘It’s either this or six months without boxing,’ I mean, that would be almost a full year since I fought. I’ve got to move on with my career.

“If they were to tell me, ‘Listen, Jose, wait six months and just go ahead and fight Josh Taylor and we’ll move [Viktor] Postol out of the way,’ then I’ll wait the six months, and hopefully by then, we can have big crowds.

“With Postol, it’s something I’ve been training hard for — two camps, now — and I just want to get this fight out the way. Us fighters, we just want to get in there and do what we do best. So that’s what I’ll do: I’ll go in and fight because it’s been so long.

“As long as my team, my family, the media and everyone who is required to put on a great production for the people to watch is there, then I’ll take a fight like that.

“We just have to learn and to adapt to a venue being empty, or it’s just a few production people and a few media people and a few of your family members. At the same time, the world is watching through ESPN and ESPN+, so for that reason alone, I’m going to be very motivated to showcase and to definitely make a statement — especially if it’s against a guy like Postol. So, I’m personally ready to rumble.”

Shawn Porter (30-3-1, 17 KOs; former two-time welterweight world titleholder)

“I’ve thought about it a lot, and let’s be honest — somebody is going to have to take a hit, some promoters and some fighters are going to have to be willing to go out there and fight in front of no one. The reason being is because even if the lockdown is over and we have people getting cured, many people are not going to be willing to go out there and take that chance for entertainment, knowing that they would possibly be around someone or something that’s going to get them infected with something. It’s going to take some time for people to kind of pour in.

“I really do think that our boxing matches are probably going to start at around 300 people, and it’ll grow from there. Let’s say, hypothetically, this ends in July and we can start back up fighting that month — I’ll wait until December or early next year because I can do that. I can afford to wait some time for the people to get back in and comfortable and acclimated to being around other people, and just enjoying what’s going on as opposed to something happening to them.

“I understand where we are as a world, right now. So if someone came to me and said, ‘You can fight, but there’s not going to be a crowd,’ then I would have to weigh all the different options that are coming at me at that time. But if you’re asking me right now: Would I fight with no audience? No, I wouldn’t not want to. But if I had to, yeah, I would.

“I’m willing to wait, but I do know that if this goes on long enough, I could possibly be one of those fighters that may have to take that chance on almost no one being there but accepting the consequences — understanding that I’m still getting paid, still able to provide for my family. I think it could work.

“The guys might feel a little uncomfortable for maybe a round, but once things really start to get going and the heat gets going in the ring, both guys are really going to show out — no matter who’s in the room.”

Timothy Bradley, Jr. (33-2-1, 13 KOs; retired two-division world titleholder)

“In all honesty, I’d just want to get paid, feed my family and get on with my career. That’s it, it doesn’t matter. A lot of fighters at this point, they don’t care right now about the audience. All they care about is fighting, staying active and picking up a paycheck. It doesn’t matter who’s in there, a fighter is a fighter. They’ll fight you in their backyard, or at your mom’s house.

“The intensity is still going to be there whether the fans are there, or not.

“It’s something that you go through in the amateurs. The stadium is not always packed when you’re fighting in the amateurs, especially when you’re one of the early bouts — nobody is there to watch you. There’s 40 people fighting, there’s 40 bouts, and you’re one of the guys in the beginning of the card, no one’s really there and you’re fighting with no crowd.”

Regis Prograis (24-1, 20 KOs, former WBA 140-pound titleholder)

“I don’t think we have a choice. I don’t think anybody has a choice. If they say, ‘Hey, it’s in a studio or you don’t fight for another year,’ or something like that, I’m a fighter — I want to fight. For me, it’ll be just like sparring, a different type of sparring, or something like that. That’s how I think it’ll be, but we have to do what we have to do. For me, I wouldn’t want to, but if you have to, it’s the business of it.

“Sometimes you’ve got to change, sometimes you’ve got to learn how to adjust as fighters. That’s our job, I’ll do it.

“Of course the fighting is important, but the money is always a bigger incentive. So if it’s a choice of ‘you’re fighting in front of nobody in the U.S.’ or ‘you’re fighting with a crowd in a different country,’ it’ll come down to the difference in money.”

Do crowds make a difference in your fights? How much?

Bradley: “Hell yeah, it matters. The crowd is definitely there to boost you, and definitely so if you’re the home fighter, or the A-side of a fight. But it can also hurt you. It can pump you up in a way where you take more risks and you end up getting caught and knocked out. I’ve been in situations where I’ve had the crowd behind me, it boosted me when I felt a little tired and I needed a little bit of pep in my step.

“Honestly, facing Manny Pacquiao with no audience would’ve been better for me, because every time Pacquiao does something, he throws, he hits air and it’s, ‘Ohhhh!!’ So you’d have no crowd there to influence the judges, so I’d be happy about that.”

Prograis: “I think so, for sure. It definitely makes a difference. You can either fold under pressure — because there’s a lot of pressure, especially when you’re in somebody’s hometown, you’re in a different country — but yeah, I think it makes a real difference when you have a crowd, especially when you have a crowd like that.

“We had over 20,000 people at the O2 Arena when I fought Josh Taylor, and most crowds in America aren’t that type of crowd, they don’t do those type of numbers.”

Donaire: “I think it does. I think it’s the power and energy around them. I believe that in our fight, Naoya Inoue took all the punches that a lot of others couldn’t take because of the crowd, because of the hometown. I know he’s a tough guy, I know he’s an incredible fighter, but I believe the crowd had a lot to do with giving him a lot of strength and energy. I still believe that when I’m fighting in the Philippines; I have this great confidence and an enormous amount of pride. It’s a big part of bringing out the best in you, when you have everybody screaming and yelling, you have this pride that you just won’t go down.”

Porter: “The crowd definitely makes a difference for me. The crowd makes what I’m doing much better. That’s where I get my high, it’s almost like a comedian. If he comes out and there’s no crowd, the show’s going to be dry and he’s probably going to end his set a lot earlier than expected.

“I’ve never had to fight in a crowdless arena. I’ve always prided myself on that. Even as an amateur, I never really fought when no one was there. That’s my way of bragging.”

Ramirez: “Yeah, the excitement of walking into a ring, knowing there’s thousands of people cheering you on, so excited to see you perform — there’s nothing like it. That’s how we feel as professional athletes and superstars, and we definitely feed off that when we get in there.

“I wouldn’t be able to tell you what it’s like without the fans until I go through it, but it’s a little different, because I know I’m not the only fighter who would have to go through it. Early in my career, when I was getting started and I wasn’t even making the TV spots, I had to earn my spot with almost nobody around, but that’s different.”

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