It’s time that America learned from the success of Britain’s Prizefighter boxing tournaments.
The brainchild of veteran sports promoter Barry Hearn, Prizefighter has proven to be one of British boxing’s biggest success stories of recent years. The concept is simple – eight men (plus two alternates) compete in a one-night, single elimination tournament to determine who walks away with the trophy and the cash prize. The tournament format creates a far stronger television program than the traditional ‘fight night’ card of action, with the show having a natural storyline as viewers watch the boxers as they progress towards the final. It provides fans with a different experience as they watch boxers trying to overcome three men on the same night – three men who may possess very different styles and game plans. The issues of stamina and injury become even more important as the competitors always face the risk of leaving themselves exhausted for later matches or worse being forced out of the competition due to injury.
Not only do these tournaments provide fans with such thrills but they provide the promoter with a unique opportunity to showcase eight different boxers, highlighting their different backstories and challenges. With Prizefighter, the concept and the brand is so strong that even though they usually don’t book the best fighters on the British scene, they can still put on a high-profile show with a mixture of young fighters on the rise and established veterans looking for redemption. The combination often works with Audley Harrison astutely using his victory at Prizefighter 9 to launch his current comeback while young Irish boxer Willie Casey made an instant name for himself by coming through a field that included a former European Champion to win last month’s Super Bantamweight tournament. Prizefighter is that rare thing in boxing, a format that doesn’t just showcase established main-eventers but actually makes new stars.
Of course, the popular and commercial appeal of one-night tournaments is no secret with the UFC having produced a series of them upon their inception. However the UFC soon abandoned them on practical grounds, most notably the difficultly in scheduling a show with seven matches of equal worth and the frequency of fighters being unable to compete in later rounds due to injury. The same problems should apply to boxing, with any attempt to do a tournament risking the show being overly long for fans and the volume of rounds placing an unreasonable burden on the health of the fighters.
Hearn’s masterstroke was to turn the biggest weakness of one-night tournaments into Prizefighter’s biggest strength. Inspired by the success that cricket was having with a shortened version of the game, he had all the matches in his tournament be only three rounds long. The shortened duration of the matches not only solved the problems of scheduling and fighter safety but also meant that the matches were much more exciting to the casual fan than the average boxing match. With only three rounds to secure their passage to the next round, the boxers have no time to feel each other out or box defensively while waiting for their opponent to make a mistake. Instead of the technical chess matches offered by the sport’s full form, Prizefighter’s three-round matches guaranteed non-stop, full contact, all-action fights and so ensured that the series appealed to casual fight fans.
To me, Prizefighter has proven to be an excellent showcase for British boxing with a format that provides viewers entertainment and boxers a chance to make a name for themselves. The three-round matches not only do much to overcome the practical challenges of holding such tournaments but provide it with an all-action style that is perfectly pitched to appeal to casual fans. Many of these fans have been led away from boxing by the more frenetic action often offered by the UFC. The strength of the format, backed by Hearn’s astute promotion has seen the concept deliver strong viewing figures for its broadcaster Sky and critical acclaim for many of the tournaments. Given the pitiful lack of boxing on mainstream American television and the American game’s struggle to create new stars, Prizefighter is exactly the right product to capture the imagination of casual fight fans.