In a single zany sentence, this is how the once-promising summer of boxing ended: Triller, a social video app that is a much less popular version of TikTok, put on a pay-per-view fight between a 58-year-old Evander Holyfield (who hasn’t fought in a decade) and a 44-year-old mixed martial artist, Vitor Belfort — and paid former President Donald J. Trump and Donald Trump Jr. to serve as live commentators, all on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The result of the (legally) professional fight is mostly beside the point — Belfort won by a technical knockout in the first round, after the referee stopped the bout because of how clear it was that Holyfield never should have been allowed into the ring — but it served to underscore what could have been.
Earlier this year, Triller won the right to promote Teófimo López’s lightweight title defense against George Kambosos Jr. The app paid more than $6 million for the privilege, after the fight went to an open bid because López and his promoter, Top Rank, could not agree on a deal.
Triller had burst onto the boxing scene last winter, with an exhibition fight between Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr. The internet celebrity Jake Paul knocked out a former N.B.A. player, Nate Robinson, on the undercard, and the rappers Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa and French Montana all performed between fights.
An optimist could see an evolution in how boxing was being presented: a brash entrant aiming to attract a new type — and a new generation — of fans to a sport that has been the subject of a thousand obituaries.
The López-Kambosos fight, then, was Triller’s chance to show that it was serious. That its foray into boxing was not just an expensive, attention-grabbing marketing strategy for its app — though it was definitely that — and that its flashy presentation would work for real fights, too, and that it had figured out something that traditional promoters like Top Rank and Golden Boy Promotions had not.
As if to punctuate its seriousness, on June 1, Triller announced that it had hired the Boxing Hall of Fame announcer Jim Lampley to call the fight. Cast aspersions on Triller all you want, but Lampley calling a López title bout is a strong way to present a legitimate draw.
Alas, that announcement would be the high point.
The fight, scheduled for June 19, was pushed back to August after López tested positive for the coronavirus. It was moved again, to September, onto the same card featuring Oscar De La Hoya — who has not fought since George W. Bush was president — fighting Belfort. But that date did not work out — in theory, López will now fight in October — and then, last week, De La Hoya was hospitalized with the coronavirus, in what he said was a breakthrough infection.
On a week’s notice, Holyfield stepped in to fight Belfort instead. The bout, originally to take place in Los Angeles, was moved across the country to Florida after the California State Athletic Commission refused to sanction it — even as an exhibition. (In Florida, it counted as a pro fight.)
But we are not done yet. On Tuesday, Triller announced that Trump and Trump Jr. would provide commentary during the fight. The next day, Lampley, objecting to the presence of the Trumps even though they were to be on a separate commentating stream, pulled out.
That is how Triller’s big summer showcase, to be voiced by Lampley, became three hours of Trump recalling different boxers he’d known and been friends with, before two depressing top bouts, both over in the first round, each of which featured one washed-up fighter beating another.
“They say there is a lot of people watching,” the former president said with a smile between fights. “I can’t imagine why.” The night was one of Trump’s highest-profile, and lengthiest, public appearances since leaving office, and a fairly rare event in light of his suspension from a number of social media sites.
Triller did not reveal how much it had paid Trump, though Ryan Kavanaugh, whose company owns a majority stake in the app, said he was negotiating with Barack Obama to be a commentator on a future boxing match. That was a clear bid for publicity, and perhaps a bipartisan hedge in advance of Saturday’s fights, which featured such sights as the former U.F.C. fighter Tito Ortiz — a vocal Trump supporter who resigned from the city council of Huntington Beach, Calif., after drawing ire for his anti-mask and anti-vaccination stances — walking to the ring waving a “thin blue line” flag.
Ortiz was knocked out a minute into the first round by another former U.F.C. fighter, Anderson Silva.
If the thought of Obama commentating on a similar spectacle does not seem plausible, well, a spokeswoman for the Obama Foundation agreed. “There is no offer and no negotiation,” a spokeswoman, Courtney Williams, wrote in an email. Denise White, a spokeswoman for Triller, insisted there had been calls, emails and text messages in which fees and coronavirus protocols were negotiated, though she did not respond to a request for copies of those messages.
Boxing is no stranger to farces, to fights that never should have been approved or to events built much more around absurdity and car crash-like allure than around actual fighting. The entrance of Triller and YouTube stars into boxing over the last year, and the way they have sometimes garnered much more attention than the biggest and best fights — as in articles like this one — could have been an occasion for garment-rending and teeth-gnashing, for fears that this is just what boxing is now.
But in conversations over the last few months, key people around the sport have mostly focused on the positives. One promoter said he wished his fighters could promote themselves even partially as well as Jake Paul and Logan Paul do.
In the grand scheme of things, boxing is just content that can be watched online — literally everything, now, can be mined for content to watch online — and viewers are viewers and customers are customers. It’s also hard to get mad about the carnival coming to town after the López fight was moved, a Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder fight was moved, and Errol Spence Jr. withdrew from his fight against Manny Pacquiao because of a torn retina.
The confusing alphabet soup of sanctioning organizations, and the way that holds the sport back, is a frequent topic of conversation around boxing. What is talked about less is the fracturing of where the sport can be seen, especially after HBO pulled out of it entirely.
In 2021, everybody needs content, and live events — especially live sports — are the most valuable. But the rights to show most sports are locked up for years, and even if they were not, they are prohibitively expensive. Want to show N.F.L. games to attract subscribers to your product? You can’t even get in the door for under $10 billion.
Boxing, however, is a free-for-all, and by comparison, $6 million for a title fight — or whatever Holyfield and Trump are being paid for whatever Saturday night’s event was — is a veritable bargain. But as numerous promoters and broadcasters have discovered, boxing’s low barrier to entry and its absolutely chaotic nature are why is impossible to fully understand, and impossible to control.
Triller seems to believe it can plow ahead with big spending. After Belfort’s victory, Kavanaugh entered the ring to offer $30 million for a Thanksgiving fight between Belfort and Jake Paul, which is surely a prelude to two months of posturing, yelling and viral videos.
Kavanaugh made no mention of the López title fight Triller is supposed to be putting on in three weeks.
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