End Of A Journey?
It was while watching an MMA bout that it occurred to me.  Two lads who had each fought six times, both with positive records, neither undefeated.  The two grappled, pulled, punched and wrestled their way to a draw.  Not that I understood the action, but I could comprehend the outcome.  It was an evenly matched bout and the crowd showed their approval while the mat was cleared of blood in the background.
 
As the commentators reflected on the result, both were being talked about as fighting for titles in the future.  This wasn’t the UFC, this was the small hall equivalent, a more grass roots affair.  The show was full of lads who had lost earlier in their careers, yet some were fighting for titles and all put on a competitive display.  The losses were addressed, not glossed over, they were accepted as part and parcel of a career.
 
Throughout the show there was one noticeable and frankly welcome absentee.  The journeyman.  There was nobody in the cage who was tucking up, on the retreat, solely looking to survive the requisite rounds.  Each fighter had their own ambitions of a win, some were clearly more talented than others, but those at the lower end of the talent pool were matched accordingly.  They didn’t have the luxury of an opponent who was there solely for the pay cheque.  Everyone wanted to progress upwards.
 
Last week we saw the retirement of ‘Mr Reliable’ Kris Laight.  Anyone that turned up to a Kris Laight fight in the last 12 months and expected anything other than a skilled, defensive walk around was delusional.  His record, of course, doesn’t reflect his skillset.  I would implore any fighter to employ Kris as a defensive coach, but you wouldn’t lean on him for your offense.  The last victory on his record came in September 2016.  Children have been born since then that can now walk and talk.  In that time Kris amassed 53 fights, losing 51 and claiming two draws.  His frequency of fighting is incredible, on average taking to the ring every 14 days, every fights going the scheduled distance.
 
Kris isn’t alone.  Kevin McCauley, William Warburton, Youssef Al Hamidi.  All names that fans of small hall boxing will be familiar with, each are members of the 100+ fight club, each have busy schedules in the new season, each on their day are capable of turning over a young prospect and causing the upset.  There are well documented ‘reasons’ why they may not do so.  Do it too often, the calendar starts to look empty.  I’ve had conversations with journeymen in the past who have told me that their fight strategy depends on if they are allowed off the leash or if they have to be well behaved that week.  Then you have the overseas journeymen, stereotypically found in the boxing backwaters of Eastern Europe, often looking like they found boxing through being the hardest person in their neighbourhood. 
 
The question is this; Why?  Why do we continue to see journeymen employed around the country?  In an age where a record takes seconds to find on any device, even the most uneducated of boxing fans can quickly ascertain that the away corner is extremely likely to lose, long before the opening bell.  When an opponent is turning up without the intention of winning, what is a prospect gaining?  If we accept the debut fight has to be handled differently, almost a gimme, then every subsequent fight should have a modicum of competitiveness.  
Why?  Why not?!  It’s a sport, an entertainment business.  Are we, as consumers, really meant to be entertained by a one-sided four or six round bout where only one competitor is there to fight?  The argument is always ‘learning fights’ for a new professional.  These lads will learn more in the gym sparring than they will taking on someone with no ambition to cause the upset. 
 
Shouldn’t these fighters be learning elsewhere?  There’s an entire amateur system to hone the skills, or the more underground unlicensed scene.  Go through the motions of fighting as many times as you need to before turning professional.  Having the hands wrapped, making the ring walk, eyes on you in the ring.  Do it 100 times if it makes you comfortable, because it shouldn’t be a reason to be held back in the professional ranks.
 
Many professionals talk about the difficulty of ticket sales.  If fight number eight in the career is barely a step-up from fight number two, I’m not surprised.  When a punter is looking at £80 plus for the night out, it’s a hard sell to attract people back for more of the ‘same old’.  Imagine if the scenario was flipped, two lads both 4-0, taking each other on.  Or maybe two lads who are 5-1, 6-2, 3-3.  Suddenly the scenario changes, the sales pitch is easier.  ‘I’m fighting this lad with as many wins and losses as me – expecting a proper hard fight’.  Sound a lot more appealing than ‘come and support me as I build to titles’. 
 
How would you regulate such a system?  Well currently, boxers are asked to appear in front of the Board when there are concerns.  They may be monitored, or asked for reports from Supervisors.  My proposal is if you lose five in a row, you get called for a warning.  Lose seven in a row, your licence is suspended for 12 months, at which point you can re-apply (or for foreigners 12 months until they can be used again, as long as they can prove legitimate wins overseas in that time).  It would still give enough boxers for the debutants to warm up against, yet enough reason for those with losing records to give their all in fights.
 
It would encourage people not to turn over professional until they are absolutely ready.  One practice fight, then you’re into real boxing.  Of course, this approach is likely to make careers shorter, there may be those who find out quickly that the competitive bouts just aren’t for them, or those who stick it out longer but retire earlier with injuries.  Not to sound too inhumane about it, but there is a production line of boxers constantly coming through.  I can’t foresee a drought because of change.  And if those numbers do dry up, perhaps it’s for the best?  Perhaps it weeds out those who were only in the sport to call themselves a fighter, not actually fight?
 
There will always be an appreciation of what a journeyman can give the sport.  The 24 hours notice fights, the roughing up of opponents, the education they can provide.  There will still be a home for them.  In fact, this change would give them freedom to put the accelerator down more often, release the shackles and show what they can do.  There will still be boxers out there that are able to pick their way through solely negative records through the start of their careers, but at least we know there is an element of threat coming back.  If the opponent has lost five in a row, their clock is ticking. 
 
The third wall of boxing needs to be broken down.  Fans can educate themselves now, find out what a true journeyman says about the sport.  It doesn’t benefit anyone, knowing the stories of walking boxers around.  It’s time for a change, to give fans a more competitive product at all levels.  If you’re not the world’s greatest, no problem, fight someone on your level and at least it will be competitive.  That’s all we really ask for as fans.