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The Beltline: Interviewing boxers in the era of clickbait, content and no context

Portsmouth’s Michael McKinson will be in Texas this weekend fighting Vergil Ortiz Jnr, one of boxing’s hottest prospects. But is McKinson a fighter easy to ignore? asks Elliot Worsell

THOUGH little of what boxers write on social media is readable, insightful, or in good taste, now and then, if you look long and hard enough, you might be surprised.

Last week, for instance, Portsmouth welterweight Michael McKinson took to one of the various social media platforms to tweet that he was “going to start respectfully turning interviews down” and my attention was for once caught. Of course, this had as much to do with the shock nature of the tweet as anything else (a trick of tweeters in general), but there was also, I realized, a desperation to McKinson’s statement, seeing as it was a scream down the corridor of the asylum.

In essence, he was using Twitter, this platform to which people flock when wanting the world to acknowledge them, to complain about an interview he had recently granted one of the 1,286 YouTube boxing channels currently in operation. He was then declaring, as a result of this experience, that he was no longer going to play the game: interviews, publicity, attention, selling.

The reason for his annoyance, it seemed, had less to do with the interview itself and more to do with the fact the interview had later been chopped up to be used in installations, the first of which, published last week, arrived in the form of a clip of McKinson discussing a potential fight between Chris Eubank Jnr and Conor Benn.

As frustrating as this must have been, how it came about is simple: McKinson was asked the question and this question he then answered. It is also plain to see why the question was initially asked, despite the fact McKinson has no direct link to either Eubank Jnr or Benn. Context irrelevant in the quest for content, he was asked about the pair simply because the prospect of Eubank Jnr vs. Benn going ahead was something topical at that moment in time and because, sadly, Michael McKinson discussing Chris Eubank Jnr and Conor Benn is deemed by those jonesing for clicks to be a far more tantalizing prospect than Michael McKinson discussing his next fight.

why? Content. That’s all.

No less ruinous than the other C-word, most know by now that content leads only to saycontent. Never art. Never insight. Never anything worth keeping or caring about. In fact, Martin Scorsese perhaps said it best when, in an essay for Harper’s Magazine, he wrote: “As recently as 15 years ago, the term ‘content’ was heard only when people were discussing cinema on a serious level, and it was contrasted and measured against form. Then, gradually, it was used more and more by people who took over media companies, most of whom knew nothing about the history of the art form, or even cared enough to think that they should.

“’Content’ became a business term for all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode. It was linked, of course, not to the theatrical experience but to home viewing, on the streaming platforms that have come to overtake the moviegoing experience, just as Amazon overtook physical stores.”

Though ostensibly about the film industry, Scorsese’s words have a wider reach, and for someone like McKinson, 22-0 (2), a boxer trapped in a content-ridden world, the lay of the land circa 2022 is understandably infuriating. His next fight from him, after all, is not just any old fight. It is in fact a fight against Vergil Ortiz Jnr, who happens to be not only one of the brightest prospects in the sport but a man with whom McKinson has been connected for some time. It is a fight with a backstory; one previously canceled when Ortiz fell ill. It is an intriguing clash of styles. It is the kind of fight we should appreciate, not condescend or ignore.

Yet, as much as all that’s true, what is also true is that Ortiz, 18-0 (18), is still to become a global star and McKinson, though a skillful and underrated boxer, is still to become anything like a name in Great Britain. He has, for better or worse, been spared the scrutiny and attention received by the likes of Eubank Jnr and Benn and has therefore not enjoyed the privileges gifted to sons of famous fathers. He has instead had to do things the hard way, an approach exemplified by him now traveling to Texas to try to defeat Ortiz this Saturday (August 6).

Michael McKinson weighs in (Photo by Leigh Dawney/Getty Images)

If the lack of credit he receives for this doesn’t seem fair it’s because, like most things in boxing, it isn’t. But it’s nonetheless the reality for a fighter like McKinson and was something he was no doubt reminded of when an interview about his upcoming fight was squeezed until all that remained was the juice: his opinion of two boxers considerably more well-known than him but with absolutely not relevant to him.

Then again, as hurtful as this may have been, it’s one of those situations where nobody is really at fault. Such is the game, the interviewer and editor were not wrong to cut the interview the way they did in search of a headline and clicks, nor was McKinson in the wrong for then kicking up a fuss and expressing his disappointment in him. To coin a nothing phrase used in such videos, “It is what it is,” and unfortunately nowadays, in a sport in which promoters in the purest sense are extinct, McKinson and the like have been left to fend for themselves. They concentrate on building professional records rather than social media followings and for being so misguided they get neither the attention nor accolades their talents deserve.

Their stories of course need to be told. But how and to whom? These days, such is the diminishing power of old journalism and the different agenda of ‘new media’, it’s hard to say. Indeed, often pre-fight press conferences, once places of access, once platforms of expression, are today sometimes taken entirely by a promoter, who will go so far as to ask questions on behalf of the ‘media’ invited to attend. In some cases, I’ll admit, given the media who do attend, this might not necessarily be a bad thing, but still it makes an amateur storyteller of a professional salesman (the promoter) and the search for a hook tougher for all adept at finding such things.

Even interviews occasionally fall victim to the power struggle. Recently, for example, I was asked on the day of an interview not to question a boxer about a variety of subjects, which was, for what it’s worth, the first and only time this has happened to me in 19 years. A polite request, it came not from the boxer himself but rather those arranging interviews on his behalf; those, that is, with no understanding of what it is to be a boxer and no understanding of what it is to be a journalist, either.

It was to my relief and satisfaction, then, that the boxer, despite these stipulations, proceeded to bring up one of the banned subjects within just five minutes of us speaking, doing so presumably because (a) he wanted to get the issue off his chest (b) our history trumped the dos and don’ts and (c) he was smart enough to know it was a far more interesting subject to both talk and write about than his upcoming fight.

THE WAY THINGS WERE: Muhammad Ali holds court in October 1974, following his knockout of George Foreman in Kinshasa (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Rest assured, cases like Michael McKinson’s are not symptomatic of a failure on the part of a journalist or media outlet. They are instead more symptomatic of a failure on the part of a promoter. For who, after all, is responsible for promoting these fighters and their fights if not the promoter? Nobody. That’s the answer.

However, serving only to complicate matters is the fact that the role of promoter has without doubt changed. It has changed predominantly due to the rapid rise of social media, which has, in effect, allowed promoters to put their feet up and get complacent. Now, rather than work on promoting their fighters, they prefer to stress the importance of fighters mastering the art of self-promotion (do it yourself, in other words) in an effort to mask their own inadequacies in this department.

An art never taught, boxers typically emerge from working class backgrounds without the necessary tools to express themselves in public yet have over time been gaslighted into thinking the only way to succeed in this sport is to seek attention, embrace it, and monetize it. Without doing this, they are told, your boxing skills will not suffice. “Really?” they might ask. “Yes,” says the promoter, invariably richer than they will ever be and for some reason boasting ten times the number of social media followers. “It’s just the business, I’m afraid.”

If so, the job of the promoter in the business of boxing no longer exists. In its place now is little more than an event manager and self-promoter, someone whose primary goal is to increase the visibility of their own brand in the hope that the trickle-down effect will perhaps enhance the lives of the many Oliver Twists begging for more. It is an approach fueled entirely by hope – and therefore chance – rather than skill or effort. It is an approach considered novel, or ‘new age’, in the short-term but one totally unsustainable once the next generation of boxers start to realize that to make it – truly make it – will require an ability to either: one, take provocative selfies; two, become an outspoken, self-absorbed monster on social media; or three, ride the coattails of a famous father. Otherwise, “You’re on your own, kid,” the promoter will tell them. “It is what it is.”

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