Super Boxing League: The sweet science, but with some Bollywood spice
On 26 August, combat sports enthusiasts will tune in to the biggest fight event of the year when the UFC's Connor McGregor takes on the unbeaten boxing legend Floyd Mayweather Jr. However, right home in India, a veritable fight fest has almost reached its climax. The Super Boxing League (SBL), a league format boxing event, has finally entered the knockout stage, with three nights of hard-hitting action scheduled for this weekend and the next.
Coming close on the heels of its sister promotion – the Super Fight League (SFL), the SBL has seen packed venues, fanatical crowds, and fiercely contested fights to justify the crowd excitement. With the league nearing its zenith, we caught up with SBL promoter Bill Dosanjh to discuss this latest foray into the world of combat sports. These are the edited excerpts:
Ranjan Crasta (RC): You gave us the mixed martial arts-based SFL earlier this year. What made you start the SBL now?
Bill Dosanjh (BD): Boxing is in our blood. With Amir [Khan] being one of the biggest names in world boxing, and having spent so many years in boxing myself, it's something we really wanted to do.
We also feel like we're giving back to the sport with this. No sport can truly grow until it has corporate help and a commercial structure, that's what we did with SFL for mixed martial arts, and it's what we're doing with the SBL now.
Boxing is a sport that really needed such a league, especially because it is an Olympic sport where we've had some success with medals. Despite this, boxing in India has been deprived, especially with the federation being banned for so many years.
RC: How do you see this league benefitting the sport in India?
BD: Boxing is a sport that has so many fighters in India, especially in tier-II and tier-III cities. Yes, we send a lot of boxers to the Olympics, but so many get left behind. These fighters need a platform to make a living and showcase their skills. The SBL gives them that.
RC: India has a strong amateur boxing culture, but very few fighters go pro. Why is this?
BD: I think both Mary Kom and Vijender Singh were mismanaged and should have turned professional – Mary after the London Olympics and Vijender after Beijing itself. But you can't blame them, because they didn't have a professional platform to launch them. This lack of a platform and professional management is probably why so few Indian boxers go pro.
Now, especially with our affiliation with the World Boxing Council (WBC), fighters have a chance to get noticed. They can fight up to four or five times, assuming they're knocking every one out and avoiding injury. If you're serious and you want to take up boxing, this is a massive opportunity.
RC: Once again, you've opted for a league format for your promotion. Why?
BD: I think the league format is the future of sports. Just like we've seen with cricket and other sports, a league and teams will work wonders if you want to build a loyal fan following. We're really trying to regionalise it, because we're all very passionate about where we're from, and that's what you tap into with this team distribution.
The WBC absolutely loves this format, and I think you'll see a general change globally in line with this when it comes to sports.
RC: The fights are all four-rounders. What led you to choose this format for the fights?
BD: A lot of guys here are making their pro debut, and when you start off as a pro, you begin with four-rounders. The four-round format is also in line with today's concentration levels. Concentration levels are very low, people want to watch exciting, explosive action. With four-rounders, these guys give it their all, which creates for an audience-friendly explosive spectacle.
As you've seen, 90% of our fights have gone down to the wire. This shows both the sporting and entertainment potential of this format.
RC: Unlike the SFL, which saw many foreign fighters, the SBL has only Indian participants. How come?
BD: We've got a lot of talent in this country for boxing, and we wanted to give them a chance. Amir has like 200 solid boxers we could fly down overnight. But we took a decision not to do this because we really wanted to give the Indian fighters a platform.
You never know, though. There are still a couple of key guys who could come in to spice things up in the semis. And we're more open to having foreign fighters in next year's edition. For the inaugural edition though, we wanted, more than anything else, to give Indian athletes a chance to come through and elevate themselves.
RC: There was a huge Bollywood contingent that came on board with SFL, and the same seems to be the case with the SBL. What is it about combat sports that draws Bollywood?
BD: Bollywood runs on action and romance, and we at SBL are all about action. This makes it an easy pitch to them. Also, most of them work out, and some of them even have an interest in fight sports. Recently, we had Daisy Shah in attendance and she is a martial arts practitioner.
We're leveraging our Bollywood involvement to increase our reach, because each of these stars has a huge fanbase they can speak to. This alone gives us an almost 100 million reach. Even a 2-3% conversion of this, like we did with SFL, is still a huge number.
RC: What has the reception been like?
BD: We've had a full house everyday, practically. We've had a good, good response. With the SFL it took a little bit to catch on because people still didn't know what to expect. With SBL though, this hasn't been an issue. On digital itself, we've hit an audience of 650,000 off one fight night, and we expect this number will grow.