As Top Rank Boxing planned its return to live fights, there was a unique focus to finding the right location.
“You can find an arena, a studio… I’ve done fights in bullrings, football fields, outdoor football fields, indoor ballrooms – I’ve done them from all over,” Top Rank President Todd DuBoef said. “The first piece you have to find is the state.”
Heading into May, there were upwards of 23 states that were entering the first steps of easing their coronavirus restrictions. However, Florida had already deemed WWE an essential business and also applied that ruling to other wrestling and combat sports – boxing being one of them. Texas and California were highly considered given their proximity to Top Rank’s headquarters in Las Vegas. At one point, even Oklahoma was listed as a potential destination for the boxing company’s comeback.
Ultimately, DuBoef and Top Rank chose to go with their home state of Nevada in Las Vegas specifically – which last hosted Wilder-Fury II in late-February – to welcome back boxing.
“There’s a lot of different moving parts and unknowns and processes and protocols that we have to take into consideration,” DuBoef said. “We have to ensure everybody in this first step – which would be a fanless environment – the safety of the athletes, the state regulators that would be regulating our sporting contests, the production teams that would be coming here and televising the event, and finally our staff that would be working.”
However, when Top Rank returned to the ring on June 9 – headlined by the junior lightweight contest between Shakur Stevenson and Felix Carabello – it was under vastly different circumstances than Wilder-Fury II. Instead of the 17,000-seat MGM Grand Garden Plaza, fights were held at the MGM Grand Conference Center and Grand Ballroom in front of zero fans.
Instead of that arena setting, the bouts are taking place in a concert-like studio setting inside a room at the conference center, which is part of “The Bubble” that MGM and Top Rank have set up to quarantine and keep the fighters safe. “The Bubble” is not accessible to the general public and is only available to those who have tested negative for the coronavirus. Areas that fall within the boundaries of “The Bubble” include MGM’s hotel floor, the fighter’s hotel floor, and the conference center floor where Top Rank activities are taking place. People are required to wear masks at all times except when they are eating or in their hotel room.
The fan-less environment also is closed off from media members, and Top Rank will be placing an increased emphasis on polymerase chain reaction testing, which can detect COVID-19. All working groups at MGM will be held to a maximum of six people and are required to follow social distancing protocols.
But even with those precautions, there still have been some setbacks. Mikaela Mayer was forced to withdraw as the co-feature of Top Rank’s June 9 boxing card after testing positive for the coronavirus.
While Top Rank COO Brad Jacobs is disappointed that Mayer was unable to compete, he said the company’s “plans or protocol that we had put in place worked flawlessly.” After Top Rank tested Mayer at night, it was notified about her positive result by the following morning. She and her management were notified and began putting the relocation process in effect. She was taken out of MGM and moved to a different hotel before she was forced to drive home. Jacobs says that in the end, from the time they discovered her positive test to her departure, it spanned roughly three hours.
When Top Rank hosted Wilder-Fury II at the MGM Grand Garden Plaza on Feb. 22, DuBoef saw it as, “probably the last great sporting event” to happen pre-coronavirus. The much-anticipated rematch delivered for the boxing company, generating nearly $17 million in official revenue – breaking the Nevada gate revenue record that dated back to 1999 – and drew 15,816 people in attendance.
For Top Rank’s return on June 9, its fights averaged 397,000 viewers and a 0.17 rating for the 18-49 demographic. That viewership lagged behind Top Rank’s recent efforts around airing classic fights, which in some cases drew more than double that viewership.
Jacobs said Top Rank is not generating revenue from the events either. However, he says, that is not the main focus around its return.
“We made a conscious decision not to sit back and not to wait, but to approach staging events in a way that we could properly do it,” he said. “We’ve talked to our fighters, discussed it with our internal staff, and with ESPN that when the time was right and we were able to test properly and put all the safety protocols in place – we’re going to stage events. This is the business where we promote and produce championship boxing events and regular boxing events for ESPN – that’s what we’re charged with doing, and that’s what we are doing.”
Jacobs already says that Top Rank is looking to plan out future events involving fans in Las Vegas. He does not expect that to be a quick result, though; the process for reopening took between six and eight weeks, and he anticipates planning for the return of fans to take just as long, if not longer. But for however long it takes to welcome back fans to events, Jacobs said he has a clear picture of what success means in this unique context.
“If we have good ratings, good fights, and everyone is safe and healthy, I think that that is definitely the definition of success,” he said.