Nate Diaz, Shakur Stevenson bouts expose boxing's current dilemma

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - JULY 06: (L-R) Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz during round of their cruiserweights fight at Honda Center on July 06, 2024 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz delivered 10 rounds of thrilling action Saturday and captivated a sold-out Honda Center in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

On one coast was Shakur Stevenson, the unbeaten WBC lightweight champion and former Olympic medalist, fighting in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey, live on ESPN with Joe Tessitore ready to deliver a soundtrack to some spectacular knockout.

This was boxing’s future.

On the other coast was a couple of former mixed martial artists, each pushing 40, trying to rekindle a rivalry (or at least cash a check) born in the UFC half a decade ago. Except this was now a boxing ring.

Nate Diaz entered the bout in Anaheim, California, and broadcast on pay-per-view with a record of 0-1 as a professional boxer, the loss coming to former YouTube star Jake Paul. Jorge Masvidal was 1-0, but that victory came 19 years ago. Was this real?

This was boxing’s annoyance.

One was boring, in front of a less than sellout crowd with fans booing and even leaving in the final rounds because of the lack of action.

The other was a raucous and wild scene, with two fighters trying to walk the other down, exchanging multi-punch combos and leaving the sold-out crowd screaming.

Even if you didn’t watch one or both, if you know anything about the current state of boxing, you can probably figure out which was which.

Look, this isn’t a “boxing is dead” column. Boxing is never dead. Bad, boring fights can happen to anyone at any time. There are plenty of talented, exciting fighters out there — the 27-year-old Stevenson included. It is always just a great rivalry or some great charismatic stars from a revival.

That said, Saturday was a tough night in a string of tough nights.

Diaz and Masvidal proved once again why they were even capable of attempting to stage their own one off — it was co-promoted by Diaz’s Real Fight Inc. and Masvidal’s Gamebred Boxing — let alone getting 18,000-plus to turn out in the Honda Center. They fought. They risked. They entertained.

They combined to throw 1,394 punches (720 from Diaz, who beat Masvidal on the judges’ scorecards) in a frenzy of a back-and-forth fight where you couldn’t dare look away. Stevenson and Artem Harutyunyan threw just 869 combined (446 from Stevenson, who also won via scorecards) as each corner implored their guys to let their hands go.

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - JULY 06: Shakur Stevenson (gold gloves) trades punches with Artem Harutyunyan of Germany (red gloves) during their WBC Lightweight World Title fight at Prudential Center on July 06, 2024 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - JULY 06: Shakur Stevenson (gold gloves) trades punches with Artem Harutyunyan of Germany (red gloves) during their WBC Lightweight World Title fight at Prudential Center on July 06, 2024 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Shakur Stevenson (R) trades punches with Artem Harutyunyan during their WBC lightweight title fight at Prudential Center on July 6, 2024 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Stevenson is a vastly superior boxer to Diaz — he actually landed more punches (170 to 151) just by picking his spots. That isn’t always the point though.

At some point a fight is a fight, even if the skill level and championship stakes aren’t really there.

Diaz and Masvidal know how to deliver. It’s why they have enduring fan bases, why they attract celebrities to their events, why the entire on-the-fringe night somehow worked. They made it work.

Those two were trying to knock each other out and were willing to dare to attempt it. It didn’t always look that way with Stevenson.

In the end, if you tuned in for both, there wasn’t a debate over which was a better watch, let alone which one you’d be more inclined to pay for in the future.

For Diaz, this was a revitalization of a career that may have been over with a defeat. He remains popular for a reason though — the authenticity of personality and the ability to summon some excitement (which seemed to be missing when he said he lacked motivation against Paul).

Maybe there’s a rematch there with Paul. Or maybe there’s still the Conor McGregor Trilogy in the UFC. Or maybe something else.

For Stevenson, there will be plenty more WBC lightweight title defenses and fights. He isn’t going anywhere. But this was a real opportunity for him personally and traditional boxing in general.

The sporting calendar was sparse on Saturday night and ESPN pushed all it could in trying to build up the fight and a potential star. This was a chance to sell Stevenson to a mainstream audience, with some highlight-reel stuff to ricochet around social media.

Instead the fighter was left trying to shrug off the boos from the bored crowd, saying they were for Harutyunyan, who he felt was too protective.

“It’s kind of hard to prove [yourself] if you don’t have a fighter trying to fight back,” Stevenson said. “He’s just trying to survive.”

Stevenson is philosophically correct, but how much should that matter to the fans? Who exactly the fans’ frustration was directed at is immaterial. It was a reasonable response to what was, or more importantly wasn’t happening.

To old-school boxing fans who deserve better, the fight in Newark was expected to showcase what the sport is supposed to be, a far cry from the supposed sideshow out in California.

The thing is, sideshows can be a lot of fun, especially when Nate Diaz is once again the ring leader.

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