What is an exhibition fight and how is it different to a professional bout?

Boxing matches tend to be organised as one of three types: professional, amateur or exhibition. But what is the difference between them?

Generally speaking, most ‘major’ fights – including title fights – are professional bouts, while exhibition contests are those staged with more of a focus on the audience and entertainment. Most professional fighters have an amateur career before turning pro, and Olympic fights count as amateur bouts.

For example, Anthony Joshua’s Olympic gold-medal win in 2012 was part of his amateur career. Meanwhile, his heavyweight title fights with Oleksandr Usyk in 2021 and 2022 were professional bouts. Elsewhere, Floyd Mayweather’s recent matches against YouTubers Logan Paul and Deji were exhibitions.

All fights – professional, amateur and exhibition – must be licensed by a commission (e.g. fights in Las Vegas are regulated by the Nevada State Athletic Commission), but exhibition bouts do not need to be sanctioned by a governing body. In contrast, the World Boxing Council (WBC) sanctioned Tyson Fury’s three fights with Deontay Wilder, as the WBC heavyweight title was on the line.

Professional fights do not need to be title bouts, but they tend to have an effect on the rankings in the weight class in which they take place, as seeded by the governing body sanctioning the fight. I.e. Andy Ruiz Jr is the World Boxing Organization (WBO)’s No 1-ranked fighter below its champions, while Wilder is ranked sixth. If Wilder were to fight and beat Ruiz Jr, Wilder would likely overtake the Mexican-American in the rankings.

Furthermore, rules are more flexible in exhibition fights. For example, a world title fight in men’s boxing – a professional bout – will always be scheduled for 12 three-minute rounds; and a women’s world title fight will be scheduled for 12 two-minute rounds. In contrast, an exhibition fight could be set as six three-minute rounds, or eight two-minute rounds (these are random examples).

Fights can of course end earlier if there is a knockout/TKO (technical knockout, where the referee or a ringside doctor halts the action, or a towel is thrown in), but such results are less frequent in exhibition bouts, where wins and losses do not count towards a fighter’s record – and there is often no winner declared at all. For example, former multi-weight world champion Mayweather retired unbeaten in 2017 with a professional record of 50-0, and he has since fought in five exhibitions. While the 46-year-old has been somewhat aggressive in beating three of his exhibition opponents via TKO, two of his exhibition fights lasted the full number of rounds and no winner was declared.

Sometimes, however, fights that one would expect to be exhibition bouts are in fact professional contests. For example, YouTuber-turned-boxer Jake Paul has boxed six times professionally, taking on former mixed martial arts champions Anderson Silva, Tyron Woodley (twice) and Ben Askren, as well as ex-NBA star Nate Robinson and YouTuber AnEsonGib. Readers might expect such fights to be exhibitions, but they have in fact been organised as professional bouts, meaning Paul has a 6-0 record (4 KOs).