Boxing: Beeb and the boxing boob

Alan Hubbard in Barnsley sees a showpiece on the ropes fight back
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The Independent Online
BARELY A line in the public prints and not a television camera in sight; once one of the jewels in the nation's sporting crown, with full-house crowds on Cup Final eve at Wembley, and an unmissable highlight of the BBC calendar, the Amateur Boxing Association Championships were fought out for the 111th time on Friday in the somewhat reduced circumstances of a wet night in Barnsley.

"Welcome to the Metrodome, home of the Space Adventure," proclaimed the placards as the audience, measured now in hundreds rather than the thousands of a decade ago, crammed noisily into the small arena.

"Inconceivable", declared the trade paper Boxing News, of the sport's descent to Barnsley via those illustrious days at Wembley, then the Royal Albert Hall and Birmingham. "It sums up amateur boxing's decline."

Well, Madison Square Garden it isn't, but the Metrodome did its bit to provide a bit of much needed razzmatazz, complete with military fanfares. But what they couldn't give us was a big personality. He was sitting ringside.

Audley Harrison, 6ft 3in, 16st and as full on as they come, is quite literally, the biggest thing to hit amateur boxing for years. Twice ABA champion, he won the Commonwealth title in Kuala Lumpur and has promised not to turn pro until after the Olympics, when he will be 28, "still a baby as a heavyweight", he says. Alas, Big Audley did not box in Barnsley. Having just recovered from a hernia operation, he has been signed up for the big time by an international management group and is saving himself for the world championships and then the Games. Instead he turned up as cheerleader for his Repton club-mate and protege Joe Young, predicting he would win easily. Unfortunately, Harrison proved a poor talisman and an even worse prophet.

Young, streets ahead on points, was caught cold and clobbered out in the third round by a rotund 25-year-old from Hartlepool named Billy Bessey, who might well have passed for Billy Bunter. It was the only stoppage of the night and the battered Bessey's celebratory leap for joy suggested he was as stunned by the result as Young and his open-mouthed mentor.

There is still something endearingly Corinthian about the ABAs, with the vests providing an armour for one of the last relics of true amateurism, prim headmasterly referees and the unbridled enthusiasm of combatants matched by the near orgasmic exhortations of their followers.

The ABAs may have lost much of their glamour, but none of their gumption, despite being devolutionised rather than revolutionised with the fragmentation of the Home Associations. Amateur night in Barnsley did not provide much to frighten the Cubans in terms of talent, but there was plenty of rip- roaring gusto to thrill the crowd.

Thirteen bouts, four hours of frenzy, sweat, tears and, thankfully, only a modicum of blood. The Beeb, who ended their contract with the ABA last year, may have boobed again, for on Friday they missed a treat. "I don't know what they're playing at," said Rod Robertson, the Royal Navy commander who is proving a refreshingly progressive chairman of the irritatingly anachronistic ABA. "On the one hand they claim they can't keep sports and on the other they are rejecting one which can still draw an audience."

It is the BBC's low blow which has cost the sport dearly, perhaps more than any social reason for the decline. But there are other negatives, like a complicated computerised scoring system, which would have even Carol Vorderman crying out for a calculator. When the five judges have done their not so simple arithmetic, how do you explain the announcement "Jones in the red corner, wins 6-6 and 52-34 on countback" to bemused of Barnsley?

Then there is the vexed question of headguards, which many believe overprotect the protagonists and disguise their identities. But Harrison, who is taking a degree in marketing, begs to differ. "They have them in ice hockey and American football and there are plenty of personalities there," said the man who is forming an amateur boxers' union. "It's the individual behind the headguard that matters. They've got to raise the profile of amateur boxing by making it less amateur in every sense."

There is talk, inspired by Robertson of a contract system to keep the brightest youngsters out of the clutches of the pro-promoters until they have won something substantial. There are 10,000 registered amateur boxers and the figures show a regular year-on increase of around 2.2 per cent. It was Britain's most successful sport in the Commonwealth Games and soon a boxing academy will be established in Durham to cater for 25 teenage prospects.

It is 31 years since Britain produced an Olympic Champion, Chris Finnegan in Mexico City. Can Harrison give the sport a much needed lift in Sydney?

"Let's hope so," says David James, the former national coach who was in Finnegan's corner. "He's a bright lad who knows how to sell himself. But what we need to know is whether he can take a whack as well as give one."

That, of course, has always been the multi-million dollar question in boxing. Harrison's mate Joe Young sadly couldn't, but at least it is good to see the amateur game itself has taken it on the chin and is fighting back in the best traditions of a sport which, at this level at least, is still a refreshingly noble art.