Boxing: Boxing's risk family Robinson

Against the odds: From a Norfolk outpost a challenge to the establishment powers is being plotted
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The Independent Online
WHAT is a world professional boxing champion? Answers on a postcard please.

Boxing is an administrative free-for-all. There is no supreme authority, no equivalent of Fifa. And Jon Robinson, who runs his own worldwide governing body from his home in a Norfolk village, is attempting to pull off one of the most outrageous success stories in sporting history. "In five or six years we will be the No 1 organisation in boxing. That's not a gee-up, it's what I believe," he said.

To analyse what Robinson, the self-appointed president of the World Boxing Union, which he launched in January 1995, has achieved, it is necessary to recap. Boxing fell apart in 1961, when a US Senate investigation proved the existence of mob influence in the business. Out of the chaos came the World Boxing Association and World Boxing Council, formed by rival factions and democratically elected.

In 1983 an American, Bobby Lee, broke away from the WBA and formed the International Boxing Federation. His success demonstrated that a private business could survive as well as any supposed democratic authority.

When another split occurred in the WBA in 1988, a Puerto Rican named Pepe Cordero formed the World Boxing Organisation, which became hugely influential in Britain. Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn were among its early champions. Cordero died, but the business is now run by another Puerto Rican, Francisco Valcarcel. British WBO champions include Joe Calzaghe, Herbie Hide, Carl Thompson and Naseem Hamed.

The 1990s saw a depressing acceleration in the number of "Alphabet Boys". The current list includes the WBC, WBA, IBF, IBO, WBF, IBA, IBC... and Robinson's WBU.

Failing health persuaded Robinson to retire to Norfolk at the age of 50. A serious gland condition means Robinson, whose first involvement in boxing was with East End amateur clubs in the 1960s, has battled enormous weight problems for many years. In the early Nineties diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis increased his health worries. He and his wife, Valerie, moved to Nordelph. "I was more or less bed-ridden," he said.

"I had got to the end of the bed, it was about five in the morning and I watched the light come up." And as he looked at the flat Norfolk countryside, he decided to form the WBU - and reinvented himself as a big player in boxing's increasingly weird world. Phone calls to old friends from his seven-year spell as European representative of the IBF produced a string of positive responses, most importantly from the promoter Bob Arum, whose stars included George Foreman, James Toney and Kevin Kelley. All three became "Robinson" champions.

Three years on, the WBU are firmly established, if not exactly loved by traditionalists. "A Mickey Duff saying keeps banging in my head," Robinson said. "It's not how good you are, it's how bad the others are."

On 24 October, the WBU stage a light welterweight title fight in Liverpool between the defending champion Shea Neary and Juan Carlos Villareal of Argentina. It will be screened by ITV, which is back in boxing after a two-year gap. "ITV is very, very important to us," Robinson said. "When someone asks for a match I ask four questions. Is the fight a good one, is it good for the WBU, is it good for the promoter and is it good for television? If the answer's yes to all four, then it goes on. What I did when I started this organisation was outrageous," he admits. "But we don't con anybody, we tell the truth and we don't accept brown envelopes..." - a reference to alleged bribes accepted by others.

Judges and referees are not allowed to smoke on duty, nor drink alcohol for 36 hours before a contest. They conform to the rules - or are rested. Permanently. He will not bow easily to demands from those outside "the family". They are banned from one country because Robinson said he refused the commissioner permission to earn an extra fee by refereeing the contest. "Commissioners are commissioners, not referees," he said. "Our referees are referees, our judges are judges. We have had a turnover of 50 per cent of officials. And they don't take wives on trips. They go to work. We want workers, not posers."

But what about the claims of creating more chaos rather than reducing it. "That's a good journalist's question," he said, having reminded me of his days as a boxing writer with the Hackney Gazette. "You can only be judged on what you do," he said. "And after all these years in boxing, I haven't changed from the day I came into it."

For once, in this late-night conversation, he pauses. "Well, maybe I'm not as quick- tempered as I used to be. But I will talk about boxing until the cows come home. This is my sport. It's my life."