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Boxing: Mismatch of the Nineties

Harry Mullan says boxing's latest championship farce is part of a sad trend
Glenn McCrory, a former International Boxing Federation cruiserweight champion who is now amongst the shrewdest of television boxing commentators, appreciated instantly the significance of the fact that the trainer of the American welterweight Ed Griffin was perched on the ring apron with a video camera recording every moment of his man's short-lived encounter with the British light-middleweight Ryan Rhodes in Barnsley last Saturday. Such behaviour, McCrory pointed out, was amateurish in the extreme: the Americans were clearly just here for the trip, and were preparing a "What We Did On Our Holidays" video with which to bore the neighbours. His scepticism was soon justified, as Griffin, who had never weighted more than 10st 11lb in his 17 fights, was swept aside in two rounds by the powerful Englishman, who would have been well above the division's 11-stone limit by fight time.

At stake, for what they were worth, were Rhodes' IBF inter-continental light-middleweight title and the vacant World Boxing Organisation equivalent. Rhodes had won the IBF belt in April with a first-round stoppage of Lindon Scarlett, a Birmingham welterweight with 14 wins in 25 fights who had not weighted above 10st 10lbs since February 1990.

Yet such farcical non-events are presented as serious championship boxing, complete with studio analysis, post-fight ringside interviews, statistical overkill and the rest.

To their credit, Sky's commentary team of McCrory and Ian Darke are properly critical when the occasion demands. Darke was involved in an on-screen row with Frank Warren in June after Luciano Torres flopped in three rounds against Joe Calzaghe in an embarrassing mismatch. Warren was insisting angrily that Torres was a world-ranked fighter and a worthy opponent but Darke reminded the promoter that Torres was the same fighter whom Warren (and Darke) had watched lose a dreadful six-rounder in Milan eight months previously, in the Brazilian's first and last appearance as a Warren fighter. After the Milan show, he described Torres as "so bad even I could beat him", and when asked whether that meant that Torres was no longer on his books, replied "On my books? He's not even in my library."

The proliferation of these minor titles (known as international by the World Boxing Council, Penta-Continental by the World Boxing Association and Inter-Continental by the IBF and WBO), and their popularity with promoters as cheap and cost-effective labels to help pull in the punters, means that McCrory and Darke are likely to have their critical faculties tested again. The basic idea of the titles was sound enough: to afford boxers outside the top 10 the opportunity to fight for a "second division" championship, but in practice they have become a means of promoting ordinary fighters beyond their merits by adding artificial "championship" gloss to matches which are often not even of British title standard.

Of the 16 second-string title fights held in Britain in 1996, nine were all-British affairs, including the WBO Inter-Continental cruiserweight title fight featuring the unbeaten Chris Okoh against Gypsy Carmen, who had lost 20 times in 38 fights and whose previous four contests had all been over the bottom-of-the-bill distance of six two-minute rounds.

This year, there have already been 21 staged here, of which Sky Sports screened 16. These included some splendid fights such as Dean Francis' stoppage of Cornelius Carr, Jon Thaxton's defeat of Paul Burke and Herol Graham's heart-warming success against the highly regarded Canadian Chris Johnson, as well as two matches (Andras Galfi against Glenn Catley and Yuri Epifantsev against Gary Jacobs) which the visiting fighter won. But far too many failed to match those standards.

Eleven of Sky's shows involved that ever-popular double act, British puncher versus weak-chinned import, and in eight cases the Brit duly obliged, with the foreigner failing to make it past the fourth round on six occasions. Considering the obscurity of some of the opponents, that is hardly surprising. The most widely respected boxing record book, published annually by the American compilers Fight Fax Inc., lists the complete career records of over 5,600 boxers at all levels from around the world; yet the 1997 edition carries no entry for 5 of the 15 foreigners who contested international titles in Britain this year.

One of the unrecorded contenders was the Florida-based Jamaican heavyweight Ricardo Kennedy, whom the unbeaten Birmingham puncher Pele Reid stopped in the first round at Norwich in June to become the WBO Inter-Continental champion. Yet Reid's claim even to that distinction is debatable, since on 10 May in Frankfurt the German Willi Fischer knocked out the Frenchman Christophe Bizot in seven rounds, also for the WBO Inter-Continental title. The explanation is that the WBO is at present in the midst of a power struggle between two rival factions, each of whom issue their own ratings and nominate their own champions and contenders. Just what the game needs... phony versions of phony titles.