Boxing: Time for the heavyweights to pack a serious punch

THE ONLY punishment two long-retired professional fighters, Dave Smith and Richard Atkins, give and take these days is on the presently leaf-strewn fairways of Shortlands golf club in Kent. More to the point, they won't be climbing from their beds in the early hours of Sunday morning to watch Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield tussle for the undisputed heavyweight championship live on Sky television.

Their disenchantment with a sport in which Smith was good enough to challenge the former world flyweight champion Charlie Magri for the British title, losing by a knock-out in the seventh round, is common among the breed and not merely a symptom of ageing.

On the course a few days ago, butting into a headwind that was playing havoc with club selection, I put it to them that one thing about boxing upon which all old fighters are in agreement is that it used to be better, varying in direct ratio with the age of the fellow telling about it. "Maybe so," Smith said, "but the way boxing has gone over the past few years makes you suppose that it hasn't got much of a future, if any at all."

Changes creep upon us by imperceptible degrees but it is impossible to think of a time when there was such a dearth of talent in British boxing or as much public indifference to the most basic and natural of athletic competitions.

Accordingly, I passed on a fact pertinent to the present shaky state of the sport obtained from a fellow toiler in this dubious trade. It concerns a contender for one of the many ratings-driven, phoney world titles that television shamelessly serves up. Asked whether, in victory, he would consider himself to be a true champion, the fighter redeemed himself by replying in the negative. "That would be stupid," he said. "But what the hell, I'm being paid three times as much as I've ever got for a contest."

A statement like that brings up in the minds of many people, certainly in the minds of men who showed undercard proficiency far superior to that of today's many paper champions, the question of whether boxing can avoid a natural death soon in the next millennium.

One evening this week, flicking, or, as my grandchildren say, surfing through the television channels for some acceptable form of idle entertainment, I came across a contest that brought Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard together in June 1980 for the world welterweight championship.

The thing I recalled from watching it live on television with members of West Germany's football squad during the European Championship finals was the elementary mistake Leonard made when opting to brawl and maul, slug and mug with Duran, who had written the book on such tactics. As one of Leonard's biographers, Sam Toperoff, wrote: "To the consternation of his brains trust and over their urgings and objections, Ray Leonard fought Roberto Duran's fight."

Nevertheless, Leonard's hubris made for a terrific battle and to see it again was a reminder of how far boxing has slipped in the past 20 years.

Far from being its saviour in these islands, Naseem Hamed has become a parody of himself and should have been thrown out for fouling in his most recent title bout.

The stench of scandal pervades Saturday's heavyweight collision in Las Vegas. One of the three titles at stake is that of the International Boxing Federation whose president, Bobby Lee, is among a number of its officials charged with accepting bribes to elevate fighters in their ratings.

It is why one of the longest serving figures in British boxing, Dennie Mancini, hopes that Lewis and Holyfield put on a scrap that is not only free of controversy in happening and official assessment, but one that will be worth recalling. "Of course, it would do the game here a lot of good if Lewis comes out as the first British-born heavyweight champion this century," he said. "But for the benefit of boxing everywhere, it's important that they put on a real show."

However, you sense that old pros like my golfing partners are past caring. Tired of the burlesque so much of boxing has become, they don't look forward to Saturday's re-match with any great excitement. Won't get out of bed for it.