Chasm of forgotten skills

Bob Mee listens to the criticisms of Pat Cowdell, who was a champion in both codes
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The Independent Online
WHEN Pat Cowdell expresses an opinion on the present state of British amateur boxing, it carries a powerful weight of experience with it. At the Montreal Olympics 20 years ago, his bronze was Britain's only boxing medal, and today he is a manager and promoter battling to produce professional champions at his gym in the grim Ladywood area of Birmingham.

In between, he won four Amateur Boxing Association titles, a gold medal at the 1974 Commonwealth Games and bronze at the 1975 European Championships, making him one of the most successful British amateur boxers ever.

He went on to hold the British and European titles at feather- and super- featherweight, and boxed twice for world championships against Azumah Nelson, of Ghana, and Salvador Sanchez, of Mexico. He confesses that he is mystified by the news that only David Burke will go to the Atlanta Games, and demoralised by what he sees as a general decline in standards over the past two decades.

"Boxing is still popular - I went to an amateur show at Smethwick a few days ago and it was packed - but sometimes I have boxers come to me who don't even know the basics. Their hands are down and their heads are in the air. They're just taught to throw as many punches as they can.

"Nobody thinks any more, nobody feints. The kids don't believe boxing's a thinking game - that the idea is not to get hit."

Cowdell, 42, is critical of the hierarchy of the professional as well as the amateur side of the sport, and feels many of the administrative decisions taken to further the image of boxing have been wrong-headed.

For example, he disagrees quite vehemently with the international rule that insists headguards be worn in competition. He regards them simply as a training aid designed to lessen the risk of cuts in sparring.

"Headguards encourage kids to stop thinking about defence, to stop worrying about being hit," he said. "They do more harm than good. And parents lose confidence in boxing, while kids have so many other things to do now. For us it was football in winter, cricket in summer, athletics and boxing. It seemed as if we had an amateur boxing club at the end of every street. There was nothing else to do and boxing didn't cost anything. We all learnt to do it, and the coaches taught us all to defend ourselves.

"All boxers have different styles and it's no use teaching some of them a classical left jab. But they can all be taught how to defend themselves. This has got to be put right. Somehow the ABA have got to reach out and attract kids again, not just expect them to walk through the doors. They have got to regain the confidence of parents."

Cowdell believes that amateur boxing has to work more closely with the professionals, if only to allow boxers from the respective codes to work in the same gym at the same time.

"What's wrong with allowing amateurs to learn from pros? Why shouldn't kids learn from people who have got more experience than they have?" And, making a point with which the ABA hierarchy would agree, he says ways have to be found to encourage boxers to work towards major championships.

"I would have stayed in the amateurs, would never have turned pro, but after I came home from the Olympics there was the civic reception - and then what? My missus and I were still living in a house with a hole in the roof!

"Nothing's changed. Britain has never found a way to help its amateur boxers stay amateur. Look at the most powerful boxing nations - their boxers are more or less full-time, they're looked after properly. We don't, or can't, do that."