Boxing: Comparative failure as broadcasters lose all sense of perspective

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A fault irritatingly common in sports broadcasting, and let's be fair about this, in sports reporting generally, is the careless use of superlatives. Perspective, it seems, no longer figures in descriptions of performance, nor does it sit easily with the agendas of directors and editors. Thus the good becomes great; the greatest game, the fight of the year, an upset above all others. "Whatever happened to comparison?" a friend recently asked.

A fault irritatingly common in sports broadcasting, and let's be fair about this, in sports reporting generally, is the careless use of superlatives. Perspective, it seems, no longer figures in descriptions of performance, nor does it sit easily with the agendas of directors and editors. Thus the good becomes great; the greatest game, the fight of the year, an upset above all others. "Whatever happened to comparison?" a friend recently asked.

Specifically in his mind was last week's contest in Las Vegas that saw Roy Jones Jnr take the World Boxing Council light-heavyweight championship from Antonio Tarver (I made Tarver a narrow winner) after shedding 28lb to make the stipulated limit. When it appeared that the draining effect of that effort was going against Jones, the BBC's summariser, Duke McKenzie, offered up the opinion that if Tarver clung on to his title it would amount to the biggest upset in boxing history.

The only British fighter to hold world championships at three different weights, McKenzie brings impressive credentials to the microphone but a number of events sprang from the past to make nonsense of his notion that defeat for Jones would amount to the biggest shock the sport had ever known.

I fancy I heard the protesting voice of Muhammad Ali mumbling: "No way, brother. When I knocked out Sonny Liston, the whole world felt as though it had been hit by an earthquake." And from somewhere in our former transatlantic colonies, James "Buster" Douglas making a substantial case for the knockout he inflicted on Mike Tyson in Tokyo 13 years ago.

All but one of those present when Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns tore into each other from the opening bell for the undisputed middleweight title in 1985 made it the most thrilling first round ever. The lone dissenter was Shirley Povich, still at work for the Washington Post in his eighth decade. "Not as thunderous as Dempsey-Firpo," he said. In a topsy-turvy defence of the heavyweight title Jack Dempsey had Luis Firpo down seven times in the first round and was over twice himself before winning by a knock-out in the second. Suitably chastened, we deferred to Povich's long experience.

How much of the pressure bearing down on Jonny Wilkinson as he prepares for the Rugby World Cup semi-final against France stems from expectations raised by exaggerated assessments of his prowess? The argument that Wilkinson is the best fly-half ever to represent England has been disputed this week by my colleague Alan Watkins. "What about Richard Sharp, Bev and Rob Andrew?" he pointedly asked. As for being the best ever, who would risk such an idea in my homeland where Barry John, Phil Bennett and Cliff Morgan reign supreme in memory.

Across the airwaves and in newspapers, the modern Real Madrid have been rated the best, the most fluent football club team of all time. This pays no account to history, and the facts of great successes - five consecutive European Cups - achieved by the Real of Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Luis Del Sol and Francisco Gento.

Those of us who were around at the time have seen nothing to match Real's 7-3 defeat of Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup final at Hampden Park, a performance so complete that many in a crowd of 135,000 stayed in their places for more than half an hour to applaud the performance.

To suit the supposed preference of the audience for undiluted excitement, and to pump up ratings, the broadcasting brotherhood encourage the view that circumspection and absolute honesty in commentary is an unforgiveable sin. As the decibel count rises higher and higher so does the realisation that perspective has fallen out of fashion to the point where it no longer exists.

Older readers no doubt remember a time when sport was sent across the airwaves with no manufactured excitement. "One nil" is a phrase by which we remember David Coleman's work for the BBC. Peter O'Sullevan's racing commentaries were classics of moderation. Dan Maskell covered the Wimbledon tennis championships in the manner of a man who was not obsessed with his own voice.

It has been possible to sit in a ringside seat near the microphones and hear, in a hall otherwise silent with ennui, Homeric accounts of strife between gladiators who were in fact standing eight feet apart and regarding each other with tender affection.

In all sports today, many commentators have been conditioned to regard silence as a loathsome thing, a crime against nature. Their chatter is an infuriating distraction to viewers trying to see for themselves what is happening. Times have changed but not the trick of being quick to direct attention to the significant.

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