Boxing: Fight game punches its weight again in social rings
Suddenly, it's a ring of roses. Boxing, so long regarded as a wilting wallflower of British sport, is blooming and booming again. The sweet science, after sniffing the sweet smell of success in 2007 with an unprecedented seven world champions, is set to continue its comeback next year with more mega-matches here and in the United States that will generate even greater fascination at the box office, and on the box.
There have been occasions in the past decade when the fight game looked to be out on its feet, no longer a mainstream industry. But it has punched its way back to centre ring thanks to a plethora of talent at amateur and professional level that has emerged as society re-embraces a sport it seemed to have shunned.
A few weeks back, 50,000 fans flocked to the Millennium Stadium in the early hours of a Celtic Sunday to watch Joe Calzaghe become the world's undisputed super-middleweight champion; last weekend 20,000 flew to Las Vegas, most without tickets, to roar on Ricky Hatton, albeit to a comprehensive defeat by Floyd Mayweather, with a record million more watching at dawn on Sky. A few hours before, almost seven million tuned into ITVfor Amir Khan's whirlwinddemolition of Graham Earl.
On Sunday night, Calzaghe collected the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, with his father Enzo, mentor of three current world champions, named coach of the year. Alongside Calzaghe in Vegas a patched-up Hatton, rueful but cheerful, was voted into third place, loser but still champion in the eyes of his adoring public. Boxing's year by a KO.
Fast forward to 2008, when in April Calzaghe is likely to be engaged in another blockbuster against an American as mouthy and he would have you believe as worthy as Mayweather, the former middleweight championBernard Hopkins, in Las Vegas. Khan, if he has his way, will be fighting for a world lightweight title in the summer, attempting to break Naseem Hamed's record as Britain's youngest global champion. There is also the prospect of the world cruiserweight champion David Haye moving into the heavyweight ranks, in which, in Germany next month, the 41-year-old Matt Skelton will challenge for the World Boxing Association belt against Rusian Chagaev.
The fight frenzy is being fed by the renewed interest of the BBC and new interest from satellite channel Setanta. ITV, who hitched their wagon to rising star Khan, will face unexpected rivalry when their six-fight deal ends in June as the BBC will be able to toss their chequebook into the ring, with cash to spare and hours to fill because of England's absence from European Championship football. Setanta, who are likely to have Calzaghe's next fight, as they had his last, are determined to keep scrapping with Sky for the biggies.
The promoter Frank Warren, whose induction into boxing's Hall of Fame is further testimony to the respect the Americans now have for British boxing, says: "I've been nagging on for thelast few years that boxing is not dead. The problem has been getting television to get its act together and realise that it can draw big ratings. Champions are now defending their titles in meaningful fights and we have some great youngsters coming through, including many good amateurs who could do well in the Olympics. The number of kids joining boxing clubs has more than doubled since Amir won his silver medal in Athens.
"Also that silly political correctness has gone. The Government is keen to get boxing back into schools because it knows it can be an antidote to the culture of guns, knives and street gangs."
The Sports Minister, Gerry Sutcliffe, is pushing hard for boxing's return to the school curriculum and his predecessor, Richard Caborn, is president of the Amateur Boxing Association. Boxing, he says, "is one of the few sports that can really deliver in the margins of society".
The hope is that next year it can also deliver even more professional world titles and more than Khan's solitary silver in the Olympics. In Beijing, his lightweight successor, Frankie Gavin, whose gold was one of three British medals in the World Amateur Championships, is capable of going one better than his former spar-mate. Seconds out! Boxing is back in.
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