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Boxing: Loud reminder of a sport down but not out

When the British Boxing Board of Control took charge of what was then the noblest of arts 75 years ago, Gene Tunney, an intellectual who corresponded with George Bernard Shaw and a true man of letters which were not WBC, WBA, WBO, IBF et al, had just relinquished the world heavyweight championship. The most widely recognised heavyweight champion today, Vitali Klitschko, is a Ukrainian with a doctorate who speaks a fistful of languages.

So, the "brain-scrambling" sport remains a magnet for the cerebral and the celebrity, inside the ring and out.

Those attending the board's Diamond Jubilee bash on Friday night at Cardiff City Hall included more than a few who happened to be scholars as well as gentlemen. Nicky Piper, erstwhile light-heavyweight champion and a member of Mensa as well as the board, was among those paying tribute to an organisation who have survived a series of bruising battles, most recently one with Michael Watson which brought them to the verge of bankruptcy and was the reason the celebration was being held in Cardiff rather than London, where the board had been housed for most of those 75 years.

Boxing has had to move on, as have the board. But this is a sport where there are many hard punches, but few hard feelings. Watson, who nearly lost his life but thankfully has recovered his faculties and much of his mobility following his fateful fight with Chris Eubank, was invited by the board, whom he had successfully sued. He couldn't make it because of a prior engagement. These days he is as much in demand as another absentee, boxing's first knight, Sir Henry Cooper. Had he been there he would have savoured a genuine acclamation that is rare in sport these days. There were emotional, rheumy-eyed reunions between those who years ago belted bits off each other, handshakes, hugs and reminiscences galore among old gladiators, with noses askew, proud relics of glorious, if painful ring warfare.

A heavyweight occasion - but one with an unfortunate absence of heavyweights. No Cooper, Lennox Lewis or Frank Bruno. Like Matt Skelton, the present title incumbent, they were otherwise engaged, as was the Olympic champion, Audley Harrison, upon whose huge shoulders the future of the division may well rest.

Harrison, deeply miffed at being axed by the BBC, had also pulled out of carrying the Olympic torch in London last week. Is he turning his back on Britain? Well, he was certainly in America talking, among others, with the promoter Don King. One cannot imagine King acquiescing easily to Harrison's demands to do everything his way, so the conversation may have been brief. Harrison may feel he has good reason to be rueful. But can he really fulfil his self-proclaimed destiny to become a true world heavyweight champion without first proving he is the best of British?

The question was high on the list of table talk on Friday. As it happens, Harrison is himself still talking with British promoter Frank Warren, who remains sanguine about matching him with his man Skelton in the autumn. It is a bout boxing needs for, despite the back-slapping and bonhomie, the sport's golden days are long gone.

The amateur scene - with only one young boxer, Amir Khan, qualified for the Olympics - is in disarray. The World Boxing Council are virtually bankrupt and the fragmentation of titles means that - unlike in the days of Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and here Nigel Benn, John Conteh, Cooper and Bruno - most champions would not be instantly recognised by the public.

Unless Harrison comes good or Skelton surprises us, Lewis may well have been the last of the big splendours. There is always Ricky Hatton, who has the biggest following in the country. But, as he says himself, he needs to fight someone who brings more than a paper belt to the table. Joe Calzaghe, too, thanks to Sky's coffers, has enriched himself and is a man of immense talent. But 20 years ago he would have been a superstar. Danny Williams, the former champion, was also an absentee heavyweight. He is preparing for a pressing engagement with Mike Tyson who, 38 last week, is again the highest-profile figure in boxing. Broke and busted up by Lennox Lewis, Tyson's continued presence is an indication that boxing still feeds on notoriety. With all his faults and foibles, he remains the man to watch.

Williams, if he gets his head right, has a fighting chance, but he needs ambition as well as artillery. The last thing Tyson wants to face at this stage is a heavyweight with hope in his heart.

At least the board's bean- feast was an indication that the sport is still alive and punching - though not a left hook, a tantrum, even less a bread roll, was thrown. If nothing else - and occasionally Tyson apart - boxing retains a discipline and dignity which is an example to those who play and follow certain other sports.

While Sky televise live boxing virtually every week, there is no doubt that the BBC's decision to curtail their briefly renewed interest, pulling the plug on Harrison after invest-ing £1m of licence-payers' money, is a severe blow.

Not that we have seen the last of boxing on the BBC. On Thursday, much to the board's chagrin, we have a bout between Sid Owen - aka "Rickaaay'' of EastEnders fame - and someone called Ben Fogel of Animal Park, and it is labelled Celebrity Boxing. Nothing cerebral here. The Beeb just need their brains tested.