Ken Jones on Boxing: Far too many world champions and too few worthy of true recognition
Thursday 12 September 2002
Is there anyone out there who can name, straight off, the British boxers presently in possession of world titles? Lennox Lewis, Joe Calzaghe, Ricky Hatton and er... See what I mean. Even for dedicated fight fans it's a tough question. Stuck at six, I called a friend. He got to 11. "That it?" I asked. "Not sure," he replied.
You could ask the question at tonight's annual dinner of the Boxing Writers Club and end up wondering whether you've walked into the wrong party. Once, you knew when a fighter had made it big because applause broke out in anticipation of his name. Now there are so many champions of sorts that people nudge their neighbours and ask: "Who is this guy?"
Old-timers of great repute look at the moderns, shrug, shake their heads and say: "They're getting more money, God bless 'em, but in our day most of them would have struggled to get beyond eight-rounders."
To give you some idea of how things have changed, when the Boxing Writers dinner was held 30 years ago we had only one world champion, Ken Buchanan of Scotland, who held the World Boxing Association lightweight title. There was nothing phoney about Buchanan's status. He had taken the 9st 9lb championship from Ismael Laguna in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and made two successful defences in the United States. Although defeated soon afterwards by Roberto Duran he was – and still is – reckoned to be the best fighting man to represent Great Britain since the Second World War.
I mention this not to disparage today's crop but to help put things in perspective. There were a number of fledgling professionals around that night three decades ago, some more advanced in their careers than others.
Joe Bugner, a better heavyweight than he is given credit for, was soon to stop Jürgen Blin for the European title and would go on to face Muhammad Ali (twice) and Joe Frazier, finishing on his feet in all three contests. The award of Best Young Boxer went that night to John H Stracey, an up-and-comer from London's East End. Three years later, Stracey astonished most everyone bar his manager, Terry Lawless, and the matchmaker, Mickey Duff, by taking the undisputed welterweight championship from Jose Napoles in Mexico City.
Of others present, the 1968 Olympic gold medallist, Chris Finnegan, was coming up to a typically heroic if unsuccessful attempt to take the light-heavyweight championship from Bob Foster at Wembley Arena, where he was knocked out in the 13th round. John Conteh had a big career up ahead. Eighteen months after the 1972 dinner, he outpointed Finnegan for the British and Commonwealth titles. Less the a year later, Conteh outpointed Jorge Ahumada, of Argentina, to win the World Boxing Council light-heavyweight title.
Other promising figures included Chris Finnegan's talented brother Kevin, who would twice face Marvin Hagler, and the future undisputed middleweight champion, Alan Minter. The gifted Welsh featherweight Howard Winstone had retired four years earlier after briefly holding a version of the title in a career that included three heart-stopping contests against one of the great nine-stone champions, Vicente Saldivar, of Mexico.
Thirty-two years on, what have we got? If the flag under which he fights has always seemed to be one of convenience, Lewis is the most successful British fighter of all time. Where he ranks in the history of heavyweight boxing remains, however, a matter for debate. Nobody has yet come along to seriously threaten Calzaghe's reign as the World Boxing Organisation super-middleweight champion but the jury is still out. Despite the enthusiasm of his many supporters in Manchester, something similar can be said about Hatton. Two years on from Sydney, the gold-medallist Audley Harrison looks nothing more than a figment of his own and the BBC's imagination.
Alex Arthur had my vote as this year's Best Young Boxer, but the task gets harder. The result of fewer attendances at ringside or because I am guilty of unfair comparison? Few things in modern boxing irritated Eddie Futch more than than the availability of cheap titles. "Sugar Ray Robinson had 73 fights before he became a champion [at welterweight]," he said one night in Las Vegas. "By then there was nothing left for him to learn. These days, kids are fighting for titles after 15 contests. What do they know?"
One of the great trainers, a man of wise and independent virtue, Futch died last year, aged almost 90. Unfortunately, he never made it to our dinner. Could have told all those young guys – writers and fighters – a thing or two.
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