Ken Jones: Television and title glut destroying British boxing

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The Independent Online

One thing about boxing upon which most initiates are in agreement is that it used to be better. The exact period at which it used to better, however, varies in direct ratio with the age of the fellow telling about it. If he was a fighter, it always turns out to be the time when he was fighting.

One thing about boxing upon which most initiates are in agreement is that it used to be better. The exact period at which it used to better, however, varies in direct ratio with the age of the fellow telling about it. If he was a fighter, it always turns out to be the time when he was fighting.

Since there will be many old boxers present, I imagine this tendency will fuel conversations at the City Hall in Cardiff tonight when the British Boxing Board of Control stage a gala dinner to celebrate 75 years of administration.

Despite the vigorous insistence of Britain's leading promoter, Frank Warren, that plenty of support for boxing exists in the provinces there has never been a time when so few fighters have possessed the talent and personality to impress themselves on a wider audience. Warren's efforts to advance the careers of Ricky Hatton, the World Boxing Union featherweight champion, whose popularity is confined mainly to Manchester, Joe Calzaghe and Scott Harrison, have not yet been sufficient to bring the stature held by fighters who preceded them in British rings.

An unavoidable fact is that British boxing would be in a more parlous state than it is without the funding of Sky TV, but this is effectively self-defeating since it denies today's fighters the exposure on terrestrial channels that did so much to raise the profiles of fairly recent predecessors.

This raises in the minds of many people, past heroes of the game and sportswriters of my generation, the thorny question of whether British boxing can successfully compete in the hard world of modern sports promotion.

Since succeeding to the chairmanship of the British Boxing Board five years ago, the Labour peer Lord Brooks of Tremorfa has seen it come through difficult times, none more serious than the financial crisis caused when Michael Watson was awarded substantial compensation for the crippling injuries sustained in a title contest against Chris Eubank.

When we spoke earlier this week Brooks listed the influence of television and the glut of titles, many phoney, put up by self-serving international sanctioning bodies as the main reasons why British boxing has lost much of its allure in recent years. "If you look back over 25 years there have been many changes, some for the worse, some for the better," he said. "We can be proud of improving the safety and welfare of boxers and, although the Board has come in for some criticism, it is respected world-wide. Unfortunately, however, we've reached the point where the television companies insist on world title fights no matter how dubious. Where British title fights had appeal they have faded in importance."

On the golf course the other day, I put this to Richard Atkins, a former fighter and trainer who has practically lost all interest in the sport. "I don't begrudge the money fighters can now get, but it's discouraging when I see guys who would have struggled to get an area title in my day boxing for meaningless world championships," he said. "I can't remember the last time I attended a fight live and I rarely watch on television. It's no longer the sport I grew up in. When do you hear people in pubs talking about boxing? Hatton appears to have something but still has to prove himself against the best men at his weight. Apart from him there's no British fighter with much of a reputation."

Things are not what they were and there is little to suggest that they will get better. Thus nostalgia will rule in Cardiff tomorrow night. Wynford Jones, a retired teacher and a referee for 27 years, was handed the task of tracking down all living British champions. Some declined because of ill-health, two are doing time. The former welterweight champion Cliff Curvis will, at 76, be the oldest fighter in the room.

In an article for a brochure produced for tonight's proceedings I noted that few British fighters have been able to claim undisputed world status in their division, the last being Lennox Lewis, who briefly held the belts of the World Boxing Council, World Boxing Association and the International Boxing Federation. Their number includes the flyweights Benny Lynch and Peter Kane, the ill-fated Freddie Mills who defeated Gus Lesnevich for the light heavyweight title, Randolph Turpin who sensationally outpointed Sugar Ray Robinson for the middleweight championship in 1951, and, more recently, Alan Minter and Lloyd Honeyghan.

Along with a crowd of fellow national servicemen I listened to the Turpin fight on radio. It was a different time, a time when fighters could fill arenas in all our major cities. That time has long gone. In its place we have a sport looking at a dodgy future.

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