Nigel Benn fought Chris Eubank to a standstill in Manchester in front of 42,000 fans at Old Trafford; 20 years later Carl Froch and George Groves staged an epic worthy of any era in a 20,000-seat arena that sold out in 11 minutes. The appetite for the game among the boxing priesthood is clearly undiminished. But what about the rest of us?
Benn-Eubank II was watched by 18.5 million on television; Froch-Groves I by a small fraction of that on pay-per-view. How is that serving the interests of boxing, the fighters or the casual sports fans who, historically, engaged with the sport from the sofa in massive numbers?
The pay-per-view model might enrich those at the top of the game. Indeed, Groves, a boxer contesting his first world title fight on Saturday night, is involved in a dispute with his ex-trainer, Adam Booth, that might yet cost him hundreds of thousands of pounds when the pay-per-view notes are counted. By definition he has had to earn it first.
But lower down the food chain opportunity for young boxers to develop through the small hall experience has been all but lost. The pay-per-view model has effectively obliterated the opportunity for promoters to make small shows pay. Without a regular income from TV rights paid by a broadcaster over a sustained period the cash through the gate does not go far enough. And so fighters are denied critical exposure to time in the middle.
Invisibility is a real issue. Froch should and would have been a household name years ago had he walked the same televised path as Benn and Eubank. Conversely, the great pillars of late 1980s and early 1990s pop culture – yes, sport is a central part of that, too – would have been denied us. Imagine life without Eubank’s rehearsed eccentricities. Unthinkable for men and women of a certain age.
Froch’s victory over Jermain Taylor in 2008 in the first defence of his WBC super-middleweight title in Connecticut identified him as a fighter for the ages. His recovery on Saturday demonstrated his enduring appeal, however unsatisfactory the conclusion.
A Froch seen by a wider sporting audience would have helped pollinate boxing; both introducing to the uninitiated and reinforcing among aficionados the fight game’s enduring appeal. How could a duel of the calibre we witnessed on Saturday not stimulate and nourish an innate compulsion to watch men go at it mano a mano?
That Groves made it to the ring largely unknown to most outside the game should trouble the sport’s stakeholders and send a rocket up the rears of terrestrial TV executives sitting on their hands wondering how to fill the football hours lost to rival broadcasters who charge for the privilege of watching sport.
If ever there were an opportunity to stage a ratings winner, to hang ads round a flagship show on Saturday night that has real X factor, then Froch-Groves was it.
The public appears to be voting with the remote control on the value of the karaoke contests hosted by Gary and Louis in ITV’s prime-time slot. Let’s see how long that tired old panto would survive on pay-per-view.
The explosive narrative of the Froch- Groves contest matched the great rivalries of the past. The needle between the two was genuine, the heart and skill they brought to the ring awe-inspiring, the authenticity of the contest unlike anything else served up on today’s sporting menu.
Have we forgotten how the loudest noise at the London Olympics was recorded at a boxing arena? There is about this old sport a quality that never ages. It connects us with our primal past in a way that is just about acceptable in this politically correct world. Forget the handbags beforehand. Rise above the judging inadequacies. At the heart of the enterprise stand brave men, who bring every ounce of their being to what they do. There simply has to be a place for that on our screens.
The tears shed by Groves on the ring apron afterwards were genuine. Here was a man who entered the ring to boos and departed a hero, his sporting life transformed in 40 unforgettable minutes, despite the loss on his record.
We shall never know if he would have survived the intensity of Froch’s ninth-round rally. You can argue the toss about Howard Foster’s hair-trigger decision to end the fight with a headlock on Groves, though it looked a wrong’un to the majority.
Less defensible was the eyesight of the two judges who had Groves only one point ahead when another measured the difference between them at five points, an interpretation that was broadly in line with expert opinion at ringside. If there is one element that turns the casual viewer away from boxing it is a lack of trust in the decision-making. If the audience does not believe or trust in what their eyes tell them, no sport can survive.