Kevin Garside: Cleverly misses the limelight that shone brightly on Basilio

The Way I See It: Boxing was lost to the general sports observer when it left free-to-air screens

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The Independent Online

Carmen Basilio fought in an era when boxing sat at sport's top table, when it penetrated American homes with the same force as baseball. His bouts with Tony DeMarco for the world welterweight title and Sugar Ray Robinson for the middleweight crown in the mid and late 1950s propelled him to post-war superstardom. His death last week was therefore a thing of note. It meant something to many.

His was the epoch of radio and newspapers. Television was a nascent presence, digital media the stuff of sci-fi movies. The public gained its sporting fix through the turnstile, with an ear cocked to the wireless, the monicker bestowed upon radios in those sepia days, or the paper. Word of mouth did the rest, firing media interest with a fury.

In the early hours of yesterday morning, a British boxer defended his world title in Los Angeles. He won against an opponent unworthy of the match. There is nothing new in that. Many a world champ down the ages has profited from the soft touch. The boxing aficionado will have identified our hero as Nathan Cleverly, the Cardiff number cruncher with a degree in maths.

Basilio entered the ring as the rather more prosaic "Upstate Onion Farmer". His family were Italian immigrants who worked the fertile land of upstate New York. Basilio bore his nomenclature with pride. It was a tag affectionately applied to a figure central to the sporting conversation of Fifties America. What would Cleverly give to be at the heart of our sporting chat this morning?

The surname does get an airing in the person of Manchester United and England footballer Tom, a young lad at the foothills of a career that might yet develop into something substantial for club and country. Cleverly the boxer, as opposed to Cleverley the midfielder, is already top of the light heavyweight pile as holder of the WBO belt. His victory over late replacement Shawn Hawk at the home of the LA Lakers was his fourth defence and effectively his coming-out party in the United States.

The presence of Tom Jones added weight to the PR push. Every little helps in the fight for attention. Cleverly is grateful for any old trick to gain a foothold in the sporting imagination of this country. In the boxing milieu this bright, good-looking kid needs no introduction but, like the rest who have chosen to trade in leather for a living, Cleverly is clobbered by the gradual disappearance of the sport from mainstream sporting dialogue.

The pay-per-view platform that has claimed boxing enriches at the top end, but leaves the base of the pyramid in need of serious nourishment. The apologists for pay-per-view will argue that boxing is no more or less visible now than it has ever been. They might go further and claim that there are more bouts broadcast live than at any time in history. But that argument requires the ground to shift to have any force.

A generation ago, before the concept of sports rights had hardened into a commercial entity, boxing was broadcast as part of a vast diet of sporting highlights. There was very little live anything on our television screens in the era of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, zilch in the age of Joe Louis and Robinson. Boxing shared the recorded highlights platform with football et al in midweek sports specials, during which David Coleman would hand over to Harry Carpenter to talk us through a bout that happened days before.

It didn't matter that we knew the outcome. This was our first crack at it. And, importantly, we did not have to go looking for it with credit card in hand.

The paradox in this sophisticated broadcast period of digital content is captured in the myriad platforms available to us through which to appropriate the noble art at the flick of a selected switch. But boxing's gradual disappearance from mainstream view has robbed us of the developed character.

We knew all about Ali and Leonard, Benn and Eubank, Tyson and Lewis courtesy of the corroborative coverage in newspapers and magazines, radio and highlights TV.

The changing nature of sports broadcast provision has turned viewing habits upside down. When I was a lad the viewer would passively accept what the broadcasts offered. Thus we sat transfixed through the epic encounters fought by Ali, Frazier, Hagler and Hearns. And we remember them now.

Boxing was lost to the general sports observer when it disappeared off free-to-air screens. It took large-scale newspaper coverage with it. It is pointless blaming individuals for this development since none can be hammered for responding to economic imperatives. But the upshot is a sport that gripped the world like few others 40 years ago is now a sideshow consumed only by a loyal boxing priesthood.

Barry McGuigan's WBA featherweight epic against the great Eusebio Pedroza at Loftus Road in June 1985 was watched by more than 19m people. Only Eastenders pulled more and only then on Christmas Day.

Cleverly would need 10 lives and more to match that. Pity, because he can fight and boxing retains the power to possess our souls. But not at any price.