Phoney titles and TV deals are killing British boxing

IF THERE is still plenty of truth in the late AJ Liebling's assertion that fight writers - "since they last longer than boxers" - are the game's most persistent howlers after antiquity, it is no longer possible for anyone to oppose the view that the sport used to be better.

IF THERE is still plenty of truth in the late AJ Liebling's assertion that fight writers - "since they last longer than boxers" - are the game's most persistent howlers after antiquity, it is no longer possible for anyone to oppose the view that the sport used to be better.

Despite the drumming-up of Mike Tyson's ring return against Orlin Norris in Las Vegas on Saturday and the featherweight tussle in Detroit tomorrow night between the World Boxing Organisation champion Naseem Hamed and the World Boxing Council title-holder Cesar Soto of Mexico, all the signs point to a bleak future in this country for the most basic, natural and uncomplicated of athletic competitions.

There is no question at all that untold harm has been done to British boxing by promotional alliances formed with Sky television and the subsequent proliferation of ratings-driven phoney world championships contested by fighters who would once have been fortunate to pick up small change for appearing on undercards.

No wonder that boxing - other than rare events of widespread public interest such as the second matching of Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis in Las Vegas next month for the undisputed heavyweight championship - now gets only fringe status in British newspapers.

In an essay published 44 years ago, Liebling wrote: "One thing about the Sweet Science upon which all initiates are in agreement is that it used to be better. The exact period at which it used to be 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, and if a fight writer, the years before he began to get bored with what he is doing."

Whether or not boredom eventually overtook even the most ardent of Liebling's contemporaries on this side of the Atlantic, a big difference in his time was that every British national print employed a full-time boxing correspondent. Star sports columnists like Peter Wilson of the Daily Mirror, Desmond Hackett of the Daily Express and George Whiting of the Evening Standard were guaranteed at ringside whenever a British title fight, never mind a world championship, was in progress.

As a humble gatherer of sporting information on the Mirror staff, I was sometimes sent to fights as Wilson's assistant. His eyes never strayed from the action. Significant punches and crucial manoeuvres were faithfully recorded on his typewriter and as the phrases leapt from the keyboard, I spoke them into a telephone.

With one or two exceptions, there is hardly a sports editor today who thinks it necessary to make boxing the subject of a specialist reporter's attention. "What happened to boxing writers?" is a question that was put to me this week by the veteran trainer and corner- man, Dennie Mancini. "What happened to British boxing?" I replied.

Not only boxing's disappearance from the terrestial television channels on which aspirants could show their hands to a much wider audience than Sky can offer, but the ludicrous advancement of journeymen as potential world champions and the collapse of amateur boxing.

Last week more than 1m viewers saw a repeat on BBC Grandstand of the contest that led to Adrian Dodson's 12-month suspension for biting. No figures were released when the first Holyfield-Lewis contest went out on Sky's pay-per-view channel, but it is unlikely that the audience exceeded 300,000.

The eyes can be influenced by an idea. What these rheumy eyes see is a sport that has lost all sense of direction.

So fearful of litigation that it often chooses to take no serious action over infringements of weight-making regulations, the British Boxing Board of Control could be forced into bankruptcy as a result of a case brought successfully against it by Michael Watson.

As for the decline in standards and the absence of personalities, an old fighter whose company I enjoy on the golf course recently brought in two bound volumes of Boxing News dating back to the 50s. The issue of 6 January 1956 included the ratings of licensed British boxers.

The heavyweights include Don Cockell (then British champion), Jack Gardner, Johnny Williams, Joe Erskine and Henry Cooper. Wally Thom was the welterweight champion, Frank Johnson held the lightweight title for which Dave Charnley was the six-rated challenger.

I know that this is going further back than some of us find it comfortable to remember but when you come across those names and many others, no defence for the present state of British boxing is discernible.

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