Sulaiman gets heavy over boxing's future

Take away the top two performers and you have a sport in crisis
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The Independent Online

The problem with British boxing is that it has become like Scottish football's Premier Division. Take away the big two and there is little left to fight for, or over. Lennox Lewis and Naseem Hamed are the Celtic and Rangers of the ring, with the undercarders left to make up the numbers. There may be double cream at the top but the rest of the game has gone sour.

The point was brought home forcibly last Saturday night at Wembley where, a few hours before Lewis briefly and brutally dispatched the American Michael Grant in New York, Britain's most famous boxing emporium accommodated the sparsely attended World Boxing Council middleweight championship bout between Robert McCracken and the US holder, Keith Holmes. The crowd, such as it was (there was a bigger atten-dance at the women's FA Cup final), could be counted in hundreds. Alan Minter, who 20 years before had filled the stadium to capacity when defending the same title against Marvin Hagler, was not alone in cringing in embarrassment, not only at the paltry attendance but at the low-key presentation of what should have been one of sport's most prestigious championships.

José Sulaiman, the 68-year-old president of the WBC, described it as an "appalling" experience. "I was horrified," he said. "There was no public, no protocol. It was not what a WBC championship should be. I said to myself, 'What am I doing here?' It was the worst WBC championship event I have ever attended in 25 years as president. There were no flags, no anthems, nothing. I was profoundly disappointed."

Disappointing it certainly was, both in the presentation, or lack of it, by Lewis' British promoters, who had bigger things on their mind at Madison Square Garden, and in the way the hitherto unbeaten McCracken was found to be out of his league against a champion who knew how to do the business in the ring. But out of it, the business of boxing is in a bad way largely because of the double-headed dominance of Lewis and Hamed. If there are talented fighters coming through eventually to replace them as crowd-pullers then nobody knows about them and, even more disconcertingly, nobody seems to care.

While Lewis and Hamed enjoy their celebrity and their millions, courtesy of their TV benefactors, there is real concern that boxing's supporting cast have become mere foot soldiers without a future. Sulaiman, who presides over what is arguably the most credible of the ruling bodies swirling around in the sport's pan of alphabet soup, believes that what is happening in Britain is also reflected worldwide. "The situation in world boxing is now very serious," he told me. "The top in boxing is hiding the reality, and the reality is crisis. Take away the top boxers and you will find a sport that is sinking. The number of boxers is going down even in Third World countries."

Sulaiman's concern is that boxing's pay-per-view masters continue to concentrate on the most saleable commodities in the shop window. "Television is not inter-ested in good fights, only the good names," says Sulaiman. "Those names get the highest rating and they receive the highest money, but TV does not understand that if they do not invest in the small halls and the lesser-known fighters, one day they will have nothing to show."

What is more disquieting for boxing is that, despite all the heavyweight hoopla, Lewis did not sell out Madison Square Garden and his spectacular victory failed to move the American media from their belief that he is technically flawed. Conversely, some elements of the public prints here now seem to suggest that he is the greatest heavyweight since Ali. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

While Grant fought like a novice, literally playing into Lewis' big hands, it was still a timely performance of quality from a champion who yearns to be loved on both sides of the Atlantic. Like Linford Christie, Lewis has always kept the public and media at an emotional distance. Now is the time to accord him "nuff respect". But whether he can generate anything like the magnetism of Mike Tyson remains in doubt. It will be interesting to see whether he can sell out the 12,000- capacity London Arena on 15 July when, in his first home appearance since his KO by Oliver McCall, he faces the war-worn Tyson victim Frans Botha, of South Africa.

This will be a prelude to what should be his next serious defence, against the Samoa-born New Zealander David Tua in November. Tua is an opponent of Tysonesque stature, in physique at least, and could prove more of a handful than Grant, before the eventual showdown with Tyson, a match which money demands. More big bucks for the big boys while, according to the wisdom of Sulaiman, for boxing's lightweights the going is getting even heavier.