Warren TV switch would lift profile of the 'sweet science'

To think we actually choose the players, the teams, even the sports that still somehow matter to us in our adult years is like thinking we really choose our passions. It is, of course, a delusion. Our passions and our sports choose us. Personal and individual temperament seem to make us susceptible to the lure of a particular sport, or just as surely to reject it out of hand.

Football is undoubtedly the most popular British sporting pastime partly because on every social level it is perfectly respectable to be a fan. English rugby was given a lift by success in the World Cup, but as with cricket, the wider interest centres on international competition. Golf and tennis haven't penetrated public consciousness on a grand scale. Horse racing has devotees from all walks of life.

Anyway, it's always interesting for me when the conversation at some function or another comes around to favourite sports and I, after many years, including those spent scratching a living from professional football, announce that nothing has thrilled me more than a terrific fight. Sometimes the reaction has been pretty much what I would have got if I'd said I adored cockfighting or mud wrestling.

The passion for boxing, first experienced in my home town Merthyr Tydfil, the birthplace of such notable figures as Eddie Thomas and Howard Winstone, and the tragic Johnny Owen, came slowly, with time, attendance at some very good contests, and, through sportswriting, the acquaintance of wonderful fighters. With education came not the urge to distance myself from an early love but to understand it better, perhaps even to justify the one sport that should never be referred to as a game.

When A J Liebling wrote about boxing as the "sweet science", he struck a note that rang as true as the one Muhammad Ali discovered by knocking out George Foreman in Zaire 31 years ago. Alas, explaining this phenomenon, this perplexing love affair, is as difficult as convincing an anti-vivisectionist that sleeping canines never know the difference.

Despite the parlous state of the heavyweight division - a fact emphasised last weekend in Chicago where Andrew Golota, 37, a serial quitter who went missing three days before the contest, was knocked out in 53 seconds by Lamon Brewster for the World Boxing Organisation championship - and the dearth of marquee names in this country, boxing still has plenty of appeal.

The upcoming contest in Manchester (June 4) between Ricky Hatton and Kostya Tszyu for the latter's International Boxing Federation light-welterweight title sold out within 48 hours of its announcement. There isn't a hotel room to be had within 15 miles of the venue. A conservative estimate is that the contest will generate around £25m for the local economy. There have been around 600 applicants for 60 press seats.

Behind the scenes, however, things are trickily poised. For the past 10 years, Britain's leading promoter, Frank Warren, has worked in association with Sky television, who are showing the Hatton fight live at 2am on 5 June.

The big question is whether Warren's company, Sports Network, will continue to work with Sky or switch back to ITV whose interest in boxing was reawakened by the 6.3 million viewing figures when they showed Amir Khan's defeat of Mario Kindelan, the Briton's last fight as an amateur.

A hard fact is that professional boxing cannot stand alone. Without the input from Sky the sport in this country would probably have foundered; a downside is the heavy commitment to football that has pushed Sky's boxing coverage back to Fridays, and the lack of exposure that such headliners as Nigel Benn, Naseem Hamed and Chris Eubank were guaranteed on terrestrial television.

Two weeks ago I had an invitation to go and talk to some sports-minded people at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea. It turned out to be a lively evening, one in which the names of great fighters figured prominently. Afterwards I fell into conversation with an older group who had lingered to have a drink with their guest. One of the points raised was how much boxing had changed over the past 25 years, particularly with regard to the scant attention it gets in newspapers. "I can remember a time when you could read about boxing almost every day and every sports fan knew about prominent fighters," one member of the group said. "It goes together," I replied, "the printed word and television coverage. The more a fighter is seen, the more people want to read about him."

Bearing that thought in mind, it will be interesting to see which way Warren jumps. Holding nothing against Sky, if he links up again with terrestrial television there will be applause from this and many other quarters.

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