Misty eyes and alphabet soup

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SIX world championship title fights are scheduled for this Saturday, including two in Britain. Even world title fights involving British boxers are becoming bewilderingly frequent: first Lewis-Bruno, then Benn-Eubank, then, soon, McMillan-Robinson. Most weight divisions have anything from four to nine world champions. Is this proliferation killing boxing?

Yes, cry the purists; but they are wrong. The days when every schoolboy knew the champions' names from flyweight to heavy have vanished irrevocably, yet boxing goes on, and only a misty-eyed minority seriously yearn for a return to one champion per weight. History is against them.

When boxing's governing bodies began to multiply, in the mid- 1960s, it was a political split. It did not take long, though, for the World Boxing Association (WBA) and World Boxing Council (WBC) to recognise that more champions meant more money. Others soon cottoned on. The advent of the International Boxing Federation (IBF) in the early 1980s led to the coining of the scornful phrase 'the Alphabet Boys' to describe these high-rolling administrators, many of whom have grown fat from junketing courtesy of favoured promoters. The World Boxing Organisation (WBO) soon joined their ranks (and next spring will gain further legitimacy when its heavyweight champion, Tommy Morrison, fights Lennox Lewis), and the IBC, the WBF and the UBO are waiting in the wings. Each needs only one high-profile champion to be in serious business.

Talk of national commissions, such as the British Boxing Board of Control, somehow keeping the Alphabet Boys under control is pie in the sky. Such commissions rely on the big fights for their revenue. And while the occasional 'reunification' series may prove profitable for promoters like Don King, no promoter seriously wants to return to one champion per weight.

In any case, just how good were the good old days? For decades before the advent of the Alphabet Boys the world of boxing was run, with varying but never minor degrees of corruption, as the personal fiefdom of Madison Square Garden cronies. The days of Louis and Marciano were also the days of Frankie Carbo, Blinky Palermo, the Mob and fixed fights. How many European fighters received title shots back then?

The facts do not support the idea that the multiplication of world champions is pushing boxing into terminal decline. In Britain, boxing is booming. In six cold autumn days we have seen more than 65,000 fans turn up at outdoor stadiums, while ITV's Saturday-night fights average more than 5 million viewers.

Yet the traditionalists are right to yearn. Boxing may be in rude financial health, but at another level something has gone out of the game. World title belts have lost much of their lustre, for fighters and fans alike, and all who love boxing should mourn the fact.