Why boxing needs some more muscle

The Watson verdict will act as a watershed for the sport.
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The Independent Online
BRITISH PROFESSIONAL boxing needs urgent government intervention. In order for the sport to survive, the projected talks between the apparently doomed British Board of Control and the Minister for Sport, Kate Hoey, need to be forthright and constructive.

Hoey's statement, following Friday's landmark ruling that the board were liable for the injuries Michael Watson sustained in his 1991 fight with Chris Eubank, is of immense significance. "I will be examining the judgment in detail and look forward to hearing the board's considered view on the matter," she said. "I expect to meet with them in the near future."

The exact amount the board must pay Watson in damages has still to be decided, but the former Commonwealth middleweight champion and three- time world title challenger claimed pounds 1m. As he needs constant care and will never work again because of the extent of the loss of brain function, the payout is unlikely to be small. But as a non-profit making organisation, the board have no funds available to meet that kind of commitment.

The result would appear to be that the sport's governing body will be declared bankrupt. Boxing's licence holders - promoter, managers, boxers, matchmakers and various smaller categories - know that could lead to complete chaos. Like any other sport, boxing has factions and divisions. Almost certainly, in spite of the nice words that will inevitably be spoken at a time of crisis, a serious power struggle will develop.

No sport, let alone one as controversial and maverick as professional prize-fighting, should be allowed to govern itself. Boxing's comparative minnows already argue that it is not run as a democracy even under the Board of Control. Given the nature of power, that would be an even more laughable proposition were promoters to be allowed to govern themselves.

The British Board has existed since 1929 when it was formed by boxing people to administer what was a rapidly growing business. It was, and is, self-appointed, with no legal status. A series of test cases early this century gave some kind of legal acceptance to boxing itself, but its governing body has survived up to now on a combination of reputation and effectiveness. Internationally it is highly regarded as one of the best-run bodies in the world, particularly with respect to the safety of boxers who compete here. The irony of that is now impossible to ignore. It presides over more than 200 promotions a year, 600 active boxers and some of the major promotional groups in the world and by and large things run smoothly.

However, as the Watson case has proved its power base has always been perilously thin. Boxing has survived the arguments of the abolitionists in this country over the past decade because it is popular, both with competitors and with fans. The British people have been presented with the facts of boxing's nature and have made their moral choice. Millions do not watch it. Millions do.

Now, for the first time, it may be possible for the Government to take a lead in helping boxing reorganise itself. It is no longer a moral or political hot potato.

A serious level of involvement from the Minister for Sport and her colleagues could have an enormous impact. One example is in the way television deals are carried out. In what is basically a free-for-all, contracts at the moment are between television companies and promoters or promotional groups. The Board of Control are not included. Therefore, they have no absolutely water-tight way of knowing how much money comes into the sport from television. This might change if the board had greater authority and their licence holders were answerable to government.

Boxing will have to change if it is to avoid a repeat of the Watson affair. From somewhere it has to find a way of financing itself. It follows that it has to have more control over the money which comes in. Such a revolution may be hugely unpopular with the powerful, who might find some areas of their business changing overnight, but more important is the need for the establishment of an administrative body with real financial muscle.