Boxing: BBC's boxing gimmick has cleared route to dangerous arena

By Ken Jones
Thursday 19 December 2002 01:00

In common with many of my generation, I seem to be finding this a much less pretty world than it seemed when I was younger, and I frequently feel things should be done about it, and sport is part of this world.

Take, for example, the BBC's alleged commitment to being a serious sports broadcaster. Over the holiday period, viewers will be able to plant their decaying flesh and strained eyeballs in front of numerous events that may, or may not qualify as entertainment, but none so absurd in concept as a recently recorded boxing match between the comic actor Ricky Gervais and Grant Bovey, whose celebrity status is presumably the result of marriage to Anthea Turner.

Of course, we are not talking here about a sports event. Even in its present writhing state of sports populism the BBC would not go that far. However, neither are we talking simply about a sports joke from which charity will benefit. We are talking about a sports gimmick. As confirmed by an award injudiciously made to Wayne Rooney when the Everton teenager had started only once in the first team, the modern BBC is good at gimmicks.

The trouble is that the British Boxing Board of Control does not get the joke, and is deeply concerned about the gimmick. When the Board's general secretary, Simon Block, first got wind of it he informed a BBC executive, Mike Lewis, that he was getting on to the dangerous ground of unlicensed boxing. Block was told there was nothing to the rumour. "Later, I heard that they [BBC] were going ahead. Nobody bothered to contact us," Block said when we spoke this week.

Much as when lobbing £1m to the novice professional heavyweight Audley Harrison, ludicrously promoting him as a main-event fighter on the flimsy basis of Olympic distinction, the BBC did not bother to think the gimmick through.

Subsequently, Block wrote to licence-holders of the Board, who had been approached by the BBC to assist with their programme. In what he referred to as "friendly letters" Block reminded them that they are prohibited from taking part in boxing events outside the Board's approval. More recently, Britain's leading boxing promoter Frank Warren warned off his associate, Frank Maloney. You may well hold the view that boxing is more than capable of demeaning itself. However, the concern felt by the Board and evident in Warren's intervention is understandable.

By all accounts, Gervais and Bovey would have been in more danger queuing for tea in the BBC canteen than when flailing at each other's headguards with gloves the size of small pillows. But that is not the point. "I'm not a killjoy," Block said, "but this sort of thing can get out of hand. Somebody gets hurt, and automatically we, the Board, are drawn into it."

Block points out that the case brought against the Board by Michael Watson, one that almost put it out of existence, made new law. "It widened the Board's obligation to the safety of fighters. In that respect the BBC simply did not know what they were doing. Fortunately, nobody got hurt on the BBC show, but did they know who would have been held responsible in the event of serious injury? I don't know exactly how old these guys are, but we would never licence anyone to fight under our jurisdiction without evidence of previous experience, and unless they can meet a minimum standard of proficiency."

Lately, the Board has been troubled by bouts – none sanctioned either by amateur professional authority – between businessmen living out a fantasy. "Again, we are talking about unlicensed boxing," Block added. Predictably, this sort of thing arrived here from the United States, where just about anything goes in the cause of amusement. "What starts off as a bit of fun can end up as a tragedy unless there is proper supervision," Block added. Sure it can.

As for the BBC, when some of us heard that it was putting out this rubbish, we said: 'Well, what do you expect?' Time was when it would have flinched from the notion of sport and showbusiness as congenial cultures. But times change. Don't they just?

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