It is easy sometimes, especially within the echo chambers of social media, to forget that the sport of boxing in the UK was on its knees not so long ago.
It was in our generation, a time when televised events came from obscure leisure centres where battle commenced for titles which have long since fallen from the public consciousness. The sport may not be perfect, and it may have had brighter days, but with a sense of perspective and removing the rose-tinted glasses, we have plenty to be thankful for.
The recent legends of the sport are household names that will live long in folklore. Lennox Lewis, Prince Naseem, Chris Eubank, Carl Froch, Ricky Hatton, David Haye, Joe Calzaghe. It’s far from an extensive list, but each immediately conjure up imagery of big nights both at home and overseas. It’s a veritable mixture of the large and the small, the brash and the thoughtful. Each found success in their own way and established their own legacies.
For all the great nights these fighters gave us, there were others that are easily forgotten. Hatton was often seen defending a WBU world title on Sky Sports. A belt that at the time was held in low regard and history has diminished further. ‘Title’ defences against the likes of John Baily and Freddie Pendleton are easily wiped from the memory.
Of course Hatton went on to secure a far greater legacy and world class CV, but this highlights the dearth in quality televised boxing during this period. Let’s not forget the circus act of Audley Harrison, headlining shows against a variety of opponents plucked seemingly from different occupations, none specifically a boxer.
It is easy to look back and assume that we had it great because we had great names. Those names became great, they weren’t born so. Patience was key in allowing them to grow into the behemoths we remember. That same principle is where we are today.
Gone are the large amount of modern crossover stars. Tony Bellew, David Haye, Carl Froch, George Groves, James DeGale. Halcyon days when all were regulars on TV, the standard bearers of UK boxing. Meanwhile beneath them, the next wave of talent was growing.
With the biggest names of the past generation hanging up the gloves in relatively short succession, we are currently in a state of flux. Anthony Joshua sits at the top of the commercial tree, untouchable despite his recent loss. Tyson Fury still pulls in headlines and Dillian Whyte has become a PPV star in his own right (albeit one with a cloud hanging over him in the form of that drug test).
Now the next generation are being built, to fill the void of the past era. There is space at the top, opportunities to be grabbed and money to be made. It may just need a little time.
At the top of the waiting list is Callum Smith. A supreme talent at super middleweight, already a world title holder and winner of the World Boxing Super Series, taking the baton from George Groves in the process. The recognised number on in his division, now we await his real breakout moment.
Billy Joe Saunders sits similarly, a world champion who is ready to make a significant mark on the sport. Chris Eubank Jr sent James DeGale, Groves’ great rival, into retirement and may yet challenge for a world title once again. The two Joshes, Taylor and Warrington, hold world titles and move towards huge fights in the future. Kal Yafai and Charlie Edwards may be smaller than those named, but both also have the acclaim of being a world champion.
There are still some of the old guard lingering too. Kell Brook, Carl Frampton, Amir Khan, Scott Quigg, Lee Selby. Each have held their own versions of world titles and are able to headline their own shows at the drop of a hat, while each presumably are starting to plan their exit from the sport and hand the torch to the young guns.
What is so exciting are those names bubbling underneath. Those names that at the moment will be familiar to the boxing fan but won’t resonate outside of the sport. Joshua Buatsi and Anthony Yarde are two supremely talented pugilists. Same weight division but very different routes into the sport, their futures are bright.
Charles Frankham, Daniel Dubois, Conor Benn (perhaps propped up by his surname), Joe Cordina, Jack Catterall, Archie Sharp, Felix Cash, Sunny Edwards, Lawrence Okolie. They’re just some of the names that could fill the gaps at the top of the sport.
With such fantastic platforms as Sky Sports and BT Sports giving primetime slots to both establish and building fighters, boxing has a future. Outside of the arguments over PED usage, PPVs, belts and rankings, the raw components of the sport are in place for years to come.
Who is to thank for the solid foundations? It’s easy to criticise the likes of Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren, the pantomime bad guys of the sport. But it is their continued drive that has allowed the sport to flourish. Warren has been at this for decades, he has seen how the cycles come and go. He is still a visionary and able to help guide a boxer’s career towards world titles, fame and money.
Hearn may be the new guy on the block, but it is also easy to forget he has done his apprenticeship now and is the real deal. In 2012 he stepped out on his own for the first time, but with a dad as familiar to fans as Barry Hearn, it would be naïve to think he wasn’t learning from a far younger age.
So don’t be clouded in too much negativity. Boxing isn’t isolated in having a PED issue, as many other sports can attest. There is a changing of the guard, but we should be thankful that we have the new generation coming through and at the helm, two men in Hearn and Warren who will never be friends but by being enemies, will remain able to bring the best from one another.