It’s easy to fall in love.
You see something more beautiful than you could ever have imagined, you are drawn to it in a way that you would struggle to explain over a pint. The attraction is just ‘there’.
Boxing has always had that for me, ever since the days of seeing Prince Naseem flip the ropes, the peacock strut of Chris Eubank, or Frank Bruno breaking down beneath the lights. A truly golden age, followed by the dominance of Lennox Lewis and the one-man-stag-do that was Ricky Hatton.
There is something about boxing that has always captured the imagination: the hybrid of character, skillset, danger, excitement and sporting excellence, all happening in front of our eyes, while young men (and latterly women) chase their sporting dreams.
As with all love stories there needs to be a friction, a fly in the ointment. For boxing that has always been the dark arts, the deception and, like many failed love stories, the cheating. The darkness has always been there, though in some eras more prevalent and blatant than others. Some failings have almost become the accepted norms, dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders.
“What can you do? That’s boxing.”
But it shouldn’t be.
The sport has created a barrier that I can’t be bothered to try and overcome
I was never an obsessive. I never felt the need to find an old VHS of great historic fighters, nor dust off the history books to impress others with my knowledge of the lightweight contenders of the 1920s. I’m a fan of the here-and-now. Someone who works within the context of what I understand.
My memories run from the 1990s onwards. They create my standards of what I expect from the sport. Yes, I have an awareness of fighters before my time, of course I do. The Four Kings, Muhammed Ali, George Foreman. All fighters that I know and have seen, but by no means have I studied them in depth, and never will. There are only so many hours in a day.
Another confession: as well as my failings as a historian, I am also very UK-centric. (No, I don’t mean Farage and Brexit.) It takes something extraordinary to get me out of bed at 3am. Tyson Fury vs Schwarz doesn’t cut the mustard. It needs to be Lewis-Holyfield, Mayweather-Pacquaio, Naseem-Kelley.
Yet for as long as I can remember, if you filled my TV schedule with Saturday night boxing, I’d buy your product. Didn’t really matter what it was: Area title fights, obscure sanctioning belts, world title fights. Stick it on my TV on a Saturday night and it gets my attention.
But something has changed of late. I struggle to identify precisely what that something is, but I have started to grow apart from boxing, and if I am honest, it’s not me, it’s you. The wife wants to watch Strictly Come Dancing while a WBA Continental title fight is on Sky Sports? No problem, have the remote. A mate is playing in a band while two middling boxers contest a WBO European title on BT? I won’t even bother to watch it the next day. I have become disengaged as a boxing fan. The sport has created a barrier that frankly I can’t be bothered to try and overcome.
The memories of bygone days mean very little. Today, there is too much to dislike about boxing. Historically there has always been much to dislike about boxing, but right now, it feels like all the issues are rising to the surface at once.
Let’s tick them off.
Deaths in boxing have always been an accepted risk. It will always be a fine line to tread between making the sport too ‘soft’ and too dangerous. A tragedy when they happen, the sport comes together to mourn the loss of one of its own.
Yet what is the sport doing to minimise the risk of death? Not talking about, not crying about, but making affirmative changes?
Promoters offer public platitudes – “such a terrible loss, etc” – and then sign a boxer proven to have used performance enhancing drugs.
An athlete who has cheated biology to make themselves bigger, stronger, faster, more durable with the ultimate aim of inflicting damage on one of their fellow boxers. They are not ostracised from the sport but welcomed back with open arms.
Where are the fines? The ten year suspensions? You’ve tried to kill another human being, make no mistake.
Go sit on the naughty step – and then come back on the undercard of an upcoming PPV.
The safety issues
Boxing always needs the highlight reel knockout: it is part of the brutal appeal.
But what about the gruelling eight-week camps, the hours of sparring? Who is handling the safety of the fighters during the hard graft, the dark times? How many sports scientists are being engaged to help make the sport safer?
There aren’t many pieces of equipment used in boxing: a gum shield, hand wraps, gloves, boots and a head guard. When was the last time that any of them were revolutionised, or even investigated?
They are all used every day in camp: what investment is put into ensuring they are appropriate?
Isotonic drinks. Weight cutting. Brain scanners. All hot topics, ones which can be debated until the final bell. The debates go on – but where is the action?
As it stands, boxing is miles behind other sports in terms of concussion protocols and technological advancements. Given the primary objective of the sport is to inflict damage on another human, it is time that these areas were given more focus. Indeed that time came many years ago – but starting tomorrow is better than starting next year, next decade, never.
Far better than doing nothing as another generation of fighters struggle with brain damage and mental health problems and the legacy of a sport that often seems to glorify its refusal to move with the times.
The fight cards
Over-saturation of those in the sport means too much information is public knowledge – or at least thought to be.
Why should the fans care about what budget a promoter has been given to make their events? That can only lead to disappointment. If I tell you I have a billion dollars, you’re going to expect miracles from my product. You will not, with all due respect, expect Kell Brook vs Michael Zerafa.
Why do we need to hear so frequently from those in the sport? Sometimes less is more. At first the novelty value of so many media outlets was a welcome change, but as the views went up, so did the number of cameras. If a promoter give ten interviews in an afternoon, do not expect ten fresh perspectives. We mock certain figures for repeating the same old soundbites but to expect otherwise is ludicrous.
And where does the money trickle down to? The billions don’t live in the UK: a scene recently feasting is now in famine. The money has disappeared over the Atlantic, taking with it the stars and the majority of the big fights. Sure we get the odd scrap tossed into the O2, but these are hungry days of poor local cards fashioned from the leftovers.
The fighters that, deep down, we know America didn’t want. That’s the brutal truth.
You will rarely, if ever, hear the promoter criticise a judge who’s handed a favourable decisions to the home fighter.
It happens too often on these shores. Germany was historically the home of contentious decisions and eyebrow-raising scorecards. No longer do we in the UK have a moral high-ground to pontificate from. We are in the cesspit.
The most recent example saw John Ryder battle Callum Smith for the WBA Super World Super Middleweight title (no, that wasn’t a typo). Ryder had earned his shot the hard way, a career of ups and downs with this being the pinnacle.
In the eyes of most observers the underdog Ryder won the fight; for others he lost a valiant effort. You would be hard pressed to find someone who thought Ryder lost nine of the 12 rounds. Step forward Terry O’Connor, who gave Smith such a wide victory that it would appear even Liverpudlian Liverpudlian disagreed with the gap.
Judging in boxing is subjective. To qualify you must pass the courses, but then the outcomes can be influenced by many factors. Favoured style, atmosphere, perspective, view. So why is the away fighter rarely (if ever) the one who wins a contentious decision?
Ninety-nine times out of 100, you will find the home fighter, the ‘money fighter’, is the one celebrating a win when the going is close. Perhaps I have my numbers wrong there. Perhaps it is nine times out of 12.
There are too many occasions when fighters and their team give their all and fail to receive the recognition they deserve. You are taking money from that individual; indeed it is not hyperbolic to say a bad decision can change a fighter’s life. Yet still, all too often, the unfashionable fighter will fail to get fair treatment.
The sanctioning bodies
The reference earlier to the WBA Super World Super Middleweight title? As stated, it wasn’t a typo but an indication of how stupid the world of boxing titles has become.
Four sanctioning bodies (WBA, WBC, WBO, IBF). Each have their own tiers of titles. Back in the old days, if you wanted your boxer ranked in the top 10 and in line for a world title shot, you handed these bodies some cold hard cash and waited for the phone call. Nowadays, you pay your sanctioning fees for the trinkets and do the same.
Those bodies will never see eye-to-eye. They have their own money-driven agendas. For those in doubt, ask this question: if sanctioning bodies had to give every penny of profit to charity and only employ volunteers, how many would there be? Zero. They’ve all got their fingers in the honey pot, all taking their own cut.
It’s a vicious circle. Promoters must pay to get their boxers up the rankings because ultimately world title fights sell. Take away the peripheral titles and you return to the bungs and brown envelopes. Yet surely we can do better than a world in which the WBC has two ‘franchise champions’ – a belt that can’t even be lost in the ring – or Tyson Fury lays claim to being the ‘lineal champion’ – an invisible belt that can only be lost in the ring.
The way back...
Not one of these areas is my sole issue with boxing. (Although PEDs will forever be a jarring subject.)
I will always enjoy the mega fights, the ones that drag me out of bed at 3am. There will always be the local fighters, the ones you can get to know personally and follow their journey, even if it doesn’t reach the lights of Las Vegas, or a desert in Saudi Arabia.
But there is a chasm in the middle that I have fallen out of love with. A whole section of the sport that has made me lose interest for a plethora of reasons stated above.
Boxing is cyclical. Things come and go. Evolve and change. One day I’m sure my love will return. Until then I accept that my fandom slips into that of the ‘casual’. That’s fine. I am happy to ingest the parts that appeal and leave the rest to others.
But there will have to be a seismic change before the passion burns again.