Audley Harrison’s less than spectacular U-turn on his dithering boxing career coupled with legendary fighter Evander Holyfield’s impending trip to our historic town made me question the direction in which our revered and incredibly archival sport is heading.
The protagonists, once synonymous with boxing, have shed their affiliation and their descendants have failed to imprint on today’s spectatorship, particularly in the heavyweight division. The infectious character and charisma of previous eras which included such personalities as Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Rocky Marciano, Jack Johnson and Mike Tyson, as well as the aforementioned ‘Real Deal’, comprehensively dwarf the current school.
The ostentatious rhetoric and flamboyancy of the legendary Cassius Clay to the hunger and ferocity of ‘Iron Mike’ has been substituted for the tawdry, trashy provocation of Tyson Fury, the timidity of the Klitschko brothers and the shameless violence of David Haye and Derek Chisora. There’s no heart anymore.
In the classes below, Floyd Mayweather Jnr may well climb in to the pantheon of other all-time greats and Manny Pacquiao was heading for similar remuneration until enduring successive defeats to Timothy Bradley and Juan Manuel Marquez.
Ricky ‘the Hitman’ Hatton had his admirers, but do Carl Froch, Amir Khan, Kell Brook or the likes of Ricky Burns - though likeable - have the magnetism that Sugar Ray Leonard, his namesake Robinson, Oscar De La Hoya, Chris Eubank, Steve Collins and Nigel Benn possessed? The debate on class and personality is subjective, but boxers certainly aren’t held in the same regard anymore.
Incredibly, evolution has been the decay of the sport. The growth of MMA and the continual rise of media conglomerates coupled with the implementation of subscription packages has seemingly plagued boxing, forcing many fans to arrest their obsession.
Across the Atlantic, while the sport is tarnished with Don King’s corruptive ways, the UFC, headed by Dana White, is flourishing. Harbouring the most talented pool of fighters on the globe, the Ultimate Fighting Championship is a competitive, legitimate brand which unlike boxing is governed by a single organisation, ensuring it stays clear of greed, the politics of promoters and a dog-eat-dog environment.
In Britain, the sport’s shift from terrestrial TV to satellite coverage has proved costly in terms of fan base with the pandemonium surrounding ITV’s Big Fight Live a distant memory. Instead, the public is expected to part with exorbitant amounts of money for fight cards where the scheduling can sometimes only be suited for late night revellers or insomniacs.
The loss of exposure on free-to-air TV may have been a blow to boxing, but it’s stepped up the turf war between Frank Warren’s BoxNation and rival promoter Eddie Hearn. While the former promotes a £10-a-month subscription charge for his channel, the latter has landed a deal with Sky to broadcast his Matchroom stable, including the world super-middleweight title re-match of Froch and Mikkel Kessler at the weekend which cost £14.95 to view on Box Office.
While Warren continues to monopolise - harvesting a plethora of big fights from overseas - boxing needs ITV or the BBC to reignite their interest from the past if boxing is to prosper again, especially with Channel 5 disengaging its commitment and displaying an allegiance with BAMMA (British Association of Mixed Martial Arts). Two camps clearly have boxing against the ropes, almost privatising the sport, while Channel 5’s intermittent interest could soon see the sport sprawled on the canvas.
Something needs to change, boxing needs re-shaping. There’s too many belts, too many sanctioning bodies and too many champions. Boxing needs to be man versus man, not belt v belt, fought in a genuine hierarchy - similar to the UFC - so we have a unanimous, undisputed champion in all divisions, rather than housing numerous imposters.
The return of the former Olympic champion certainly isn’t the remedy for boxing’s ongoing affliction.