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British Boxing's Road to Redemption

BY David Payne ON July 18, 2004
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On July 30th Britain's Danny Williams enters the ring to tackle the remains of the Mike Tyson myth carrying more than just the hope of finally fulfilling his undoubted potential. Nope. Williams, alongside Light-Welterweight hope Ricky Hatton and the guardians of his October clash with Vivian Harris, have the added responsibility of saving British boxing from itself too.

All this just three years on from the fanfare that announced terrestrial television's (BBC) return to boxing, inspired by Audley Harrison's Sydney gold medal. Sadly the inspiration didn't last, their much-heralded partnership never delivered as it could and the BBC withdrew last month, the loss of access to this broader audience leaving British boxing reliant on the marginal world of satellite coverage.

And it is this confined existence that threatens the future prosperity of boxing in the UK. For too long the sport has grown fat and stale on inconsequential belts and uncompetitive contests, but the realisation that the sport was or is perilously close to self-suffocation appears to have finally dawned on the sport's 'movers' and 'shakers'.

Fans and writers have been the driving force though, providing a timely reminder that without the fans, hardcore, mainstream or otherwise, the sport is little more than a bygone curiosity. Sure the pressure has been exerted through television networks, but it is the viewing public that shapes their agenda.

However, it is boxing's collective quest for the mainstream fan that the loss of terrestrial television hits hardest, and that quest has become the sport's number one priority. You know mainstream fans; the football guys, the rugby guys, the guy in the bar who used to watch Eubank, Bruno and McGuigan. Those are the fans the sport needs if it is to emerge from its current slumber. But just how does British, and global boxing for that matter, ever win back the casual, mainstream fan? They've been gone a long time after all.

There are perhaps only two solutions.

Firstly, the sport needs to stop selling its soul for short-term money and ditch the litany of meaningless belts it presents as world-class. It serves only to complicate and confuse the title picture. If there are upwards of five world champions at every weight how can the sport expect mainstream fans to keep up and, importantly, be interested?

After all, these peripheral baubles mean nothing to hardcore fans for whom the two fighters and their respective abilities are the only factors that matter. So if the belts mean nothing to hardcore fans and their existence creates a knowledge barrier that simply excludes the mainstream fan and serves to undermine the genuinely talented fighters the UK does have, what purpose do the belts actually have?

Frustratingly, these inconsequential belts promote a lack of competition, but security for their custodians; fighters become comfortable earning good money for minimal risk defending these illicit decorations. The result, the best fighters rarely tackle each other. In fact, when they do it is such a shock they demand prohibitively large purses, often wrecking the fights fans want to see.

Meaningful contests between comparable fighters provide more entertainment and a clearer indication of the true hierarchy at each weight. The fans, through the television networks, have begun to demand these bouts and the promoters and fighters may finally be taking heed. Most notably the clamour for a meaningful contest for Ricky Hatton reached a peak this summer that resulted in the mouth-watering prospect of Hatton v Harris this October.

This is a fight to tell your friends about, two prime, top five Light-Welterweights with pleasing styles going at it for a more legitimate slice of the title. Its genuine fights like this that represent the improved 'product' the terrestrial broadcasters demand to be able to realistically present boxing to the masses. But boxing has to learn this hard lesson and it won't be done with just one fight.

The only other route out of this decline is for the sport to produce a breakout star, a fighter that can capture the public imagination as Naseem Hamed did in the 90's. Without terrestrial television this is harder to do. Hamed, like his predecessors McGuigan, Bruno et al, secured his notoriety and popularity through this broader exposure.

So how can it happen?

Ultimately, it may be the hugely entertaining Hatton or the precociously talented David Haye or perhaps even Britain's sole Olympian Amir Khan, but in the short term the onus is on Danny Williams. Because come July 30th he has a priceless opportunity to beat a man every adult in the UK recognizes and put the sport back into the public consciousness. That kind of profile and recognition simply cannot be bought.

The benefits run much deeper than one heavyweight's career and the £200,000 purse he's rumoured to be receiving. For British boxing to have an active heavyweight with a win over Tyson represents pretty much the perfect 'get out of jail free card.'

In reality the sport probably needs the short term boost of a Williams win AND a long term commitment to meaningful competitive bouts.

But for heavens sake nobody tell Danny we're depending on him. You know how he gets? You don't? Let me guess, you're a football fan, right?

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