You know the feeling. You switch on the radio, you ditch the dance station you'd tuned into because the sun's been shining and you search for the golden oldies and BANG, a tune you've not heard for ten, twenty years fills the car, a melodic ghost from the past. The hair on your neck stands up. Your pulse races and you begin to sing the words without any prior knowledge of learning them. It might be Dire Straits, it might be Smokey Robinson, heck it might be Bananarama, but it’s an experience that unifies us all.
On Saturday night, boxing returns to its terrestrial, spiritual home on ITV, and when the opening bars of the Big Fight Live theme chime out for the first time in a decade, men of a certain age will enjoy a similar quickening of the pulse. And ITV will implore them to re-embrace a sport essentially in the wilderness to mainstream viewers for over a decade.
Nigel Benn, the definitive TV fighter, once proclaimed whilst working for rival network BBC as an analyst for Audley Harrison's early professional career: “I preferred boxing when it was on ITV.”
Unsurprisingly, Benn never returned to punditry for the BBC and those fans that remembered Benn leaving ITV to take satellite television’s 30 pieces of silver will remark on his hypocrisy. But the Dark Destroyer’s outburst became uncharacteristically prophetic, as the BBC lurched from show to show with little or no direction and falling viewing figures. Simply put, the network didn't know what to do with boxing. Energetic analyst Steve Bunce and classy color commentator Richie Woodhall tried manfully to make it work in front of the camera but you never felt that the BBC “suits” really believed in or understood boxing. Boxing to the BBC, in truth, was just a rebound girlfriend while it pined for its first true love, football.
Adding to their woes, Audley Harrison proved to be a tough fighter to sell. Technical and cautious in the ring and insistent on promoting his own shows and selecting his own opponents, he soon turned off the paymasters who gave him a ten fight, million pound contract when he turned professional. Persecuted and harangued by BBC presenters in post-fight interviews, Harrison soon lost the faith of the viewing public too.
Hopefully, ITV have learnt from their bitter rivals' litany of errors.
Early signs are promising, last week their smaller sister satellite channel, ITV2, broadcast Carl Froch’s clash with Matthew Barney alongside Junior Witter’s subdued defence versus Andreas Kotelnik and the “dry run” presentation was simple and well oiled.
Ringside anchor Matt Smith was erudite and professional, eccentric commentator Steve Holdsworth proved typically purposeful, and channel-hopping former world champion Duke McKenzie proved a capable partner. In contrast, the BBC never quite grasped boxing’s personality in their delivery, their anchors and interviewers often appearing ill-informed and disinterested. Viewers will never forget Howard Eastman challenging diminutive but provocative interviewer Garry Richardson to name one of the middleweights he was so keen for Howard to face, instead of the cruel and unfortunate domestic mismatch with Gary Beardsley that preceded the interview. Richardson pawed and stumbled around for an answer – much like Beardsley had in the two rounds inside the ring. It was just such instances that infuriated hardcore fans that saw their sport being undermined both by poor fights and poor coverage.
Rumors suggest ITV has secured the consensus “dream team” of John Rawling, a revered journalist and exceptional anchor for BBC’s radio coverage, and Barry McGuigan, the former featherweight champion and enthusiastic colour analyst for SKY.
Combining a simple but insightful approach to the coverage and access to Frank Warren’s established stable of fighters suggests ITV have a clear picture of the product they need to deliver. They appear to have learnt a great deal from the BBC’s failed tenure as boxing terrestrial partner and fans will hope ITV’s commitment runs deeper than merely temporarily filling the gap left by the loss of football.
The pretext for their respective pursuits of boxing is uncannily similar though: both needed it to fill the Saturday night void left by the loss of broadcasting rights to football and both will use a high-profile amateur’s professional debut as their launch pad. For the BBC, the self-styled Audley “gravy train” led the way; for ITV their opening success rests on the broadening shoulders of young Athens Olympian Amir Khan.
Amir Khan opted for Frank Warren's Sports Network stable to chart his course to “world titles by the age of 21” and there are few more qualified in fully capitalising on Khan's ability and profile, although his development will doubtless be painstakingly cautious.
His stunning emergence at last year’s Olympics landed him a silver medal, a precocious effort few observers felt possible. Certainly the Amateur Boxing Association didn’t, initially refusing to select him because he wasn’t old enough to even compete in domestic senior competition. But the then- 17-year-old persevered, demonstrating that at 17 he could enter the Olympics. When he floated the idea of opting to represent Pakistan in the finals – suddenly he had a British vest and he was destined for Athens.
The pursuit of Khan’s signature on a professional contract has been fiercely contested, but Frank Warren was the only promoter in the UK with confirmed TV dates at the time and was the most visibly persistent in his campaign. Warren knows a moneymaking fighter when he sees one. He saw it in Calzaghe, in Hatton. Heck, in recent times he even saw it in Skelton and Farnell.
Khan’s debut is typically modest. He faces eager young Londoner David Bailey over four rounds who, despite being accustomed to fighting at super featherweight and sporting a patchy 3-4 record, will aim to please. On Saturday Khan will ensure a healthy crowd at the Bolton Arena, his hometown, and will attract a diverse demographic to tune-in over their Special Chow Miens and four-packs.
The potentially absorbing and punishing heavyweight contest between Tyson conqueror Danny Williams and unbeaten British champion Matt Skelton tops the “Who’s the Daddy?” bill, but it’s Khan that puts bums on seats and bums on sofas. ITV realised his potential back in May when 6.3 million viewers tuned-in to watch his return match with amateur legend Mario Kindelan. Predictably, the television advertising has centred on Khan, and in the intervening year since his Olympic adventure, Khan has been the toast of the celebrity awards dinner circuit – shrewdly maintaining the public profile created by his massive exposure in Athens which, ironically, all occurred on the BBC.
Turning professional now, rather than waiting for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is a decision based on finance. Of course a gold medal in China at the age of 21 would have heralded even more opportunity for the Bolton youngster, but with it came the ever present question of “what if?”
What if he lost? What if he got injured? Frank Warren was at pains to outline the problems he could encounter if he didn’t capitalise on his profile and youth now. Of course, being dumped on the seat of his pants by a domestic amateur on his return to action probably encouraged the decision. But to judge Khan and say he’s “cashing in” would be acutely unfair. Beneath the disarming smile lies an inner confidence and conviction. It was just such self-belief that caused him to insist on the bout with Kindelan; he wanted the vindication of victory over the veteran Cuban, despite the risks attached to defeat. And the risk of defeat, despite Kindelan’s advancing years, was very real.
But now he’s fought him and won and his burgeoning reputation as the world’s number one amateur (at least that’s what the poster says) continues to grow. The fact he attracted such a huge audience to watch him do it has drawn ITV back to professional boxing. Now it’s up to Khan, Skelton and Williams to keep boxing’s end of the bargain and entertain this reclaimed fan base enough to keep them coming back for more.
Something Audley Harrison and the BBC never quite managed.