Imagine a world where there is one global boxing governing body. An organization which sets all the standards and regulations for the sport. Which maintains a structured rating system and thus has credible world champions in each weight division. An organization which protects those who participate therein and punishes those who veer off the path. An organization which establishes a clear career path for would-be participants. Athletics, rugby, soccer, cricket all have global structures in place. Why did boxing stay behind?
Surely the current fragmented way boxing is run is not sustainable. Why did television networks and promoters become the major role players when boxing is one of the most solitary sports in the world? Is boxing en route to becoming nothing more than “sports entertainment” like pro wrestling? I hope and trust it isn’t because it is one of the last remaining pure forms of competition between individuals: Two men fighting in the squared circle. Where did we lose the plot?
South African boxing control will be under going a transformation in 2006. A new bill is being drafted by the government entitled the “combat act” which will set in place new regulations for all fighting/contact sports. The current controlling body Boxing SA will be deregulated and a boxing federation put in its place. At this stage there is only speculation as to how the act will truly impact on the sport, but there is wide belief that we will be moving away from the draconian ways boxing is run and that it will be approached as a business in the near future. It may be a business for promoters and management, but not for the majority of active boxers in the world.
The opening paragraph is merely a reflection of what I hope to see one day. Although it’s unlikely, I hope that those writing the “combat act” will realize that they are in the position of establishing a new model for boxing in South Africa which, if encompassing enough, could serve as an example for a future global body. The fact that the act will include all fighting sports and not just boxing indicates that I may already be expecting too much, except if this means the government will be stepping off the sport and letting it become an independent body.
South Africa’s official boxing history started in 1889. At the time boxing was illegal in the Transvaal Republic. Then as is now, however, businessmen could swing things to happen. Barney Barnato, a rising business tycoon of the time, feeling snubbed by a Scotsman by the name of James Robertson Couper who had made his home in South Africa, decided to exact his revenge in a boxing match.
Although he also loved boxing, he realized he would be no match for Couper whose fisticuff abilities were widely known and respected. Barnato imported a highly rated bareknuckle fighter, Wilf Bendoff from London, to put Couper in his place. Given the enormity of this fight, it was decided that it needed to be acknowledged as an official encounter and not merely a scrap over the border.
Permission was sought to stage the bout by Couper’s trainer Tommy Harris. He had a cordial relationship with President Paul Kruger and he was thus given the delicate task of approaching him. “President,” Harris began “There’s a big Englishman in Johannesburg who boasts that he can trash any man in the Transvaal.” Kruger removed his pipe and surveyed Harris with a moody eye. “Shoot him!” he said and dismissed the subject summarily.
Once Harris explained the situation, Kruger agreed to let them have their fight. It took place on July 26 1889 in Eagles nest south of Johannesburg. A corrugated fence was erected around the ring and an entrance fee of 5 pounds was charged. The purse was 4500 pounds, winner take all. For the record: Couper (35), a welterweight by today’s standards, stopped Bendoff (27), a heavyweight, by knockout in the 27th round to be declared South Africa’s first official boxing champion.
There was a strong police presence at the fight to maintain order and from then on the justice system was intrinsically connected to boxing in South Africa. Boxing results and news were for years published in the Police Gazette, the sport was the only one to have an entire government act written for it. Up until the 1960s when Stan Christodoulou took over as CEO of the boxing board, it fell under the rule of a magistrate or a judge.
The current boxing act, which was redrafted in 2001, still includes the clause that before a promoter can stage a fight he needs to acquire permission from the nearest police station, and that any policeman above the rank of a captain may step in and stop a fight if he feels it is leading to chaos. While there is some merit to this, one would expect policing to be under a general law of the land and not in a sport’s act.
Without a healthy image; without a respectable and visible route a prospective boxer can take and realistically get somewhere and have a career; without real heroes and role models, boxing is in serious trouble. People have evolved and expectations are higher than merely throwing two men into a ring and watching a fight. Do we really want a sport filled only with those who become boxers because they have no choice? Impoverished with no where else to go.
Generally the cream of boxing talent comes from fighters who fell in love with the sport as children, children who wanted to grow up to become the image of Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Marvin Hagler. For all his box-office appeal, did kids really want to become Mike Tyson? Did parents want their kids to become the “baddest man on the planet?” You got to love him, but I don’t think so. You want to know why we don’t have top class heavyweights? Who were the role models for the last twenty years and did boxing project the image of being a career option for people who had other choices?