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Boxing in 2021 was a microcosm of our eternal affair with the sport

boxing in 2021
Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing
Matt Christie on the warnings, lessons and hopes for the sport of boxing

THE infrastructure of boxing, or lack of, can drive us to the edge of despair on a daily basis. The inconsistent rules, the unfathomable officiating decisions, the tawdry belts, the nonsensical rankings and the dodgy dealings that create them. The failure of promoters, managers and networks to work together to make the fights that would make boxing every bit as appealing as the sports that get far more attention. The mismatches, drug-taking and the lack of punishment when caught, the wrecked brains that are invited back for more and the unscrupulous imposters who emerge from nowhere with only money on their minds. Yet the sport we fell hopelessly in love with all those years ago continues to have us all in a vice-like grip. Resistance, my friends, is futile.

The year 2021 was a microcosm of our long-standing love/hate relationship with the sport. The heavyweight division is a perfect example. During the first half of the year we waited, with promises ringing in our ears, for the all-conquering showdown between Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua to be confirmed. At Boxing News we wrote and rewrote stories that would be ready to drop when that announcement came. Of course, it never did. For weeks we ranted and raved about the absurdity of it all.

Then something quite magical happened. Like it nearly always does in this sport of ours. From the wreckage of Fury-Joshua, two other contests grew. Joshua, to his eternal credit, accepted the challenge of Oleksandr Usyk. Fury, meanwhile, agreed to face his old rival Deontay Wilder for a third time. In the space of a fortnight, the division – not so long ago red-faced for its infuriating inability to match its two leaders together – reminded us all how intoxicating the sport can be.

Usyk, in the most elegant performance of the year, won on points over 12 rounds in front of the vociferous 66,267 fans packed into Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Two weeks later, out in a Las Vegas that I’m told at last felt like Las Vegas again, Fury and Wilder produced a hellfire slugfest that transcended the sporting audience. That’s what heavyweight boxing at its best can do.

One hopes that in 2022 we remember the noise, energy and good vibes those two bouts cumulatively created and, in turn, make sure we get the one fight capable of being even bigger and louder all on its own. For now, we’re at the seemingly never-ending semi-final stage, with Usyk and Joshua set to go again, while Fury negotiates with Dillian Whyte. This time, write into the contracts that the winners fight each other next. Leave no room for rematches or any further time to be lost. Because for every fight that occurs that isn’t the fight, the chances of one and two meeting while at their peaks continues to diminish.

The sport’s leader, Canelo Álvarez, had a stellar year. He did what every leader should do and proved he was fit to rule. He cleaned out the super-middleweight division on his own terms, moving from one promoter to another and switching broadcasters to ensure he could show he was the best in his weight class. It’s true that the obstacles many fighters face barely exist for a fighter as powerful and influential as Canelo but, even so, he highlighted that the boxer can exercise their right to fight who they want to fight. Fury, Usyk, Joshua – and Whyte, should he beat Tyson – all have that power in their lockers, too.

At BN, we grew so tired of the endless shenanigans of the sanctioning bodies we took a stand against them, choosing to use the fiercely independent Transnational Boxing Rankings – of which we are now a part – as our only guide when it comes to ranking fighters. What became clear, despite almost universal applause for our stance, is that until promoters and broadcasters admit that the current title situation is a mess, the sport will continue to suffer. One only has to look at the lightweight division as a case in point. In George Kambosos Jnr, the orchestrator of the upset of the year, we have a lightweight who is widely recognised as the world champion. Yet just six days after he beat Teófimo López to claim the crown on DAZN, the very same network were dressing up Devin Haney-Joseph Haney as a bout for the world lightweight title. Worse still, one night later, SHOWTIME were telling us that Gervonta Davis’ win over Isaac Cruz was for the world lightweight title. The sheer mindlessness and short-sighted greed is shambolic in the extreme. To say it is galling to hear a commentator or reporter call someone ‘the world champion’ and then, a week later, call a different fighter in the same division ‘the world champion’ would be an understatement. Surely, Boxing News is not the only media platform who recognises how perplexing that really is. What’s certain, and this is what matters, is that the outside world cannot be bothered to try and work it all out anymore. In short, the sport cannot progress if it fails to rectify the issue. For those who disagree, step outside the boxing bubble and canvas opinion of the people on the street, of friends and family who have only a passing interest in the sport. They can barely name a ‘world champion’ and are instead drawn to easy-to-digest nonsense featuring Jake Paul.

We do have hope for 2022. It was heartening to see some excellent contests at last being made. That fights like Taylor-Ramírez, Charlo-Castaño and Estrada-González all figured highly in our fights of the year is no coincidence. The very simple formula of matching the best against the best must be the bread and butter of boxing and not the caviar that we only bring out on special occasions.

Yet there were plenty of upsets, too. The aforementioned Kambosos-López stunned everyone, Usyk-Joshua surprised plenty and who can forget about Kiko Martínez being launched from 2014 straight into the jaw of Kid Galahad. Upsets are healthy in many ways and certainly remind the likes of Boxing News that we don’t know nearly as much as we like to think we do. But they provide lessons for those at the top, too. And it’s this: An upset can wreck a super-fight, so make sure the super-fight is out of the way before an upset can come along and wreck it.

The women’s code was full of feel-good stories and, yet again, taught the men a lesson about making the right fights at the right time. It was heartening, too, to witness coaches at all levels go about their business purely for the love of it, to open their gyms to all-comers and teach those in need of direction a better way. At grassroots level, boxing is a joy, an endeavour that does so much good it’s incredible we don’t hear more about it in the real world. And it was amateur boxing that provided the finest example of a simple system that guarantees the best contests occur. The Tokyo Olympics was a glorious tournament, full of talent, excitement and boundless potential.

What followed raised perhaps the year’s biggest concern, however. As things stand, due to some seriously shady goings on in the past by AIBA, boxing will not be invited to the 2028 Games unless strict conditions are met. For too long, tournament amateur boxing behaved like no one else was watching. But of course, plenty were quietly paying attention.

The entire sport should take that as a warning.

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