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Did Sporting Clubs save boxing?

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Small hall boxing might have died out without them

UNTIL about 60 years ago, all a promoter had to do when arranging a show was to ensure that he had some well-matched fighters at the top of the bill (with one preferably local), to print and distribute handbills and posters, and to hire a suitable public hall in which to stage the event. The public would then turn up to see the boxing. As long as the boxing was good enough then the same customers would turn up, show after show. Boxing halls were full of knowledgeable fans who would watch every contest and then leave en-masse once the boxing had finished. There was an abundance of small halls and most of these halls had staged boxing for many years. These days it is very different. While there is an abundance of venues holding boxing tournaments, and most bills have local talent on display, it is largely down to the boxers to sell the bulk of the tickets to their friends and admirers. A large proportion of the crowd know little about the sport and many of them only watch the contest in which the boxer they have come to see is taking part.

The small hall scene as we knew it died out in the 1960s. There were still a number of these halls about, particularly in London, with York Hall, the Manor Place Baths and Shoreditch Town Hall being good examples. In the provinces some of the old halls still struggled along. Liverpool Stadium, St James Hall in Newcastle and the Public Hall in Preston still put on the occasional show, but it was the Sporting Clubs that kept the sport alive. These have largely disappeared now, but without them the sport may very well not have survived at all. 

Increased competition from television, coupled with the growth of interest in other sports, kept the traditional boxing fan away and promoters found that the only way they could make the grass roots of the game profitable was by setting up a Sporting Club. The members paid an annual fee for the right to attend all of the shows that the club held within the year. The boxing was only part of the evening’s entertainment with a meal and perhaps a comedian or guest speaker thrown in. They usually comprised of only three or four bouts.   

Like today, many of the attendees knew little about the game and many of them were invited along as guests of the members so that they could conduct a business deal.  These clubs were vital, however, in providing a place for the up-and-coming lads to learn their trade. This week’s photograph was taken in 1976 and it shows Cornelius Boza-Edwards and Barry Price at the Hilton Hotel, Mayfair, in a show promoted by the Anglo-American Sporting Club. It was on this same bill that Paddy Maguire and John Kellie fought their famous nine-rounder, which Alex Daley wrote about recently.

There were just under of 200 promotions in 1976 and the majority of them took place in Sporting Clubs. Forty-four of were hosted in London with the National Sporting Club leading the way with 20 of those promotions. The St Andrews SC in Glasgow held 10 and many other provincial clubs had more than six. These included the Yorkshire Executive (Bradford), the Anglo-American (Manchester), the 20th Century (Southend), the Great International (Nottingham), the Arden (Birmingham) and the Bedfordshire (Bedford). 

The boxing took place in plush hotels and the boxers were often made to feel like second class citizens by both the staff and the patrons of these places, and their supporters were not encouraged to attend. It was a lonely business being a professional boxer in those days. The big ticket sellers could always find work in the public halls because promoters were still willing to take a chance on a commercial show if they were guaranteed a good attendance. It was probably this that has led to the sport being organised in the way it is today. Without the clubs boxing may have terminally declined, as it has in other countries where it once thrived, such as Italy and Australia. As bleak as they were for the average fan, they at least kept the game going through difficult times.

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