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Make boxing great again

Teofimo Lopez boxing
The boxing industry must act now to save its future, writes Matt Christie

THERE are warning signs that boxing cannot afford to ignore any longer. It’s important to stress this is not the work of a writer eager to hammer nails in boxing’s coffin but a genuine lover of the sport who believes we can still wrench out the nails that are already there.

Amateur clubs are closing down. The hardcore fan is seemingly eternally disillusioned. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) almost threw boxing out of competition last year due to substantial accusations of corruption. Blue chip companies won’t go near the sport with any long-term sponsorship. Most television bosses are not interested in showing boxing. Even a speciality channel like BoxNation, a channel that should have appealed to the so-called millions of fans out there, no longer invests in major live events.

On the surface, boxing should be the simplest of sports and, if all the elements were right, one capable of rivalling football as the most appealing sport in the UK and beyond. That is a positive we must not let slip from our grasp. The fundamentals are there.

There was a time when boxing was genuinely one of the leading two or three sports in the world. Everyone knew the world champions, children wanted to be them and everyone wanted to see them fight. Some will say the fighters just aren’t that good anymore and that’s why the sport lacks the appeal of old. That’s nonsense. The main reason is a lack of exposure but in recognising that we must in turn ask why the sport doesn’t get that exposure. Ask why ITV, BBC (at least on television) and the like continue to ignore a sport they once adored and why only the biggest of events receive attention and inches in the news. Times have changed, granted, but there’s more to it than that.

Boxing does so much good in communities. It saves lives, it rescues lost souls, it delivers purpose to those who never had it before. Yet at grass roots level it is struggling badly. The gyms, its members and those who dedicate their lives to them deserve better. If the sport was widely respected, it’s unlikely those gyms would now be in trouble. They’d be recognised as the crucial pillars in society they are. Let us not forget that every leading fighter of today was once a youngster stepping foot into these gyms for the first time. The consequences of those gyms closing down should not need spelling out any further.

It may appear churlish to be negative as the sport tries to find its feet. The work that’s gone into bringing the sport back during the most challenging of economic times has been huge; that isn’t forgotten nor taken lightly. Some of the fights on the way are greatly appealing, no question. We should be thankful for that and champion those contests at all costs.

Yet we must not turn a blind eye to the problems that have blighted the sport for too long. If they’re allowed to remain unsolved, there’s every chance boxing will become so marginalised it will barely exist in the mainstream.

We can point to the proposed showdown between Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua as an argument against that. Yet it can also be argued such events merely paper over the cracks. Is anyone 100 per cent confident that the right man will win if it goes to the scorecards? How long before the sanctioning bodies decide they’re not making enough money from one heavyweight champion and decide to conjure up more? What happens if the winner retires? For context, it’s 15 years since Lennox Lewis retired and still we wait for his true successor.

Boxing isn’t a simple sport to follow anymore. That must be deemed ridiculous; a sport so raw and appealing at its core, one that pits one fighter against another, is impossible for even its most loyal fans to comprehend. The hundreds of world championships, the mind-boggling decisions and the endless failed drug tests all generate more headlines than the real success stories. Yes, the sport will break attendance and pay-per-view records now and again. That alone should speak of how appealing the sport is when its packaged invitingly. Yet in the absence of any true infrastructure to demand what should happen as a matter of course, that being the best fighting the best on a regular basis, the sport too often relies on social media to manufacture rivalries and prey on the fans’ thirst for some semblance of top drawer competition.

Boxing has warring powerhouses at the top level. Combined they make any resolutions to these issues almost impossible. Every other sport has a system that demands the best teams or individuals are recognised as the best at any given time. In boxing, just like the winner and loser of a fight that goes the distance, that’s a matter of interpretation and opinion. For TV bosses and newspaper editors, it’s an impossible narrative.

At the highest level, there should be one world champion per weight class who defends his or her title against the best available challenger at every reasonable opportunity. Therefore each world championship fight would appeal. At the very least, its importance would be understood. If pay-per-view must remain, and we understand why it exists, only put real world championship fights on a box office platform. Anything below must be made available for as many fans as possible to watch. The interest in the sport therefore builds and builds and the extra cost for the special fights becomes somewhat easier to stomach. Furthermore, it sets a high bar for the fighters to aim at.

Back in reality, the odd ray of light is hidden. Take the lightweight division as a recent example. Just two weeks ago we were told that the winner of the excellent bout that pitched Teofimo Lopez against Vasiliy Lomachenko would crown an undisputed world champion. Yet, in the build-up to Loma-Lopez, we’re told that on December 5, two different fighters – Luke Campbell and Ryan Garcia – will fight for an interim world lightweight championship. Try to explain that. Explain to an existing fan or more importantly to a new fan, the kind we must attract if the sport is to flourish in the future, why an interim championship is up for grabs in a weight class that already has an active undisputed champion in place.

Teofimo Lopez boxing

Also, please explain why two weeks after Lopez beat Lomachenko to win all lightweight the belts, Gervonta Davis is defending a world lightweight title against Leo Santa Cruz. While you’re at it, explain why a super-featherweight world title will also be on the line in the same fight. Someone please enlighten us. Just imagine if, instead of a bout for spurious belts Davis-Santa Cruz was a final eliminator for the right to face Lopez. Isn’t that a better narrative and an easier sell?

Promoters and broadcasters must stop recognising every new belt that’s invented, stop essentially being slaves to the sanctioning bodies. It’s understood why, at least to a degree. A ‘world championship’ sounds good for short-term marketing solutions but we’re already dealing with the long-term implications of such nonsensical propaganda. Mindlessly empowering those who are only interested in self-preservation is a dangerous business. So too is giving proven drug cheats chance after chance. Once a fighter has failed a test, promoters should stop working with them. That, surely, is the biggest incentive not to cheat: You cheat, you get caught, you don’t earn another penny.

Again, boxing should be the simplest of sports, one that appeals to so many. Two boxers fight each other. At the end of it, there should be a winner and a loser. On the odd occasion there’s a draw. But even the act of winning and losing defies logic.

Last week the headlines were dominated by a decision few could comprehend. A judge made a bad call, yet the governing body who employ him decided nothing was wrong with his judgement because they were satisfied his scorecard was in line with his own opinion. So everyone who follows the sport is left confused, and many are furious to the point of turning their backs due to a ruling that appears to say it doesn’t matter if the right fighter wins as long as the judges’ opinions are honest and their own; irrespective of whether those opinions are actually right or wrong.

There shouldn’t be any doubt that Terry O’Connor believed Lewis Ritson did enough to beat Miguel Vazquez on the night but that doesn’t mean it’s okay, does it? If a linesman kept failing to raise his flag for offside in numerous football matches – even though television cameras proved he was wrong time and again – do we forgive that linesman and keep employing him because he’s honest and his only fault is he couldn’t recognise foul play?

It should also be noted that the fans are not blameless. There is no more vicious place than Twitter on a Saturday night. Trial by social media is far too common, and far too cruel, yet an understanding that greater transparency from those governing the sport will follow would go some way to quieting those angry voices. There’s every chance the fans need educating too. Robert Smith of the British Boxing Board of Control has promised to explain the actions of the Board in this week’s BN podcast. That, at least, is a step in the right direction when it comes to that need for greater transparency.

When boxing gets it right, there is no greater sport. But too often mistakes are being made – the same mistakes over and over again – that scream incompetence to the world.

Seasoned observers will merely say this is boxing, it always happens, let’s just get on with it. But we ignore the warning signs at our peril.

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