MY welcome to Manchester, after a six-hour drive from my home on the south coast, consisted of one cotton bud scraped against my tonsils and another jammed up my nose. After being ushered to a hotel room where I will likely stay for the next 20 or so hours, I now sit at a desk overlooking the city and everything seems as familar as the Covid-19 testing procedure has become.
People are going about their business on the pavement below, the roads are again thick with traffic and the trams trundle from one stop to another. There are few signs of what we have been forced to endure over the last 13 months. One hopes we are approaching the end of this lockdown era as we enter what might be the last boxing ‘bubble’ of its kind.
As of next week (May 3), the British Boxing Board of Control will move from the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing to lateral flow, meaning the massive cost to promoters when staging boxing events will drop significantly.
“Hopefully this will enable smaller promoters to run shows,” Robert Smith told Boxing News. “We hope to have limited spectators in attendance, possibly by the end of May or early June. We’re slowly getting there but we remain at the mercy of the government and local councils.”
What a gruelling journey it has been. With that in mind, it only seems right to champion what boxing has collectively achieved since the sport was forced to abruptly close last March. Yes, we can moan and groan about the pay-per-views this weekend and one glance at the spurious WBA titles on the bill in Carson, California are enough to drive any hardcore fan round the bend. But that the sport overcame such unprecedented challenges – and gave us enough action and talking points to both cheer and bemoan along the way – is surely the boxing story of these troubled times.
We have been here before, of course. As the summer of 2020 eased into autumn it appeared, for a few short weeks, that boxing was on its way back to normal. Then along came a second wave to put everything, if not quite back to square one, unquestionably into reverse. We remain wary of the immediate future but the signs, at last, do seem better than they’ve been since this all began.
The sport has remained relevant thanks to governing bodies like the BBBofC installing strong guidelines, promoters, punters and broadcasters digging deep into their financial reserves and, best of all, the fighters being willing to take chances. We have seen genuine drama, fearless matchmaking, innovative solutions, gender barriers dislodged, nonsensical ‘world’ titles being exposed and new superstars emerge. Teofimo Lopez, for example, made the previously untouchable Vasiliy Lomachenko yesterday’s news, seemingly overnight. In the UK, those fighters eager to test themselves at domestic level and beyond have moved forward or been handed an invaluable education. And, whisper it, we might even be on the brink of the biggest world heavyweight championship super-fight of the century. Frankly, the sport has exceeded all expectation.
But it hasn’t all been one triumph over adversity after another. If we are to learn lessons from the many positives we should also, as we move forward, pay attention to where the sport fell down.
Small hall promoters have been helpless. Boxers without glossy deals remain inactive. Amateur boxing and its participants could take years to find their feet again after life-saving gyms were ruthlessly shut with barely any government aid. Ex-fighters, for too long the forgotten members of the boxing family, need more help than ever before.
The darkest storyline of the last 13 months involved Daniel Kinahan, the notorious Irish ‘agent’ whose alleged links to crime made his link to Joshua-Fury worthy of a full-blown investigation on BBC’s Panorama. Even now, sources are telling BN that leading broadcasters remain nervous about his involvement in that showdown. Meanwhile, Triller – a brand new platform without any sign of a conscience – has grown rapidly thanks to some eye-watering financial clout and a new philosophy on what consumers really want. But what their success tells us is that boxing’s raw appeal remains.
That appeal has always been the crux. At its core boxing is still capable of generating sport’s most uplifting stories. Capable, too, of telling the wrong ones.
The last year has taught us all so much. As we move towards recovery it’s hoped that we do so with those lessons close and our eyes wide open.