Matt Maher: Boxing’s lesser lights suffer real body-blow
On the surface, it has been a good few weeks for British boxing.
First came the announcement of a deal which should see Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury face each other twice next year in what, provided all goes to plan, will be heavyweight unification contests which rank as comfortably the biggest-ever bouts involving fighters from these shores.
It was followed by less heralded but in many ways no less important news concerning the return of televised domestic boxing from early next month.
Promoter Frank Warren has scheduled five behind-closed-doors shows on BT Sport, the first of which will be headlined by Lichfield’s Brad Foster, who defends his super-bantamweight title against Walsall’s James Beech.
It has been a long time since two fighters from the Midlands topped the bill in a televised show and this is unquestionably excellent news for the region. Throw in the efforts of Warren’s rival, Eddie Hearn, to stage shows in the garden of his mansion and all the signs point to a sport which, like most others, is slowly getting back on its feet after months of being shut down by the coronavirus pandemic.
Look a little closer, however, and it quickly becomes clear that for many in boxing it will be a long time before things are back to anything approaching normal.
The common factor in both Hearn and Warren’s shows is they are being staged outdoors, something which is simply not an option for the many small hall promoters up and down the country who represent the sport’s grassroots.
For them the only option is wait and hope that by September, when the new season would typically begin, the national health situation will have improved sufficiently for small hall events to be staged.
Hope is undoubtedly the key word because when outdoor sports such as football are talking about allowing supporters in only with limited capacity by that date, the prospect of boxing shows being permitted to proceed as usual would appear slim.
Throw in possible additional costs of testing and the likelihood of a limit on the number of fights per show and promoters won’t have much of a decision to make on whether to even attempt staging events which rarely make much money in any case.
To the casual fan this might appear of little concern, but trouble in the sport’s grassroots has the potential to impact further up the chain.
Though they rarely get the credit, boxing’s lesser lights are essential for keeping the wheels at the top turning – from the journeyman who provide experience and bolster the records of prospects, to those fighters who help fatten the cards on the major shows, keeping the purists entertained when most of the crowd are still in the bar.
An analogy might be drawn to those lower league football clubs who produce players who then go on to flourish at the top level.
The difference is that while football is far from perfect, those clubs lower down the pyramid at least feel the benefit of some riches which trickle down from the top in the form of solidarity payments. Boxing’s archaic structure makes no such provision.
In Britain the sport is regulated by the board of control and in many respects they do an excellent job. The safety record is excellent, with several groundbreaking measures having been adopted by other sports.
Yet regulation is as far as it goes. The board has no commercial arm, meaning power in the sport is effectively devolved to promoters and there are only so many TV contracts to go round.
“There is a huge amount of money in boxing but the vast majority of it resides with the top five per cent,” explained one small hall promoter.
“There are about 3,000 licensed professionals in the UK and around 50 per cent of them have full-time jobs.
“Those that are starting out and looking to build a career in boxing are going to find it tougher as it will be the small hall shows which get hit.
“It wouldn’t take much. Anthony Joshua earned £66million in his last fight and if just a tiny percentage of that trickled down to the grassroots it would make the whole sport stronger.
“With a bit of organisation you could have a really strong regional scene. There are a lot of good fighters out there who just never get the chance.”
The counter argument is simply this is how capitalism works. As another promoter put it: “You don’t get Tesco helping out the corner shop in times of trouble.”
Hearn and Warren could also point out, with some justification, they did not receive any such assistance when they were starting out. Still, just because that’s how things have always worked doesn’t mean they can’t change. Maybe a global pandemic is ultimately what will prompt British boxing to realise it could, with only a few alterations, take far better care of itself? Then again, maybe not.
The most likely outcome is that boxing will, excuse the pun, find a way to fight its way through any trouble.
After all, this is a sport where resilience is an essential and which no-one, from boxer to trainer and promoter, enters without full commitment. Anyone who cannot maintain a positive attitude doesn’t tend to last very long in any case.
Yet there remains a suspicion that, away from the glitz and glamour of the very top level, this is a sport which is punching below its weight.