Five years ago, as boxing languished in the recesses of the national sporting consciousness, it would not have seemed possible that UK TV schedulers would screen world title bouts for two consecutive weekends on terrestrial channels. There is a similar feeling of unreality around acknowledging that back then only very keen sports-radio listeners had heard of Mark Pougatch. How things change.
Last Saturday, Channel 5, which has been boxing’s only recent non-digital TV platform, diverted from its usual output of Mick Hennessy fighters competing in final eliminators in provincial shopping centres to bring us a world title epic in Monte Carlo. Not to be outdone, ITV, a ship that sailed many years ago will make its grand homecoming to the shores of Fistiana by screening Carl Frampton’s IBF super-bantamweight defence against Chris Avalos in Belfast this weekend. It all just seems too good to be true.
The Golovkin / Murray bout must surely have captured the hearts of casual viewers. A gripping spectacle that managed to be incredibly absorbing while also, for those who follow the sport closely, fairly predictable, it encapsulated much of the natural drama of the noble art. As the dominant champion wore down a stubborn and determined challenger, we were shown things we already knew with visceral impact.
Even the most hardened cynic had to be impressed by GGG. The Kazakh champ’s feet and movement are superb, his reflexes diamond-blade sharp, his punching correct and hurtful. Harsh observers have criticised him post-fight because his opponent actually managed to hit him a few times – it is a measure of his quality that such barrel scraping is the best they can manage.
Martin Murray meanwhile continues to look as though you could run him over with a tank, flip it into reverse, do it again and he would get up, compose himself and start throwing punches. The St Helens tough-nut did an admirable job of hanging in there until the 11th, particularly after a torrid fourth round. Nonetheless, as solid as Murray is (and many believe him to be world no.2), Golovkin was simply on another level. At no point was Martin able to throw the cherubic Kazakh off his stride – all he could manage was to briefly assuage the flow of attacks, here and there.
The question on everyone’s mind therefore is what next for GGG? Clearing up the division is surely a mere formality. Ireland’s Andy Lee, the current WBO holder defends soon against ‘Kid Chocolate’ Peter Quillin. Puerto Rican legend Miguel Cotto still clings to the WBC belt but is likely to move back down to super-welter (Golovkin is already WBC interim champ and will be upgraded in that eventuality) and Hassan N’Dam and David Lemieux are set to face off for the vacant IBF. As good as all of those fighters are it is virtually impossible to make a case for any of them causing Golovkin any concern.
There is talk of a move up to super-middle and a bout with Andre Ward, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr or even Carl Froch, with an even more fanciful suggestion that he could meet Floyd Mayweather Jr at some sort of catchweight. Rather than chasing empty money, I don’t see anything wrong in Triple G unifying the Middleweight belts then keeping them for as long as possible. He doesn’t appear to have the frame to move up, especially bearing in mind he is already 32 and unlikely to get much bigger. And jumping through hoops to take on a 38 year old welterweight seems more hassle than its worth.
Sometimes you have to just appreciate what is before you instead of always demanding more. The pay-per-view model has left fans expecting huge bonanza shows, but what do they really mean? Sugar Ray Robinson didn’t bounce around the weight divisions seeking big paydays against other established champs. Right now we are fortunate enough to be witnessing the career of a genuinely supreme middleweight champion. And the fact we were able to watch him demonstrate his art for free is something to be truly celebrated.
This Saturday, hugely popular Ulsterman Carl Frampton seeks to emulate his manager and mentor Barry McGuigan in capturing the nation’s hearts. Barry did it on BBC all those years ago, with his dad singing ‘Danny Boy’ in the ring before he fought. Frampton will try to do the same while making the first defence of his IBF Super Bantamweight belt against Californian / Mexican, Chris Avalos on ITV. Frampton is a likeable and talented kid and McGuigan’s reluctance to sign him up to the big two of Hearn or Warren, which raised many an eyebrow over the last year or two, is starting to look like a stroke of genius, rather than stubbornness.
Mandatory challenger Avalos brings aggression and punch power to the match-up, coupled with an impressive CV, his only two defeats both coming via contentious split-decisions. In front of a packed Odyssey Arena stadium and an armchair audience hopefully measured in the millions, Frampton will start a clear favourite, however. His strength at the weight and energetic, all action style will ensure that. A win would see him well-positioned to take on Leo-Santa Cruz, Scott Quigg, or the current chairman of the who-needs-him-club, fiddly maestro Guillermo Rigondeaux. Few want to mix it with the Cuban as his defensive mastery does not lend itself to the box office, but he remains the division’s clear no.1.
It is not a fact easily escaped by anyone involved in boxing promotion that while these free-to-air stations have shown two genuine world title contests featuring British fighters in the space of seven days, BoxNation and Sky Sports are serving inferior fare and charging for it.
While Pougatch coaxed truisms and sound-bites from Ritchie Woodhall and Steve Collins in the build-up to Golovkin v Murray, Sky, in the form of Adam Smith and his various acolytes, used their usual slick presentation to try to put a fur coat on a girl with no knickers. Their main event saw them palming off Arthur Abraham, realistically the world’s sixth or seventh best super-middleweight, against Paul Smith as a genuine world title bout. In an honest assessment Smith is probably not even the top 12 stone fighter in Liverpool.
Similarly while the ITV show is in full swing this weekend, also fronted suspicously by the calm presence and mellifluous tones of Mr Pougatch, BoxNation will be screening Tyson Fury’s keep-busy heavyweight bout with Romanian plodder Christian Hammer and Eubank Jr’s tilt at WBA ‘interim’ middleweight titlist Dimitry Chudinov. Speaking personally, although I do pay for both Sky and BoxNation at present, it is the Channel Five and ITV shows that I watched and will watch live.
Amidst all the excitement, a question does present itself. From where has this new face of British boxing coverage come? No TV anchor-man before has achieved the feat of presenting world title shows on two separate terrestrial channels in consecutive weeks. One thinks of the great names of the past – Rosenthal, Inverdale, even Newbon – broadcasting giants, fine professionals to a man, yet none so favoured by the gods of the small screen. What has Pougatch been up to behind the scenes, who has he slept with?
When the BBC and ITV dropped their interest in boxing in the noughties, the coverage from Sky and Setanta, then BoxNation was welcome, even if it was expensive. Without it, the sport simply would not have been televised at all. It is remarkable to recall now that the breakthrough fights of the UK’s leading pay-per-view star, Carl Froch were not shown by any stations in this country. After ITV screened his WBC title win against Jean Pascal in 2008, British TV companies simply declined to invest in the super-six tournament in which he made his name, leaving fans searching for streams online. Those dark days, little more than half a decade ago, are now truly over.
While credit must go to Sky Sports and their subscription rivals for keeping boxing alive and showcasing some huge events during a difficult period for the noble art, the move back to free-to-air TV is a wonderful thing for UK fight fans. Let’s hope it’s a long term development. For mysterious reasons, it’s also working wonders for the career of Mark Pougatch.