[Photo Credit: Tony Mayger, @RingtoneBoxing]
Those of more advanced years, with long memories can recall a time when boxing was the most talked about sport in the country. Dial back half a century to an era of Radio Caroline, cars with tail fins and Mary Quant fashion, the Beatles and the Stones were still boy bands while fleets of mods and rockers had it right off on south coast beaches. In those days it wasn’t elite footballers that dominated coffee-break or after-work pub conversations, it was fighters. Boxing was big news, a TV staple, with stories carried by every major newspaper. The UK’s best were all household names.
At the forefront of this era of fistic dominance were the heavyweights. Regarded as the blue riband division, the power of the big boys captured imaginations and raised pulses. In heavyweight boxing, it was said, outcomes were never predictable.
The USA was at its zenith as boxing’s leading power and Patterson, Liston then Ali took control of sport’s richest prize. On home turf it was British, Commonwealth and European champion Henry Cooper who led the way. Despite failing in his only challenge for the world title, against Ali in ‘66, the likeable Londoner became a bona-fide national treasure.
Inside the ring, the reality is that Cooper lost almost every time he went in with genuine world class – Ingemar Johannsen 1957 (KO 5), Zora Folley 1961 (KO 2), Muhammad Ali 1963 & 66 (TKO 5 & 6) and Floyd Patterson 1966 (KO 4), yet he still endeared himself to a British nation who loved to laud a plucky loser. With a left hook that could put anyone on their pants, including Ali when they first met, Cooper’s greatest hindrance was a tendency to cut around the eyebrows. Of his 14 defeats, 7 came via the ref stepping in because of Our ‘Enery’s facial lacerations. Images of Cooper with his face oozing gore like an extra from Night of the Living Dead became a common sight. The fact that most photography in those days was still black and white probably helped to soften their impact.
The anti-boxing brigade were yet to find their voice and while Sir Henry’s natural charm played a major part in his popularity, there is no way he would have become such a national star without his long running, evenly matched and absorbing contests with fierce domestic rivals. These internecine battles kept him firmly in the public eye and introduced him to fans all over the country.
Before new-kid-on-the-block Joe Bugner ended his 55 fight career in 1971, Cooper was a regular fixture on the BBC, boxing Derbyshire’s Jack Bodell twice, winning both, Blackpool’s Brian London three times and Welshman Dick Richardson twice (all wins). He also went 1-1 with Jamaica-born Liverpudlian Joe Bygraves and struggled through an incredible five contests with another Welshman, Cardiff’s Joe Erskine, which Cooper edged 3 to 2. These men and several others fought each other repeatedly, winning, losing and passing national and continental championships between them.
Back then, promoters and managers did not try to protect an unbeaten record with easy opposition. Losses were an accepted part of the game. Fans expected to know definitively who was top dog and to be afforded the opportunity to fight for world honours you had to first prove yourself at home. In this climate, the best went in with the best and as a result the domestic heavyweight scene was vibrant, busy and eventful. Off the back of that, boxing itself boomed.
Fast forward to the present day and most of those conditions are lacking. For too long the noble art has been cocooned away on subscription television, with the biggest and most anticipated cards on pay-per-view. The days when twenty million people would tune in to ‘Big Fight Live’ on a Saturday evening seem like a nostalgic fairy-tale. Though there is a ray of hope they may soon return, with the Carl Frampton ITV deal and Martin Murray’s challenge of Gennady Golovkin appearing on channel five.
This change from terrestrial to satellite coverage in the 90s cemented shifts in boxing business that had been developing steadily since the late 70s. The top end of the market sky-rocketed while everything else fell away. Distribution of wealth became hugely imbalanced. Suddenly it was no longer possible to make a living as a domestic level fighter – to earn big bucks and have regular TV bouts, boxers had to be marketed to world level, or at least some semblance of it. Even the WBU was sold by the 90s TV boys as being a credible title. For channel executives with eyes on demographics and target audiences, unbeaten records were essential to this. Thus a new pugilist career path was created.
Rather than looking for talent, managers looked for ticket sellers, to make money in the small-hall short term, feeding them soft opposition to keep them profitable until bumper paydays on the telly could be organised. These prevailing conditions meant that well matched domestic rivals would generally avoid each other. The risks, it was felt, outweighed the benefits.
Could we soon be emerging from that dark tunnel? Anyone with the sport’s best interests at heart must hope so. The Sky grip on all things boxing is loosening and that is a good thing. Among the marquee division, for decades a shallow one in this country, the green shoots of recovery have sprouted too.
On Saturday night at London’s Camden Centre, Dillian ‘The Villain’ Whyte (13-0) knocked out dangerous Brazilian Marcelo Luiz Nascimento after 41 seconds of the second round. It was Whyte’s fourth contest since returning from a two year ban for a positive test and sent a message of menace to the rest of the UK heavyweight division. At present Whyte does not have big promotional backing and is still represented by West London’s Mickey Helliet. Unless that changes, he will have to earn his chances, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Nascimento (17-8) had gone the eight round distance with former world title challenger Eddie Chambers in his last fight, lasted 8 with Manuel Charr in 2011 and 5 rounds with Tyson Fury in the same year. That provides real food for thought – it is not a fact easily avoided that the Brazilian has mixed in decent class and Whyte inflicted his heaviest defeat to date. In doing so, the Brixton man not only showed power, but a sound boxing brain.
Nascimento can bang and 15 of his 17 wins have come via KO. He constantly tried to line Whyte up for the right hand, but ‘The Villain’ controlled the distance, always wary of the counter, showing nice upper body movement before timing his own shots to perfection. He put the big Brazilian down with the first clean punch he landed, a left hook halfway through round one, then used educated pressure to survive some difficult moments before dispatching his man at the start of the second.
Whyte, it must be remembered, holds an Amateur victory over Matchroom / Sky and Olympic golden boy Anthony Joshua. While Joshua looks a fearsome prospect himself, he is not yet at the stage where promoter Eddie Hearn is willing to risk his investment with dangerous opponents, but a rematch between the two young guns would be an extremely attractive proposition.
Where does this place Whyte in the current heavyweight hierarchy? It’s difficult to say until we know how well he takes a punch. According to the statistical analysis of BoxRec, he is now UK no 10, below the likes of Sam Sexton, Martin Rogan and Michael Sprott. On Saturday’s blistering performance, I would suggest that is several places too low and he should really be closing in on the big 4 of Fury, Price, Joshua and Chisora. With the likes of Ian ‘Lay em out’ Lewison, Scotsman Gary Cornish and Tyson’s young cousin Hughie Fury also hovering around, not forgetting the potential return of David Haye, it could be the beginnings of a genuinely exciting domestic scene.
Imagine if the ITV fight deal turns into something long term and channel five sustain their boxing output, perhaps triggering more terrestrial TV interest? Imagine if the Sauerland brothers bring Price back from fighting in eastern European exile. With his huge right hand and fragile whiskers he always brings entertainment. Imagine if Fury’s world title shot doesn’t come off and he looks homeward for exciting match-ups, if Hearn abandoned his safety-first approach with AJ? Throw Whyte into the mix and all that would then be needed then is a small cultural shift – for the TV men who hold the purse strings to realise that there is big money in making exciting, 50/50 match-ups, even if world titles of dubious value aren’t on the line. How about a UK ‘super-six’ style tournament to determine the no.1 heavyweight? Both high drama and viewing figures would be guaranteed.
Five years ago, such a vision would have been a hopeless dream, but now? There are some grounds for optimism. Maybe an electrifying heavyweight era to match that of the 1960s is just around the corner.