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Sucker Punch
Stuart Macdonald

Boxing is a sport awash with cash. It may not, however, seem that way to the embattled gym-owners whose feints and swoops to avoid the ultimate haymaker from the Inland Revenue are worthy of Ali himself. The problem is one of distribution, with masses of revenue channelled into a few deep pockets, whilst the gym-owners and the majority of Boxers, are left to fight for the scraps from the high tables of promoters such as Frank Warren and Don King. In all but the highest troughs of the most equal pigs, the noble art is on its knees, begging for funding.

This growing schism in Boxing could not come at a worse time, as it faces up to perhaps its most formidable opponent yet - souring public opinion. The recent hospitalisation of the featherweight boxer Paul Ingle, is but the latest in a series of high profile collapses and injuries which have turned the harsh glare of public indignation firmly onto the sport. This is not however, the first time which Boxing has courted controversy in this tragic fashion. Remember Michael Watson after his fight with Chris Eubank in 1991; or Gerald McClellan beaten into a coma in his 1995 fight and now requiring 24 hour care; and Bradley Stone who never left the ring after his 1994 bantamweight bout? These are all horrific examples of boxing's indefensible dark side, which are inexorably turning the tide of public opinion against this once proud sport.

The British Medical Association (BMA) is consistently quoted in the press, producing awful statistics as proof that British Boxing is a product of a bygone era and is certainly no "gentleman's sport". According to Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, one (unnamed) leading UK neurosurgeon said that: "…80% of all Boxers have brain scarring as a result of the cumulative effect of blows". As a consequence, Mr Flynn has proposed a private member's bill to ban blows to the head in Boxing, which seems likely to be passed as law. Were this to happen, Boxing in the UK would effectively be banned, with the top fighters moving overseas and the local fights taking place at illegal underground venues. Understandably, this is a scenario which is of considerable concern to the Boxing fraternity in the UK. Not only would it signal an end to a traditional way of life in this country, but it would also curtail the huge revenue flows from television and advertising, upon which the sport depends. They will not lie down without a fight.

It is undeniably the case that Boxing has a chequered past, yet its exponents during the hallowed days of the 1960s and 1970s are revered even today in the public consciousness. For evidence of this one need only examine the various polls in 1999 in which Muhammad Ali was voted the sportsman of the twentieth century. Video recordings of his epic struggles with George Foreman and Joe Frazier in 1974 and 1975 respectively, are still sold in their thousands across the globe, packaged as "The Rumble in the Jungle" and "The Thrilla in Manila". However, Ali's enduring appeal comes not because he was a Boxer, although at his peak he was undoubtedly the greatest, but from what he did with the stage that Boxing provided. He was a truly great athlete in that he out thought as much as out fought his opponents, yet he is immortalised by his actions which embodied the spirit and emotions of a generation. His refusal to be conscripted to fight in Vietnam in spite of the resultant removal of his world Boxing crown was noble indeed. It symbolised America's growing discontent with the Vietnamese conflict and also powerfully demonstrated the strength of Ali's convictions.

Yet we cannot live in the past, no matter how great its appeal. A common theme adopted in support of Boxing today is its role in supporting the less privileged in society. As Colin McMillan, the secretary of the Professional Boxers' Association says: "…[Boxing] is a great character builder, it instils discipline, respect, inner motivation - there are so many positive sides which outweigh the negative sides". This is a valid point, with which it is hard to find fault, especially for those whose only alternative is to channel their aggression on the streets of the UK. Another popular argument is that Boxing causes fewer fatalities as a direct consequence of its participation, than, for example, Three-Day Eventing. The BMA finds it easy to refute this angle, saying: "…Boxing is alone in sport in that it causes deliberate damage to the brain and eye".
© Louisville Courier-Journal  

The solution to the problem facing Boxing may however, come from an unlikely source - the general public. The BBC have recently announced exclusive broadcasting deals with two of Britain's most famous Boxers - Olympic Heavyweight champion, Audley Harrison and the reigning world champion, Lennox Lewis. Rather ironically, these deals are seen as something of a coup for a broadcaster whose once great sports portfolio has now dwindled to a shadow of its former glories. Over the past decade it has been the opulent generosity of satellite and cable channels which has bankrolled a sport which was destined for something of a financial black hole. As a result, Harrison and Lewis have not signed with the BBC for purely financial gain, but to boost flagging interest and participation rates in their profession. Intrinsic to this assumption of success for the BBC are audience viewing figures. If nobody watches, then it will have been a wasted investment, so it is in both parties' interests to ensure that the public is not turned off by Boxing. Past experience suggests that the BBC have backed a winner.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, fights which occupied prime-time viewing space on terrestrial broadcasters such as the ITV and the BBC, regularly drew audiences of ten million plus. Reputations such as those of Prince Naseem Hamed and Chris Eubank grabbed the public's imagination and millions dutifully obliged the promoters by repeatedly tuning in to the live televised fights. It is this level of positive exposure which the Boxing aims to recapture, all paid for by the British public through the licence fee.
It seems that the BBC's faith has not been misplaced, as Sky demonstrated when they collected 600,000 subscriptions of £10 each for the fight between Mike Tyson and Frank Bruno in 1996. This does not seem that great an exposure, but when it is taken into account that a large number of these subscriptions were from Bars and Clubs, and given the far superior penetration of terrestrial television, the potential audience size becomes apparent. An important result of this increased awareness, assuming no further 'accidents', is that the public objection to any attempted ban of any aspect of Boxing would be far more vociferous than if the sport remained the preserve of the satellite channels. This is the crucial aspect of the situation and one of which we should all be aware.

Boxing has a great legacy, but it is highly questionable whether or not it should persist in a society with pretensions to civilisation. The service which Boxing performs for local societies is admirable, but this role can surely be filled by less bloody, yet no less interesting pursuits such as Football and Music. Boxing is in decline across the UK and the deals which have been struck with the BBC are a desperate last push for survival. One need only witness Muhammad Ali's Parkinson's ravaged body for proof that, as a society, we have to be careful not to walk into the sucker punch which Boxing and the BBC are aiming right at our heads.

© Stuart Macdonald 2001

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