Boxing: it’s not a tickling contest

Following the hype over Ricky Hatton’s big fight in Vegas, the ‘noble art’ is fashionable again - but not necessarily for the right reasons.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

At 10.45pm on Friday, I wasn’t where I should have been – in the pub, trying to persuade the bar staff to serve me another pint. Instead I was in the reception area at the BBC’s studio in Millbank in Westminster, waiting to appear on the radio. Fortunately, this coincided nicely with the BBC’s 24-hour news channel showing the weigh-in for the big fight between Ricky Hatton and Floyd Mayweather. By the time the highly entertaining weigh-in had finished, even the BBC receptionist was trying to work out how she could get to watch the fight in the wee small hours of Sunday.

On Sunday evening, another boxer, Joe Calzaghe, was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year; Hatton came third in the public vote. After years in the doldrums, boxing seems to be back… but some of the fight game’s newfound fans seem to be promoting it for the wrong reasons.

Unfortunately, without access to satellite TV, I had to listen, by radio, to Ricky ‘The Hitman’ Hatton take on ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd Mayweather at 4am, UK time, on Sunday. It was a depressing experience, with Manchester’s Hatton getting a lesson in boxing from the best fighter in the world, pound-for-pound, before being knocked out in the tenth round. Mayweather, barely a glove laid on him, was as ‘pretty’ as ever.

It was always going to be a tough task for Hatton. Mayweather is taller, has a substantially longer reach and he probably has the fastest hands in boxing; he is also the heavier man. Although Hatton is recognised as the top fighter at light-welterweight (140 pounds), it was Mayweather’s welterweight (147 pounds) title that was on the line in Las Vegas. Hatton put on a few pounds for the fight, but as the BBC’s boxing analyst Richie Woodhall noted, he was still small for a welterweight.

Moreover, Mayweather fought a smart if not-strictly-legal fight, grabbing Hatton at close quarters to prevent him throwing his trademark body punches, and hurting Hatton with his forearms and elbows as much as with his fists in the clinches. To his credit, Hatton did not complain. ‘It’s not a tickling contest’, he said at the post-fight press conference, joking that he thought he was doing all right until he ‘slipped’.

Given Mayweather’s size and skill, it was no disgrace that Hatton lost. This was a ‘courageous defeat’ that actually showed real courage. As the Daily Telegraph’s Jim White put it: ‘In truth the word gallant is inadequate when describing Ricky Hatton yesterday. He took bravery to uncharted levels. Mayweather is not only the best boxer in the world; such is his pace, his stamina, his reserves of skill that there are those making claims for him being the best of all time.’

What Hatton also has plenty of is personality. It’s hard not to like him when he has a steady supply of one-liners to keep an audience happy. Responding to criticism of the way he balloons between fights on a diet of greasy food and Guinness, Hatton said: ‘They’ve nicknamed me Ricky Fatton. Mind you, I have had a lot on me plate lately.’ According to rumour, Mayweather was persuaded to come out of ‘retirement’ for this big fight because of comments Hatton made about him. Dismissing the lack of action in Mayweather’s fights, Hatton said: ‘They carried him to the ring dressed like Russell Crowe and he ended up fighting like Sheryl Crow.’ Hatton has a promising career in after-dinner speaking to look forward to when he hangs up his gloves.

While it is hard to judge just how much hype there was in the US about the fight, this was a rare occasion in Britain when boxing not only became the main story on the sports news but actually featured in the main news, too. Boxing had slipped down the scale of interest in recent years. To some extent, this waning of interest has been triggered by a fashionable disdain for such a blood-and-guts sport, even if the actual injuries seem no worse than in rugby union, a game that is far more acceptable in polite society.

But boxing hasn’t helped itself by shipping all the best fights off to satellite TV and pay-per-view, leading to a situation where even the best-known fighters in the world – like Americans Oscar De La Hoya, Roy Jones, Bernard Hopkins and Mayweather himself – have been relatively unknown on this side of the Atlantic. Welshman Joe Calzaghe has been the best fighter in the super-middleweight division (12 stone or 168 pounds) for 10 years, yet it was only when his big fight with American Jeff Lacy was broadcast on terrestrial TV last year that he finally received wider recognition for his achievements.

It also doesn’t help that it is frequently unclear who really is ‘the champion’ in any weight division; there is now an alphabet soup of different titles. There are at least eight sanctioning bodies that permutate the words ‘world’, ‘international’, ‘organisation’, ‘association’, ‘council’, ‘federation’, ‘union’ and ‘boxing’ into three-lettered abbreviations: the WBC, WBA, IBF, WBO (these four have some credibility), plus the IBO, IBA, WBF and WBU.

So undermined are these institutions by petty politics that frequently it is the boxer who gives the title kudos, rather than the other way round. Thus, while Ricky Hatton is widely regarded as the best light-welterweight in the world, he only holds the very lightly regarded IBO title, while two other British boxers hold versions of the title: Junior Witter (WBC) and Gavin Rees (WBA). In the end, the ratings provided by The Ring magazine are given more credence than the various titles.

The sport’s sudden popularity in the UK has been aided by British success. Seven homegrown boxers currently hold world titles of one kind or another. Apart from Hatton, Calzaghe, Witter and Rees, there are Enzo Maccarinelli (WBO cruiserweight champ), David Haye (WBC and WBA cruiserweight champ) and Clinton Woods (IBF light-heavyweight title holder). While British teams in football, rugby and cricket have, for the most part, had a disappointing time lately, boxers give us something to shout about.

But there’s another note to the return of boxing: while boxing may seem to be a violent pastime, it produces decent, upstanding characters. Jim White summed up this turnaround very well: ‘Ten years ago, boxing was a pariah pursuit, condemned by the majority, its violent consequences leading many to argue that it should be banned… Recently, however, fighters like Amir Khan, Joe Calzaghe and David Haye have led a revival that is articulating the sport’s value like never before. With such modest, decent, focused role models, it is little wonder the sport’s enthusiasts are talking up its value as an educational tool.’

While our footballers are seen as underachieving rich kids with little real stomach for a fight, boxers suddenly seem to appeal to everyone. Working-class fans (including that BBC receptionist) actually rather enjoy watching grown men beat merry hell out of each other. Broadsheet columnists think that the discipline and responsibility of boxers, best embodied in the multicultural crossover appeal of Muslim fighter Amir Khan, provide a valuable lesson to young people who would otherwise run wild – even if the same commentators are thoroughly snooty about boxing fans (1).

There’s some truth in the idea that boxing can provide structure for many young people. Some real tearaways have had their lives turned around by the sense of purpose provided by learning how to survive in the ring. But the way the sport is talked about now, it seems as if boxing is suddenly the thinking man’s alternative to the anti-social behaviour order (ASBO), the Labour government’s largely failed attempt to control young people by making it easier to lock them up.

Teaching young people is a valuable by-product of a fascinating sport. But it would be terrible if boxing became as driven by unrelated instrumental concerns as so many other sports have been in recent years. Thankfully, there’s a wonderfully unfashionable, thoroughly elitist message to be learned from boxing in these anti-competitive, your-best-is-good-enough times: get good or eat leather.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons recorded the decline of heavyweight boxing and the fall of Mike Tyson – and explained why Joe Calzaghe should have been SPOTY in 2006. John Dennen reviewed the film Blue Blood. Mark Aldulaimi thought that Million Dollar Baby showed boxing’s brutality, with none of its beauty. Or read more at spiked issue Sport.

(1) See, for example, Kevin Garside’s rant: Vegas will not miss boorish British boxing fans, Daily Telegraph, 10 December 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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