Great Britain is now the dominant force and focal point of global boxing
By Rishad Marquardt: One year ago, Great Britain, overtook the US to become the nation with the greatest number of world champions in professional boxing. Such statistical shifts often occur in sport. A dominant force is momentarily upended by a smaller, traditionally weaker force.
When you are talking about one player in a team or one team itself ousting a historically dominant opponent, it is often the case that that achievement is a statistical anomaly, most of which rectify themselves within a season or two when the familiar sporting royalty take back their sovereignty, the status quo is resumed, and the dynasty is restored. But the shift that took place in boxing last year was not a shift of one team in one league finding success over the course of a single season.
No, the UK becoming the most successful boxing nation by number of champions was due to a whopping 13 boxers being world champions from the lightest to the heaviest divisions. The sheer breadth of strength in UK boxing proves a sustained all-encompassing dominance that has to start from a grass roots level; in the local gyms nationwide, which would suggest the momentum shift being initiated far before rewards are reaped.
One contributing factor to today’s success was the establishment in 2008 of GB Boxing, the organization that manages the boxing aspect of the World Class Performance Programme (WCPP). The WCPP, an organization funded by the UK’s National Lottery, was set up to support the ‘delivery of success at the world’s most significant sporting events, principally the Olympic and Paralympic Games’. Although they are not entirely mutually related, the UK’s performance in the last three Olympic Games, including its achievements in amateur boxing at those games, would suggest an overall positive move in the right direction for sport in general across the British Isles. In Beijing, London, and Rio, team GB finished 4th, 3rd, and 2nd respectively in the medals tables and 6th, 1st, and 5th in the category of boxing. Considering the UK’s relatively small population, these are truly distinguishing feats.
Compare this to the recent performance of team USA with their worst performance in boxing at an Olympic games in 2012 where – for the first time in their history – they didn’t come away with a single medal, and in Beijing before that when they came away just one bronze. Put this into a deeper context – that in their history the US has won well over a hundred medals in boxing alone, and the shift in balance of power becomes even clearer.
While the truly lucrative big money fights have still been born out of the US and almost exclusively from the Mayweather Jr. machine, these fights don’t portray a financially sound environment whereas fight viewership and fight attendance in the UK has shown that it has become the healthiest and most robust market in the world for the sport.
What really ignited the UK pro scene and took it to its current high was Tyson Fury’s victory over Wladimir Klitschko in 2015 to become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. That fight in itself was not a watershed moment nor was it anywhere near a record breaking event, but it brought the heavyweight belts home to a nation which already had several major up and coming prospects, and eventually provided a platform for Anthony ‘AJ’ Joshua, now arguably boxing’s biggest star in boxing’s most important division, to exploit. The success of AJ since Fury’s victory has been so great that in April 2017, he was able to headline the boxing fight with the highest attendance in 80 years in the UK. Just last week he again set a record, this time for the largest boxing attendance indoors in the world. The previous record was the Muhammad Ali vs. Leon Spinks rematch in 1978.
And, this momentum shows no sign of dissipating anytime soon. How you rank and class the current players in the division is subjective and, to a certain extent, comes down to preference but it would seem that we have three major players in Joshua, Deontay Wilder, and Tyson Fury. AJ is the unified champ, Wilder holds the WBC belt, and Fury – despite being hideously overweight at present, and inactive for two years – is still the lineal champ, and his masterful deconstruction of Klitschko is looking ever more impressive after flaws in AJ’s raw technical abilities being exposed in his last few fights against higher-level opposition. AJ is without question the number one superstar but his relatively short amateur and pro career have meant many boxing insiders have put question marks over his head and are looking more and more favorably at Fury and his boxing skills. Of the numerous ‘fringe’ players in the division, many are British. Dillian Whyte, Tony Bellew, David Haye, Joe Joyce, to name but a few. The fact that Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom boxing are in a position to offer Wilder more money than he has ever earned by quite some distance for a fight against Whyte in the UK further proves the dominant position the country is in.
Despite receiving criticism from some for not going to Vegas to fight, Joshua and Hearn have very good reasons not to. They have built a huge following with the home crowd and displacing that attention would risk rocking the cradle in a time and place where Joshua’s marketability is monolithic.
The strategic finesse of two extremely competent and savvy business men in Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren have been key to driving growth in boxing in the UK. Nobody is so naïve as to believe they have done so with any benevolent motives other than increasing their revenue, but it also cannot be denied that their managing direction has hugely benefited the fighters, the fans, and the sport – especially domestically – in general.
Questions remain over the future of boxing in Britain. How sustainable is support for the sport? If the AJ show comes to an end, will Britain’s boxing bubble burst? Uncertainties aplenty, but one thing is for sure – the sport has never been stronger in the country that gave birth to it.