by Frank Warren
Birmingham might be Britain’s Second City but, historically, it falls a long way down the pecking list as far as boxing is concerned.
While there has always been a thriving local scene in the nearby Black Country towns of Dudley, Walsall, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton, the pro game has struggled to ignite in Brum, despite a healthy amateur set-up.
It’s difficult to fathom why. The city has a population exceeding one million and its inner city is infested with all the social ills, such as crime, poverty and unemployment that traditionally provide a fertile breeding ground for hungry prizefighters.
The city has certainly produced past talents. In 1975, Bunny Johnson made history as the first black British heavyweight champion and, more recently, the likes of featherweight Pat Cowdell, from nearby Warley, and middleweights Rob McCracken, Wayne Elcock and Matt Macklin have all been good enough to contest, but not win, world titles.
In addition, fighters of the calibre of Lloyd Hibbert, Gordon Ferris, Horace Notice, Kostas Petrou, Hughie Ford, Wally Swift Jnr, and Don Broadhurst all secured British or Commonwealth crowns.
However, you’d need to trawl back to playboy heavyweight Johnny Prescott in the 1960s, to find a Birmingham fighter who could sell out big arenas in Britain’s motor city.
I’ve dabbled with promoting in the city in the past but, though the shows have been reasonably well attended, too often they have been blighted by crowd disorder. At my first ever world title promotion – held at the NEC 28 years ago this week, and featuring big hitting Welsh welter Colin Jones’s IBF and WBA title challenge to Texan Donald Curry – there was mayhem around ringside.
Similar chaotic scenes followed when I returned to the venue ten months later to showcase Cowdell’s abortive WBC featherweight challenge to Azumah Nelson. I’ll never forget two-time world heavyweight champion Tim Witherspoon, as amiable a man as you could meet, forcibly manhandling a few drunken idiots who’d gate-crashed the inner ringside cordon.
However, matters came to ahead in September 1994 when, again at the NEC, there was a full scale, chair-chucking riot, televised live on network TV, between football thugs attaching themselves to local hero McCracken and Salford’s Steve ‘The Viking’ Foster. That night, sadly, someone caught up in the carnage lost an eye and, for a period, Brum was ostracised as a big fight city. Thankfully, such outbreaks of hooliganism appear consigned to history.
All that’s required to re-ignite interest is a single fighter of talent and charisma. People forget that Manchester was a boxing desert before Ricky Hatton began hooking his way to fame and fortune in the early noughties. On ‘The Hitman’s’ tail, lesser talents such as Anthony Farnell, Michael Gomez and Jamie Moore were able to capitalise on title opportunities. I firmly believe the man to lead a Birmingham renaissance could be welterweight Frankie Gavin.
The 27 year old southpaw from Hall Green unquestionably possesses the technical tools to evolve into a world beater. He has the innate instincts and capacity to improvise that you simply can’t teach from a coaching manual and, at full throttle, his speed and skill set are simply breathtaking.
He remains England’s only ever world amateur champion, having captured the lightweight title over in Chicago in 2007 and he was a heavy favourite to bag gold at the Beijing Olympics the following year.
However, an unexpected growth spurt in the nine month gap between qualification and the onset of those Games saw Gavin outgrow the 60KG division and forsake his chance.
Debuting alongside Olympic squad mates James DeGale and Billy Joe Saunders at Brum’s NIA in February 2009, Gavin’s debut was the most impressive of the trio. A cagey counterpuncher, then trained by Anthony Farnell, as an amateur, he stopped eight of his first nine punching for pay, routinely creasing the opposition with vicious body shots.
However, 2011 proved his annus horribilis. Isolated in a Manchester bedsit, depression crept in and he sought comfort in junk food which caused his weight to fluctuate and his form to dip. Simultaneously, he was plagued by a chain of family related problems that would test the resolve of the hardest men.
The abyss came in October of that year when he cried off on the eve of one of my promotions which he was set to headline. It’s no secret that I was pissed off with him.
Hopefully, those problems are now past tense. He is back living at home, back with his amateur coach Tom Chaney who tolerates no nonsense, and back to the evasive ring style that made him, quite literally, untouchable fighting the globe’s finest amateurs. His mind, he insists, is clear of demons and he is primed to fulfil his boundless potential.
I sincerely hope so. Last time out, Frankie nailed the British title with a solid performance – but in a lack lustre fight – to cop a landslide decision over the Chairman of the who needs him club, Sheffield’s ultra negative Junior Witter.
Next Friday, at a sold out Walsall Town Hall, I expect the pride of Brum to really sizzle in his maiden defence against tough local challenger Jason Welborn. It’s imperative Gavin delivers a performance that gets the industry drooling over him again.
Unbeaten in 14, rated eighth by the WBO and with the fabulous National Indoor Arena crying out for a local star to fill it, all is in place to make a big drive to the world title this year.
If Frankie fails to scale the summit, it’ll not be for lack of ability, simply the man looking back in the mirror.
One of boxing’s good guys Mick Jelley celebrates a half-century in boxing this year. The Bury ABC trainer moulded a young Amir Khan - who he describes as his Red Rum after the triple Grand National winning horse - and opted to stay in the amateurs when Khan turned pro. He took over the club in 1962 from his father who founded it in a garage in 1936 and has coached thousands of youngsters since then. Jelley, who's spent thousands of pounds of his own money and all his spare time on the sport, said, "It's my hobby. I've taken days off work, days off unpaid, taking lads to boxing shows. I've always said, if I'd been paid an hourly rate for what I've done in this sport, I'd be a millionaire, maybe a double millionaire." He is one of the sports unsung heroes. **** Yesterday I won the purse bid to stage the European Super-Middleweight title clash between George Groves and Mohamed Ali Ndiaye. Victory for Groves will see him add the European title to the British and Commonwealth Championships he has already won.
That will give the Hammersmith star home advantage when he challenges for the title against Ndiaye who's a tough Senegalise based in Italy and has never been stopped in 23 fights.
On Monday I'm set to announce a huge show to take place in March featuring Groves alongside some of the other big names under my banner. It will be like a grand slam of boxing with plenty of titles on the line in an exciting night of action. Stay tuned.
I know recycling is important in this day and age, but surely Audley Harrison and Martin Rogan can't be recycled again?
The previous Prizefighter winners are being rolled out again in the tough man tournament next month.
If you need reminding, Harrison was blitzed in 87 seconds by David Price and Rogan was stopped by Tyson Fury last year.
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