By Frank Warren
Cynics who insist that boxing is supposed to be a dying sport should look at what has been happening at the London Olympics this week. Unlike most events there’s been no griping about ‘empty seats’ at the fantastic ExCel Arena where even the preliminary sessions have been bursting to a capacity close to 10,000. The atmosphere created, particularly in support of Team GB boxers, has been brilliant.
And the home boxers have responded accordingly with all seven men advancing to the final 16. That’s just two victories away from a guaranteed medal.
There is growing optimism that our current squad can match, possibly exceed, the feted 1956 Melbourne Olympians, who managed a post-war record haul of five boxing medals for Britain.
Teenage Cockney flyweight Terry Spinks and Dundee lightweight Dick McTaggart struck gold while featherweight Tommy Nicholls bagged silver. Nicky Gargano and John McCormack returned with bronze medals, at welter and medal respectively.
Back then, boxers would have worked a full day before training for a couple of hours, three or four evenings a week, at their local amateur gym. They were then unleashed against the full-time ‘professionals’ of the old Eastern Bloc, Cuba and the US.
Today’s elite have been buffered by a four year £8.9 million budget, courtesy of UK Sport (co-funded by the Exchequer and National Lottery). They live and train full time within the palatial facilities at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield and have the support of an expert back up team of sports scientists. Boxers enjoy annual tax free grants far exceeding the average yearly salary. Consequently, the expectation to deliver precious metal is very high. And rightly so.
Josh Taylor became the first member of the team to go out of the Olympics after losing to experienced former World Champion Domenico Valentino of Italy.
Today, team captain Thomas Stalker gets his campaign under way. Ranked number one in the world in the 64 KG light-welter division by AIBA, the 28 year old Scouser shall be a big favourite to move into the quarter finals by taking care of India’s Manoj Kumar.
The draw has been kind to Stalker and it would be a surprise if he didn’t advance to the final. Likewise, bantamweight Luke Campbell and superheavyweight Anthony Joshua, who have both already reached the final eight.
Poster boy Joshua, a 6ft 6in, 18 stone Adonis, has already eliminated hot Cuban Erislandy Savon, a former world junior champion. The 22 year old, a sub 11 seconds 100 metre runner in his teens, hadn’t even started boxing when the 2008 Beijing Olympics were taking place yet is now primed to strike gold.
Anthony Ogogo beat Ukrainian World champion Ievgen Khytrov with a real solid performance. If he can maintain his form he should get a medal.
Amateur boxing is a crucial nursery that develops the sport’s future superstars. Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather Jnr, Wladimir Klitschko, Amir Khan and Andre Ward all shone at the Olympics over the last 20 years before igniting professional rings.
The recent return to three-three minute rounds, from four-twos, has helped restore the vested code back to a fight again, as opposed to glorified ‘fencing with fists’. It would become an even better spectacle for the fans if the participants could shed their faceless headguards.
Historically, the guards were worn by boxers during training to minimise the risk of cuts in the build-up to a contest. However, they have been mandatory in the amateur sphere since the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, when they were introduced as a knee jerk reaction to douse concerns about the safety of the sport.
For me, they simply restrict a boxer’s peripheral vision, present a bigger target and add momentum to a blow. They are unnecessary and their removal would help make the boxers more personable.
Tomorrow Britain’s three strong female squad kickstart their Olympics and all have a strong chance of making the podium. Middleweight Savannah Marshall is the reigning world champion, while flyweight Nicola Adams and lightweight Natasha Jonas currently hold European titles.
This is the first time that women’s boxing has featured as a medal event at the summer Olympics. If I’m honest, I’ve never been a huge fan. Though professional shows featuring girls have been big attractions in Germany and the US, I’ve yet to promote a women’s bout.
Last year there were reports of a woman fighting in the US when she was several months pregnant. No pregnancy tests are required for women to engage in full contact sparring in gymnasiums. Some might spout that it’s the woman’s choice but I doubt it’s the choice of the unborn child!
Nevertheless, I fully appreciate the hard graft, skills and endeavour that our girls put into the sport and clearly the home crop is very talented. They too have profited from lottery grants plus full use of the facilities in Sheffield. Training, and even sparring, with their male counterparts on the GB Podium squad has certainly accelerated their development.
Maybe women’s boxing will take on with the younger generation. I certainly wish our Brit girls well in their quest for medals.