BRITISH boxing is in rude health. I was ringside at the 02 on Saturday and it was one of those tremendous nights that showcased all that is so very good about the sport. As did the show I was at the night before in Bolton, headlined by a terrific fight for the vacant Central Area Middleweight title.
The fighters I saw on Friday will have watched the action from the 02 on Saturday hoping that one day it could be them and although it might seem a long way away at the moment the route from one to the other is well-mapped and well-trodden. I’ve long thought that one of the great strengths of British boxing is the title infrastructure put in place by the British Boxing Board of Control. It provides a ladder for its licensees to attempt to climb; one laden with meaningful titles that can be won and lost in a perilous game of snakes and ladders. The first rung on that ladder is an area title fight; if you can win one of those then you are on your way. Matt Wigglesworth, who beat Ben Sheedy on Friday to claim that Central Area Middleweight belt, was 5-0-2 when the bell went, a novice, but now he’s a champion and it changes everything. I saw him at breakfast the next morning and he told me how he’d been struggling to get sponsors, that he’d be back in work on Tuesday, but that now he’d got a belt he was confident it would be easier to get the backing that would allow him to go full time. And being a champion means making defences, which means fights, proper ones, which is what every young pro should want but that can often be hard to get. Wigglesworth is on his way and is in good company; Darren Barker started on the title trail with the Southern Area, Ricky Hatton with the Central Area to name just a couple.
The rung above that is the English or Celtic title, maybe via an eliminator first, and if you can claim either of them then you can start planning an assault on the peak of domestic boxing, the British title. Also at this point, although it’s not a BBBofC title, the Commonwealth title will become an option for a British boxer. You don’t have to go through all these steps, the only fighter I can think of off the top of my head who has managed it recently is Lee Selby, who won the Welsh Area title in his ninth fight, the Celtic title in his eleventh, and the Commonwealth and the British in his twelfth. And nor will it always go according to plan. Matt Macklin for example lost to Andrew Facey by a single point for the English title in his tenth fight and then to Jamie Moore in his nineteenth for the British title before later claiming the Lonsdale belt on his way to becoming European champion and multiple world title challenger. His fight vs Moore was a modern classic and ultimately he emerged the better and stronger for it.
Other countries don’t have this kind of title infrastructure. National titles exist but nowhere are they held in the same regard as they are here. For a continental fighter for example the first stop will often be a ranking belt with one of the four main governing bodies or maybe a “world title” fight with one of the lesser organisations. I’m not denigrating those belts but fights for them don’t come with the same intensity as British domestic title clashes, they just don’t. If you hold a British domestic title then you have something people want, which brings pressure and profile and, most importantly, big fights. To return to Darren Barker briefly, who missed out the English title but won all the other belts mentioned; when he challenged Affif Belgecham for the vacant European middleweight title in April 2010 he was 21-0 but already in his seventh title fight over 10 rounds or more (one for the Southern Area, three for the Commonwealth and two for both the British and Commonwealth) whereas Belgecham had been involved in just two title fights, one for the French title and the other for the European Union title. Barker won, and of course I’m aware that he was always expected to, he was just a better fighter, but the experience the British scene had furnished him with made a difference, there’s no question about that. In Lee Selby’s case he stepped up to European level against someone who’d been through the same system in Rendall Munroe, a former English, Commonwealth and European champ and world title challenger at super-bantamweight. Rendall was past his best but a hugely experienced fighter. He’d been in bigger fights than Selby but, thanks to his Welsh, Celtic, Commonwealth and British title challenges and defences, Selby had a lot of experience of his own to bring to the ring with him, eight fights’ worth in total.
I’m not saying it’s a perfect system; people don’t always agree with the matches the Board make and fighters don’t have to go along with them, but more often than not the fights we want to see are ordered and when a fight is ordered with a title attached to it, it greatly increases the chances of it happening. How often do you hear a promoter say that they’d have no problem making a certain fight but that it would need a title to be on the line for it to be worth it? And therein lies the bonus of having domestic titles with real gravitas. Let’s take what will be a great fight when it happens; Anthony Yarde vs Joshua Buatsi. Now, given how quickly those two are moving were we somewhere else in the boxing world we could be waiting a while for it to happen, more than likely until one or both had a world title to bring to the table, but there’s no reason why those two couldn’t meet for the British title in the next eighteen months. Why? Because the calibre and prestige of the Lord Lonsdale belt is such that, until either Yarde or Buatsi wins a world title, it’s easily big enough to own that fight.
I also know that our boxers don’t always take the world by storm when they step up from domestic level, in just the same way that their rivals from other countries aren’t prevented from developing into world champions by not having a domestic scene like ours. But fighters forged in the fires of Area, National, British and Commonwealth title battles have been tested, regularly, and have discovered things about themselves that others may not have done.
But it’s not just about the Barkers and Selbys, who move through all the levels and make it to the very top, not at all. The real beauty of the system is that all licensed boxers in the UK have an official title within their grasp, or will feel that they do, and a chance maybe to etch their name in the record books forever, as a champion. Matt Wigglesworth is Central Area Middleweight champion and you could see how much it meant to him, the celebrations in the winning corner at Area level are as wild and joyous as any you will see at any level of boxing.
Never mind styles, BBBofC titles make fights, in more ways than one.