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British Boxing Today: Is the Revival Real?

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There has been talk of a British boxing renaissance, with each of their 12 world champions lauded as evidence of the revival. But is that really proof that boxing is back in Britain? Paul Johnson takes a closer look.

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The British are a proud nation of beer-swilling, queue-forming, and plastic-chair-throwing louts. They go abroad to cheap holiday destinations, and they drink their own piss or stab each other. They drink tea and read The Sun. They don't like the weather, in any of its forms. They don't like immigrants. Most of them do love sport though, sometimes they even like sports that don't involve kicking an inflated bag of leather round in shorts and t-shirt. The British can really get behind the idea of boxing, because as a nation with a history that has mostly involved going around the world bashing everyone's head in and stealing their purse, they really understand what boxing is about. This is, of course, a ludicrous caricature of British lifestyle (well, maybe), but we really do love boxing. Especially right now, what with the media screaming from the rooftops about the British boxing revival, and all these decorated champions.

As a deeply unhappy, cynical soul, when I hear the enthusiasm of strangers and realise it's boxing they're talking about, I feel the desperate need to quash whatever joy they are getting from a sport they casually enjoy. It burns me up inside. What right do they have? Have they ever watched Miguel Vazquez? Or Richard Abril? No, so they don't know how tough it is to be a boxing fan. So get out of here! Ergo, in an attempt to rubbish the collective British excitement about boxing and Britain's rise to the top, I've taken to my typewriter to analyse this idea of a "British boxing revival". Is there anything to it? Or has British boxing benefitted from the alphabetti-spaghetti that is the ludicrous mess of belts on belts on belts?

The Best of Britain?

Right now, Britain has 12 "world champions". Those champions are as follows:

Heavyweight - Tyson Fury
Super-middleweight - James DeGale
Middleweight - Billy Joe Saunders
Light-middleweight - Liam Smith
Welterweight - Kell Brook
Lightweight - Anthony Crolla, Terry Flanagan
Featherweight - Lee Selby
Super-bantamweight - Carl Frampton, Scott Quigg
Bantamweight - Jamie McDonnell, Lee Haskins

With 12 world champions, it'd be reasonable to expect a number of Ring/Lineal titlists amongst the group, but as it happens, there is only one. Tyson Fury (25-0, 18 KOs). Tyson Fury, warts and all, is Britain's top boxer.

Other than Fury, there are a couple of guys with claims to being the best fighter in their division -- although some with better claims than others. I think the next best is James DeGale (22-1, 14 KOs).

James DeGale seems to divide opinion a little. But that tends to be more about whether he's a complete tool or not, rather than opinions of his boxing ability. I happen to think he's funny, and I kind of like him, and I also think he's a cracking boxer.His assets-- just enough awkwardness to be difficult to cope with, a bit of speed and power, and a well-schooled amateur career -- help James overcome what appears to be either or both of laziness or a concentration problem. The one big stain on James's abilities is that he seems to drift off in fights and coast. He's nearly thrown a few away because of it (the Dirrell fight being the most recent example), and it's something he needs to address. In any case, with Ward no longer campaigning at 168, I think DeGale is the number one guy at Super Middleweight. The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (probably the most neutral source for ranking fighters) still has Andre Ward as the kingpin, but clearly he's moved on to 175, whilst they also have Arthur Abraham above James. I can understand the thinking, but personally I see DeGale as the best 168lb fighter in the world right now.

Then there is Kell Brook (35-0, 24 KOs), who despite taking the time to bash in a handful of haplessly overmatched opponents since gaining his title in a cracking win against Shawn Porter, does appear to be one of the very best at 147. He's been campaigning for the big fight with Amir Khan (31-3, 19 KOs), and having failed to get it, I'm hoping to see him challenge himself against the likes of Garcia, or Keith Thurman. Brook might be the best at 147 (outside of Floyd and Pacquiao, who are either out the door or on their way), but we won't know until we've seen him prove so.

Of the rest of the list, McDonnell, Frampton and Quigg are amongst the best in their division. But they also have guys standing firmly in their way, although they're making claims to being the best.

Jamie McDonnell (27-2-1, 12 KOs) is ranked 4th by TBRB, and holds the "regular" WBA title, whilst the actual WBA champion is Juan Carlos Payano. Carl Frampton (21-0, 14 KOs) and Scott Quigg (31-0-2, 23 KOs) are in a battle for who is the best Super Bantamweight not named Guillermo Rigondeaux. Scott Quigg's title is as bogus as they come, lifting it from Rigondeaux without ever actually beating him (because he can't). And Frampton, similarly, talks of feeling sorry for Rigondeaux, yet so far has done his best to avoid ever fighting him. Guillermo is the No. 1, the rest are just posturing.

Flanagan, Selby and Saunders were all left out of the "amongst the best" list, but are not far off. Terry Flanagan (29-0, 12 KOs) is difficult to measure. He's looked like a quality fighter, and recently announced himself on the world stage by decking Magdaleno in short order. However, he's still far from being the best fighter in his division, and he'll need to add a lot more names to his resume. But there's potential there and the guys above him (Zlaticanin and Linares) would be great tests for him.

Lee Selby (22-1, 8 KOs) won his featherweight title by beating Gradovich in 2015, but TBRB ranks him behind Vetyeka and Lomachenko, two fighters I'd bet on to beat Selby. With Santa Cruz, Mares and Russell Jr. in the mix as well, Selby is a good fighter amongst other good (and probably better) fighters.

Billy Joe Saunders's (23-0, 12 KOs) victory over Lee deserves credit, as do a few of his domestic scalp-takings over guys like Eubank Jr, John Ryder and Nick Blackwell; however, if Saunders were to face consensus 160 kingpin Gennady Golovkin, you would be hard pressed to find a fight fan -- even those native to Billy Joe's shores -- who would pick him to go the distance, let alone win. He's just not on that level, so much so that he actively avoided GGG in order to keep his title and try to develop further. I don't really blame him, but it's indicative of his standing in the division. He's probably around the same level as Danny Jacobs. Good, but if he were to fight for the top spot at 160 he'd get decked.

The remaining world champions are Lee Haskins (32-3, 14 KOs), Anthony Crolla (30-4-3, 12 KOs) and Liam Smith (22-0-1, 12 KOs). Crolla is British boxing's good guy. We all want him to succeed, and it's great that he's claimed a title. His next fight will be against Ismael Barroso. Potentially a tough ask for him, although if he gets by Barroso he's likely to be up against Flanagan next. Crolla, however, doesn't even crack the TBRB top-10 at lightweight. I'm not sure I agree (I'd see him sneak into the bottom of the list), but it's indicative of any claim he might have to being a top dog at 135. Similarly, Lee Haskins sneaks in at 10th in the Bantamweight division, whilst Liam Smith also misses out on the top-10. Liam Smith, for me, is an indication of how I feel about the claim that these 12 world champions are proof that Britain is taking the boxing world by storm. Liam Smith is a world titlist. Take a moment to think about that. Does that scream ‘BRITAIN IS BACK BABY' to you? Or does it say something about the politics of boxing and the nonsense titleholders we get from time to time? One of the Smith brothers is likely to summit the heights of their division in coming years. But his name is Callum, not Liam.

So by my reckoning, there are Tyson Fury, James DeGale and maybe Kell Brook who have a shout at being the best in their division, plus the likes of Flanagan and Frampton, who are at least amongst the best; but there are also titleholders such as Liam Smith and Lee Haskins, who have yet to demonstrate they belong in a list of boxing's best.

As further demonstration of where this era places in recent British boxing history, in October 2012, there were 15 British boxers in the TBRB rankings. Today, there are 15 British boxers in the TBRB rankings.

So it seems clear to me the titles don't show a revival of any real substance, but it would be remiss to look only at the titleholders and not to look at some of the big name guys in British boxing that are currently without a world title, and of course, at some of the prospects on their way up.

The Rest of Britain

The Well-Known

British boxing also has a few up and coming darlings that may go on to add to the number of titleholders, plus some old stalwarts that also deserve a mention.

Amir Khan, of course, recently shocked the world by deciding to take on Canelo Alvarez for the 155lb title (that doesn't actually exist). Frankly, I don't see any way that Khan wins, but fair play for taking the fight, and there's no doubting that Khan is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) name in British boxing. He's also one of the best. We all love to give Khan a hard time, but he does have skills.

The other big names without titles are David Haye (27-2, 25 KOs) and George Groves (22-3, 17 KOs), both of whom have recently joined Shane McGuigan's stable. I remain unconvinced by the Haye comeback, but there's no doubting he brings a bit of excitement to the heavyweight division, and I wouldn't be shocked if he picked up a title of sorts. Groves, on the other hand, is trying to rekindle the form he showed in the first half of the first Froch fight, and I'm sure he'll have a couple other shots at titles, but I'm not convinced we'll ever see his best again, and I don't know that he'll ever claim a world title. The same could be said of Martin Murray too, who also deserves short mention as a British name.

But my favourite contender/name in British boxing who could join the list of champions is Derry Matthews (38-9-2, 20 KOs). Derry Matthews might win a title if he manages to beat Terry Flanagan. Wouldn't that be a funny demonstration of how easy it is to win a title for a Brit in 2016? If you've not seen Derry Matthews before, go check him out, because he's entertaining and gets in some good scraps. I really like Derry, and I really respect him, but he is not in most people's minds as a world champion level fighter.

Prospects

Let's go from big to small with the prospects, purely because the name that will come to everyone's mind when you say "British prospect" is obviously Anthony Joshua (15-0, 15 KOs). The big muscle-bound hunk is going to be the best boxer in history, so obviously he deserves a mention. Or, if you're a little closer to the earth's stratosphere than that slimy gimp-in-a-suit Eddie Hearn, Anthony does look like the business so far. I'm not sure what his ceiling is, because he's very static and robotic in his approach, and when he fights someone that fights relaxed (Luis Ortiz, for example) that might come back to haunt him, but he has monstrous power and he seemed to cope well with adversity when facing it against Whyte. I'm really looking forward to seeing Joshua's career play out, whether it ends up following the Bruno, Lewis or even the Price mould, I'm sure it'll be exciting. I'm hoping for Joshua to keep learning and develop his skills a bit more, and perhaps trim down his oversized freakish body so that he can actually move a little easier, and then we might have a serious Wembley stadium-filling draw on our hands.

Callum Smith (18-0, 13 KOs) is the next prospect on the sliding scale of big beefcake--to possibly a 12-year-old, and he's definitely one of the most exciting British prospects. He's fighting in an eliminator later in the year, and at 168 I don't see many names left that he wouldn't at least trouble. He's very technically proficient, if not a little predictable at the moment, but with time I could see Smith being one of the very best at 168 (and potentially 175 later in his career). TBRB currently don't have him in their top 10, but I'd expect that to change pretty soon.

Chris Eubank Jr. (21-1, 16 KOs) also deserves mention, although I find him hard to judge. He's clearly got physical gifts, and some skill, but he's a complete tool at times, and that seems to hold him back. Much like Saunders, if he were to fight the very best at 160, I think he'd get wrecked. But I think he has a potentially higher ceiling than Saunders, if he sorts himself out and stops behaving like a muppet when he steps through the ropes.

Leaving the best till last, even though Luke Campbell (12-1, 10 KOs) lost his most recent fight to Yvan Mendy, I really think he is the most exciting prospect in British boxing today. He was the standout amateur for Team GB before and during the London Olympics, and on turning professional he's been drawing big crowds in his hometown of Hull. His loss to Mendy didn't seem like him, looking flat, fighting a bit like he was back in the amateurs, pushing his punches and lacking the ability to adjust. But that fight should hopefully be a huge learning experience for such a talented boxer, one who could go on to big things. His '0' is gone, but I'm confident Campbell can go on to be the best Britain has to offer.

This handful of prospects are quality future professionals, all with varying degrees of hype behind them. None of them really jump out to me as proof that British boxing is on the rise, but they at least show that British boxing is still in a healthy state. But how about if we dive even deeper into the prospect category, and look at the British amateurs?

Amateurs

There is a lot to be said about the amateur system, and I'm sure analysis of British boxing's amateur system could be thousands of words long on its own, so I'll try and rein it in a bit on that front.

In 2012, Team GB won 5 medals at the London Olympics, 4 of which were men (the 5th being won by Nicola Adams). They were 2 golds (Anthony Joshua and Luke Campbell), 1 silver (Fred Evans), and 1 bronze (Anthony Ogogo). There are hopes that in 2016, GB will improve on this medal haul, but it is difficult to see where these medals will come from, despite a 44.5% increase in funding since 2012.

Currently, there are only 4 men's amateur boxers from Team GB that are ranked in the top 10 at their weight by AIBA. That said, the GB amateur system is clearly producing a pretty regular stream of prospects. There were more than ever coming out of the system after 2012, and whilst I remain skeptical about improving on this, there is still a handful of top British amateurs that will turn pro after the Olympics, and the odds are we will see some of those go on to great things as professional fighters. Whilst we will have to wait and see how they fare in this summer's Olympics, there is evidence to suggest that a British boxing revival has occurred in the amateur ranks, but I think it would be hard to make a case that that has really resulted in any major changes in the professional ranks.

The Bright Lights of British Boxing

So, having attempted to chuck water on the fires of enthusiasm surrounding British boxing, I'm going to channel my inner M. Night Shyamalan and throw in a late plot twist. I think there is a British boxing revival, but it's not in the ring. It's in the stands, and the armchairs, and in Eddie Hearn's bank account.

Boxing, as we are constantly reminded, is a business, and in recent years the Brits have been making good at that business. There have been record attendances and plenty of money flying around the British boxing scene. Where once we might have seen prospects fighting in our local leisure centre, or even more humiliatingly, our local shopping centre, now they are filling arenas and getting good TV numbers.

And of course, boxing being an intensely political sport, money means power. The increased interest in the sport here in Britain, and the resulting money and exposure means that British fighters have more sway and better negotiating power with sanctioning bodies. It means they are better able to position themselves for world titles and, hence, we currently see 12 British World Champions, even though some have no right to call themselves the best in their division.

I've seen little evidence of any great dominance of British fighters, and instead it looks to me like Britain remains a force in the sport relative to the size of the country, and not dominating the bigger nations in the ring. We have some good, some bad, and some ugly (Fury could conceivably fall into all three categories); so it's just the same as it usually is. In short, British boxing is healthy, but it's only as healthy as ever as far as skills and excellence go. But if you look to the money behind the sport? Or the media coverage? Or attendance and viewing figures? That's where the revival exists. Boxing is back in the minds of Brits, and it's becoming a big (-ish) sport again. Of course, that has the potential to lead to a revival in the ring too, though that isn't the case just yet.

That shouldn't stop you from wielding the Union Jack like a nationalist pig, though. Where would this country be without displays of ill-informed claims of greatness? Why should we be humble and recognise our place in the world as anything less than the very greatest? We're British, when has being reasonable ever stopped us taking over the world? Britain is back, and we're looking to bash your head in! Unless you're Guillermo Rigondeaux, in which case none of us are in, but Jazza Dickens over there can take a message and maybe we'll get back to you.