As far as I can remember, I don't think we as fans really appreciated or understood how good we had things back then. It wasn't too long ago that British boxing was thriving in an efflorescence bloom. Between 2010 to 2018, those years were quite something.
Carl Frampton, Amir Khan, Kell Brook, Billy Joe Saunders, Kal Yafai, Charlie Edwards, James DeGale, George Groves, Carl Froch, Callum Smith, Tony Bellew, Nathan Cleverly, Anthony Crolla, Terry Flanagan, Darren Barker, David Haye, Scott Quigg, Lee Selby, Ricky Burns, Jamie McDonell, Lee Haskins, Ryan Burnett, Josh Warrington, Liam Smith, Tyson Fury – every man noted held a recognized world championship at some point during this time period, with some even becoming unified titlists.
Consolidating with the cream of the crop were names such as Dillian Whyte, Matthew Macklin, Frankie Gavin, Dereck Chisora, John Murray, Gavin Rees, Derry Matthews, Kevin Mitchell, Luke Campbell, Tommy Coyle, Paul Smith, Martin Murray, Carson Jones, Rendall Munroe, Ashley Theophane, Brian Rose, Stephen Smith, Ovil McKenzie and so on. If our world champions formed a constellation of stars, then these guys were the clear night sky, the canopy of talent who, despite not winning world titles, either contested for one, routinely competed at a high level, or added depth to a sparkling domestic scene.
Talent oozed across almost every division, and we witnessed some of the most defining moments in British sporting history. The medal-laden success of Team GB at the 2012 Olympic games was the most successful haul since 1920. Froch and Groves' fierce rivalry was punctuated by 70,000 in attendance at Wembley Stadium for the sequel. Tyson Fury traveled to Germany and short-circuited Wladimir Klitschko's pursuit of the most heavyweight championship defenses ever.
A world-class main event scene coupled with deep undercard depth to the soundtrack of thousands singing in unison the sport's national anthem ‘Sweet Caroline .'And as the chorus goes, that roster above puts into sharp perspective how times for the British Empire were once ‘so good, so good, so good'…
Fast forward to August 2022, and although the Empire hasn't fallen, the landscape has radically transformed. Almost every single aforementioned name has hung up their gloves or is running the final miles of their careers. Few such as Callum Smith and Dillian Whyte are still competing at a high level, and others such as Josh Warrington and Tyson Fury* remain reigning titlists. By late 2016, the UK had thirteen world champions, more than any other country. Today, there are only seven world champions – Tyson Fury*, Lawrence Okolie, Josh Taylor, Joe Cordina, Josh Warrington, Paul Butler, and Sunny Edwards.
That number could rise to eight on August 20, 2022, amidst the heat of Saudi Arabia.
After several months of speculation, negotiations, appointments with various trainers, multiple gym visits, self-reflection, step aside possibilities, public squabbles, TV rights in the air and the looming shadow of a potential undisputed clash occurring without him, former two-time unified heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua faces a do or die sequel against his most recent conqueror Oleksandr Usyk.
Yes, Tyson Fury set an all-time Wembley record against Dillian Whyte with 94,000 in attendance this past April, but significant quarters of boxing remain overly reliant on Joshua. It is the mainstream appeal, the brand, the endorsements, the story, the Olympic success – this has been a carefully crafted promotional attraction whose success in the ring could not be confined to just inside the squared circle.
Joshua's story began a decade ago this month. He was the emerging superstar from Team GB in the 2012 Olympic games; the gold medallist tipped to emulate Lennox Lewis' footsteps as the next great British heavyweight. A physique marbled from stone by the hands of Michelangelo, replete with a smile bright enough to eclipse the dark British winter months. This was Eddie Hearn's dream project. The masterplan. Marketability inside and outside of the ropes. A commercial juggernaut with crossover appeal and worldwide reach. Global domination. The face of Matchroom boxing on a quest to become the king of the sport.
From the moment he entered the professional ranks, Rocket AJ had lifted off, and his ascension showed little signs of decelerating. His stardom grew – and then it exploded on April 29, 2017. That year's consensus fight of the year vs. Wladimir Klitschko will forever be a time capsule moment. A defining war standing head and shoulders above all, it was both a watershed and seminal moment for that era of British boxing. PPV records were shattered. The previous record of 70,000 was eclipsed as 90,000 crammed inside Wembley Stadium on a starry April night.
A heavyweight war forever etched into the annals of legendary heavyweight nights. At that time, this was the apogee of an ongoing journey. The British media, malevolent masters of elevating an individual before sinking him into the Earth's molten core, embraced Joshua with tightly knitted hugs and unconditional affection. Following Tyson Fury's absence from the sport, Joshua was entrusted with the mantle of leading British boxing.
From a promotional and commercial perspective, this felt like the dawn of a new day. AJ's emergence, world championship status, PPV box office success, and media image, backed by Eddie Hearn's Matchroom Boxing which itself possessed an extremely deep roster and exclusive television rights with Sky Sports – this was a bubbling elixir of what many anticipated to be a forthcoming unparalleled success for Joshua, Hearn, Matchroom, Sky and by extension, British boxing.
Yet how times change.
That index of men we mentioned who were world champions or domestic battlers? They were the same men whom a young Joshua grew up with in the game, studying as a novice and competing on their undercards. They were the same men who welcomed Joshua's induction as world champion during his first coronation in 2016. After Joshua's fists had prefixed the ‘super' before his ‘star,' some of those fighters would, in turn, box on his undercards.
Collectively, all of those names mentioned are the faces of an indelibly painted tapestry arcing a golden spell of British Boxing. As time has passed, the portrait of this once resplendent team photoshoot is almost vacant. Upon reflection, nights like that, talent like that, and perhaps superstars like that appear to be a distant and fading mirage. The time span between Joshua's two professional losses saw almost the entirety of an era announce their retirements. With each departure, it became ostensible that there did not exist enough world-level or marketable (or even both) domestic talent to fill in the vacuum left behind.
British boxing finds itself in a bit of a flux at the moment, sat wearily on its stool, confused and stuck somewhere between implementing Plan A and listening to Plan B. This moment of unsteadiness has resulted in the quality of the free cards weakening, and the cavalcade of additional promoters all entering the British market almost at once (and taking their piece of the pie) has caused the sport and talent to become thinly spread across numerous platforms.
For a large part of Joshua's career, and for the longest time, Hearn's Matchroom and Frank Warren's Queensbury Promotions were the two promotional superpowers lording over the sport on these shores. The former was armed with an exclusive deal with Sky, and the latter also had one with Sky before establishing his channel BoxNation and signing a deal with BT Sport. Yet despite their longstanding duopoly, the field has grown in 2022. Wassermann Boxing, led by the Sauerland brothers, has marked its flag in the UK by signing fighters such as Chris Eubank Jr and Lyndon Arthur.
Probellum has also gate-crashed the UK market and signed fighters such as the Edward brothers, Lee McGregor and Troy Williamson. Both Lyndon Arthur and Sunny Edwards were signed under Frank Warrant and featured prominently on his shows yet were taken away from him from other promoters not named Matchroom. Warren brilliantly and strategically fostered a relationship with Bob Arum's Top Rank, with both veterans co-promoting their crown jewel, Tyson Fury. Still, Top Rank's UK output deal is with Sky Sports, BT Sport's domestic rival, leaving BT short of supply of overseas boxing and the ongoing struggle to ensure the Warren/BT roster is deep enough to compete.
And what of Sky Sports domestically? The sports juggernaut suffered a hammer blow as Eddie Hearn took Matchroom Boxing over to DAZN, leaving Sky almost comatose on the boxing front. Sky has since spent 2022 retooling its roster in conjunction with upstart promotion Boxxer. While it's apparent that Sky is approaching boxing with a different vision in their year of transition, the question remains as to how much more patience and time will be afforded to them by the public regarding competitive matchmaking and star power.
The standard for Saturday nights on Sky was televising at least one world title fight or a domestic tear-up filled with bad blood. We used to have events where Scott Quigg vs. Kiko Martinez was the co-main event to Anthony Crolla vs. Darleys Perez, and Josh Warrington vs. Patrick Hyland was supported by Luke Campbell vs. Argenis Mendez and Tyrone Nurse vs. Tommy Coyle, among many. Back then, prospects headlining on a Saturday night bill at primetime and whole cards filled with six and eight-round bouts were considered unthinkable and by most unforgivable, yet this is the reality of where we are today domestically. Picking up the rights to Usyk vs. Joshua II in addition to the upcoming Shields vs. Marshall undisputed clash appears to indicate somewhat that Sky has acknowledged the need to diversify their schedule of prospects with established powerhouses, yet despite this and a solid February, a lot of work remains to be done address the lack of weekly consistency and imbalance.
Hearn's departure to DAZN didn't help, and decisions embedded in reneging on past promises have sparked outrage. The DAZN war chest has guaranteed fighters more money, yet the apps' lack of mainstream presence has reduced their visibility. Fighting on Sky blesses fighters with significant exposure and an advantage that an upstart app cannot compete with. Shoulder programming at primetime, in addition to cross-promotion such as, for example, promoting Usyk vs. Joshua II during Chelsea vs. Spurs, is also promotional outreach DAZN cannot compete with.
Despite its soaring popularity in the UK, boxing itself is a concentrated sport. Unless DAZN acquires five to six genuine superstars to view on rotation, it becomes challenging to entice the casual customer to pay a monthly subscription fee in a world where consumers' attention is already being competed for by other apps. By the time 2022 is wrapped up, DAZN would have hosted at least five blockbusters – Taylor vs. Serrano, Canelo vs. Bivol, Usyk vs. Joshua II, Canelo vs. Golovkin III, and Benn vs. Eubank Jr. Only two of those fights would have been included in the standard DAZN subscription. Only one of those fights takes place in the UK, and it's the one built entirely on the history of their fathers but carried zero championship or elite-level ramifications.
Stay tuned for the second part of this deep dive by Hamza in the coming days.