2011 has already been denounced in some quarters as an annus horribilis for British boxing. As viewpoints go, it’s a tad short-sighted and one probably informed by the nation’s dismal away record in alphabet world title fights and little more. Closer inspection reveals a bustling domestic scene packed with highly competitive and action-packed contests, many of which were attached to British, Commonwealth or European championships. Rather than being one to forget, it was in fact a year to remember on the home front.
After David Haye and Audley Harrison conspired to leave Sky Sports’ pay-per-view model clinging to a cliff face in 2010, any subsequent fiascos were always likely to threaten the finger ends. Just such an instance occurred in April, resulting in the network doing away with PPV ventures altogether. The final straw came during the Paul McCloskey versus Amir Khan promotion, a show hampered by a seemingly cursed undercard and the strange decision to host it in Manchester on a weekend when both of the city’s football clubs (and a large proportion of their supporters) would be otherwise engaged in London. Poor sales, both at the gate and via the set-top box, eventually drove the fight onto another network. It was the mess that broke the camel’s back. And it was a good thing.
Rather than having British fighters padding out pay-to-see undercards against “international” dross in gimmes and eyesores, Sky Sports (following the lead of the British Boxing Board of Control) focussed their attention instead on screening matches between the U.K.’s finest. With the exception of Mick Hennessy (who must have violated a satellite dish at some juncture) the broadcaster threw open their television dates to all manner of promoters in pursuit of the best available product -- a novel idea if ever there was one. Increased competition encouraged greater risk, which in turn gave rise to better quality contests. Fresh promotional outfits emerged and bumped shoulders in the market place, most notably Hatton Promotions and the resurgent Matchroom Sports. It was all healthy stuff.
None of this would have mattered, of course, had domestic boxing not been in rude shape itself. Almost every weight class had a fight of real quality waiting to be made.
Domestic supremacy was settled in a number of divisions. Tyson Fury outpointed an overconfident and ill-prepared Dereck Chisora at heavyweight (after David Haye had sloped off his top spot and into retirement). Oddly, Fury appeared to regress in the aftermath whereas Chisora rebounded strongly, putting a whipping on the Finn, Robert Helenius, that everyone bar the judges came to acknowledge.
Khan reinforced his local supremacy at junior welterweight with a messy and fractious victory over McCloskey, while light heavyweights Nathan Cleverly and Tony Bellew fought each other to a standstill in October, following the example of lightweights Kevin Mitchell and John Murray, whose summer showdown had set the bar so high it was almost out of reach. In September, Doncaster’s Jamie McDonnell proved himself top dog at bantamweight when he outlasted Darlington tough-nut, Stuart Hall. McDonnell’s followers were afforded great value for money in 2011 with their man also repelling Belgian menace, Stephane Jamoye, in another equally exhilarating bout.
Elsewhere, Liverpool’s featherweight boss, Stephen Smith, battled past Scot John Simpson once again only for the year’s surprise package, Welshman Lee Selby, to come out of nowhere and flatten them both. Veteran Chris Edwards dethroned namesake Paul for the national crown at flyweight before gaining revenge over Shinny Bayaar to round out the year. Yet it wasn’t only divisional summit meetings that made for compulsive viewing.
Super middleweight colts George Groves and James DeGale were thrown together far sooner than once might have been the case. Groves edged a tense and nervous encounter before bombing out Paul Smith in November. He also raised eyebrows in signing with Frank Warren, who skilfully guided DeGale to a European title in consolation for losing Britain’s most spiteful grudge match.
Junior featherweights Scott Quigg and Carl Frampton continued to round upon one another, both of them outstanding talents whose emergence may well have persuaded Rendall Munroe to embark upon pastures new (Leicester’s former bin-man has relocated to bantamweight). Quigg completely dismantled the still-useful Jason Booth in October, whereas Frampton’s mentor, Barry McGuigan, remains bullish that “The Jackal” has the beating of everyone at or around his poundage.
It was an especially thrilling year at junior lightweight. The Lonsdale belt holder going in, Gary Sykes, was involved in a brace of gripping and close encounters with Carl Johanneson and Gary Buckland, winning the first and losing the latter. European champ Stephen Foster Jr. went down in flames to the unfancied Belgian, Ermano Fegatilli, while Liam Walsh and Paul Appleby fought a heart-stopping classic to rival that which had played out between Messrs Murray and Mitchell.
The mercurial Ashley Theophane produced a pair of come-from-behind victories either side of halting Jason Cook to first win then make his second defence of the British 140 lb. crown, against Lenny Daws and Ben Murphy (with Murphy’s effort a particularly stirring one). Droylsden’s Prince Arron surprised Sam Webb at junior middleweight before being upset himself at the hands of Blackpool’s Brian Rose. Every one of those was a top fight.
Sky Sports’ good thing couldn’t last, however. Frank Warren decided to move on in September, launching the specialist boxing channel BoxNation and taking his considerable stable along with him. And while an additional source of televised boxing has proven most welcome with the sport’s watchers, it remains to be seen what this entails for the prospect of our best men continuing to face-off at domestic level. Television divides have long proven problematic for matchmakers to overcome.
And what of the more high profile disappointments which have driven many to bemoan 2011 as a poor vintage? Ryan Rhodes, Matthew Hatton, David Haye, Brian Magee, Carl Froch and John Murray were all soundly beaten in world title fights of various denominations, while Darren Barker, Amir Khan and Matthew Macklin also lost, if somewhat less royally. But was it all that bad?
It can be argued that the middleweight trio of Barker, Macklin and Martin Murray (who earned a draw against Felix Sturm) actually flourished despite coming home empty handed, while Khan and Froch have little reason to lower their heads, even if one of them could see it while the other could not amid his constant bleating about an imagined injustice. That so many were given the call in the first place surely says good things about the state of the game. And with the exception of Haye, the majority went down swinging and, as a consequence, can expect further opportunities to open up for them down the line.
Kell Brook and Ricky Burns continued to blossom, with Burns’ win over Michael Katsidis perhaps the pick of the year. Anthony Crolla remains a name to keep tabs on at lightweight -- Britain’s top set which welcomes back disgraced former featherweight force Scott Harrison into its mix alongside Mitchell, Murray and the colourful duo of Gavin Rees and Derry Matthews.
Fury invented his own genre of heavyweight slobberknockers against fellow brawlers Nicolai Firtha and Neven Pajkic and he picked up a burgeoning audience on terrestrial provider Channel Five into the bargain. And Khan and Froch did show the way to win on the road, against Zab Judah and Glen Johnson respectively and they continue to be grouped with the better fighters plying their trade in world boxing today.
It was a mess of good fights, to turn a lyric, and a bloody good year of boxing.