There was a time when boxing in Britain on Saturday night meant Colin Dunne or Jawaid Khaliq and circuit pros like Rakhim Mingaleyev and Dariusz Snarski. The latter, solid, earnest little scrappers but unknown in their own hometowns, the former, World Champions as the term was cheaply distributed at the time. Heavyweight fights meant a butcher from Chesterfield or an ex-Rugby League player from Featherstone. ‘Event logistics’ amounted to twisting brass handles to lever basketball hoops from vertical to horizontal before Mike and his crew arrived to erect posts, canvas and ropes to the eyrie abyss. Nobody checked train schedules or whether U2 had left town.
Crowds would line up to buy tickets on the night. Squeezing their silk shirts and split skirts on to rows of plastic chairs that Chewbacca’d at the varnished floor and the primitive cubism of the painted court lines beneath. Away fighters shared plain white shorts and a single techno dance track and the crowd waited for Mike the ring man to slip off his jeans and polo-shirt in a disabled toilet, step in to a double breasted tuxedo, wait for the red light to glow on top of the camera and proclaim; “Ladies and Gentlemen.”
Boxing ran on a budget back then. A small one. In the gloom of those early days on Sky, following Olympics to which Great Britain sent but a handful of fighters and medals were as rare as back page coverage in the red tops, boxing enthusiasts craved a ‘cross over’ star. Someone who would appeal to the masses, in the way Bruno and McGuigan had, or the fights between Benn, Eubank, Watson and Collins did. Such a hero would correct the sport’s ills they suggested and save it from the oblivion it threatened to embrace.
They were difficult times and it took the verve and brilliance of Ricky Hatton, the Indian summer of Joe Calzaghe’s career and a skinny kid from Bolton to drag boxing back into the nation’s consciousness. Satellite subscribers grew in number, improving access to the wilderness boxing had occupied in the process, and terrestrial television began dipping in and out too. First via Audley Harrison and then David Haye and Carl Froch. The BBC and ITV never truly committed though, using boxing as a rebound girlfriend as they variously lost and recaptured the attention of their preferred Saturday night squeeze, Match of the Day.
In the main, it was a bleak, obscure and an often obtuse period, festooned with baubles that rubbed green beneath the gold and silver. The sport lost its way and its mainstream audience. The casuals. The general sports fans, as they were first described, event fans, as they now are.
Eventually, that transcending figure did arrive, more than a decade on mind you, and riding the crest of a wave those who struggled before him, his own talent, and the fortune of his timing created. Joshua has emerged in the finale of the Wladimir era, into the void the Ukrainian was struggling to fill alone and on the euphoria and exposure afforded him by the London Olympics in 2012.
According to Betway Insider confirmation of this status as the nation’s favourite son is likely to arrive in the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Award in December. An annual review of the sporting year, a year in which Joshua has become a towering presence, both metaphorically and literally, and an award that will hold particular resonance in 2017, as it will be the event’s 50th anniversary.
Joshua’s sculptured heavyweight frame, humility and appetite for self-improvement is empowering to witness in full flow, both in conversation and the heat of battle. The nation has learned of his colourful years as a roguish youngster, struggling to find direction and purpose, thanks to a BBC documentary which served as the mainstream garnish to a raft of similar coverage lavished on him by Sky, the platform for his Pay-Per-View career. Stories of redemption, of overcoming adversity endure with the British public and Joshua’s proclamation that boxing saved him at a crossroads in his life has resonated with people looking for hope, example and a hero.
If he does fulfil the favourite tag afforded him by Betway Insider, there will be a sense of circuitous symmetry given the winner of that inaugural prize in 1967 was a chap called Henry Cooper. You may remember him as Sir Henry, or Our ‘Enry if you’re of sufficient vintage. On his current trajectory, you wouldn’t wager against Joshua acquiring a similar prefix once the bell tolls on his career and his achievements are tallied.
Don’t worry mess’s Rakhim, Dariusz, Bonson, Krence and all those other earnest pugs of the late 90s and early 00s; I won’t forget you.