01 April 2008 – by Cormac Campbell
It would be nice to think that all of our boxers are world beaters who will remain unbeaten throughout their careers, winning massive fights against the most celebrated competitors in the world. Unfortunately, as desirable as this situation is, it is equally ridiculous.
Regular professional boxing in Ireland is a new phenomenon and because of this many of the sports fans are very raw recruits. As such, their expectations in many ways exceed reality.
Granted, Belfast has always loved professional boxing, but crowds at the Kings Hall and Ulster Hall are very different to those you will find anywhere else in Ireland. The Belfast crowd understands and supports boxing not just a particular boxer. Because of this, the Northern capital is about the only place that saw any sort of regular action before Bernard Dunnes Dublin debut in 2005.
Since then regular shows have taken place in the Republic. But one suspects that many of those in attendance are not members of the hardcore boxing fraternity, merely general sports fans keen on seeing what this boxing lark is all about. The new found popularity has been a wonderful and welcome development. The sport has attracted thousands of new fans. Irish boxers who previously struggled to get contests are now turning down contests such is the demand for their skills. And the pay has improved as well, with many of our best campaigning on both sides of the Atlantic and with RTE bankrolling pro bills at home.
But despite this feel good factor, one wonders just how sustainable the whole thing is. The past two years may well have been the most successful period for Irish boxing since Wayne McCullough and Steve Collins held World titles in the mid 1990s but the past nine months have brought with them major setbacks for many of our best prospects. Bernard Dunne, Andy Lee and Scott Belshaw have all lost their unbeaten records, John Duddy kept his but missed out on a title shot after picking up bad cuts in a life and death struggle with Walid Smichet.
There is little doubt that their collective stock has fallen and this will undoubtedly have a knock on effect on the industry as a whole. The poor attendance at the National Stadium for Matthew Macklins display of sound boxing skills vs Yori Boy Campas in March indicated that the general public has been buying in to the hype provided by Duddy, Lee and Dunne rather than merely a new found love for the noble art.
Thus, as appealing a fight as Macklin v Campas was to the purist, Joe Public didnt respond which would imply that the honeymoon period may well be over. Going to a professional boxing event isnt exactly cheap and punters need to feel they are getting value for money.
To put it another way – it is easier to justify parting with your money in the belief that a home boxer is on the road to a world title, quite another for a boxer whose limitations have been exposed or who you feel little connection with.
The realisation is dawning that unbeaten records can and will be lost at surprising moments and that being a boxing fan can be a frustrating as well as an exhilarating experience.
A further difficulty for the industry is that below European level, there is little in the way of titles for boxers born in the Republic to fight for. This can lead to boxers being pushed too far too fast, or others failing to climb the rankings as fast as they should simply because a vital stepping-stone wasnt in place.
And despite interesting upcoming Irish-title match-ups such as Paul Griffin v Patrick Hyland and Kevin OHara v Eddie Hyland, the domestic crown still has a long way to go before the general public acknowledges contests for it as something worth shelling out for.
The pool of talent may be better than it has been in years, but lets be honest, it isnt deep enough. And whilst Dunne, Duddy and Lee offered something exotic with their American connections, how can boxers who elect to remain in Ireland for the entirety of their careers make themselves appealing to people who dont usually watch boxing?
What we need is a viable stepping stone title that will excite the media, the boxers and the public.
One possibility is the expansion of the Celtic title, allowing boxers born in the Republic to fight for it. There are good fights to be made between Irish, Scots and Welsh and frankly it is ridiculous that only Irish boxers from the North can fight for it. Fighting for a Celtic title would provide experience and exposure whilst helping them climb the European rankings, and affording something for all up and coming boxers to aim for.
Fighting for the Celtic title would also help hammer home the message that losing isnt the end of the world. A boxer can still return from a loss to win titles and entertain, sustaining the industry.
With the success of the Magners League in rugby and the hype surrounding the soon to be launched Celtic Nations soccer tournament, the Celtic title feels like a natural title and it could allow provide the all important middle ground that is currently missing in the Irish industry. Whether there will be any movement on the matter remains to be seen but it is certainly in everybodys interests.