Of all the forms of entertainment that capture our culture, sport is the one most defined by moments. Actors aren’t defined by one performance on one night, comedians don’t make a career out of one joke on one stage and musicians don’t become icons because of one show. But in one moment, athletes can create an image that echoes through sporting history, and define their legacy. When Anthony Joshua stood over a knocked-out Wladamir Klitschko, he undoubtedly created one of those moments: https://twitter.com/TelegraphSport/status/859068399665774592
It was a genuinely iconic sporting moment. The pinnacle of a fight that captivated sporting culture. It placed boxing back right at the heart of the mainstream, giving the sport a platform it now so rarely enjoys. Anthony Joshua’s win gives him a chance to become Britain’s biggest sporting star, and possibly our first Billion Pound Boxer. For those invested in the game, Joshua represents perhaps the best hope in decades to revitalise a sport that has been in consistent decline. Joshua has the charm, the looks and the talent to become a sporting icon. But I’m afraid to say even he won’t be the one to save boxing, because it faces an overwhelming challenge that goes beyond one man.
Boxing is a bit like Rock and Roll. At one time both dominated the culture. In the 60s and 70s the biggest sports stars on the planet were boxers. Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, names that transcended the sport. In the same way there was a time when all the biggest selling bands were Rock and Roll bands. But today, both boxing and Rock and Roll have regressed from the culture. Yes, both are still wildly popular to their respective audiences. Devoted fans will still queue for hours for tickets to a fight or gig. There will be moments, a mega fight or a popular album, when both touch the mainstream again. But for the most part both have become sidelined, closer to niche interests than the mass cultural movements they once were.
A commonly cited reason for Boxing’s massive drop in popularity is the confused nature of the sport. 4 official governing bodies and 17 weight classes, some in the sport put the estimate for number of belts currently in circulation at 6000. 6000! This confused structure makes it far harder to draw in fans who aren’t engaged with the sport on a daily basis. You can get the big peaks with fights with big names, but how can you expect a casual fan to follow the smaller fights and title machinations when the structure is so confused?
But Anthony Joshua it is claimed, could change all of that. With one flag bearer, and perhaps with some administrative re-structuring, the sport could propel itself into the mainstream. Promoter Barry Hearn has been quoted saying that Joshua could be ‘The Tiger Woods of Golf’. It’s a nice soundbite and it’s not unheard of for one transformative athlete to change the course of a sport.
Certainly Tiger did inspire a whole generation of golfers, but the game itself is only now really embracing true innovation. And as this excellent article explores, what Tiger changed is up for debate.
Because as the article examines, when a black kid from California won the 1997 Masters in Augusta Georgia, it looked like it could be a new beginning for a sport that has been overwhelmingly a white man’s club. The sport has certainly moved on, particularly with women’s access to the sport and with new markets getting exposed to the game, but Tiger hasn’t knocked the door down for a new generation of black golfers. All of which is to say, the ‘Tiger Woods effect’ is undoubtedly a thing, but in of itself, it isn’t enough to enact widespread change. Especially when Boxing faces an insurmountable obstacle that even an ‘Anthony Joshua effect’ won’t be able to overcome.
It’s an issue that fans of the NFL and rugby will recognise, and an issue that I believe will forever be a barrier to boxing returning to the mainstream. The last ten years has seen a huge increase in knowledge of the effects of repeated impact to the head on brain injuries. The NFL has paid out billions of dollars to settle law suits related to head injury induced brain damage. Rugby too has had to take a serious look at its rules in the light of the growing significance of the issue. Even football isn’t immune from the conversation, with some pointing to the effects of heading a ball from an early age. So at a time when even heading a football is scrutinised for the effect on the human brain, how can we realistically expect that a sport that is fundamentally about one human pummeling the head of another with the violence that we saw from Joshua and Klitschko truly re-enter the mainstream. The NFL has already seen participation numbers drop with parents choosing different sports over concern about their child’s welfare. Rugby may well face the same problems. For some, this shouldn’t be an issue. We all have free will they say, those getting into the sport know the risks, and yet still many are willing to take part. But if the sport wants to have the explosion Barry Hearn seems to predict, it can’t afford even 20% of parents to decide that it’s just too dangerous for their children. It wasn’t an issue in the 60s and 70s when boxing was in its heyday, but it certainly is now.
I truly believe Anthony Joshua can become one of Britain’s most transcendent athletes. He has all the attributes that turn an athlete into a superstar, the sort of charismatic and brilliant performer brands queue up to be associated with. But it won’t be enough to return boxing to its former glory. Today’s new awareness about the dangers of the sport prevent it penetrating all corners of culture. And without a constant flow of new people joining the sport, it will never reach its former mainstream glory. It will stay as a specialist interest, an extreme sport that many will always stand by, but will never captivate the entire culture. For now, boxing will have to settle for the occasional weekend like the one we just had, with its transcendent star capturing the collective consciousness for a few days, before its casual fans return to everyday sporting lives.