Katie TaylorViewing a recent documentary series on Muhammad Ali via the BBC iPlayer, I was reminded how boxing bouts were once central to the lives of even those for whom a sporting event is usually a TV schedule-disrupting irritant. Ali’s appeal transcended the hardcore pugilistic following, as the huge ratings his fights attracted proved; his trilogy of battles with Joe Frazier between 1971 and 1975 and the 1974 ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ with George Foreman were grandstand occasions that the majority of the globe tuned in to watch; Ali’s irresistible force of personality undoubtedly did more than any other boxer to make boxing one of the world’s most popular spectator sports, and arguably saved it from extinction when many American States were contemplating banning it from their borders on the grounds of the brutality that his balletic grace helped redefine. Since his heyday, however, the sport has largely retreated back from the frontline of terrestrial television prime-time, kidnapped by the pay-per-view marketplace and removed from the free-to-air arena; the average person today would probably struggle to name a current world champion, let alone whichever woman holds the equivalent female titles.

If boxing itself has diminished in importance for those members of the public that would once settle down to watch Ali in the same way they’d nowadays tune in to some vacuous TV talent show, the women’s version of the sport seems to only be of interest to the already-converted – though this is fairly routine where television audiences are concerned. The BBC’s insistence on referring to the world’s oldest club football contest as the men’s FA Cup Final emphasises the investment the Corporation has made in the women’s game, yet the latter remains a minority interest, regardless of the disproportionate coverage it receives from our national broadcaster. Women’s boxing, on the other hand, is exclusively in the hands of the subscription services that half-inched boxing around 20 years ago, and as a consequence its stars are heroines to the devoted and largely unknown to the masses.

Listening to ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ for the first time in quite some time this morning, I was introduced to Katie Taylor, an Irish female boxer I learnt is the current undisputed world lightweight champion; a sportswoman evidently well-schooled in sports still regarded as the prime domain of men – she used to be a footballer – Taylor solidified her status a couple of weeks ago by defeating Puerto Rican-born Amanda Serrano at the ancestral home of boxing, New York’s Madison Square Garden. Just as staging the Ireland Vs Italy fixture of the 1994 World Cup in NYC was a guaranteed stadium-filler considering the potential audience of Irish and Italian-Americans the Big Apple could call upon, Katie Taylor sealing her reputation as one of the greatest female pugilists on the planet in the same city was a masterstroke in ensuring pre-fight interest in a sport few beyond the dedicated pay much attention to.

You might not know it due to the factors already mentioned, but history was made at Madison Square Garden when Taylor fought Serrano, for it was the first time the prestigious venue had made a women’s bout the main event. The BBC’s Steve Bunce was a ringside witness to this watershed moment in women’s boxing and reviewed the spectacle with unbridled verve on ‘From Our Own Correspondent’, enthusing the event was the first time two women had earned a million bucks each for a fight. Taylor was defending her lightweight crown she owns – as of 2019 she is one of only eight boxers (male or female) to be the simultaneous holder of all four major world titles – and her opponent was perhaps the sole fighter capable of offering her a serious challenge. From everything I could gather, this is a sporting rivalry on a par with many others that have pulled in the punters over the years – indeed, 19,187 spectators packed the staidum on the night, underlining the fact that this occasion captured unprecedented attention, as did the 1.5 million watching online at the same time. Thousands of Katie Taylor’s countrymen and women had flown in from the Emerald Isle to be present at the fight and no doubt all the Irish-American communities embedded in the USA’s urban enclaves sent plenty representatives to cheer ‘their girl’ on. Similarly, the fact Amanda Serrano was raised in Brooklyn meant she could regard Madison Square Garden as a home venue; it seems no more apt location could have been chosen.

Such was the level of hype surrounding the fight, even the Empire State Building was illuminated by the colours of the Irish and Puerto Rican flags respectively on the night; and it’s perhaps telling that a sport starved of the characters it could call upon in Ali’s heyday has been revitalised by two women when the men have summarily failed to prompt the same kind of reaction in recent years. By all accounts, the fight itself was worthy of the hyperbole, with Taylor retaining her titles via a split decision points verdict at the end of ten titanic rounds; Steve Bunce on ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ described the tenth and final round as possibly being ‘one of the greatest rounds ever to be fought in the Garden…I have never, in 35 years at ringside, seen such scenes – emotion and chaos. It was breathless stuff. At the final bell, they fell into each other’s arms, bloody and exhausted, cut and bruised and smiling.’ Bunce calls Katie Taylor the greatest female boxer of all time, and listening to his enthusiastic description of the fight and of the two fighters made me wish I’d seen it – or even been aware of it before it actually happened.

Watching the aforementioned Ali series evoked the excitement his fights used to embody back in the day – great television events enjoyed by the whole viewing population rather than merely those prepared to pay extra for the privilege of tuning in. Making any sport available to the causal viewer as well as the one devoted enough to fork out for a subscription fee is essential in transforming its practitioners into household names, and maybe I’d have already have heard of Katie Taylor had her fight been in the hands of terrestrial broadcasters, or even if terrestrial broadcasters had never lost the rights to screen big fights in the first place. As it is, the decision of the boxing authorities – as with the cricket authorities – to throw their lot in with the satellite money-men a couple of decades ago removed the sport from my eye-line and my interest in it evaporated. To be honest, I wouldn’t even know if ITV or the BBC had shown the Taylor-Serrano fight, so detached am I now from boxing. The fact I was drawn to watch a series on a boxer unlike any other is more a testament to Ali’s enduring position as a pop cultural giant as opposed to a mere participant in a sport I’d long since drifted away from.

I suppose one significant factor in the publicity afforded the Taylor-Serrano rivalry is that two natural-born women have put one overlooked women’s sport on the map for all the right reasons. These days, when women’s sports usually grab the headlines it tends to be for all the wrong reasons. The farcical situation whereby underachieving male cyclists, weightlifters and swimmers proclaim themselves to be women and are then given a free pass into the female arena – only to utilise their physical advantage and suddenly reinvent themselves as world champions – has reduced many women’s sports to a laughing stock. And whenever genuine sportswomen raise voices to protest against the unfairness – even an unarguably supreme female athlete such as Martina Navratilova – they are shouted down by the fanatical trans-harpies and subjected to levels of abuse and harassment that bear more than a passing resemblance to the old-school misogyny their endeavours had helped eradicate. For now, however, at least the ring is free from the insidious virus of Identity Politics – only for now, though.

© The Editor




AliI held this back for a few hours for fear that the regular obituary section of this blog may well paint me as the Grim Reaper’s PR man; but it’s hard not to acknowledge the passing of another giant of late twentieth century pop culture now that the death of Muhammad Ali has been announced. I use the phrase ‘pop culture’ rather than mere ‘sport’, for Ali was – like his near-contemporary George Best – one of those remarkable personalities sport occasionally throws up, those whose massive impact transcends a pastime that enraptures as many as it alienates.

The fact that his first four years in the public arena – from winning gold as an 18-year-old at the 1960 Olympics to capturing the world heavyweight boxing crown in 1964 – were lived under his birth name of Cassius Clay is something those of us who grew up knowing him only by the name he adopted shortly after his unexpected defeat of Sonny Liston can easily forget. I still think Cassius Clay is one of the greatest names a boxer has ever possessed; it evokes images of an Ancient Greek athlete immortalised in Colossus of Rhodes-style statues, a God amongst men. If Ali was a God, there were undeniably many times when his feet consisted of clay, Cassius or not; but he certainly towered above the competition for headlines in the 60s and 70s through force of both talent and ego, not to mention the saving grace of his humour.

It’s funny to think now that everything that later endeared him to the British public worked against him when he first swept into the country for his fight with Our ‘Enry in 1963; portrayed as a loud-mouthed and too-cocky braggadocio needing to be taken down a peg or two, the nation rejoiced with a collective punch in the air when a punch from Cooper floored the arrogant Yank in the dying moments of round four. It proved to be short-lived joy, but Ali never forgot Cooper was one of the few opponents to send him crashing to the deck when he was in his youthful peak and a firm friendship between the two formed thereafter.

Ali’s shock triumph over Liston in 1964 wrote his place in the history books as the then-youngest ever world heavyweight champion, but if America thought this ‘boy’ was going to adhere to the rule book now he wore the Lonsdale belt, it was in for a surprise. Ali converted to the controversial Nation of Islam movement more or less immediately after beating Liston and the name change came, even if it took a long time for the public and the media to truly acknowledge it. Ali’s association with Islam was often contradictory – and there’s no doubt his recruitment to the cause was exploited by others within it; but for him it seemed to serve as a bulwark against the racial discrimination he’d experienced all his life. Famously refused service in a segregated hometown diner upon returning from Rome in 1960, despite wearing his gold medal round his neck when taking his seat, Ali tarnished a degree of his popularity in the States by becoming an articulate spokesman for the civil rights battle and then for refusing to be drafted to Vietnam.

Exiled by the boxing authorities and stripped of his world title, Ali spent four years as a wandering showman effectively participating in exhibition bouts until the ban was lifted and he returned to the ring in the early 70s. By then, other gifted boxers, particularly Joe Frazier, had moved into the space vacated by Ali and were not willing to surrender it upon his comeback. The rivalry between the two, though regularly given a humorous edge courtesy of Ali’s theatrical ribbing, soon developed into genuine hatred on Frazier’s part, something that reached its apogee with the gruelling ‘Thriller in Manila’ of 1975, a clash of titans that neither man ever really recovered from. But when Frazier inflicted the first professional defeat on Ali in their inaugural encounter in 1971, it appeared as though Ali had a good deal more catching up to do than he’d anticipated if he was to recapture the crown.

Not until the legendary ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ with another intimidating newcomer, George Foreman in 1974 did Ali regain the world heavyweight title, ten years after his defeat of Sonny Liston. From that moment on, Ali sealed his membership of the elite pantheon of individuals who are known to the public in virtually every country on the planet, a position he retained for the rest of his life. Ali fights on TV in the 1970s were major events, cup finals that everybody seemed to tune into, and to children in particular, Ali was an undoubted hero, the Man. Even when Bradford’s Richard Dunn fought Ali in 1976, I wanted Ali to win it – which he did, of course. Waiting to hear Ali’s pre-fight opinion of his opponent was as eagerly awaited as the fight itself; the whole spectacle was a fantastic circus that even filled cinemas in the days when fights taking place in the early hours were beamed live to your local Odeon.

Ali’s shock defeat at the hands of virtual unknown Leon Spinks in 1978 was to a young audience unimaginable, with the world only resuming its correct axis following a rematch seven months later, a fight that resulted in Ali’s record-breaking third capture of the world heavyweight title. And that should have been that. But, sadly, it wasn’t. A public unwilling to accept his retirement and the lure of the dollar persuaded Ali back into the ring when the physical damage of almost two decades as a professional pugilist was already taking its toll. By the time he was pulverised by Larry Holmes in 1980, the 38-year-old was a shadow of himself, with the onset of Parkinson’s syndrome making the fight the worst possible advert for a sport that has as many critics as fans.

In his later years, Ali became the curator of his own legend, still drawing huge crowds whenever he appeared in public, despite his increasing frailty; the passage of time – not to mention the paucity of superseding personalities able to fill his shoes – served to gloss over the less endearing aspects of his life and career; and while his long illness may have physically and mentally reduced him, the size of the mark he made in the 74 years that are now at an end will most likely grow in his absence as he recedes into history.

© The Editor