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By Nick Kelly: It has been an impressive 12 months for British boxing, recapturing the imagination of the general public with crowds twice surpassing 50,000 and Ricky Hatton selling over one million television pay per views for his contest against Floyd Mayweather. Joe Calzaghe finally received the praise he had so clamoured for winning the BBC Sports Personality award and twice fighting at the Millennium Stadium in 2007.
Whether Hatton pulling in 55,000 for a bout of little significance is more impressive than Calzaghe attracting 50,000 for a bout in the small hours of the morning is up for debate. However it is interesting to compare the pair to a selection of bouts that made boxing such an attraction to the British population to begin with.
The most obvious place to start is the autumn 1993 rematch between Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank, up until last year the last fight to break the 40,000 spectator mark. That night 42,000 watched as the pair fought to a thrilling draw at Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United Football Club. A potential third bout could have eclipsed the attendance of the previous two, with Wembley Stadium a rumoured venue, but never came to pass.
Football stadiums have always proved suitable settings for boxing’s biggest match-ups, so it was fitting that the so called ‘home of football’ Wembley Stadium played host to boxing’s biggest star. A young Cassius Marcellus Clay faced Henry Cooper in front of 35,000 at Wembley Stadium in 1963, in his first fight outside of his homeland. Clay defeated Cooper in the fifth, as he had earlier predicted, proclaiming before the fight “if this bum goes over five rounds, I won’t return to the United States for 30 days.” He returned to the US for his shot at the world title against Sonny Liston, deemed by Ring Magazine as the fight of the year for 1964.
Clay, now named Muhammad Ali and Heavyweight Champion, would reappear in the UK two years after the Liston fight to rematch Cooper at Highbury Stadium. The stadium helped eclipse the attendance for their first fight by some 5,000 as Ali took one round longer to dismantle Cooper, a deep gash forcing the stoppage.
Anfield Football Stadium was also filled to capacity as it hosted bouts in the 30s and 40s. The battle between Freddie Miller and Nel Tarleton in 1933 saw a crowd of over 30,000 flock to the venue. Tarleton had been so keen to fight Miller that he offered to fight for free just to get his shot, whilst Miller received £2000, a significant sum at the time. The biggest highlight at Anfield came five years later when Peter Kane fought Jackie Jurich for the vacant flyweight title. An official gate recorded an attendance of 35,800 though some estimates put the figure at over 40,000. It remains the record crowd for a Merseyside boxing event.
To this day however the highest ever attendance for a fight held in Britain belongs to the match-up between Len Harvey and Jock McAvoy at the White City Stadium in London in 1938.
The pair had first met at Haringay Arena watched by just over 10,000, and was the first time boxing was to be recorded for television, although it was not transmitted to the general public. They fought for the British Light Heavyweight title, with Harvey eventually dropping the points decision after 15 rounds.
On the 10th of July 1939, just over a year after their first bout the pair met again in front of a live gate of an estimated 90,000 at the White City Stadium. Harvey climbed off the canvas in the second round ending the fight strongly to again take a points decision victory. The venue hosted many events for the 1908 Olympic Games, but has since been demolished with the site now used by the BBC.
Having accomplished a life goal of headlining Las Vegas with Madison Square Garden a strong possibility against Malignaggi, perhaps Hatton should look towards breaking the record for UK attendance at the revamped Wembley Stadium against Floyd Mayweather as his swansong. After all ,he’ll need all the support he can get if he’s to stand any chance of defeating ‘Money’ Mayweather.
May 30, 2008