By Andrew Wake:
The venue is packed to the rafters and the crowd roars its appreciation as two men slug it out in the centre of the ring. Right hooks crash into jaw bones and uppercuts send the blood flying from an already dripping nose and when it’s over one man has hand raised while the other stands forlorn.
It sounds like the scene at any boxing show but the warriors trading blows here will not make the pages of Boxing News, their exploits will not be recorded on Boxrec.
Almost every weekend, fans pay their money to get into venues across the UK to watch the noble art. However, there’s a difference to the standard fare you’ll see on televised shows.
At these cards you’ll see people standing at ringside with a pint glass in their hand rather than sitting quietly with nothing for refreshment than a quick scan through a shoddily written programme.
These shows are numerous, always well attended and considered by some to be British boxing’s dirty little secret.
Due to them not falling under the jurisdiction of the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC), these shows are part of what is often collectively known as the ‘unlicensed circuit’.
The term ‘unlicensed boxing’ suggests something that is seedy and unlawful, the kind of thing that Brick Top from Snatch would be involved in. However, nothing illegal is going on here. These shows are, in the most part at least, legitimately run by straight up business people.
Indeed, the ‘unlicensed’ tag itself is largely a misnomer. Just because it is not boxing recognised the BBBofC does not mean it is not licensed by another body.
The north west-based European Boxing Federation (EBF) and Essex’s Independent Boxing Association (IBA) are two largest sanctioning groups outside of the mainstream BBBofC set up. Each has its own rulings, its own medical procedures and its own licensing system.
The two organisations are separate companies but work in conjunction with each other when the need arises and neither is happy with the ‘unlicensed’ tag.
“We’ve got over 50 licensed promoters now and we’re a proper federation,” says EBF head Spencer Brown. “I would call what we do semi-pro boxing now because its a take between professional boxing and amateur boxing.
“We’ve got boxers who have never boxed before and they are our white collar side and then we’ve got guys who maybe never made it in the pros but still want to box at some level or they might have families and can’t physically put the time into being a pro anymore.
“People say ‘oh, it’s unlicensed’ but we license all our boxers and if someone was to ring up our licensing manager he’d be able to tell them who we’ve got and what they are up to.”
However, the standard of fights on what we shall dub ‘alternatively licensed’ shows has often come in for criticism. Stories of ex professionals knocking out novices are rife and concerns over medical practices are often cited as the reason why the scene gets so little support from the media.
Robert Smith, general secretary of the BBBofC, admits that the rise in other forms of boxing is a great worry to himself and his organisation despite it being nothing new.
Following tragic accidents involving the likes of Michael Watson, Bradley Stone and Gerald McClellan during the 1990s, the board worked tirelessly to improve both the safety and image of the sport. Thanks to financial aid from Frank Warren, mandatory MRI scans were introduced in 1997 and “safety first” has almost become a mantra for employees of the BBBofC.
But these precautions do not come cheaply and Robert Smith is worried that too many boxers and managers are turning to other kinds of pugilistic pursuits to avoid shelling out.
He explains: “To be a licensed promoter with the British Board of Control is quite expensive because of all the medical procedures we have in place. But the reason why the medical issues are there is to make the sport as safe as possible.
“It concerns me that people are doing it outside of our organisation because they want to do it cheaper. If you do things cheaper then it means the standard of medical protection isn’t as good.
“A lot of people that come from our side of boxing go into the unlicensed scene because they stopped boxing with us for a reason. It could be medical reasons, it could be disciplinary reasons or other reasons. A lot of people involved in unlicensed boxing have applied for licences with us and failed for whatever reason. A lot of it is to do with medicals.
“We’re are very lucky in this country to have the board running the sport in the way it does but of course if you want the best you have to pay and that’s life.”
Spencer Brown disputes Smith’s claims on fighters turning to his sanctioning firm as a way of dodging costly medicals or because they have failed them. The EBF also has a procedure in place and he feels that the board often overlooks this when pouring scorn on rival bodies.
“Our medicals are the same as the ABA but if a boxer is in an eight round fight then we put him through the same procedures that the board would and like the board we have a 28 day rule for boxers that have been knocked out,” Brown states.
“Of course, we don’t have all the things that the board has, but in seven years we haven’t had an accident and our referees are very experienced people because a lot of them are ex-pros.”
He also believes that the value for money his organisation’s promoters offer to fans is what is driving a change in the market. Too many lopsided and predictable prospect versus journeyman cards litter the pro game, in his view, and the EBF offers fight fans much more bang for their buck.
“A lot of our promoters have been around boxing for a long time,” Brown says. “You look at John Ashton, he was a good ex-pro and Pat Brogan used to be one of the biggest pro promoters around. We are attracting a large number of people.
“We’re converting a lot of people to boxing because the man in the street can come to our shows and watch one of his mates box. That’s got to be more entertaining for them watching a pro boxing a journeyman that has no chance. I can go to some pro shows and look down the bill and tell you everyone who is going to win. What’s more exciting?”
However, for Smith, this very thing is turning people away from the sport. In a time when titles are fractured and every Tom, Dick and Harry is seemingly able to claim ownership of some kind of title, the sport is confusing enough.
Robert Smith feels that a myriad of different sanctioning organisations, all flouting their own championships, will inevitably be to the sport’s detriment as the public loses sight of what is meaningful and what is not.
“Myself and the board have concerns over it because what the general public sees is just the word ‘boxing’ and therefore they think it is governed by us when obviously it’s not,” he says.
“Unfortunately we cannot prevent it. We’re not statutory body like an American commission is. An American state commission is put in place by the government and are employed to run various sporting organisations. We’re not like that, we’re here because on the whole our license holders want us to run the sport for them, so it’s slightly different.”
Spencer Brown does not view his EBF body as a threat or rival to the BBBofC. On the contrary, he views it as complementary organisation to the board in the same way that the ABA is.
“We encourage our champions to go pro with the board,” Brown reveals. “There’s 27 fighters currently boxing in the pros that have been on our shows and 15 of them learned to box directly through us, not the ABA.
“We are not, in any shape or form, doing anything against professional boxing and I can’t understand why the board would think of us as a threat. We want to help pro boxing, we want our lads to go to the board and turn pro.
“Johnny Greaves probably had ten fights for us and maybe 20 for the IBA before he turned pro. Tom Scott, Trevor Crewe and Carl Dilks were all good boxers for us before they turned pro and we want to encourage more.”
Despite this, Brown does admit to investigating the possibility of bring some portion of the pro set up into his organisation’s dealings.
In the past 12 months the BBBofC have take the decision to only recognise the titles of five world governing bodies – the WBC, WBA, WBO, IBF and IBO.
This means that organisations such as the newly re-founded WBU and the Aussie-based WBF cannot get their championships sanctioned in Blighty. For someone like Brown this creates a golden opportunity.
He explains: “The board won’t work with the WBF so we’ve just stated talks to do an affiliation with the WBF. That’s going into a different league but we have got fighters that can box at that level and why shouldn’t they be allowed to?
“We’re looking to get Chris Bacon a fight with Francois Botha in a big marquee in Manchester and we’re hoping to get Mark Potter a fight with Danny Williams with Michael Gomez will be on the undercard, plus a few other names that might shock people.”
Robert Smith countered: “If the WBF and all these other so-called sanctioning bodies want to be recognised throughout the world as a proper body then that’s not the way to do things.
“They are just looking for somewhere to hang their hat. They’ve not been successful with us and they’ve looked elsewhere but do they realise these other bodies have nothing to do with us? I don’t know.
“I’ve had correspondence from Australia in regard to the WBF and I’ve had a letter from someone else to do with another company which I can’t remember the initials of or even heard off, but if they want to be seen as legitimate then joined up with these unlicensed organisations is not the way to do it.”
Andrew Wake has a BA degree in sports journalism. He is a regular freelancer for the trade publication Boxing News and covers boxing for the Yorkshire Evening Post.