By Alan Hubbard
“Funny old game!” Such was the favourite aphorism of goalscoring genius Jimmy Greaves, deservedly, if belatedly, awarded an MBE at almost 81 in the New Year Honours.
Of course Greaves was talking about football and he did not mean funny in the Morecambe and Wise mien; less of whimsy, more of irony. The same can be said of boxing now as the bell sounds for round two of its fight against the pandemic.
Consider this: Last year and British boxing’s most enduring impresario Frank Warren led the battle as the first to take fisticuffs behind closed doors in a series of quality tournaments culminating in that celebrated ‘holy war’ at the Church of England headquarters in London’s Westminster. He was followed by other promoters with similar tenacity of purpose in keeping the sport alive and punching.
Here’s the irony. As the year neared its end 68-year-old Warren himself became seriously ill with the coronavirus, being hospitalised for eight days and, as he says fighting for breath – and ultimately his life. And to underline just what a funny old game it is, ironically he was diagnosed on Boxing Day.
Back home in Hertfordshire and literally breathing a sigh of relief, he gives a timely warning to those who continue to doubt the absolute severity of this horrific disease.
“I have now experienced first hand why the rules and guidelines currently governing our lives were put in place and why it is so important for us to adhere to them,” Frank tells us.
“Unless we comply, the dedicated and hugely compassionate National Health Service (NHS) staff simply won’t be able to deliver the care and treatment to those unfortunate enough to have contracted the virus.”
Regarding the treatment he received from NHS staff, Warren added: “They were marvellous, magnificent. They really look after you.
“They’re unbelievably selfless people and you can’t underestimate how much they contribute in such a dangerous environment.
“They’re in there with people who test positive, who are suffering. It’s an insult to them that some can even doubt it, it’s an insult that people disregard the advice they’re been asked to take. All these idiots that talk about it as a hoax, I cannot believe how anyone can come up with these ridiculous conspiracy theories.
“The wards were all full, there’s no room. It’s just horrible and I was lucky. I’ve been there, I’ve seen it; one guy had been in there for five months, another had a blood clot on his lungs, they’re literally fighting to breathe. It sucks the life out of you.”
The Hall of Famer adds: “The workload these heroic doctors, nurses, orderlies, porters and administrators are currently taking on almost defies belief, while also potentially compromising their own wellbeing. These good people need us all to do our bit to prevent them exceeding capacity and not being able to administer such a high level of care.
“I would like to place on record my sincere gratitude to everyone working at the Lister Hospital in Stevenage and I so hope we have this virus totally under control before too long. People who, for some reason, question whether this pandemic is for real should spend a bit of time where I was for eight days before spreading such dangerous rhetoric.
“I know full well that I am one of the lucky ones to be back home and on the road to recovery, although it is a bit of a slow process at the moment. I am on the mend.”
Warren vows to fight on with a series of shows to keep the public’s appetite whetted, as does Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom, now that the British Boxing Board of Control’s suspension of all boxing during January to help the Government’s lockdown restrictions is being lifted.
This enables Warren to return with a blockbuster world title fight on February 27 featuring Carl Frampton attempting to become a three-weight champion, challenging American James Herring for the WBO Super Featherweight Championship.
We all know that the juiciest plum in the pie of boxing’s 2021 programme is the match-vaunted Battle of Britain between rival world heavyweight champions Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury which, one way or another, now looks set to take place in the late spring or early summer. But as the song says, who knows where and when?.
Negotiations have been in progress for this epic encounter for several months, since Fury sensationally reclaimed his confiscated WBC crown from the American Deontay Wilder and 2012 Olympic gold medallist Joshua took back his WBA, WBO and IBF belts from podgy puncher Andy Ruiz jnr and then them against Bulgarian Kubrat Pulev.
Media reports suggest that this historic bout is all but signed and sealed – but I can tell you that this ain’t necessarily so! There are still a whole array of i’s to be dotted and t’s to be crossed before the two-fight contracts are signed. Yet there are not quite as many doubts over this happening as there are over whether the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games will actually take place.
Far too much money involved – it is said the combatants will split $200 million (£146 million/€164 million) in purse money – for it not to happen this year. Ideally of course it would be before a 90,000 capacity crowd at Wembley Stadium – but this is unlikely.
Despite the escalation of the vaccination programme most medical opinion suggests the all-clear will not be sounded until at least the end of the year. Indeed, COVID-19 could be with us “for years to come”, according to Sir Patrick Vallance, the British Government’s chief scientific adviser.
Apart from the Olympics, Joshua- Fury is slotted as the biggest global sporting event of the year. “This Is why we have to get it right,” says Warren.
And to get it right there has to be a rare coalition of clout, all-round agreement between the disparate bodies involved. Another veteran promoter, Top Rank’s Bob Arum, alongside Warren, represents Fury‘s interests while Joshua, who seems to have a larger protective entourage than did Muhammad Ali in his prime, is the promotional property of Hearn’s Matchroom.
Then we come to television, which will provide the bulk of the income via pay-per-view. This side of the Atlantic competition between Sky, who screen Joshua‘s fights, and BT, for whom Fury boxes, is intense, although interestingly this week Sky’s head of boxing, Adam Smith, hinted that they may not be adverse to a shared situation.
My view is that this may well happen, with the fight taking place in Saudi Arabia in June and a contracted return at Wembley the following spring.
In the meantime skirmishes will resume indoors or in TV studios between Warren’s Queensberry Promotions and Hearn’s Matchroom next month, with undefeated former world featherweight champion Josh Warrington, who had left Matchroom to join the Queensberry army, now re-enlisting with Hearn to box on his February 13 bill.
Two weeks later Frampton, fresh from an out of court settlement following his vexatious financial wrangle with ex-mentor and fellow Ulster icon Barry McGuigan, goes for broke against Herring. If he wins – and it looks a tough ask – he will become the first Irish three-weight world champion and only the third Briton to do the hat-trick, following Glaswegian Ricky Burns and south Londoner Duke McKenzie.
So have you heard the one about the Englishman, the Irishman and the Scotsman…? Yes, it really is a funny old fight game.