WHAT will you remember about the boxing year of 2022?
As always, there were enough heart-thumping moments to remind us why we gave those hearts to boxing all those years ago. Leigh Wood’s last-ditch victory over Michael Conlan was thrilling from start to finish, their efforts awe-inspiring.
We thought nobody could compete with the violent dance between Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano until Claressa Shields and Savannah Marshall locked arms to run them close.
Out in Japan, Kenshiro Teraji overcame Hiroto Kyaguchi in a pulsating affair while, in America, fighters like Dmitry Bivol and Shakur Stevenson emerged as superstars in waiting. Back home, Tyson Fury thrashed Dillian Whyte with such aplomb people were mentioning the “Gypsy King” in the same breath as heavyweight legends of the past. It wasn’t long before Oleksandr Usyk, after beating Anthony Joshua for a second time, joined that discussion.
Yet what I’ll remember the most is the morning of Friday, October 7, when I attempted to explain to the receptionist at a North Greenwich hotel why I needed an early checkout. For a number of reasons, both personal and professional, I hadn’t attended nearly as many boxing events as usual during the year, but I’d bought into the Chris Eubank Jnr-Conor Benn rivalry to such an extent that everything else – family and the pressure of endless deadlines – would have to wait. It was a genuine crossover event and everyone was watching. You could taste the anticipation in the air.
At the back of my mind I knew the weight that Eubank Jnr had to not only lose but then keep off until the day of the fight was not right. What I hadn’t remotely considered, however, was that Benn had already failed a drug test. What followed that news breaking on October 5 was worse. Far worse.
It soon became apparent that Benn had failed another test, too.
The promoters, we discovered, knew about both tests while staging lavish events to promote the fight. The British Boxing Board of Control had known, too. Their failure – or, more likely, inability from a legal standpoint – to act quicker played a huge part in the chaos, but when they declared the contest could not occur, that seemed like the only feasible conclusion. But suddenly there was a battle for power, one that the Board ultimately won, but the fact there was a battle at all, as the promoters explored other ways of staging the contest, spoke volumes about the shortcomings of our sport.
By the time the fight was eventually cancelled by the promoters on October 6, it felt like boxing and its powerbrokers, this time, had gone too far. Not because of failed tests or the fight being pulled – that should have been decided long before then – but because of the appalling, drawn-out manner in which the whole grotty affair was handled.
I felt empty and depressed. A sport to which I’d devoted my life had embarrassed me yet again. I was far from the only one feeling so low. It was like that horrific sensation one gets upon realising a relationship they’ve been in for too long was wrong all along. In that moment, as I left the hotel, it felt like the damage was truly irreparable.
Never again, I remember saying to myself. Never again.
Last week, Benn’s team of expensive lawyers and scientists handed a 270-page document to the Boxing Council (WBC) that the fighter insists will prove what the two tests most certainly did not: that he is an innocent man, or, at least, a misunderstood one. The Board and United Kingdom Anti-Doping (UKAD) are continuing with their own investigations, so we could end up with a situation where the WBC allow Benn – who gave up his British licence in the aftermath of the scandal – to be reinstated in their rankings while he’s serving a ban at home. For now, such a messy scenario is not even conjecture. It’s merely a dread.
But, whatever happens, it seems inevitable that Benn will be back. He’s already a hotter commodity in the eyes of plenty as a consequence of this whole saga. Josh Kelly is calling him out, Eubank Jnr still wants a piece. Promoters will be queuing up to stage his comeback. But if he is to return, explain why. Don’t take it personally, shut down questions, or roll your eyes when those who care about the sport are attempting to do their jobs.
There were other horror stories. The presence of Daniel Kinahan is still keenly felt, even after US sanctions were imposed against him in April. We’re told that he’s gone away for good. Yet photographs of boxers celebrating alongside known associates of the Irishman suggests he’s not really that far away, after all.
We had the Fury-Derek Chisora III debacle earlier this month in which one fighter hit another virtually at will for 10 ugly rounds. When it was all over, those who masterminded the sorry massacre stood in the ring and smiled and laughed like it was a job well done. None of them will listen to Dave Harris, head of Ringside Charitable Trust, when he asks for assistance in his crusade to help ex-boxers.
In the background, largely ignored, was the growing possibility that boxing will lose its status as an Olympic sport after the 2024 Games. Why? Woeful management at the top.
Plenty reading this will say it’s unfair to focus only on the bad. There is plenty of truth in that. What’s done is done, after all. We should focus instead on the prospects on the rise, like Adam Azim, like Ben Whitaker, like Sam Noakes, like Caroline Dubois. We should remember others who made great progress, like Chris Billam-Smith, like Hamzah Sheeraz, like Ellie Scotney, like Dalton Smith. The talent pool in this country is arguably deeper than ever before.
But it’s those fighters who we owe it to, alongside all the youngsters on the way up, to ensure the sport is as fair and honest as it can possibly be as we enter a new year.
So, though my overriding memory of 2022 comes from a bleak place, my wish for 2023 is simple, realistic and significantly brighter: That this time next year, the achievements have outshined the scandals.
There is nothing at all we can do about the shortcomings of 2022, but it’s not too late to learn from them.