Durban – Boxing was once one of the most exciting sports in South Africa, but the sport’s popularity has declined steadily over the years.
Boxers like Vic Toweel, Mike Holt, Enoch “Schoolboy” Nhlapo, Nkosana “Happyboy” Mgxaji, Levi Madi and later on Charlie Weir, Gerrie Coetzee and Kallie Knoetze attracted fans in the thousands to their fights, but these days some tournaments attract only a few hundred spectators at most.
This, however, is not only a South African trend. Worldwide, interest in boxing has slowly declined since the 1990s and today there is a lack of big names in the sport.
Famous fighters such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson used to dominate the sport and make front-page news. These days boxing receives little coverage.
Another big factor in the lack of interest in the sport is the proliferation of world bodies and number of weight divisions.
Previously, you could stop almost anybody in the street and ask: “Who is the heavyweight champion of the world?” Most times people knew the answer, whereas today there could be four or more fighters claiming to be “heavyweight champion of the world”.
There is also the increase of popularity in other sports such as football, golf and tennis, which draw big audiences and tremendous television coverage.
Soccer is a global game, and boxing has no hope of attracting fans when soccer has up to six channels on pay television showing various games from around the world at any one time.
Boxers may only have one or two fights in a year, whereas in earlier years a fighter like Henry Armstrong had 12 world title fights in one year.
Another factor is that big fights in some countries are only shown on pay-per-view, which can be costly for the ordinary fan. Also, the popularity of mixed martial arts has attracted many fans.
In South Africa the decline in both amateur and professional boxing has been more rapid than the rest of the world due to the attraction of other sports and factors outside the ring.
South African amateur boxing has a proud record in the Olympic Games, having won six gold, four silver and nine bronze medals. However, since readmission to the games in 1960, South Africa has failed to win a medal.
Of the 15 South African boxers who qualified for the games, only five advanced to the second round.
All five then lost and were eliminated.
Numerous leading professionals launched their careers through amateur boxing, but with the current Olympic-style boxing, the standard of professional boxing has declined.
When a youngster joins the professional ranks he has to learn a completely new style of boxing because of the different rules and regulations.
Amateur boxing receives minimal press coverage. There was virtually no coverage of the South African championships held in Pretoria in July. South Africa’s lack of success in the Commonwealth and Olympic games is partly due to infighting in the South African National Boxing Organisation, and ineffective provincial structures.
Many amateur clubs have become dysfunctional. In earlier years there were about 30 amateur boxing clubs in the Transvaal (now Gauteng), and in the other provinces there were many clubs.
Now there are possibly only six clubs in Gauteng, and a few others functioning around the country.
A press report in July 2011 stating that Boxing South Africa was broke and owed an estimated R8 million to Sars, is bad publicity. Having had about six chief executives since 1998 has also tarnished the image of boxing.
There were also reports from the auditor-general’s office on the “dire financial state” and general maladministration of Boxing SA.
All these reports and allegations, whether true or not, have chased the fans way from boxing. Except for the Eastern Cape and Gauteng, there has been little activity in the provinces during 2013.
KwaZulu-Natal, once a hub of South African boxing, has had no South African title fights in 2013, and the Western Cape has only had one.
Promoters need the backing of television, and with the national broadcaster not televising boxing the game has suffered and the man in the street has slowly lost interest.
However, I am of the opinion that boxing can be turned around on a limited basis despite the competition from other major sports.
This will need a concerted marketing effort by both the amateur and professional bodies to put a plan in place to get the fans back to boxing.
The recent appointment of Limpopo-born Ntambi Ravele, the first chairwoman of Boxing SA, could be a turning point.
It is also encouraging that there are moves by Aiba (International Boxing Association), the world controlling body, to discard head guards and amend the scoring system.
The South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee put Sanabo into administration recently, and Aiba also took issue with the selection of officials and banned South Africa from international competitions. This has given the game further bad publicity.
However, the current state of affairs can be rectified if a concerted effort and long-term programme is implemented to get the amateur code back on the world scene.
I believe that this is possible, as has been shown by countries like Great Britain, India and China, who have working programmes in place with financial backing from the lottery and government, which has resulted in them winning medals at the Olympics.
*The provincial department of recreation held a workshop with more than 100 delegates in Durban this week to address the challenges facing the sport. A national conference is planned for Pretoria later this month.