THE POPULARITY of boxing could not be higher currently and as Mancunian Anthony Crolla succumbed to a second defeat to Venezuelan world champion Jorge Linares at the Manchester Arena on Saturday, there was an overwhelming sense that boxing is flying.
With Matchroom Boxing and Sky Sports central to the meteoric rise in the sport’s profile, our reporter Nathan Salt sat down with Sky’s Head of Boxing, Adam Smith, to talk classic Manchester fight nights, the emergence of Katie Taylor, the power of boxing in the community and also who he feels is the man to stop middleweight supremo Gennady Golovkin.
Meeting inside the luxurious Radisson Blu Edwardian on Deansgate, Smith was all smiles alongside Sky Sports’ go-to boxing pundit, Jonny Nelson.
There was a spring in his step; a buoyancy that has manifested in a year when Sky have been unrivalled covering monumental fights like James DeGale-Badou Jack and David Haye-Tony Bellew.
Smith accepted that it hasn’t always been this glamorous and successful for him and his team, as he reflects on the early days covering fights at local leisure centres.
“I just like the fact that boxing is buzzing,” he told me with a wry smile.
“We’ve worked long and hard at Sky through some rough times, some difficult moments. Small leisure centre shows that weren’t really working and we’ve stuck at it.
“I think that me and my team at Sky – they are a great bunch who work 24/7 on the sport – are starting to get our just rewards and the recognition that this sport is as good as any other at the moment.”
While the anticipation continues to bubble nicely ahead of April 29 at Wembley for Anthony Joshua vs Wladimir Klitschko, there could be no suggestion that the sell-out Manchester Arena crowd on Saturday night had anything but total focus on backing hometown icon Crolla.
The 30-year-old emerged on the various big screens inside the venue to the track ‘Hometown Glory’ and that precise moment demonstrated the city’s unrepentant love for the world of boxing.
“We’ve had some great nights here with Ensley Bingham, Ronald ‘Winky’ Wright, Steve Foster and obviously the halcyon days with Ricky Hatton and Michael Gomez.
“It’s a special venue and none greater than the early hours of June 5th 2005 – a week before my wedding; I’ll never forget it – when Ricky Hatton beat Kostya Tszyu at 2am.
“Even after Saturday night, Anthony Crolla has kept that flag, kept that headline attraction and I’m sure going forward they’ll be more. The likes of Marcus Morrison, Hosea Burton, the youngsters on the card too but you are right boxing is flying and it’s flying here in the North West.”
While there was ample opportunity to reflect on some classic Manchester fight moments, talk soon turned to the struggles and stories that many of the top fighters now have in their arsenal.
With youngsters loitering outside the press conference to get items signed and selfies taken, it was clear that, much like in other sports, these fighters are a source of great inspiration to young prospects in amateur gyms up and down the country.
“It’s an old saying that boxing can save lives,” Smith continued, thinking back to early in his career covering the tragic death of fighter Jamie Murray in Glasgow in 1995.
“I spoke about a year later to Jamie’s mum and she said to me that boxing didn’t kill Jamie Murray, boxing saved him. It saved him from the streets in Glasgow and I think that that was a really amazing thing for a mother of someone who lost their life in our sport to say and I always go back to that because boxing can do so much good.
“You don’t have to get in the ring and fight you can just use it to keep fit you know. We could go down and hit the pads if we need a little fitness or discipline or you can take it as a sport and really go places with it.
“Anthony Joshua is quite open about his past, he had a difficult background. I think now to look at Tony Bellew from the Liverpool estate, Kell Brook similarly in Sheffield and Anthony Crolla in Manchester, suddenly they are in these huge fights and they’ve done it through work, hard work, dedication, professionalism, talent obviously and with help from those around them from broadcasters to promoters.
“Ultimately they are an inspiration to young people.”
While many inside the Arena roared for the likes of Crolla, Morrison and Burton – all of which are trained by Joe Gallagher in Bolton – there is always a tantalising appetite to witness Irish boxers; none more so than Katie Taylor.
Boxing aficionados point to the spectacles put on by Northern Ireland’s Carl Frampton while more recently Belfast’s super bantamweight fighter Michael Conlan made his professional debut in spectacular style at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
But with Taylor, unbeaten just four fights into her professional career, there is a real enthusiasm that she is destined to dominate world boxing.
“I’ve long been an admirer of Katie’s talent through her amateur career,” Smith continued.
“She’s been a massive ambassador for Irish sport and an icon really. I holiday in West Cork and they all talk about Katie Taylor there even though she’s from Bray in Dublin. She’s huge all over Ireland and I think she can be huge all over the world.
“She’s got dazzling ability and watching her throw some of the hooks to the body that she has already as a pro is terrific. I think she’s adapted from an amateur to a pro as well as any male fighter I can remember in such a short space of time.
“Her debut was stunning and the second fight in Manchester she was disappointed with but I thought she boxed really well and then she shone in London on the Haye-Bellew night.
“She’s rising up in levels here going through eight rounds, against a former world title challenger and she’s going from strength to strength.
“I think Katie Taylor will be an absolute superstar.”
What was particularly striking meeting Smith was his belief that, despite sport in this country being viewed through a football prism, boxing has so many great stories still to tell.
Referring to “golden times”, Sky’s main man in boxing told me that there is plenty to come with British boxers being tipped for greatness.
Smith added: “We were there on Wednesday in Sheffield for Kell Brook and Errol Spence’s announcement and in many ways that is the best match-up of the year, that’s a phenomenal fight, you can’t pick a winner there.
“There is a great fight between Liam Smith and Liam Williams coming up – really looking forward to that. Terry Flanagan, Chris Eubank Jnr, is Chris Eubank Jnr the man to beat [Gennady] Golovkin? I’ll put it out there that I think he’s got a real chance.
Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao happening as a fight- even though it wasn’t a good fight – the fact that happened shows that absolutely anything in boxing can be made possible.”
And with promoting extraordinaire Eddie Hearn gesturing for Smith’s assistance, the chat was brought to a close – although frankly it felt his wealth of experience could fill hundreds of column inches.
‘Repeat or Revenge’ on Saturday night may not have had the shock British narrative many were longing for but with 2017 now three months in, there is a real sense that this could be one of the most memorable years in world boxing.
Golovkin, Joshua, Mayweather, McGregor, Brook, Spence, Linares, Alvarez, Klitschko…it’s time to make your mark.