THROUGHOUT the latter half of the 1990s and the whole of the 2000s, North-East boxing was stuck in a rut.
Memories of Glenn McCrory and Billy Hardy were fading fast, and while Hartlepool’s Michael Hunter briefly flourished as he claimed European and Inter-Continental titles, the region was regarded as something of a backwater in pugilistic circles.
The local clubs continued to produce talented youngsters, and Tony Jeffries’ bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics provided something of a highlight on the amateur stage, but when it came to staging major professional shows, it needed crowd-pulling fighters from outside the region to justify the shifting of a notable bill to the North-East.
Not anymore. We suddenly find ourselves in a golden period for North-East boxing, with tomorrow’s IBF World Bantamweight title fight between Stuart Hall and Martin Ward establishing a landmark that few anticipated being reached.
For years, it looked extremely unlikely that one North-Easterner would be fighting for a world title. Two going head-to-head in the same ring was the stuff of fantasy.
Yet that is what we have to look forward to this weekend, and it is not just the presence of two North-East fighters at the top of a world-title bill in Newcastle that creates the impression of a sport in extremely rude health.
Beneath the headline attraction, talent and potential abound. Birtley’s Jon-Lewis Dickinson will win the Lonsdale Belt outright if he successfully defends his British Cruiserweight title. Bradley Saunders is not British champion yet, but he soon should be, and it would be no surprise to see the County Durham light-welterweight fighting for a world title himself in a couple of years.
For most of the last two decades, Sunderland’s Kirk Goodings’ English-title defence against Jamie Sampson would have been worthy of boxing headlines. This weekend, it is effectively a footnote, such is the quality of the fare that will follow it at the Metro Radio Arena.
With a crowd of more than 6,000 expected on the banks of the Tyne, the North-East’s fight fans appear to have bought in to the growing popularity and prominence of a sport that, while not appealing to everyone, has always played a key role in providing opportunities in communities that are otherwise disadvantaged.
So why has North-East boxing suddenly become so successful? There are a number of factors, but we seem to be experiencing a ripple effect whereby an initial bout of achievement and interest sparks more and more in the future.
Jeffries’ Olympic success in Beijing was significant for two reasons – first because it proved that North-East youngsters could achieve something on a global scale despite limited resources and support, and second because it ignited interest in a group of North-East promoters led by Jeffries’ father, Phil.
From a sporting point of view, Jeffries’ story was a classic rags-to-riches tale that resonated strongly despite the Wearsider’s subsequent failure to establish himself in the professional ranks. A year or so before his Olympic success, he had been flipping burgers in the Stadium of Light car park. Who wouldn’t be inspired by that?
His move into the professional ranks was accompanied by his father’s emergence as a promoter, working closely with Frank Maloney.
Having previously been something of a barren wasteland in terms of professional shows, particularly after Hartlepool’s Borough Hall and Darlington’s Dolphin Centre effectively turned their backs on boxing, the North-East was suddenly staging popular bills at Rainton Meadows Arena, or even on the pitch at the Stadium of Light.
Whereas aspiring young professionals would previously have had to travel hundreds of miles to fight – a situation that had major financial repercussions – they found themselves able to challenge for English or British titles in their own backyard.
Other local promoters have followed in Jeffries’ wake – Steve Wraith and Mark Clauzel in Newcastle, for example – and the North-East can now boast a burgeoning grassroots professional scene that provides youngsters with a viable pathway to national level, and then potentially on to the European or world stage.
Hall won three of his four British titles at Peterlee and Houghton-le-Spring, and while his class and determination mean he might well have made it at world level anyway, there is little doubt that he has benefited from the increased profile of North-East boxing on the national stage.
Having claimed the Commonwealth title when he beat Josh Wale at the Dolphin Centre in 2012, it is unlikely he would have been picked up by his current promoter, Dennis Hobson, and parachuted into an Inter-Continental title fight with Sergio Perales had the North-East not been viewed as a viable breeding ground for talent.
Ward, who has only fought outside the North-East once in his last 14 contests, owes even more to the emergence of a strong regional scene. He has fought on a number of Jeffries’ bills and the box-office appeal of an all-North-East world title fight must surely have played a considerable part in his selection as Hall’s mandatory challenger.
He will enter the ring tomorrow as a long-priced outsider, but he has only been stopped twice in his career, and while Hall should win with a bit in hand if he reproduces anything like the form he displayed against Vusi Malinga, it promises to be an explosive contest.
It is the ultimate cliché, but whatever happens in the ring tomorrow, the region’s boxing scene will be the winner. For once, when it comes to a big fight night, the eyes of the rest of the country will be focused on the North-East.
CHAMP OF THE WEEK
Not content with scoring a hat-trick in Manchester City’s 5-0 win over Fulham, the midfielder was on target again to complete his side’s rout of their neighbours Manchester United three days later. While Luis Suarez and Eden Hazard have hogged plenty of headlines this season, Toure could yet prove to be the key figure in the title race.
CHUMP OF THE WEEK
It’s one thing missing a blatant penalty or being fooled by a dive – it’s quite another to send off the wrong person. Marriner made a dreadful mistake as he waved a straight red card in front of Kieran Gibbs instead of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, although the contribution of his fellow officials in allowing the error to remain unchecked was every bit as poor.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
LIONEL MESSI vs REAL MADRID
It’s hard to come up with any new superlatives to describe Lionel Messi, yet the Barcelona forward continues to produce fresh displays of brilliance. His hat-trick in Sunday’s remarkable ‘El Clasico’ at the Bernabeu enabled Barca to claim a 4-3 win over Real Madrid that put them right back in the thick of the La Liga title race.
CHARITY BET OF THE WEEKEND
Sadly, the recent winning came to an end at the weekend as Gullinbursti could only finish third in a competitive affair at Kelso. Still, the profit margin is still reasonably healthy, and hopefully it’ll increase further when Doncaster stage the Lincoln meeting this weekend. For tomorrow’s tip, follow @scottwilsonecho on Twitter. Running total: +£18.38