I’m back in England for two weeks and boxing is big news. When I was young I remember listening on the radio when Frank Bruno fought at Wembley Stadium, and then later watching the likes of Prince Naseem and Ricky Hatton on TV.
I moved to Thailand at a time when Hatton was approaching his peak and Joe Calzaghe was considered one of the best pound for pound boxers on the planet. Both men could fill outdoor stadiums in the UK and attract tens of thousands of people, even if the opponent wasn’t a big name.
Since Calzaghe and Hatton retired the sport seems to have been in the doldrums. The amount of time and money British promoters put into average heavyweights like Audley Harrison just seemed like a sad waste. The appetite for boxing has always been there but for some reason the country just wasn’t producing the sort of boxers that could really capture the imagination.
Fast forward to 2018 and that has all changed. Anthony Joshua can sell out Wembley Stadium and last weekend the O2 Arena was packed to the rafters for a heavyweight fight between Dillian Whyte and Joshua Parker that didn’t even have a world title on the line.
In Thailand the top boxers tend to weigh no more than 140lbs. Two of the country’s three world champions compete at 105lbs so watching a heavyweight fight is not something that I do very often.
It goes with saying that boxers who weigh 242lbs (or 18st 6lbs 9oz as they insisted on announcing Whyte’s weight) are not going to move quite as smoothly as professionals who are less than half their size. Having said that I was still surprised by how sloppy Whyte’s technique looked, some of his punches were more like slaps.
But what really struck me was not the fight itself so much as the crowd. When Eddie Hearn claimed to have sold 12,000 tickets he might just have been telling the truth. The O2 Arena can hold a few more than that but it certainly looked full.
Contrast that with Thailand, where world title fights will typically take place in a school playing field in front of a handful of curious locals. The Nakornloung shows do bring a bit of the glitz and glamour that you get at a big event in London but the venue only holds about 500 people.
At the risk of stating the extremely obvious; British people like watching fights. And more importantly they are willing to pay to do so, any local who reaches a world class level seems pretty much guaranteed a fervent fan following who will buy tickets to see him (or even her) fight.
Between 1995 and 2014 there wasn’t a single boxing match at Wembley Stadium. But the biggest venue in the country is playing host to fights every year now. It just goes to show how the sports popularity can ebb and flow over the course of a century.
In Thailand it’s not uncommon for 5,000 people to pay to watch Muay Thai live but they are mostly there to gamble rather than cheer on the fighters. There doesn’t seem to be a local market for betting on boxing so the sport is more dependent on traditional fans.
In 1954 a world title fight between Chamroen Songkitrat and Jimmy Carruthers at the Charusathian Stadium in Bangkok supposedly attracted a crowd of 60,000. Times change, culture changes, society changes but if boxing was once that popular in Thailand could it not one day be as popular again?
The 20 years or so that elapsed between Frank Bruno’s fight with Oliver McCall (which I remember listening to on the radio in my bedroom) and Carl Frochs rematch with George Groves are testament to the endurance and longevity of boxing’s appeal. 1954 was a bit furher back but perhaps a similar attendance could one day be recorded at a boxing match in Thailand?
Srisaket Sor Rungvisai is headlining a ONE Championship show at Impact Arena, the biggest indoor venue in Bangkok, in October. It’s great to see a top class boxer from Thailand finally getting the audience and the attention he deserves and I hope the place is packed.