Tom Degun: WSB really beginning to roar with the help of the British Lionhearts

Friday, 18 January 2013
Tom Degun ITG2It is fair to say that the World Series of Boxing (WSB) run by the International Boxing Association (AIBA) got off to a shaky start when it was launched in 2010.

From the outset, London were lined up as one of the key franchises for a competition that was branded, and remains at present, the only boxing competition in the world that allows fighters to compete professionally and retain their Olympic eligibility.

And all was going well until London pulled out at a late stage due to financial concerns.

The move led to much animosity between AIBA and the Amateur Boxing Association of England (ABAE) for some time. It even proved the precursor to former ABAE chief executive Paul King standing against incumbent C K Wu for the AIBA Presidency in late 2010. Needless to say, King was crushed by Wu and the unsuccessful coup ultimately saw him lose his position at the ABAE.

In as the new ABAE chief executive came Mark Abberley who steadily managed to rebuild bridges with the AIBA hierarchy. He did so alongside British Amateur Boxing Association (BABA) chairman Derek Mapp and the relationship appeared to be fully repaired once the London 2012 Olympic Games dawned.

The competition, which saw female boxers compete at the Olympics for the first time and packed crowds at ExCeL for almost every session, gave AIBA arguably their greatest boxing competition in the history of the Games and Britain the proof that they were the strongest boxing nation in the world as they topped the sport's medal table with three golds, a silver and a bronze.

It became clear they two needed each other and shortly after the conclusion of the Olympics, it was announced the UK would finally be joining the WSB with a franchise called the British Lionhearts.
 
British Lionhearts 3The British Lionhearts WSB franchise were unveiled at the end of last year

Featuring several top names, including London 2012 Olympic silver medallists John Joe Nevin of Ireland and Fred Evans of Wales, the Lionhearts are one of the more attractive franchises out there and with sport on a high in Britain, they are also bringing serious media exposure to the WSB.

But it was perhaps their bout this week against the USA Knockouts at York Hall last night that will have AIBA smiling at what they are doing for the competition.

York Hall, located in the London district of Bethnal Green, is one of the UK's best-known boxing venues and it has hosted bouts for many of Britain's greatest ever fighters including Lennox Lewis, Joe Calzaghe, Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank.

As I walked through the doors for the Lionhearts' first of three WSB bouts in three months at the venue, there was the immediate sense of a big fight night. Intimate but not exactly small, the venue was packed with boisterous but respectable fans of the sport who knew they were seeing high-level competition.

Despite the Lionhearts crushing their American opponents 5-0 on the overall scorecard, each of the five matches proved hugely exciting, particularly the bantamweight bout that pitted the hosts' Andrew Selby of Wales against the Knockout's Michael Conlan of Ireland.

In a contest that pitted the reigning World Championship silver medallist [Selby] against the reigning Olympic bronze medallist [Conlan], the two traded brutal shots throughout and drew a deserved standing ovation at the end as Welshman clinched unanimous but hard-earned points win.
 
Andrew Selby York HallAndrew Selby (left) of the British Lionhearts defeated Michael Conlan (right) of the USA Knockouts in a hugely entertaining WSB match at York Hall

Elsewhere Nevin outpointed Daouda Sow at lightweight and another Irishman, Joe Ward, beat Marko Calic at light-heavyweight. Those wins came after Estonian middleweight Kaupo Arro got the Lionhearts off to a winning start by scoring a second-round technical decision over American Jeffrey Camp and before London heavyweight Joe Joyce closed the show by beating Avery Gibson of the United States on points.

But just as important as the score line was the clear marketability of the event. The British public are beginning to learn about the WSB, they want to see it and they will undoubtedly be back in bigger numbers for the next two bouts in York Hall in February and March.

This comes with Lionhearts lining up the Copper Box on Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford as their permanent home for next season in a move that should only enhance their stature.

The WSB will soon be followed by the launch of AIBA Pro Boxing (APB) which will see boxers again fight professionally but retain their Olympic eligibility in a tournament that will link to the WSB.

What makes it a must for most nations is that the APB will offer 56 quota places for the Rio 2016 Olympics, with the WSB to offer a further 10 slots for the Games in Brazil.

By those next Olympics, AIBA will have removed headguards and vests from their competitions for male fighters while the computer scoring system will be replaced by judges meaning WSB and APB boxers will be at a distinct advantage to other.

All this, the AIBA President told me recently, is part of a plan to fight back against the "professional promoters have sat back and taken the best Olympic talent for far too long, often not looking after that talent if things go wrong."
 
C K WuAIBA President C K Wu (left) is delighted with the early popularity and success of the new WSB franchise the British Lionhearts

Wu is very pleased with the early popularity of the Lionhearts. The WSB was after all his brainchild and investment and it is now starting to go from strength to strength.

The man considered the "dark-horse" for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Presidency in the elections later this year will know that all successes at WSB and subsequently AIBA level will only strengthen his already hugely powerful and influential position in the Olympic Movement.

And should he manage to capture the most powerful position in the Olympic Movement this September, he could owe a debt of thanks to the British Lionhearts; who are starting to make his WSB creation really roar.

Tom Degun is a reporter for insidethegames. To follow him on Twitter click here.
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