Alan Hubbard ©ITGIt is boom-time for boxing again. Few sports have experienced such a huge surge in popularity, both in participation and numbers of spectators packing venues from small provincial halls to stadiums including Wembley, London's O2 and ExCeL, as well as those in Manchester, Liverpool, Belfast and Glasgow.

Virtually every major show promoted in 2014 has been a sell-out. Some football clubs in the lower leagues - and certainly in Scotland - must be envious of the gates boxing attracts even in the smaller venues.

And according to the agencies, the return between Carl Froch and George Groves, which attracted 80,000 to Wembley in May, was the hottest sporting ticket in town in 2014.

Boxing has fought its way back off the ropes and is now one of sport's biggest hitters again, here in Great Britain and overseas.

The promoter Frank Warren points out that it is connecting with a new, younger audience.

"Many of the faces you now see at ringside you think would be more familiar with pop concerts than pugilism," he said.

"But they do seem knowledgeable about the sport and are not just there because it is another event to be seen at."

Surely one of the most heartening aspects of boxing's comeback is its resurgence in schools, both in competitive and non-contact forms, and among girls as well as boys.

Since the London 2012 Olympics, where boxing was one of the most popular sports, the growth in schools has been remarkable, inflicting a KO on those prissy critics who deemed it either an unsafe or politically incorrect part of the PE curriculum.

According to the most recent figures published by the Department of Education, boxing is now available in 2,149 schools which covers 10 per cent of all schools and 38 per cent of secondary schools.

Promoter Frank Warren believes that boxing is connecting with a new, younger audience ©Getty ImagesPromoter Frank Warren believes that boxing is connecting with a new, younger audience ©Getty Images



The regulator Ofsted has also identified competitive sport, including boxing, as something that can help build a positive culture in schools and says it enables pupils to excel both in the classroom and on the playing field. In particular boxing teaches the value of self-discipline and helps build self-esteem and commitment. As well as fighting obesity.

All of which is good news for the future of a sport which has taken its lumps but continues to come out fighting.

Big fights, big nights, big names and big punchers are already filling the 2015 fistic calendar both here and in the United States, with the focus very much on the big men with fire in their fists.

The past 12 months have seen the public regain a healthy appetite for boxing and Warren predicts that 2015 will be the year of the hungry heavyweights, with the ring's juggernauts restoring the glitz and glory of the division on which the fight game's history largely rests. "The New Year heralds a new dawn for big men and big punchers," he tells insidethegames.

What's more, the Yanks are coming - again. At last, after years of heavyweight humiliation at the hands of the Klitschko family, they believe they have unearthed a rough diamond, a real gem rather than just another ersatz bauble.

It all kicks off at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on January 17 when American hopes of reclaiming at least a partial grip on what is still the richest and most revered prize in sport, the world heavyweight championship, rest on the power-packed wallop of Alabama-born Deontay Wilder.

Wilder, 29, from Tuscaloosa, is the name on the lips of every US fight fan. He challenges for Bermane Stiverne's World Boxing Council (WBC) title - a tasty pairing that will determine whether America's latest heavyweight hope is for real.

Some suggest he is the most frightening heavyweight force since Sonny Liston and Mike Tyson ferociously stalked the rings.

American heavyweight Deontay Wilder (pictured) fights Canada's Bermane Stiverne for the WBC title on January 17 ©Getty ImagesAmerican heavyweight Deontay Wilder (pictured) fights Canada's Bermane Stiverne for the WBC title on January 17 ©Getty Images



His record of 32 bouts, all ending with opponents battered or bloodied - usually both - inside four rounds, is as breathtaking as his steam-hammer slugging. He comes in swinging relentlessly from the start and so far, no-one has had the temerity - or opportunity - to hit him back. Eighteen  opponents have failed to survive the opening round, including former Olympic champion Audley Harrison.

The Bronze Bomber - named after the colour of his own Olympic medal won at Beijing 2008 - was seen here fleetingly 18 months ago poleaxing Harrison almost before the ding of first round bell had faded.

While such a brutally brief encounter with a busted flush like dear old Audley may not be an indication of his worthiness to become a world champion, such is his phenomenal punching power, few will be laying bets against him capturing the title now held by octogenarian impresario Don King's new leading man.

Stiverne, a Haitian-born Canadian now living in Las Vegas, buckled on the WBC belt with an impressive stoppage of Chris Arreola following the retirement of the new mayor of Kiev, Vitali Klitschko, whose multi-crowned younger sibling Wladimir waits in the wings for a blockbuster re-unification bout with the winner.

However, unlike the 6ft 6in Wilder, Stiverne's 26-fight record is not unblemished, having once been ko'd by journeyman Demetrice King.

But what we may discover on January 17 is whether Wilder wilts when whacked himself.

Similarly, here in Britain boxing's burning question is whether our own fast-rising heavyweight star can take it as well as dish it out?

Anthony Oluwafemi Olaseni Joshua may not yet be the biggest name in boxing but it is certainly the longest.

A lot of expectation rests on the shoulders of British heavyweight Anthony Oluwafemi Olaseni Joshua ©Getty ImagesA lot of expectation rests on the shoulders of British heavyweight Anthony Oluwafemi Olaseni Joshua ©Getty Images



Like Wilder, Big Josh has the world at his fists - providing he too knows when to duck.

Joshua has charm and charisma and is the most athletic-looking young heavyweight in the game.

Pro rata he has an even better record of swifter despatches than Wilder, his ten opponents lasting a total of 17 rounds, all falling inside three. That opposition has been somewhat mediocre, as you might expect at this formative stage of his career. As an Olympian, he probably encountered a better class of foe than he has so far as a pro.

He takes a timely step up in class against the durable American veteran Kevin Johnson, never halted in 36 fights, in his next outing on January 31 when his stamina is more likely to be tested than his chin.

But talk of matching him with the likes of Tyson Fury, or even David Price (who is rumoured to have put him down in sparring) is ridiculously premature. He is still on a vital learning curve and is potentially far too good to hurry.

Whether Joshua can absorb a decent punch will be the acid test. Don't let's forget that 18 months ago the talk was of Liverpudlian beanpole Price (who like Wilder won Olympic bronze in Beijing) being the next British world heavyweight champion. Then along came a 41-year-old warhorse named Tony Thompson and bingo! Price was pulverised by him twice in succession.

That was a massive shock for boxing - though not quite as seismic as the subsequent revelation last year by Price's former promoter Frank Maloney that he had become a transvestite, henceforth to be known as Kellie. One doubts any left hook delivered by the heavyweight hit men in 2015 will be quite as gobsmacking as that.

Alan Hubbard is a sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Games, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire.