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What is the true state of amateur boxing?

By Ben Dirs

Amir Khan
On Monday the BBC will reveal what plans amateur boxing has to get the sport back on track

Olympic runner-up Amir Khan showcased all of his box-office appeal in an exhilarating comeback win against Michael Evans.

But scratch away at Khan's silver lining and you find that amateur boxing is in turmoil.

"There's a lot going wrong with the sport," Khan's trainer Mick Jelley told BBC Sport before the Athens Games.

"Amateur boxing has died in this country."

Others at the grass roots level paint a depressing picture of a rudderless sport that has been mismanaged for too long.

Mark Reynolds, founder of Rawthorpe Amateur Boxing Club in Huddersfield, is left to fend for himself with no financial aid or direction from the Amateur Boxing Association of England, the sport's governing body.

"If amateur boxing is packaged the right way it can address society's problems," said Reynolds, who gave up a lucrative construction business to concentrate on his passion.

"There's masses of money out there but once you mention boxing people don't want to know."

Founded 1880
HQ - Crystal Palace, London
8,500 registered boxers (with ABAE)
Further 30,000 involved in boxing training
620 clubs
Est. 1,700 coaches
Est. 2,500 volunteers

Rawthorpe, which has over 250 members, has become an essential cog in the community, with links to drug rehabilitation units, youth offender programmes and regeneration agencies.

"Up here, there's no-one else doing this type of model but we're finding it hard to get funding - for the last six months I've been out with a begging bowl," continued Reynolds.

Sport England has fed approximately 3m directly into amateur boxing over the last 10 years and an unquantifiable amount indirectly through investment in multi-sport facilities.

As a comparison, rowing has received more than 15m directly and swimming more than 250m.

In addition, other sports plough money generated by major events back into clubs, including tennis, which made 30m from Wimbledon this year.

Contrast that with amateur boxing, whose 620 registered clubs in England receive little or no financial support from the ABAE or indeed the professional game, from which it stands aloof.

Reynolds sympathises with the ABAE's financial situation, but feels it could do more to advise clubs in how to pull in money at a local level.

"I've got the mouth, but I haven't got the contacts to deliver all these programmes - why haven't the ABAE been doing this before?"

Clearly, boxing has to be more inventive at a local level to maximise the sport's potential but the signs are that clubs are not getting the leadership they need from the ABAE.

Des Spence, a trainer at Bilborough ABC in Nottingham, says his club limps along largely independent of the ABAE.

"We're registered with the ABAE and we pay an annual fee (130), but we don't really get anything back," said Spence.

"Nottingham City Council gives us a place to use but it's still hard."

The ABAE cannot verify whether the number of boxers and gyms has fallen over the last 10 years and circumstantial evidence varies from gym to gym.

1.4m ('03-'04)
For elite boxers in and around the national team
50,000 ('03-'04)
Annual government investment (core funding)
2m (last 10 years)
For grass roots boxing facilities
600,000 (last 10 years)
To approx. 150 boxing orgs. through the Awards for All Programme
In addition, boxing has received indirect investment through multi-sport facilities where the sport is practiced

But the ABAE says many clubs have reported a surge in membership since Khan's showing in Athens while Rawthorpe ABC demonstrates the sport is ripe for exploitation if marketed correctly.

That the ABAE has been so careless with the little money it has is hard to forgive.

This year's showpiece ABAE finals went ahead without a sponsor, were barely promoted and poorly attended.

The failure contributed to a four-figure loss, one year after the governing body admitted a financial "crisis" was looming.

Sport England, already annoyed that Khan was the only British boxer to qualify for Athens, highlighted "concerns over governance" and "modernisation issues" and suspended 50,000 of Exchequer funding.

In addition, the BBC, which broadcast the ABAE finals, threatened to sever links with the sport.

While conceding the ABAE could improve in certain areas, former WBC super middleweight champion Richie Woodhall says people should not get too hung up on its inability to get more than one fighter on the plane to Athens.

"Qualifying in Europe is more or less like going through a championship with 16 former Soviet Union fighters in the division," said Woodhall.

The biggest problem is we lose our amateurs far too early to the pros
Richie Woodhall
Former Olympic medallist

"The biggest problem is we lose our amateurs too early to the pros when they haven't fulfilled their potential in the amateur game."

Terry Edwards, the England coach, agrees the professional code should do more to help.

"We spend a hell of a lot of time and money developing young boxers, trying to get them to their full potential and then all of a sudden they go professional without any of that money going back into our system.

"The better product we come up with the better product the professionals will receive and it's very selfish of them to think that we can use Lottery funding to develop boxers purely for their business."

And Woodhall reckons professional promoter Frank Warren's revolutionary plans for mixed pro-am shows could be the answer to the amateur code's prayers.

"I'm all for pro-am shows because the amateur game lacks publicity and if you get it on TV it's going to get sponsorship and get kids through the gym doors.

"At the moment, kids aren't looking for role models in the amateur game - so fair play to the ABAE for paying Amir Khan 70,000 a year to keep him."

Soberingly, the ABAE almost let their most precious asset fall into the hands of Pakistan when it initially decided Amir Khan was too young to fight at the Olympics.

But, as the BBC will reveal on Monday, the penny seems to have dropped with the rulers of the amateur game and progress is beginning to be made.

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