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Thursday, 26 July, 2001, 13:46 GMT 14:46 UK
British boxing's broken belt
The unknown British Heavyweight champion
BBC Sport Online's Matt Slater examines the decline in status of the British Heavyweight title and wonders why we no longer care about our national belt.

When Danny Williams meets Julius Francis at the Wembley Conference Centre on Saturday, one of boxing's oldest and most prestigious prizes will be on the line - the British Heavyweight title.

With the Commonwealth belt also at stake, the Williams-Francis clash is the most recent chapter in a rich history that includes Henry Cooper's controversial 1971 defeat by Joe Bugner and Jack Petersen's battles with Len Harvey in the 1930s.

But while those fights drew huge crowds, headlines and heated debate, Saturday's scrap is unlikely to excite many beyond the immediate confines of the British heavyweight fraternity.

Julius Francis beat Danny Williams in 1999
You may have missed Francis v Williams I
What was once a coveted title is now an empty boast.

The great British sporting public just does not care who its heavyweight champion is anymore.

And, with all respect to the efforts of Williams and Francis, who can really blame them?

The title was once a stepping stone to a brave British tilt at the world title - Tommy Farr, Brian London, Richard Dunn and, of course, "Our 'Enry" being a few who have followed that road.

American boxing fans grew used to a procession of "horizontal heavyweights" from across the Atlantic who would put up gutsy, but largely clueless, displays against their heavyweight champions.

This state of affairs lasted between 1899, when Englishman Bob Fitzsimmons lost the world title, and 1992, when Lennox Lewis retrieved the WBC belt from the wastepaper bin Riddick Bowe had dropped it in.

British heavyweight Tommy Farr
Farr was highly rated until he met Joe Louis
It was not the most glorious of successes for the London-born fighter, but, after 93 years of hurt, who was complaining?

Lewis would go on to justify his champion status against Oliver McCall - the second time around - and Evander Holyfield - both times, although only the second time counted.

But Lewis is also the last boxer of any real consequence to hold the British Heavyweight belt.

During his transformation from Canadian Olympic hero to British boxing legend, Lewis became national champion by beating Gary Mason before making a successful defence against Glenn McCrory.

Satisfied that he had paid his dues to the ghosts of British boxing's past, Lewis gave up the belt and went in pursuit of the world title.

Sadly - although it depends how you look at it - the rest of Britain's heavyweight division decided to do the same.

Muhammad Ali and Henry Cooper in 1966
Cooper fought two bloody battles with Ali
From having nothing to show for nearly 100 years of plucky mediocrity, British boxing in the 1990s suddenly had more titles to shout about than an Arab prince.

If you had a world heavyweight belt, no matter how dubious, who cared about the national title?

With WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO honours now on offer, heavyweight boxing had more varieties than Heinz.

Where a boxer had once spent years building his reputation at national level, a few wins at Bethnal Green's York Hall would now get a boxer a title shot with one of the alphabet soup of governing bodies.

Michael Bentt, Herbie Hide and Henry Akinwande helped make the somewhat lightweight WBO version of the title a British institution.

Even pantomime performer Frank Bruno, who had never even contested the British title, picked up a belt.

Mike Tyson beat Julius Francis in 2000
Tyson lets Francis show off his branded boots
The genial Londoner spoiled what had been until that moment a classic British heavyweight's career by actually winning the WBC belt in 1995.

So as British heavyweight boxing's world profile improved, the national title was left behind as an irrelevance.

Saturday's protagonists may beg to differ, but the fact that Francis once fought Mike Tyson with adverts for a newspaper on the soles of his shoes should say it all.

And while Williams might be proud of his 22-1 career record, it should be pointed out that his one loss was to that human billboard, Julius Francis.

The Wembley crowd may well see an entertaining fight between two competent boxers, but come Sunday morning will anybody else care?

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See also:

10 Jun 01 |  Boxing
Williams wants Audley fight
02 Apr 01 |  Boxing
Francis out for revenge
29 Mar 01 |  Boxing
Williams pulls out of defence
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