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Thriving boxing never bigger in the United Kingdom

LONDON -- The birthplace of boxing as it is known today -- gloved prizefighting -- was in London, where the Marquess of Queensberry rules were first written in 1867 and where the sport has been part of the cultural landscape for nearly 150 years.

But never in the century-and-a-half since its organization has it seen the kind of peak that is happening right now in the United Kingdom, where major fights and world titleholders are the norm, not the exception.

Arenas across the country sell out regularly thanks to legions of passionate fans that support their hometown fighters. That will again be the case on Saturday (HBO, 5:30 p.m. ET/PT, with a replay at 10 p.m. ET/PT) at the O2 Arena, which sold out in 11 minutes and where the boxing world will be focused on a huge fight as unified middleweight titleholder Gennady Golovkin defends his belts against England's popular Kell Brook, a welterweight titleholder moving up two weight divisions for the opportunity.

"It's very exciting for the country and the fans are very supportive and loyal," super middleweight titlist James DeGale said. "Boxing is booming. The shows are more of an event nowadays, a good night out."

They are a good night in, too, as television viewership figures are robust on Sky Sports, the all-sports subscription network that has made boxing a major part of its schedule. BoxNation, an all-boxing subscription channel founded by Hall of Fame promoter Frank Warren, continues to grow as it offers a plethora of significant fights not only from the U.K. but from the United States and around the world.

"I think the U.K. is the most dominant force in world boxing right now, top to bottom," said Matchroom Boxing promoter Eddie Hearn, whose company is the most powerful in the country thanks to its multi-year Sky television deal and a stable filled with stars, including heavyweight titleholder Anthony Joshua and Brook. "We have some of the top amateurs, there are a number of broadcasters [in addition to the ones already involved] looking at the game, we're selling more tickets than we've ever sold before, the pay-per-view numbers are higher than before and we have more world champions than ever before."

The U.K. has always had its share of top fighters and world titleholders but now the country is loaded with them.

"U.K. boxing is buzzing right now and I'm a strong believer in success breeds success," featherweight world titleholder Lee Selby said. "If one fighter can win a title why can't another? I think it's very exciting for the country, the fighters and the fans for us all to be doing so well in our sometimes misunderstood sport. The sport of boxing has never been on such a high and long may it continue."

There are 14 reigning world titleholders from the U.K., including heavyweight champion Tyson Fury. That is the most of any country in the world and the most the U.K. has ever had at one time, not to mention it has contenders up and down the rankings poised to challenge for belts.

"This is a golden era for British boxing and I feel blessed to be a part of it," lightweight titleholder Terry Flanagan said. "I think it's what the fans deserve as you only have to see the passion the U.K. fans have for the boxing and the attendances we get on some shows to see that. Very few places in the world can generate the same buzz as the British fight fans."

Flyweight Charlie Edwards could become titleholder No. 15 should he defeat Johnriel Casimero on the Golovkin-Brook undercard. By contrast, the United States, once the most formidable nation in terms of pro boxing success, claims only 11 world titleholders. In fact, the U.K. has at least one fighter with a world title in 10 of the 13 weight divisions from heavyweight to bantamweight.

"We have so many world champions now," Brook said. "Somebody raises the bar and then somebody else raises the bar even higher. The standard is really high here. We are excelling in Britain and it's really exciting. The time is now in Britain.

"U.K. boxing is buzzing right now and I'm a strong believer in success breeds success. If one fighter can win a title why can't another? I think it's very exciting for the country, the fighters and the fans for us all to be doing so well in our sometimes misunderstood sport. The sport of boxing has never been on such a high and long may it continue!" Lee Selby

"One fighter becomes a world champion and then the rest know they can and they push themselves. We push each other to the next level and we are getting the wins."

Anthony Crolla, one of two lightweight world titleholders from Manchester, along with Flanagan, said he believes the recent success for U.K. boxers begins with the rise of the amateur program, which has produced 11 medal-winners in the last three Olympics combined, including five in the 2012 London Games and three more at the recently completed Rio de Janeiro Games. Two gold medal winners, Joshua in 2012 and DeGale in 2008, have gone on to win professional world titles.

"I think like any sport it starts at the grass roots and I feel we have a good amateur setup here in the U.K.," Crolla said. "People like [2004 Olympic silver medalist] Amir Khan and, more recently, Anthony Joshua have made that crossover to the general sports fan and public, which I feel encourages a lot more kids to attend their local gym to try and follow them."

Said Selby: "The U.K. elite amateur system at the moment is exceptional. The funding and training and also the sports science that the amateurs are receiving is obviously helping to create better pros who are going on to challenge and win world titles."

Flanagan said he believes the seeds for the rise of U.K. boxing were planted on a memorable night in Manchester in 2005, when Ricky Hatton -- the most popular fighter in U.K. history -- captivated the country with his upset 11th-round knockout of Kostya Tszyu to win the junior welterweight title.

"I personally think that it's no coincidence that 10 years on from the Ricky Hatton-Kostya Tszyu fight there are two world champions from [Hatton's hometown of] Manchester," Flanagan said. "I was a teenage amateur boxer at the time and so was Anthony Crolla. I was at that fight and the occasion was special, something that I think kick-started a lot of dreams for British boxers. They witnessed a working class hero beat the best fighter in the world. This was definitely something that inspired me. My coach [Steve Maylett] was also at that fight and I believe it had the same impact on him.

"We have so many world champions now. Somebody raises the bar and then somebody else raises the bar even higher. The standard is really high here." Kell Brook

"The promotion of boxing here in Britain is now first class. It's also a bit of a cliché, but the British boxing fans know their stuff and it is their support and passion that has driven British boxing forward. Lastly, I think that coaching has improved massively in Britain. We have some of the best coaches in the world. They have educated themselves in every department -- sports science, diet, training methods and professionalism. This is all being passed down to the fighters, who are reaping the rewards."

Warren, the country's most significant promoter besides Hearn, has been promoting for 35 years. He has put on many of the biggest fights in U.K. history. One of his world titleholders, junior middleweight Liam Smith, will defend his belt against Mexican star Canelo Alvarez on Sept. 17 (HBO PPV) at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

"It's always been a very popular sport here. It's one of our main sports," Warren said. "And I think the main thing about it is because we're good at it. We worked, not just me, other promoters. We've invested our time and money over the years developing talent. The bottom line is we do have good, quality talent.

"We've been very successful in what we do in boxing, and I think looking at the Olympic Games we've had a great, great run there. You look at the heavyweight division over the last four or five Olympic Games. We've won medals where the U.S. hasn't won medals. I just think that with our guys we've got great followings in their hometowns. We build them in their hometowns. What we do is try to build a following in their home city, and I think that's what we're successfully doing, and that translates into interest in the fighters and the fact that the fighters want to box.

"There are a huge amount of amateur boxing clubs in the U.K., and they're very, very well supported and very well funded. And as so, we've got a good system that's working, and you see they're all translating now into what you see in the amount of British boxers that are in the ratings or are world champions."

Hearn believes one of the reasons for the upswing has been his focus on selling tickets, which helps create an electric atmosphere in the arena. That, in turn, creates an exciting viewing experience on television.

"One thing we do is we know how to give people a good night," Hearn said. "We know how to make fans leave the arena believing it was worth the money. And this is a difference between the British and U.S. markets -- they were getting so much money from the broadcasters in the U.S. the gate became irrelevant. Our gate income is probably 70 percent and 30 percent is from the broadcaster [except pay-per-views]. So we have to work every day to sell tickets and you have people in the arena with passion and that comes across on television.

"You used to see a fight at a leisure center with 600 people and no atmosphere and a s--- fight for a commonwealth title and no noise. Now you see a Brit in a world title fight with 10,000 fans going mad. You'll watch that. It's not hard to grasp. Our broadcast money was so small you had to sell tickets."

He said the turning point was Carl Froch's upset knockout of Lucian Bute to win a super middleweight belt in 2012.

"That was the first time I think an event was put together with an atmosphere where people were like, 'Wow.' That was a non-pay-per-view fight and the viewing figures were [huge]," Hearn said. "That night right there was the turning point for British boxing."

Hearn and Sky do about 24 shows a year, including four pay-per-views, which Hearn called the "beating heart" of the business. The revenue generated from them allows Hearn to pay big money to bring fighters over to face the top U.K. fighters, such as Golovkin to fight Brook and Charles Martin, who lost his heavyweight belt to Joshua. It also funds big-time domestic battles such as the Carl Frampton-Scott Quigg junior featherweight unification fight in February or the Froch-George Groves super middleweight title rematch that drew a British boxing attendance record 80,000 to Wembley Stadium in 2014.

Another reason, Hearn said, is because fighters are more willing to take risky fights than in past years because the fights turn into events, which means bigger crowds and more money.

"As someone who pays the money [to fighters], if it's a s--- fight I don't want to pay the money," Hearn said. "But if you want to be in real fights and you're good enough I will pay you over the top. But don't come to me for an easy defense or a stay-busy fight expecting this and that."

There does not seem to be an end coming any time soon given the number or titleholders, popular fighters and exciting potential fights.

"It won't be long until you see Joshua-Fury or Joshua-[David] Haye. These are Wembley Stadium fights," Hearn said. "There are so many great fights to make and I want to make them and I think the fighters have the appetite. Other fighters see this and it makes them bite the bullet and take the chance. I think we're just getting started."