Boxing never looked better in Britain

They are being called the "Magnificent Seven" -- David Haye, Enzo Maccarinelli, Clinton Woods, Joe Calzaghe, Ricky Hatton, Junior Witter and Gavin Rees -- and, collectively, they are responsible for a renaissance in British boxing.

"I don't remember British boxing enjoying a better time than this," Hatton suggested last week in the Betta Bodies Gym, a converted cotton factory on the outskirts of Manchester where he trains. "It's absolutely mind-blowing."

He is not wrong.

Of the 68 alphabet titles awarded by the WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO, only 13 are currently held by American boxers, yet the small Welsh town of Newbridge (with a population of 9,000) is home to four: Calzaghe's WBO, WBC and WBA belts at super middleweight and Gavin Rees' WBA junior welterweight strap.

Maccarinelli, from nearby Swansea but also trained by Enzo Calzaghe, Joe's father, holds the WBO cruiserweight title, so he is almost an honorary Newbridge man.

Elsewhere in Britain, South London's Haye won the WBA and WBC cruiserweight belts when he stopped Frenchman Jean-Marc Mormeck on Nov. 10 in Paris. Woods, of Sheffield, England, is the IBF light heavyweight titleholder and Witter, of Bradford, England, holds the WBC junior welterweight trinket, bringing the grand total to nine alphabet belts now held by British boxers.

The roll of honor does not end there. Hatton is recognized by The Ring Magazine as junior welterweight champion of the world while Haye and Calzaghe are The Ring cruiserweight and super middleweight champions respectively. Of the nine boxers who are currently in possession of The Ring's prized belts, three are British, three are American, two are Mexican and one is Cuban. Never before has British boxing been dominant to this degree.

In the poll for Sports Personality of the Year, which will be decided by the British public on Dec. 9 in a live broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Hatton and Calzaghe are running second and third favorites with bookmakers behind Formula One racing driver Lewis Hamilton.

"There's a feel-good factor about British boxing at the moment, a renaissance, call it what you will," agreed Frank Warren, Britain's foremost promoter of fights for the past 25 years.

"Hatton and Floyd Mayweather will fight next month in Las Vegas and we've just had 50,150 people at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff to watch a fight between Calzaghe and Mikkel Kessler, which began at 1:30 a.m. local time to satisfy the American TV audience. Prince Charles presented a Lonsdale belt to Joe recently, in recognition of a lifetime of achievement in the sport, and Sir Henry Cooper, the first knight of British boxing, declared that Joe should be knighted, too, with which I agree because he's been brilliant for the sport and he's a perfect role model.

But the situation overall is very positive right now for British boxing and coverage in the press here and on TV over the past couple of months, in particular, has reflected this. Outside of football [Britain's national sport] boxing has been featured more prominently than most other major sports."

An 11-page feature story on Hatton, which ran in the Sunday Times magazine last weekend, was just the latest example of the revival of mainstream interest in boxing in Britain. Only three years ago the sport appeared to be undergoing something of a lull. Lennox Lewis had abdicated his position as ruler of the heavyweight division, Calzaghe was pulling out of a scheduled fight with Glen Johnson at light heavyweight because of a back injury -- and had still to meet Jeff Lacy in a defining encounter -- and Hatton had agreed to an Oct. 2 date with Vivian Harris, only for the bout to fall through. He, too, was a year away from the zenith of his career, an 11th-round TKO of dominant junior welterweight champion Kostya Tszyu.

Young, emerging talent was not immediately evident either, but now British boxing has high hopes for 2004 Olympic silver medalist Amir Khan, 23-year-old Kevin Mitchell -- who will challenge for the British super featherweight title next month -- and John Murray and Derry Matthews, the recipients in 2006 and 2007 of the British Boxing Writers' Young Boxer of the Year award. Nottingham super middleweight Carl Froch and Edinburgh's Alex Arthur, the WBO interim super featherweight titleholder, are on the brink of breaking through, too, at the top level.

In the 1970s Britain was able to boast of fighters like Kenny Buchanan, who held the world lightweight title from 1970 to 1972 when Roberto Duran beat him at Madison Square Garden. John Conteh was WBC light heavyweight titleholder from 1974 to 1978 and John H. Stracey defeated the great Jose Napoles to win the WBC welterweight title in 1975.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank, Steve Collins and Michael Watson held the country in thrall of boxing. Lennox Lewis became WBC heavyweight champion and later the unified heavyweight champion. In the mid- to late-1990s into the new millennium, he shared center stage with Naseem Hamed, who ruled the featherweight division. Calzaghe was in the early stages of his remarkable title reign.

"It's much different now. Boxing in this country is in a much healthier state because, apart from the very top guys, hardly anyone was making money back then, not even Joe Calzaghe," reflected Robert McCracken, the Birmingham boxer-turned-trainer who went unbeaten through the whole of the 1990s only to drop a decision to American Keith Holmes in a middleweight title challenge in April 2000. "Joe turned pro two years after me and he's just boxed in front of 50,000 people. But in 1996 we fought separate 10-rounders on a Mickey Duff show at the Star Leisure Centre in Cardiff. It wasn't on TV, there were no more than 300 people in the arena, I brought 150 of them and Joe would tell you this himself. I was paid £7,500 [roughly $15,400] and I bet you Joe got the same. That's how it was back then.

"Opportunity is the key and today, with fewer Americans dominating and boxing having really become a more international sport, there are more opportunities for British fighters and they're taking full advantage. I didn't fight in the black-and-white TV days but sometimes it seems like I did because it's all more colorful now. You just didn't get a look-in when I was boxing in the mid-1990s. Even when I became mandatory challenger for the WBC title, I had to wait 18 months for my shot and I'd outgrown the division. Richie Woodhall had to wait two years to get a crack at Holmes when he'd worked his way into the No.1 position. The odd fighter came through at world level like Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank, but when I think of professional boxing in those days -- and I fought at a high level -- it was mostly a grind and a slog. The bright lights and big crowds weren't even a thought."

When Cooper recently named his Top 10 British boxers of all-time, Hall of Famers Ted "Kid" Lewis and Jimmy Wilde were first and second. Calzaghe and Hatton were third and sixth respectively. The bell which, some observers would have it, was tolling the 10-count over British boxing not long ago, could be ringing in some of the best of times.

Brian Doogan covers boxing for The Sunday Times and Ring magazine.