IT WAS a dizzy time, a crazy time and nothing happening in modern boxing can compare with the total lunacy of March 2002 when 19 British men held versions of the world title.
Yep, 19 men, including Lennox Lewis, obviously. The rest of the statistics are equally ridiculous.
The men held a total of 21 different belts, from a staggering eight different sanctioning bodies, spread across a stupendous 11 different weights. And, they had made, by the end of March 2002, a total of 57 defences. Most of the defences were on television in Britain – this is not an underground movement; this was mainstream. Trust me, this is a dark, dark hole that I will take you down.
Lennox held the IBO, IBF and WBC heavyweight titles. He was a statesman, even then he was regal. He had not yet made a defence of this part of his reign; he had knocked out Hasim Rahman to regain the title and was a few months away from beating Mike Tyson. Big fights, big nights and then it just gets crazy.
Peter Culshaw was the WBU flyweight champion, one of six WBU champions; Culshaw had made six defences. The WBU was formed above a flower shop in Hackney by a man called Jon Robinson. Their officials all wore purple, and they had the feel of a cult; they were not allowed to mix with the boxers and fight people at a venue or the night before a fight. Robbo had strict rules on association.
Johnny Armour was the WBU’s bantamweight champion and Colin Dunne had been their lightweight champion for about five years. Also, at lightweight, Michael Ayers held the IBO version and had made six defences. The mad belts were holding shows together; world championship boxing at the Slough Leisure Centre for 20 quid, live on television.
Ricky Hatton held the WBU light-welterweight title and had made five, massive televised defences. Nobody cared what brand of belt he wore when he fought. Ricky was not alone at light-welterweight. Oh no, stick with me.
Wayne Rigby was the WBF champion and Stephen Smith held the IBC belt. Smith had made two defences. He was, by the way, the only IBC champion in Britain. Thankfully, there was a partial unification in September when Smith and Hatton met at a sold-out MEN. It’s true. The fight finished in round two when Darkie Smith, Stephen’s father and trainer, jumped in the ring to complain about butts, elbows and low blows. A ring invasion at a rocking and expectant MEN after a series of dirty tactics. Wow, that sounds familiar.
At welterweight, there was just Jawaid Khaliq with his IBO belt. His time was special to Nottingham boxing; Khaliq had seven IBO fights on Sky at the Harvey Hadden Leisure Centre. He is a forgotten hometown hero. The Harvey Hadden with Khaliq and the Booth brothers on the bill, or in the building, was a serious night out. It was the wild west, let’s tell the truth.
At light-middle, Steve Roberts held the WBF, Richard Williams the IBO and Takaloo had just won the WBU. Williams would lose his IBO title in 2003 to Sergio Martinez one night at the MEN. On the Same bill, Barry Hearn stuck on five world title fights; three IBO, two WBF. We loved the mayhem, absolutely loved it. It is too easy to knock, but it kept the business going and put some bums on seats. It is the height of our endless fascination and addiction to belts. Misfits could only manage four world title fights on last Saturday’s show at the old MEN. Anything they can do; we can do better!
And then, at middleweight, there is the odd-belt king: Peckham’s Lester Jacobs. Untouchable man, great human and the WBF middleweight champion. Jacobs retired undefeated in 29 fights; he once retained his title at the Earls Court Paragon hotel, and he was the promoter of the show. There are no mavericks left in our business to match Lester.
There were three super-middleweight champions in March of 2002; Joe Calzaghe had the WBO title, Robin Reid the WBF and Brian Magee the IBO version. They had made a total of 13 defences; Reid was defending his title live on the BBC. Reid would also go on and lose world title fights to Sven Ottke and Jeff Lacy, a British title fight to Carl Froch and then lose in Prizefighter at the Olympia in Liverpool. Robin Reid has one of the most remarkable careers in modern British boxing.
Tony Oakey was the WBU’s light-heavyweight champion. A handful with any belt and under any rules.
Buster Keeton won the WBF cruiserweight title in March. He beat Butch Lesley. A couple of fights later, Keeton, part of the Brendan Ingle gym, lost for the Dutch cruiserweight title. Hey, it was a long time ago and anything was possible. Any dream, the world title, the Dutch title, anything. Reach for the stars, baby.
Johnny Nelson was the other cruiserweight world champion. He held the WBO version and had made eight defences. However, Johnny had also fought for a lot of odd belts in odd places. He had won the WBF heavyweight title when he beat Jimmy Thunder in New Zealand and had defended the belt against a Russian in Thailand. He would eventually lose the WBF heavyweight championship when he was beaten and held-up at gunpoint in Brazil. Nobody travelled like Johnny, nobody. He fought for nine different belts in eleven different countries.
It was not too long ago, but it is barely believable. Jane Couch, incidentally, was between belts. She is the only British boxer that can compare with Nelson for ridiculous belts and crazy locations. What a time it was.