On the 13th of July, the Barry McGuigan-managed featherweight, Marco McCullough, got a call at home in Belfast. Check your passport, he was told, you’ve got a fight in Madrid’s Hipódromo de Zarzuela on the 24th. Short notice and away from home, but Marco didn’t care. He’d been itching to get back in the ring and would have willingly travelled to Outer Mongolia if required.
On the following day the venue was changed to a sports centre in a northern suburb of Madrid. On the 16th it was moved down the road to the Jardines de Araceli. On the 19th it settled on the Palacio de Vistalegre in south Madrid. Then on the 21st, just two days before the weigh in and with Marco’s family and friends already packing for a weekend in the Spanish capital, the entire bill was unceremoniously cancelled. No official reason was given but, being España, financial mismanagement was the likely culprit.
This was to be an elite European level card in a 15,000 seater arena. The headline act was a local favourite, Ruddy Encarnación, battling France’s Sofiane Takoucht for the vacant European featherweight title. Yet despite the size of the event, tickets only went on sale less than a week before the first bell was scheduled to ring. Tickets upon which no sign of a promoter’s name were visible. Posters belatedly began circulating on social media around the same time, but it later transpired that Encarnación’s own trainer had rustled them up himself when it became painfully obvious that nobody knew about the show. It was all very much a case of too little, much too late.
With hindsight, the shambles and resulting cancellation was entirely predictable. Days before word spread that the whole event was off, I spoke to a Spanish boxing insider who described the affair as an exercise in how to lose as much money as possible. As business plans go, he compared it to a proposal to sell air conditioning units to Eskimos.
“Welcome to boxing in España,” he then told me with a sad smile, “there’s just not enough interest.” He knew the fights would never take place and clearly this was nothing he hadn’t seen many times before. But why such a depressing state of affairs, I wondered.
Given that Spain is obsessed with sport, the country’s total antipathy towards to the noble art of boxing is a strange one. Officially, only El Pais newspaper has a wider circulation than the sports dailies, Marca and AS. Unofficially, most agree that Marca, with an audience similar to that of The Guardian in the UK, is comfortably the most-read publication in the land.
That means that every single day, around 60 pages need to be filled with sports news directly related to Spain. Football is king here, of course, and even in the off-season enough dribble about Real Madrid and FC Barça can be manufactured to pass as news and dominate the first half of the paper. But that still leaves 30 pages. Basketball comes next. Then perhaps motorsport and tennis if a big tournament is on. Swimming, cycling, handball and golf can all expect a mention. As can bull-fighting. Boxing features, however, are about as common as a sober British teenager in Magaluf.
When Kiko Martínez, an ex-world champion challenging for another title, fought Scott Quigg in Manchester this month, you had to do some serious excavating to unearth any news on an athlete that anywhere else on the planet would be a national superstar. The editor of the respected local boxing website, BoxeoTotal, lamented on Twitter that even the Petanca results appeared before Kiko got a mention. That is the equivalent of Anthony Joshua fighting for a world title but the Sun newspaper deciding that an update on local lawn bowls takes precedence.
One argument to explain the lack of interest is that sports fans like winners and Spain has produced plenty in other disciplines to keep the masses happy. This century in particular has, until recently at least, been one of almost unbridled success. The national football team, Barcelona and Real Madrid, Rafa Nadal, Fernando Alonso, Alberto Contador, Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez, Pau Gasol, Sergio García etc, etc. It just isn’t possible to dominate every single sport out there, some say.
True, as countries with bigger populations and more resources than Spain, have discovered. But even so, Spain’s lack of success, and even greater dearth of concern towards the situation, in a sport as popular and universal as boxing is still pretty striking. No nation excels in everything they turn their hand to, but those with the manpower and money to try tend to at least give it a go.
This is a developed western country with a population of 47 million and yet it can only count 12 boxing world champions in its history. And upon closer inspection of the dozen, none dominated their divisions or eras and several claimed titles in rather strange circumstances and remained champions for months rather than years.
Scotland and Ireland (north and south combined), with populations of around five and six million respectively, have had more world champions than Spain. England is comparable in terms of inhabitants and it can boast 59 champs. Neighbours France claim 41. Countries with largely shared cultures and similar populations such as Colombia and Argentina have 39 and 53. Whatever way you look at it, Spain is a serious underachiever in the square circle.
Yet, rather than make any attempts to rectify the situation, Spain did the exact opposite when, in 2013, the Spanish Boxing Federation announced it was ceasing all activities relating to the professional game. Some will argue the white towel was waved and then thrown into the ring many years before.
The image of the sport of boxing in Spain is undoubtedly a major part of the problem. I have spent the past five years in Madrid proselytising on behalf of the sweet science, yet I am still to claim a genuine convert. The fact remains that boxing, amateur or professional, is regarded more as an illicit, underground activity for reprobates than an Olympic and mainstream sport for general consumption.
While every country rightly highlights tragedies in the ring and openly debates the health risks inherent in gloved combat, such conversations tend to be balanced by positive rags-to-riches tales or arguments promoting the positive effects amateur boxing clubs have on inner-city communities. Not so in Spain where the predetermined narrative is clear and unambiguous: boxing is evil.
Flicking through the news channels last month, images of kids shadow boxing in a local gym caught my attention. I paused to see if this might finally be a segment praising the impact of boxing in getting kids off the street, improving fitness levels, teaching some discipline and enhancing self-esteem. It was. Or at least it was for the 30 seconds or so that the families and volunteer coaches involved were afforded to voice their opinion.
The remaining five minutes were given over to doctors, psychologists and assorted moralisers to ensure we were left in no doubt that the aforementioned kids, parents and volunteers were wrong. Boxing is still evil.
An El Pais article from earlier this year neatly summarised the prevailing point of view, while fretting about an alleged increase in the popularity of boxing amongst young Spanish boys. This ‘boom’ is apparently evidenced by the fact the 2014 National Schoolboy Championships had 56 entrants last year: that is 56 from the entire country of 47 million.
The Spanish Association of Paediatricians concluded that, “children should avoid any of the martial arts, even if they aren’t delivering blows.” A spokesperson for Spain’s medical council went further and simply stated that the sport of boxing should be banned. The quotes attributed to an educational psychologist were perhaps the most damning of all, however.
“This fashion for getting boys into contact sports is worrying. They don’t know how to manage violence and it could generate more violence. Minors should not see nor practice boxing. Even if a boy is hitting a bag, it’s still an act of violence.”
While health and moral arguments dominate today’s discourse, the dark shadow cast by the spectre of Francisco Franco is also still a factor. Though an aficionado of el boxeo, the General is guilty of delivering two major body blows to the sport.
The first was his oppression of Cataluña following the Spanish Civil War. Barcelona was the capital of European boxing in the 1930s and fighters such as Jose Gironés, Carlos Flix, Victor Ferrand and Llorenç Vitria were local heroes. Franco felt he could not allow such symbols of Catalan pride to flourish under his dictatorship, but by suppressing their success, he severely wounded the sport he loved.
The dictator’s passion for boxing proved, in itself, to be the second, practically fatal, blow to the sport. When the socialists came to power in the early 1980s and sought to rid the new democratic state of any vestige of the dictatorial regime, they targeted boxing with laws restricting its televisation, banning under 18s from attending shows, and setting the minimum age to contest an amateur bout at a relatively high 15 years old.
The unfair stigma of boxing being Franco’s sport remains to this day. So much so that when the right-leaning Intereconomía channel announced their intention to air a boxing programme in 2013, BoxeoTotal felt compelled to write a defence of the move. That editorial described boxing as an orphan lost in Spain: the intimation being that beggars can’t be choosers. It went on to rebuke any form of fanaticism before comparing the politically-correct campaign to cut off the oxygen supply to the sport with the censorship of other walks of life that was common practice during the 36 years of dictatorship. A dangerous parallel to draw, but one can see where he is coming from.
I recently asked Kiko Martínez how he would assess the current health of Spanish boxing. He did his best to sound upbeat, highlighting his own accomplishments, the impact of Sergio Martínez and Maravillabox Promotions, and ventures such as Matthew Macklin’s gym in Marbella as positive steps in the right direction. But I couldn’t help feeling that, despite being an immensely proud Spaniard who kisses his national flag in the ring before each fight, part of Kiko must wish he had been born in a land in which God-given pugilistic talents such as his are nurtured and then celebrated to the extent they deserve.
The truth is, Spanish boxing has been undergoing a standing eight count for several generations now. And while it would be nice to believe that a courageous comeback is in the offing, it is difficult to envisage while the all-consuming hegemony of football shows no sign of abating and the politically correct world in general continues to rail against the noble old art.
I hope I’m wrong, but Kiko Martínez could be Spain’s last world champion for a while. And Marco McCullough, whose fight with Zoltan Kovacs has been hastily rearranged for tonight in Germany, will in all likelihood end his career having never fought on Spanish soil.