Boxing needs a Bolt
The idea of my dad or any of his cabbie mates not knowing who the best heavyweight boxer in Britain was would have been, well, it just wouldn't have happened.
When it comes to certain topics, drivers of black cabs are social barometers, canaries down the mine, except angrier. And when cabbies have stopped chirping about boxing, you know the sport must be in trouble.
So when my cabbie the other night announced that he didn't know who David Haye was, I was understandably shocked, to the extent that my cabbie felt the need to apologise. "Sorry mate, dunno who he is. Used to love a bit of boxing, but it's not on TV any more. Is it?" Haye, in case anyone doesn't know, is the best heavyweight boxer in Britain.
Floyd Mayweather is a former five-weight world champion - but not boxing's Bolt
Now, before anyone gets upset, this isn't another "boxing's on its last legs" blog. Everyone apart from Don King will tell you the sport's not as popular as it used to be, we've accepted it, there's no point going on about it. This blog is more about hope. The hope that somewhere out there is boxing's Usain Bolt.
Floyd Mayweather may return to action this weekend after a 21-month hiatus, up against the flinty Mexican Juan Manuel Marquez in Las Vegas, but then Mayweather never has been the crossover star boxing craved. A rare talent, no doubt, but boxing's Usain Bolt? Well, for starters, boxing's Bolt will likely be twice Pretty Boy's size.
It's always the heavyweights who are tasked with 'saving' boxing: Joe Louis in the '30s, Muhammad Ali in the '60s, Mike Tyson in the '80s. Similarly, athletics has usually looked to its sprinters to project the sport above and beyond the track: Jesse Owens, 'Bullet' Bob Hayes, Carl Lewis. But athletics has suffered a stark reversal of fortunes since Lewis' day.
Ben Johnson effectively spiked the Holy Grail, although there were others before him, and marquee sprinters have been choking on the chalice ever since.
Lewis himself was implicated after his retirement, although he has always protested his innocence. Britain's Linford Christie, the 1992 Olympic champion, was subsequently banned for two years for doping. Justin Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic champion, is currently serving a four-year ban. Tim Montgomery, a former world record holder, was also caught out and is now the fastest man in the exercise yard after a conviction for fraud and heroin distribution.
Bolt is a triple world and Olympic champion, and one of the most marketable sportsmen in the world
Boxing has been brought low by those that run the game, rather than its participants, the public dazed and confused by a dizzying lack of clarity. Too many belts, too many weights, not enough television coverage. Who's the best? No-one really knows, not even the best themselves, because the best too rarely fight each other.
The heavyweight division is even more depressing than sprinting was before Bolt burst onto the scene in a hail of imaginary arrows. The crop of sub-10 second 100m runners never failed, unlike the crop of top-class heavyweight boxers, which appears to have been almost entirely destroyed, in the United States at least.
The Klitschko brothers, Wladimir and Vitali, are fine fighters and, by virtue of their various humanitarian efforts, fine people. Unfortunately, both are artisans rather than artists in the ring, and, perhaps more importantly, they're not American.
Athletics is one of the few truly global sports, but boxing's spiritual home, at least since gloves were donned, is the United States. The first gloved heavyweight champion, John L Sullivan, was American; so too the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson; Joe Louis 'fought' the Nazis in the ring; Muhammad Ali was quite simply 'The Greatest', and every great heavyweight champion since has been American, with the honourable exception of Britain's Lennox Lewis.
Only the Americans have the necessary know-how to turn things round, to unearth a gem and polish it so hard that the rest of the world is dazzled. Because boxing in the United States has been low before, although, admittedly, never as low as this.
As far back as the 1950s, venerable boxing writer AJ Liebling considered that he was covering a sport in terminal decline. "There exist certain generalised conditions today," wrote Liebling in 1952, "like full employment and a late school leaving age, that militate against the development of first-rate professional boxers."
When the newly-monikered Ali defended his heavyweight crown against the little-loved Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine in 1965, just 2,434 fans were present, the lowest attendance for a heavyweight title fight.
Tyson, difficult as it is to believe now, was considered the sport's deliverer when he was rampaging across a parched heavyweight landscape in the 1980s like some crazed bull. The glamour of Leonard, Hagler, Hearns and Duran fading fast, replaced by the captivating menace of the 'baddest man on the planet'.
Boxing could do with a more benign saviour this time, although some of Tyson's fury in the ring wouldn't go amiss: to most fans, heavyweight boxing without the knockouts is like football without the goals or cricket without the wickets.
But the key thing is charisma, something Bolt has in spades. The Jamaican runs very fast, but he looks joyous doing it. He wins world and Olympic titles while mucking about. They say he's thinking about switching to the long jump. I wonder if he could be persuaded to strap on the gloves instead?
It would be foolish to consider Bolt as a panacea, the tracts of empty seats at the World Championships in Berlin last month revealed he is not. But, while papering over the cracks to a certain extent, he is pulling in punters and TV viewers who would otherwise have stayed away. Punters who, when Bolt isn't strutting his stuff, might find themselves wooed by a Kenenisa Bekele or a Yelena Isinbayeva instead.
The audience for boxing never went away - there will always be plenty of people across the globe who like watching two men trade punches, that's just the way many of us humans are hard-wired. The sport just needs a Bolt to remind us exactly how thrilling it can be.
When Bolt smashed the 200m world record in Beijing last year, he proclaimed that he'd "blown the world's mind". It was like a distant echo of the past, replicating, deliberately or not, Cassius Clay's "I shook up the world" after his victory over Liston for the world heavyweight crown in 1964.
Bolt gives fans of boxing hope - indeed he gives fans of any struggling sport hope - that however moribund their sport might appear, lightning might be about to strike.