World Series of Boxing: Sanity at last in boxing's Wild West?

By Ben DirsBBC Sport
Anthony Fowler, Sean McGoldrick, Josh Taylor, Fred Evans, Joe Joyce
Anthony Fowler, Sean McGoldrick, Josh Taylor, Fred Evans, Joe Joyce

You might think professional boxing needs another set of acronyms like Stephen Hawking needs more letters after his name: boxing isn't so much an alphabet soup as the complete works of Hawking whizzed up in a blender.

So the news that the governing body of amateur boxing, the International Boxing Association (AIBA), is set to reposition itself as yet another professional governing body will be greeted with groans by many. But - stick with me, I'll try to keep the acronyms to a minimum - this lot might be different.

On Tuesday, it was announced that a British-based franchise will compete in the latest instalment of AIBA's World Series of Boxingexternal-link (WSB): no vests, no headguards, five rounds, 10-9 scoring, salaries, win bonuses - it all sounds suspiciously like the pro game. Which is because it is, just not as we know it.

In short, WSB involves nation-based franchises competing against each other over the course of a season - think the Champions League with gloves. It is all part of AIBA's masterplan to make Olympic boxing the pinnacle of the sport.

WSB boxers compete as professionals but retain their Olympic eligibility, while also being allowed to compete in World and European championships, Commonwealth Games and other traditional events. Ten boxers will qualify for Rio 2016 through WSB, while another 56 will qualify through something called AIBA Professional Boxing (APB), more of which a little later.

"After the Olympics my head was in a bit of a pickle and I had a lot of discussions," Scottish lightweight Josh Taylor told BBC Sport.

"But I've been following WSB for a wee while now and as soon as I had a chance to be a part of it I jumped at it. I'm getting the chance to use all the GB Boxing facilities in Sheffield, still being funded, still being coached by the same coaches, still getting the physio, the nutritionist and all the other support.

"And I'm also earning a bit of extra money. Staying within the system, boxing regularly and getting looked after, that's what I want. It was a no-brainer for me."

GB Boxing withheld its fighters from the first two editions of WSB because of financial concerns but chairman Derek Mapp is now assured the home nations will not take a monetary hit and that the participation of the Lionhearts, as the British franchise is called, will be underwritten by AIBA.

So for Mapp, as for Taylor, WSB is a "no-brainer", a phrase I heard a few times on Tuesday. "We have to optimise our Olympic opportunities," Mapp told BBC Sport, "that's my job."

The next step in AIBA's masterplan will be unveiled next year, with APB, an extension of WSB. In APB, the cream of the crop at each weight will fight over eight to 10 rounds, making it an almost identical product to what you might call traditional professional boxing.

And this is when it could get really interesting, because it will effectively be a declaration of war on the established promoters and governing bodies.

As AIBA president Ching Kuo-Wu has stated: "I would like AIBA as the ultimate responsible body for a boxer's entire career, amateur and professional. I am determined to change the image of boxing. We will be the true and respected leader of our sport, not any other organisation."

Promoters, punchy fellows that they tend to be, are unlikely to take this challenge lying down. But in an era of reduced television revenue and investment - and with many pro boxers scratching around for work - they might find themselves starved of talent to work with in a post-APB landscape.

Stories abound of fighters who left the relative security of GB Boxing in search of greater glory, only to find themselves picking up two or three fights a year for relative peanuts. No basic salary, probably no physio, probably no nutritionist. At Sheffield's English Institute of Sport they had all that and more.

Crucially, AIBA has declared an amnesty for boxers who might think they made a mistake in leaving the 'amateur' game, and a certain number will be allowed to return to the AIBA fold and rekindle Olympic dreams.

Olympian John Joe Nevin has already reversed his decision to turn professional, opting instead to remain in the amateur circuit.

As for the rival governing bodies, they could find themselves starved of sanctioning fees if fighters no longer decide their belts are worth fighting for.

How successful AIBA's masterplan is will, as always in boxing, depend on money. Several WSB teams have gone out of business in the competition's two-year history and AIBA officials were vague on detail when the question of funding was raised on Tuesday, other than to say it was seeking partnerships and sponsorship and that a TV deal would hopefully be announced next week.

Ultimately, AIBA's products will live or die by whether punters want to watch them. And with the current superstars earning tens of millions - Floyd Mayweather and arch-rival Manny Pacquiao were one and two in Forbes' most recent list of highest-paid athletes,external-link despite avoiding each other for years - AIBA will be unable to claim it is peddling the absolute acme of the sport.

However, Mayweather and Pacquiao are anomalies. Nowadays, genuine superstars in boxing are as rare as random drug testing. So while AIBA will not be able to compete with the razzle-dazzle of Las Vegas in the short term, by starting from scratch and attempting to provide some clarity and structure in the sport, it might be able to deliver the superstars of the future.

AIBA's masterplan needs robust tuning. Five weights instead of 10 means poor old Team GB skipper Tom Stalker will be sitting on his hands when his mates take on the USA Knockouts next Thursday. And given the wild success of women's boxing in London, female boxers should be involved.

But one thing's for certain: there is a new gunslinger in town in boxing's Wild West. Spurs jingle-jangling, Colts on his hips, full of intent. But there are an awful lot of Sheriff's badges in this town, so expect it to get ugly.