Manny Pacquiao has said he is up for it, and Amir Khan has sensationally suggested he would compete for Pakistan, but voices in British boxing from the grassroots to the top-flight have ridiculed plans to allow professionals to compete against amateurs in the Rio Olympics this summer.
The International Boxing Association (AIBA), the umbrella body for amateur boxing, on Wednesday announced it had ratified a plan to open the competition to boxers from all organisations, after 95% of delegates at a special session voted in favour of the move.
Wu Ching-kuo, the AIBA president, hailed the decision as a momentous occasion and a “great leap forward in the evolution of boxing”. But it was met with ridicule from boxers, officials and trainers in Britain, who warned it would not work and could be dangerous. The WBC, one of the world’s leading professional boxing organisations, described the move as the “shameful lowest stage” of Olympic boxing.
The AIBA’s decision, approved by 84 of the 88 delegates at a special congress in Lausanne, Switzerland, means national federations will be able to register professional boxers to take part in the final Olympic qualification tournament.
That will take place in Vargas, Venezuela, in July, where 26 places are on offer for the Rio games the following month. The penultimate qualification tournament, later this month in Baku, Azerbaijan, will not accept any professional boxers.
After the vote, Wu described the change part of his “master plan”. He added: “This is a momentous occasion for AIBA, for Olympic boxing, and for our sport as a whole, and represents another great leap forward in the evolution of boxing.
“We have embraced reform at AIBA over the past decade, making historic changes that have shaped the present health of boxing and precipitated its ongoing surge in popularity worldwide.”
However, sources in British boxing said they believed the change would have little impact, at least on UK boxing. Amateur boxing, of the kind fought at the Olympics, has a totally different set of rules that could deter professionals, it was suggested.
At just three rounds in length, amateur bouts are far shorter than professional fights, which can drag on as long as 12 rounds, meaning training regimens and tactics are totally different for fighters. In professional bouts, for example, boxers spend much of the first round sizing each other up – a tactic that could quickly lose them an amateur fight, which are usually decided on points.
Pointing out the discrepancies, the Northern Irish boxer Carl Frampton, a former super-bantamweight world champion, tweeted:
When one person pointed out that the Olympic tournament would be stacked in favour of professionals, Frampton disagreed:
Frank Warren, the boxing manager and promoter, said he was against the plan and believed AIBA had made a political move. “Word is that they want to administrate professional boxing,” he said. “If that’s what they want to do, fine; but just come out and form an organisation to do that. Don’t mix the two and take away years and years of tradition.
“It will actually decimate amateur boxing. If you ask any amateur boxer, what’s his ambition? To win the British title, maybe fight for an amateur world title, to win a medal or the gold medal at the Olympic games, and then to turn professional – not to turn professional then go and win the gold medal.”
Warren said many professional fighters would be put off by the lack of prize money, but added: “Maybe guys coming to the end of their career may fancy it. Or an ego thing – who’s to say that somebody who’s got 500-600m in the bank like Floyd Mayweather may say I just fancy doing this, I’ll go and do it.”
The Olympic boxing tournament is two weeks long, and fighters must box day in, day out, facing several opponents before they can take a gold medal. No professional would put themselves forward for that, said Winston Newton, the owner of Gym London South, an amateur boxing club in Mitcham, south-west London.
“They’re not hungry like that, the top ones they’re getting paid, they’re not going to jump in, it’ll be risky,” he said. “You can’t fight your hardest one day and then go and fight your hardest the next day. At amateur level you do that, but not the pros, the pros aren’t going to. No, man. I can’t see [Floyd] Mayweather fighting every day for two weeks.”
With such high stakes in the world of professional boxing, where a single loss can effectively end a top fighter’s career and reputation, there are also questions over who would want to step into the ring. Despite that, following the AIBA decision, Khan reportedly told a press conference in Pakistan that he was prepared to fight for the country. Pacquiao, the great Filipino boxer, has also suggested he would step into the ring at Rio.
GB Boxing is not expected to consider selecting any professional fighters for Rio. Ten British fighters – eight men and two women – have already qualified for the games, with only men’s welterweight and light-welterweight categories to fill. A spokesperson said: “Our efforts are focused on preparing our boxers for the next qualification event [in Baku] in mid-June when we hope to qualify the remaining two places.”
Robert Smith, the general secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBC), which oversees the UK’s professional boxing circuit, said the BBBC board was against the decision.
“We don’t think it’s a very sensible idea at all and ultimately possibly dangerous. There’s two different types of boxing, there’s amateurs and professionals. Professional boxers obviously do longer distance etc, and [have] more experience,” he said.
“These plans are ultimately for the well-known boxers to take part in the Olympics. Well, you could have the situation where Amir Khan could be drawn against a boxer with limited experience, and how can that be good for the sport?”
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