A real festival of boxing

Remembering a missed boxing tournament that showcased the great, the good, and the unknown

IN 1998 I saw an odd and telling handwritten sign in an old bar at a fight hotel where I was staying: ‘Moet $50’. Simple and to the point.

There was nothing unusual or exceptional about paying 50 bucks for a bottle of champagne in 1998, but the hotel was in Liverpool city center and for the fifth-year running, the Russians with wads of dollars and long fur coats had taken over the great fight city. I was tempted to say invaded. Incidentally, the Russian and Ukraine contingents held up the bar each and every night, splendid, rich and noisy.

In 1999, the Russians and Ukrainians were not in the city for the sixth Liverpool Festival of Boxing, a truly great long-lost tournament. The Festival really did become one of the most prestigious amateur events during its brief run of eight years from 1994 to 2001. In 1999, the Russians and Ukrainians were off somewhere secret and hostile preparing for the World championships that summer in Houston.

In 1999, 121 boxers from 19 countries fought over six days for the prestigious title. Carl Froch was a loser in the semi-finals. It was the sixth year. I had not missed one; it was ideal prep for the Olympics in Atlanta, the World championships in Budapest and the Worlds later in 1999 in Houston. It was always top-heavy with quality, novices. In 1994, the first year, 97 boxers arrived in Liverpool; word spread about the hospitality and that number increased each year.

The Russians loved it in Liverpool. The women came in fur coats, which they sold and the men liked Rolex watches, which they bought in bulk. And they bought and sold a lot. It gave me a modern window on the history of Cold War boxing officials, the men from the Soviet Republics who packed their little Adidas bags with 100 per cent proof vodka and illegal caviar. There was a lot of trade and Liverpool was a great city for trading.

The man behind the adventure was Paul King, at the time the city council’s boxing development officer. It was his baby, he drove it, he made it possible, he was the man with enough flair, flexibility and available finances to gate-crash the established order of major international events. Wladimir Klitschko won gold at the Festival before winning gold in Atlanta at the Olympics. Somluck Kamsing of Thailand won a gold medal in Atlanta after the Festival.

There was, in addition to the two future Olympic gold medal winners at the first three Festivals, a seemingly endless list of quality boxers who took part in one or more of the Festivals. Two other Olympic gold medal winners, Alexander Povetkin and Audley Harrison, fought at later Festivals. I have found over 20 good world champions on my results sheet; it was exceptional.

In 1999, it was announced that the 2000 event would be an Olympic qualifier; the 1999 version was being used by several countries as an official qualifier for the World championships that summer in Houston. As I said, King knew how to do a deal.

King also knew how to move objects to make things fit. In 1997 five Ugandan boxers arrived from nowhere; there was no record of them applying. King let them in, put them up and fed them. They all lost quick, but somewhere in a boxing gym in Kampala there will no doubt be a picture of King, arm in arm with one of the Ugandan fighters. Word spread in Africa and in 1998, South Africa and Kenya sent a team.

In 1999, the Chinese arrived with a full team of diplomats; in China Town there were banquets each night. The boxers posed outside the Cavern and there was a sordid slot-machine paradise called Las Vegas; Most of teams seem to spend their 10-dollar a day allowance in there, chasing a lost cause.

The Festival was a glorious game-changer in many ways and came at the end of a period when GB boxing was in a deep and disturbing wilderness. It’s no wonder there was an Early Day motion in Parliament to congratulate King and Liverpool City Council for their international efforts. It was an event long, long before its time.

David Haye was there in 1999, just 18 and real a danger at light-heavyweight. Haye won three times and got a bye in the final; in the final of his opponent, the reigning Commonwealth Games champion, Courtney Fry withdrew. Haye went to Houston later that summer and lost on points to the eventual gold medal winner.

Festival veterans Froch, Haye and Harrison managed to transform British amateur boxing in just nine months in 2000 and 2001; Harrison won Olympic gold in Sydney, the first for a British boxer in 32 years; Froch won England’s first medal at the World championships in 2001 in Belfast and at the same event, Haye became the first British boxer to reach a World championship final. That is a fine legacy for the Festival.

Not everybody was happy in 1999; the Americans threatened to never return after a couple of dubious decisions. “Don’t worry, I will sort them out,” said Kingy to me with confidence one night in the St. George’s hotel bar – the one with the dollar sign. “I will send a wife off to Shakespeare’s house and make a few promises.” Kingy was getting ready for a high-ranking role in the old amateur game.

In 2005, King personally delivered a 50-page document to Paris to secure the right to stage the 2008 European Championships in Liverpool. The city beat off the competition from Sweden, Finland and Estonia.

In 2011, long after the Festival had vanished, Paul King ran for president of AIBA, as the body governing the amateur sport was known back then, but lost. He was then banned for two years on a trumped-up charge, which he managed to get overturned. Kingy was an operator, make no mistake.

The eight consecutive Festivals are a special piece of British boxing history and they should never be forgotten.

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