British boxing is currently enjoying a spectacular renaissance, with world title holders across numerous weight classes. But for Kell Brook, the latest champion to emerge from the Sheffield-based Ingle gym’s production line of talent, life at the top seems to have lost it’s lustre.
On 16 August 2014 Ezekiel ‘Kell’ Brook emerged from the imaginatively named StubHub Centre (home of MLS franchise, the LA Galaxy) in Carson, California as the new International Boxing Federation welterweight champion of the world. It is true of course that boxing has become lost in an alphabet soup of sanctioning bodies and that Brook secured only one of four belts claiming to represent the pinnacle of the division. But the fact that professional boxing is a mess does not distract from Brook’s achievement.
That night in Carson, Brook faced off against Shawn Porter, a talented and undefeated American boxer from basketball star LeBron James’ hometown of Akron, Ohio. British fighters have, historically speaking, been overshadowed by their American cousins. Observers in the US often pay tribute to British fighters bravery and pride with the unspoken insinuation being that the level of skill and technical ability is not quite on the same level. But Brook overcame those expectations against Porter. He showed heart but also technique, defending himself well and landing cleanly. His performance enabled him to walk away with a majority decision and a new status in the welterweight division. Brook, hardly a big name outside of South Yorkshire before the win, now had tangible proof of his pedigree and could surely look forward to a bright future with exciting, and money spinning, challenges on the horizon.
Then came the stabbing.
Boxing is a sport filled with stories of spectacular reversals of fortune. But the brutal attack that knocked Brook’s career off track less than a month after becoming a champion must rank up there with the most startling. The details of what occurred are not entirely clear. What is known is that Brook was in Tenerife, enjoying a holiday after his victory. Brook found himself in the company of some other British tourists in a bar one night. One of the group took exception to something Brook said and the next moment began slashing at the boxer with what is described as a machete. Struck three times in the leg and once in the arm, Brook suffered major blood loss and required immediate surgery to deal with injuries deemed life threatening.
In a recent interview with Donald McRae, Brook described the lasting psychological impact of the assault. “Whenever I have people around me I feel tense. I can’t have people walking behind me. I hardly go out at night now.”
Brook was lucky to escape that night with his life let alone with a chance to continue his boxing career. But by March 2015 he had recovered sufficiently to re-enter the ring. With the Tenerife episode behind him, Brook could get back to forging a legacy worthy of a champion.
However, since taking Porter’s title, Brook has struggled to regain any momentum in his career. His first fight after being stabbed was against a Romanian named Jo Jo Dan. Given the circumstances, Dan was not a terrible match up. Although not exactly a name that was going to draw the crowds, Dan had a credible record and was a mandatory challenger (a compulsory fight ordered by the IBF). The fight itself proved a mismatch. Dan was floored repeatedly and his corner threw in the towel before the start of the fourth round. An encouraging return but given the time already lost, Brook needed a big fight.
But the fights just weren’t there. Brook’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, the big face in British boxing, repeatedly stated Brook was out to challenge the best. There was talk of a title fight at Bramall Lane, home of Brook’s beloved Sheffield United. There was talk of more big fights in America. Above all there was talk of Amir Khan.
Kell Brook, it’s fair to say, does not like Amir Khan. The two have a long and antagonistic history, going back years to fierce sparring sessions in training. Brook has rarely missed an opportunity to publicly call Khan out, whether on Twitter or on tv. Khan normally responds with a mixture of disinterest and superiority, which only seems to rile Brook further. At the press conference for his upcoming fight against Kevin Bizier, Brook reiterated his desire to “put that lad from Bolton on his arse.”
There is no doubt that there is appetite in Britain for Khan against Brook. But it’s also true that people have begun to tire of Brook’s constant pushing for a fight only one fighter seems interested in. His claims that Khan is ducking him are also somewhat undermined by the fact that Khan has agreed to fight Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, one of the biggest stars in contemporary boxing who fights at two weight divisions heavier than the Bolton Olympic silver medal winner. It’s hard to make someone out as a coward when they’re ignoring you to fight one of the biggest names in boxing. Brook’s constant references to Khan have become somewhat of a running joke, and a source of annoyance, to British boxing fans.
So, trumped by his bitterest rival, Brook has to find his own headline grabbing fight. Tonight’s fight against Kevin Bizier is not it. Without being disrespectful to the Canadian fighter, on the basis of his record, Bizier cannot be considered much of a challenge for Brook. He has already lost twice to Jo Jo Dan, the same fighter Brook dismissed in four rounds. Of course, nothing is ever guaranteed in boxing and Brook would be foolish to look past Bizier, but home grown fans showed little enthusiasm upon the announcement of the clash and it seems unlikely to draw many from the more casual viewers.
Fights like this one are essentially lose-lose for Brook from a fans perspective. He wins easily and he’s fighting “tomato cans” (knock them over and watch the red spill out), he struggles or even loses and he’s exposed as a fraud. There is no doubt that unless Brook quickly steps up the level of opposition then he will quickly drift into irrelevance.
Both he and Hearn seem to be well aware of this. Brook’s problem is not that he’s unwilling to fight the best, but that he doesn’t seem able to make the best want to fight him. Boxing is at heart a business, it’s called prize-fighting for a reason. Brook simply does not have the sort of star power to make him an attractive proposition abroad. He may be a hero to boxing fans in Sheffield, but he’s far from a household name even in the UK. He lacks the polarising personality and crowd pleasing ring antics of fellow Steel City champion Naseem “Prince” Hamed. He won’t sell many tickets and pay per views outside of South Yorkshire. The risk to reward ratio of fighting Brook just isn’t worth it. He’s a good enough fighter to pose a threat but doesn’t offer enough of a pay day to justify taking the chance.
Now nearly 30, time is ticking for the fighter from Shirecliffe. While hardly past it, boxer’s peaks do not last forever and the decline can be rapid. It would be a shame for a boxer with as much talent as Brook has not to at least get the chance to fulfil his full potential. While he could probably build a decent career for himself fighting regular if uninspiring opposition in his home town, Brook seems anxious to test himself. The time has come to forget about Khan and focus on his own career.
Brook’s future now hangs on who he can find to fight next. Eddie Hearn has already booked Wembley for June and has repeatedly stated he wants a big name to face Brook there. Numerous rumours are flying around, with Pacquiao, Timothy Bradley, even the menacing Gennady Golovkin being mentioned. If Brook can secure a worthy opponent and beat them, perhaps then he can provide some much needed credibility to his claims of being the “special one.”