The new face of boxing

A MIXED reception greeted Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet when it was released, particularly among purists. Those critical derided it as Shakespeare for the 1990s: extravagant, violent and punked up. But just as many found the modernisation thrilling and argued it didn't matter if it was Leonardo DiCaprio who introduced the classic to a new audience, so long as someone did.

Another pastime of nobler times, boxing, now faces a similar dilemma, through the growing modern take of the celebrity fighter.

Aside from rare moments in the spotlight, such as last week's Daniel Geale-Anthony Mundine fight, boxing is itself in danger of being stuck on the ropes in a crowded sporting landscape, given its politics, personalities and sparsity of meaningful contests.

That doesn't mean people can't watch others fight. Far from it. On Friday, footballers Sonny Bill Williams and Quade Cooper will detour from their real jobs to satisfy sporting itches.

At a time when he could be focused on a switch back to rugby league and the NRL, Williams will fight South African Francois Botha, who once stood toe to toe with Mike Tyson. Williams, who has fought five professional bouts previously, claims a loss next week will end this chapter of his sporting career, which also included a four-year stint in rugby.

Cooper, who will box for charity on the undercard of his friend, is shaping for his debut in the ring before resuming full-time duties with the Queensland Reds in Super Rugby.

The fighting footballers continue a recent run of athletes donning the gloves, including a group of league and rugby players in Auckland, cricketer Andrew Flintoff and even celebrity DJ Ruby Rose.

Runner John Steffensen is also considering a move to boxing following his suspension by Athletics Australia last week.

Flintoff's bout generated a buzz of publicity, but as a contest his efforts in fighting - and beating - Richard Dawson were criticised as amateur-hour and belittling the sport by those within boxing circles, especially as Britain's David Price defended his Commonwealth heavyweight title on the same night, 50 kilometres away. Guess who got all the attention?

In Australia, there is mixed reaction to celebrity fighters. Former fighter and now commentator Barry Michael is annoyed career boxers cannot generate the publicity that Williams and Cooper will this week, but he hopes that, ultimately, the sport benefits through the exposure.

''I just like to think they're fair dinkum, that they're not doing it out of trying to make a quick buck. It certainly brings the focus on boxing, the sport that I love, because boxing is under-represented, misrepresented or maligned,'' Michael said.

''Anything that brings the spotlight on boxing is good. I love boxing and I like to see positive stuff and I like to see these guys take it seriously, because it's not something to be taken lightly.''

Friday's fights will be pay-per-view events on television, and Michael said anyone who watched them would be aware of exactly what they were paying for.

''I don't think the sport's integrity can be hurt, because people who go see them know who they are. They know they're footballers and they shouldn't expect to see Sugar Ray Leonard or even Anthony Mundine,'' he said. ''In those codes - Aussie rules and rugby - there must be some guys who have got boxing talent. If the spotlight goes on boxing because they're a famous rugby player, so be it because it might unearth another Anthony Mundine.''

Mundine himself was a rugby league star before he made a career in the ring, but Cooper's opponent, Barry Dunnett, said the boxing community was over the concept of footballers dabbling in someone else's sport. ''I think all the fighting community gets a bit annoyed at athletes trying to switch codes and calling themselves a triple-pro. It's frustrating. It takes money away from guys who have been doing it all their life,'' Dunnett said last month. ''Everyone in the boxing community is behind me. They want to put an end to the footballer-turned-fighter.''

Jeff Fenech can only envisage more celebrity fighters, but was dismayed to see the tweet Williams posted after Mundine's loss to Geale - that the judges were ''corrupt'' - showing the footballer's ignorance of boxing (Williams later apologised).

''You can't blame people for trying to earn a dollar if it's an honest dollar, but this is a manipulative way to earn it because there's so many guys out there who have been fighting all their life and haven't earned anywhere near what these guys have earned. I'm sure it breaks those young guys' hearts,'' Fenech said.

''Boxing is nothing like it was. That's why the UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship, the mixed martial arts events] has million of members and has everything that those people need. Boxing will always struggle unless it's a super fight …

''Me, I don't watch boxing any more, and I'd be nothing without the sport.''

Whether others watch boxing could depend on how Williams and Cooper fare.

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