Tournament of Dreams: Remembering the British Lionhearts in the World Series of Boxing

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MOST onlookers in the British Lionhearts support team agreed that Joe Joyce looked uncharacteristically edgy as he made his way to the ring.

The date was November, 23 2012. The place was Celtic Manor in Newport. And the occasion was the first home appearance by the British Lionhearts in the World Series of Boxing (WSB), against the reigning champions, Dolce & Gabbana Italia Thunder.

A decade on, Joyce admits his colleagues were right to detect his nervousness.

“It was all new,” he explains. “I’d only had 15 amateur bouts where it was computer scoring, headguards and three rounds. WSB was five rounds, no headguard, small gloves and different scoring (10 points must).”

Joyce’s misgivings meant he had only put pen-to-paper on his WSB contract the previous day following a pep-talk from GB Boxing’s Performance Director, Rob McCracken, who was also the Head Coach of the Lionhearts.

“Rob said it was just a few extra rounds. He told me I was a big man and could handle it,” laughs Joyce.

Not for the first time, McCracken’s judgement was spot-on as Joyce stopped Matteo Modugno in the fourth round as part of a 4-1 Lionhearts victory.

For Joyce, it marked the start of a Lionhearts career that would see him become the teams’ record appearance maker, with a 14-2 WSB record that included a victory over Filip Hrgovic and a creditable points loss to the man who currently stands one place above him in the heavyweight division of the Transnational Boxing Rankings.

His experience in the five round format turbo-charged an amateur career that concluded in the 2016 Olympic final (with a silver medal that many think should have been gold) and served as an apprenticeship for a move into the professional ranks which sees him on the cusp of world title mega-fights after only 15 fights.

For the British Lionhearts it marked the start of a six-year period which WSB build a small but enthusiastic following that included many boxing journalists who were big fans of the format which, in a counterpoint to many professional undercards, invariably delivered five, competitive, high-quality contests.

It also provided a level of top-quality competition that has fast-tracked the careers of a generation of boxers from Great Britain’s Olympic programme.

And while WSB never grew its base beyond a small hardcore of fans and is frequently cited as a major cause of the financial crisis that engulfed IBA (formerly AIBA), it had an understated yet influential impact on the current healthy state of British boxing.

Sam Maxwell of the British Lionhearts (R) in action against Vasyl Lomachenko of the Ukraine Otamans during the World Series of Boxing (Scott Heavey/Getty Images)

Origins of WSB

Established in 2010 by the body which governs international amateur boxing, IBA, WSB was a semi-professional hybrid of the sport in which mainly amateur boxers competed without vests or headguards for five three minutes rounds, for national teams in five fight home and away fixtures.

It offered a route to Olympic qualification and introduced some of the glitz of professional boxing to the traditionally more staid amateur code.

Great Britain did not participate in the first two seasons but, following the success of Team GB at London 2012, the British Lionhearts franchise was established for 2012-13.

The team was made-up of boxers from the GB Boxing Olympic squad along with a small number of overseas ‘draft’ selections. And though 2012 gold medallists, Anthony Joshua and Luke Campbell, chose to pursue professional careers, the original squad boasted stellar a line-up which included Joyce, two future world leaders, Josh Taylor and Joe Cordina, and Olympic silver medallist, Fred Evans.

On November 15, 2021, Cordina became the first Lionheart to box when he defeated Eric Fowler of the USA Knockouts in a 4-1 victory in Los Angeles. Following the home win against Italy at Celtic Manor and a 4-1 victory over the German Eagles at Earls Court, the team made Bethnal Green’s iconic York Hall its home venue.

Broadcast rights were owned by IBA’s Boxing Marketing Arm (BMA), which negotiated an agreement with BoxNation to televise home and away fixtures.

(L to R) British Lionhearts Josh Taylor, Fred Evans, Andrew Selby, Joe Joyce, Sean McGoldrick and Anthony Fowler on November 6, 2012 in London, England (Scott Heavey/Getty Images)

“World class boxers competing over five rounds in a pro-style format”

Apart from 2013-14 when the Lionhearts opted out (though Joyce and Andrew Selby were drafted to box for Italia Thunder), it ushered in a five-year period of Thursday night WSB shows, most of which were at York Hall.

The shows built a small but loyal following, that often saw Anthony Joshua in the crowd, and included many journalists and broadcasters who enjoyed the team format and near certain guarantee of quality.

Boxing broadcaster, Andy Clarke, who worked on more than 30 WSB matches at home and abroad, as a commentator and MC, explains: “The package was perfect. Five, five round fights and you very rarely saw a poor match-up. You might see the odd one where someone got a bit outclassed but it rarely resulted in a stoppage. The boxers were all high-level operators.”

John Dennen, who covered the Lionhearts’ five seasons in WSB for Boxing News, adds: “What made WSB so special was that it had world class boxers competing over five rounds in a pro-style format, but doing it at an amateur pace. The fights were non-stop and often brutal.”

WSB teams were stocked with world and Olympic medallists which meant the best frequently fought the best. And while some might dismiss watching Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Ukrainians in Bethnal Green as ‘boxing hipsterism’, WSB gave fans an opportunity to see world class action and boxers that had the potential to become global pound-for-pound superstars in a small hall setting.

The most famous instance came in March 2013 when the Lionhearts took on a Ukraine Otamans team which included Vasily Lomachenko (who boxed Sam Maxwell) and Oleksandr Usyk (against Joe Joyce).

The fights have more than two million views on YouTube and, in the same way that music fans of a certain age claim to have been in the 100-person audience when The Sex Pistols played Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1976, this occasion has achieved a similar status in boxing.

Andy Clarke jokes: “I am one of the very few people in British boxing that is happy to admit I was not there. However, I have met about 4,000 people who say they were.”

One attendee was Sky Sports’ Andy Scott, who had presciently convinced his colleagues that he should film a feature with Lomachenko and Usyk in the expectation they might one day become big name professionals.

Scott recalls: “It was a predominantly Ukrainian crowd and the atmosphere was incredible. There was a guy in a traditional Cossack hat, with an enormous drum. Another guy had a cowbell. I am not sure how they got that through the security at York Hall.

“When Loma came out the roof came off. I had never heard a noise like that at York Hall before and I’ve never heard one since.

“Sam Maxwell did himself proud and boxed well. But at the same time, I remember thinking no wonder Lomachenko has achieved everything he has as an amateur because he was just brilliant. Some people can look effortless. He was just gliding through it. He was a wizard.

“And then we finished with Big Joe Joyce.

“Kellie Maloney, Frank at the time, had come to run the rule over him and, because he was from London, there were a few people there to watch him. But when it started, the Usyk we see now as the undefeated champion, was every bit as polished in WSB.

“Joe did well though. It was my first introduction to ‘The Juggernaut’ and he was good.”

Like Lomachenko’s fight with Maxwell, all three judges scored the heavyweight contest 50-45 in favour of the Ukrainian.

A decade on, Joyce is generous in his praise of Usyk yet confident he could cause him more problems if they get to re-match in a global super fight.

He says: “I gave him a run for his money and could see he was getting flustered when I caught him. I was throwing a lot, but he had good movement and would come back with stinging counters.

“At the time he was a little bit too smart for me, a few stages ahead. But I’ve levelled-up in my experience and, over more rounds, it would be a different fight now.”

March 1, 2013: Joe Joyce of the British Lionhearts (L) in action with Oleksandr Usyk of the Ukraine Otamans during the World Series of Boxing (Scott Heavey/Getty Images)

Impact on British boxing

Potential Olympic qualification and the opportunity to consistently test their boxers against world class opponents were the reasons why GB Boxing’s bosses had created the Lionhearts franchise. And as the team grew stronger in 2014 and 2015, before making the WSB final in 2016 (where they lost to a star-studded Cuba Domodores outfit that contained six world or Olympic champions), the benefits became apparent.

GB Boxing’s, Lee Pullen, cornered the Lionhearts in every season of WSB and, despite initial scepticism, has no doubt about the impact it had on the boxers.

He says: “WSB fast-tracked our boxers. It was fantastic for their development. If you look at the ones who won, most of them went on to do something in the Olympics and are now doing well in the pros.

“I was not for it at first and was thrown in the deep end when I took a team to America for the first show. But then we beat USA 4-1 in their own backyard and it was ‘how good is this?’.”

Andy Clarke, agrees: “WSB was an amazing runway into the pros. You can guarantee that every single WSB fight will have been ten times more competitive than anything a boxer will face in their early pro career.”

The statistics are revealing. The six men that won Olympic medals in Rio and Tokyo (Joe Joyce, Joshua Buatsi, Galal Yafai, Pat McCormack, Ben Whittaker and Frazer Clarke) share an impressive aggregate of 37 wins from 44 WSB bouts.

In the professional ranks, Joe Cordina, Josh Taylor and Lawrence Okolie have won major sanctioning body titles in under 16 fights. Joyce and Buatsi are on the cusp of joining them.

In their slipstream is the next generation of WSB graduates including Peter McGrail, Pat McCormack, Dalton Smith, Frazer Clarke and Galal Yafai (38 WSB bouts combined), who are all unbeaten as professionals and on the fast-track to world title opportunities. 2020 Olympic champion, Galal Yafai began his professional career with an eight rounder and won a WBC International belt on his debut.

Former IBF super-featherweight belt-holder, Joe Cordina boxed five times for the Lionhearts and credits the format and standard of WSB with his acceleration through the professional ranks.

“WSB helped to prepare me for the differences between amateur and pro boxing,” says Cordina. “I won a world title in my 15th bout and I am not sure I have boxed anyone as a pro who was as good as the best I faced as an amateur or in WSB.”

For Joyce, the benefits extended beyond performance.

“There was a bit more glitz and glamour in WSB,” says the man who would often conclude his victories with a somersault.

“It got you used to the things like the head-to-head, weighing in the day before and entrance music. It meant when I experienced it as a pro I was confident because I’d already done it.”

Joe Joyce of British Lionhearts (R) meets Matteo Modugno of Italia Thunder during their bout in the World Series of Boxing on November 23, 2012 in Newport, Wales (Scott Heavey/Getty Images)

The end of the road

The 2017-18 season saw the Lionhearts go on the road with matches in Liverpool, Newport and a sold-out show in Gateshead. It took place against a backdrop of escalating financial problems for IBA and turned out to be a last hurrah for the Lionhearts.

No-one knew it at the time, but the team’s final appearance was in April 2018 in Newport when the Lionheart’s produced a stirring comeback from 2-0 down to defeat the France Fighting Roosters 3-2. 15 months later in July 2019, IBA confirmed WSB was suspended indefinitely.

For its small army of loyal fans and supporters in the media the end of WSB was a disappointment but it did not lead to a widespread outpouring of sadness as the competition had remained a fringe pleasure.

Crowds rarely got above the hundreds and, despite Box Nation’s live coverage, it did not build a large following on television.

For a format with so much potential that could win the hearts and minds of seasoned boxing watchers, WSB’s failure to establish a foothold in the landscape of the sport remains a disappointment.

The reasons for its demise lie mainly with IBA’s financial troubles and a failure to spread the word and build an audience that could generate significant revenues.

WSB was never actively marketed by the BMA so the competition struggled to grow its fanbase. BoxNation’s television coverage served a small audience of enthusiasts, but the channel did not have the reach or promotional clout of other broadcasters.

Andy Clarke notes: “I asked them (the BMA) ‘why don’t you want to tell anyone about this because the standard is supersonic?’ The answer was always ‘next season’. But it just never arrived.”

Ultimately WSB’s legacy is as a high-class finishing school for a generation of boxers that have made Great Britain an amateur powerhouse with the potential to usher in a golden era for British boxing.

For the fans it is fondly remembered as a reason to head to Bethnal Green on a cold Thursday night to watch British fighters take on world class talents from Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Mexico, USA and Cuba over five tightly contested rounds.

Its enduring appeal is summed-up by Clarke.

“In years to come we will bore people about this amazing thing called WSB and nobody will know what we’re talking about,” he says.

“It will sound like we are making it up because everything about it was so good. York Hall was the perfect venue. It was midweek, so it was not up against anything else, and the tickets were cheap. It started at eight and finished at ten thirty. And you were guaranteed 20-25 rounds of top-notch boxing.

“It sounds too good to be true. And that’s the thing. In many ways it was too good to be true.”

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