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British boxing returns to its spiritual home and about time too

"By J Powell"


The timing could hardly be more appropriate as Frank Bruno, one of our national treasures, resumes his battle against depression and associated mental disorders at a psychiatric facility.


Nostalgia will be as thick and heavy as the plush velvet furnishings on Saturday night when boxing returns to the ornate splendour of the Royal Albert Hall, where Bruno fought no fewer than 15 times on his way to winning the world heavyweight title.


It is 13 years since the Sweet Science graced this elegant London home of the more refined arts and its revival at this iconic venue will be welcomed by all except the local residents who secured its prohibition in 1999.


It was never right that local residents of wealth and connection were able to use that influence to exclude prize-fighting from the calendar of events.


When they purchased their grand apartments they knew full well the proximity to Queen Victoria's multi-purpose ‘Palace of Culture and Entertainment.'


The history of the Hall, erected in 1871 in the name of her consort Prince Albert, is as steeped in boxing as it has been in classical music - from personal appearances by Rachmaninov, Elgar, Wagner and Verdi to the Proms - as well as popular performances by the likes of Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Elton John, Oscar Peterson, Liza Minelli and Eric Clapton.


And if entertainment was part of he Hall's remit then boxing certainly has provided that in abundance.


Our thoughts will turn at ringside to Bruno's exploits beneath these chandeliers. All 15 of his fights at the Albert Hall were won by knock-out, though not without some typical alarms along the way. When America's Jumbo Cummings landed a huge right on that suspect chin our Frank was on his way to the canvas but fell against referee Harry Gibbs... who caught him, held him up and helped him back to his corner as the bell sounded for the end of the round.


Bruno recovered, kept his record intact and went on to beat Oliver McCall at Wembley to finally secure his world championship.


Fellow Londoner Lennox Lewis preceded him to that summit - as the first Englishman for a century to reign as heavyweight king - after seven wins at the Albert Hall.


Boxing was first seen there in 1918 as servicemen from the British Empire and America met in an amateur match.


The future Edward VIII, then Prince of Wales, was in attendance three years later as professional boxing arrived, appropriately in the person of Welsh great Jimmy Wilde.


French world light-heavyweight champion Georges Carpentier and Italian heavyweight giant Primo Carnera were among the paid pugilists who followed Wilde through those gilded doors in the roaring 20s.


They were followed in turn down the years by a host of the ring's finest including Howard Winstone, Muhammad Ali for two exhibition matches in the 70s, Sir Henry Cooper, Nigel Benn, Prince Naseem Hamed and Joe Calzaghe.


The last promotion there included a young Ricky Hatton and a British heavyweight title fight between Julius Francis and Danny Williams. It was climaxed by a world title defence by Mexican legend Marco Antonio Barrera and once he had defeated Paul Lloyd those doors were barricaded against boxing.


Friday's return should have been led, deep in the tradition of Wilde and Calzaghe, by Welsh world light-heavyweight champion Nathan Cleverly but a virus has postponed his defence against Robin Krasniqi.


So that honour falls to Billy Joe Saunders in a Commonwealth middleweight title defence against Tony Hill. An interesting step in the prospective development of Saunders, if not exactly a match made in the legend of the venue.


However, it was always going to be the occasion which would lure us to Kensington on Saturday.


We will wish dear old Frank well... and that he could have been with us as the Noble Art returns to a cultured place where it belongs.


The memories will generate the atmosphere, which in turn should stimulate the boxers.


Those unable to be there as a small but important piece of boxing history is made will be able to look in through the camera lens of Frank Warren's BoxNation television channel, which is available via Sky Channel 456 or Virgin Chanel 546.