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Anyone who grew up in the 20th century following sport will have had their lives punctuated by world heavyweight title fights. As a child, my father listened to Jack Dempsey v Georges Carpentier on a "cat's whisker" radio.

I grew up during the great days of Muhammad Ali, the most famous man in the world, heard him beat Sonny Liston on my transistor, and went to cinemas at 3am to watch him fight Joe Frazier.

For any British sporting enthusiast, the idea that one of our boys might some day avenge dear old Henry Cooper and become the champ was a fantasy far more potent than winning the World Cup of anything. You did not have to like the idea of grown men whacking each other to be infected by this. It just mattered.

On Saturday in Las Vegas (or 4.30am on Sunday in UK time), Danny Williams of Peckham will be challenging Vitali Klitschko of Ukraine for the title. No radios or cinemas necessary; it's on pay-per-view. Hands up those who know. Hands up those who care.

Boxing's decline as a serious sport has been in inverse proportion to the number of world champions. There used to be eight, and their names were general knowledge. Now there are at least six competing "governing" bodies, of varying degrees of seriousness, each recognising different champions in 17 weight divisions. This arrangement suits everyone: a world title contest is going on somewhere on the planet at pretty much any given moment, and some poor saps are being suckered into paying to watch.

If I formed the Universal Boxing Association (assuming it doesn't yet exist), got some fancy letterhead (Matthew L. Engel, president), and persuaded two big blokes from the pub to have a punch-up on the lawn for the UBA title, I dare say we could rake in a bit of gate money and a low-key cable TV contract.

But it wouldn't be like the days when the world held its breath. Squeamishness is another factor in the decline. The sight of Ali, the cleverest and prettiest of all, reduced to a mumbling hulk by the punches he took should be the final proof for most intelligent people that boxing is no sport.

And, quite simply, boxing needs to be box office. It thrived on the clash of personalities, and the heavyweight division has failed to provide one since Mike Tyson's boxing became as flawed as his psyche. Apologists will tell you there is really good stuff lower down the weights. But for these fighters to be more than home-town heroes, recognised by the locals and some quasi-official body only slightly more real than the UBA, they have to manufacture an image for themselves, like "Prince" Naseem or Chris Eubank.

The Vegas fight is for the World Boxing Council title, the least unconvincing of those on offer. And one of the combatants is intriguing. For this Klitschko is no ordinary pug. He is a PhD (in sports science); he speaks four languages (four more than some past champs); and he comes from Ukraine, where he and his brother Wladimir, himself a leading heavyweight, have been prominent supporters of the orange-clad protesters on the streets of Kiev. To Ukrainians, his success matters.

But though he is the first man in boxing history to use the word "geopolitical" at a pre-fight press conference, that is not the most significant fact about him. He is also more than 6ft 7in tall and hits like billy-oh, which is why the bookmakers make him about 5-1 on to win.

Williams is not, as things stand, even the most famous man in Peckham (OK, Del Trotter is not actually real, but even so). Earlier this year, he lost his British title to one Michael Sprott but became a contender in July after knocking out Tyson, who had lined him up as a patsy; whether that makes him credible is another question - beating the husk of Tyson no longer counts for much.

However, Williams too is a big, big man: six inches shorter than Klitschko but at 19st 4lb at Friday's weigh-in, 20lb ahead of his rival. Klitschko is not without flaws: there were allegations of steroid use in his amateur days; he lost to Lennox Lewis because he cut badly; and his only other defeat, against Chris Byrd nearly five years ago, came when he simply gave up. "Klitschko has a yellow streak in him," Williams taunted the other day, desperately trying to make it sound like a grudge match to drum up interest.

Actually, both men seem rather admirable. Williams's entourage in Vegas has consisted of just two - a trainer and a cook - and he has been spotted in his little rented house folding his own clean laundry.

Outside Vegas, Ukraine and maybe Peckham, no one is that bothered who wins. But I hope neither giant gets hurt.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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