From the archives: Swedish miracle
Luke G. Williams
At the weekend Anthony Yigit became Sweden's first professional European boxing champion in 30 years. An opportune time to reprint Luke G. Williams' article on the Swedish boxing revival from the November 2016 issue of Boxing Monthly...
After being banned for more than 35 years, professional boxing in Sweden is beginning to boom. Luke G. Williams examines an unlikely comeback...
“Being a boxer in Sweden,” Badou Jack once mused, “is like playing ice hockey in Africa.”
Jack would know. Born in Stockholm to a Swedish mother and Gambian father, the WBC super middleweight champion has fought just three of his 23 professional contests to date in the land of his birth.
The fact that a Swedish world boxing champion has fought so infrequently in Sweden accurately reflects the country’s troubled relationship with boxing. In a country with a “nanny state” culture and reputation for pacifism, large sections of Swedish society have long maintained an attitude towards boxing best described as ambivalence mixed with hostility.
When the Olympics came to Stockholm in 1912, boxing was axed from the programme due to the organising committee’s distaste for the sport, while professional boxing was banned from 1970 until the beginning of 2007.
That Swedish boxing is now entering a period of growth and rising popularity is therefore nothing short of miraculous.
As well as WBC champ Jack, Sweden has enjoyed further world-level success in recent years, particularly in women’s boxing, with Mikaela Lauren having previously held the WBC super welter title and Klara Svensson — after beating Lauren in a high-profile female superfight — the current WBC interim welterweight champion.
Regular Sauerland promotions — including two highly successful cards this year at Stockholm’s Hovet Arena — have boosted boxing in Sweden.
A country that produced fighters such as heavyweight champion Ingemar Johansson and former European 154lbs champion Bo Högberg and saw appearances by Floyd Patterson — who won three bouts in Sweden but lost a controversial decision to Jimmy Ellis in a WBA title fight in Stockholm — and Sonny Liston now has headline attractions such as undefeated light-heavyweight Erik Skoglund and the aforementioned Svensson and Lauren.
So, why was professional boxing banned in Sweden and how did it beat the count and come back fighting?
For an answer, we turn to historian and writer Olof Johansson, who is now secretary of the country’s pro boxing commission.
“There’s a long back-story,” Johansson told Boxing Monthly. “Rabid politicians in Sweden have often pursued boxing over the years. There’s always been resentment within the political elite about boxing and when we had a misfortune in ’46 when [Jacques] Beneto [a French light-heavyweight] died after a fight [in Malmö against Finn Oiva Purho] that really stirred things up.”
The abolitionists were muted during the glory years when Gothenburg-born Ingemar Johansson was wielding his mighty right hand as a top contender and then champion. After Ingo’s retirement in 1963, the next big star to emerge was light-middleweight Bosse “Bo” Högberg, whose exploits caused controversy and consternation.
“[Bo] wasn’t the kind of guy you could point to as a role model,” Olof laughed. “He was wild, he had affairs left and right. Then Sonny Liston came over as well [for four fights in 1966-67], which didn’t help in terms of the political discussion.”
However, it was an investigation by the Nordic Council, a geo-political organisation of which Sweden was a member, that provided the most significant ammunition for boxing’s opponents.
“An investigation was brought to the Nordic Council recommending professional boxing be banned,” Olof explained. “The Danes said: ‘What the fuck?’ and threw the report out. The Norwegians did the same and the Finns didn’t even look at it. But the Swedes said: ‘We’re going to take it to parliament for a thorough discussion.’
“Suddenly the bandwagon rolled like you wouldn’t believe. It was typical Sweden. Everyone was saying the world was a rotten place and the most rotten thing in it was professional boxing. It all went bananas in a very short time — from the report appearing in 1967 in just two years it went to a vote in parliament and professional boxing was suddenly outlawed.”
For years, Olof was one of the few voices trying to keep the issue of professional boxing on the political agenda. In 1978 he was joined by an energetic ally in the form of lawyer Björn Rosengren, the new head of the Swedish Amateur Boxing Federation.
After his appointment, Rosengren promptly announced a five-point plan for Swedish boxing, with point one being “to get professional boxing back”. That was easier said than done. “To change the law in Sweden is nearly impossible,” he confessed. “Sweden is Sweden and the state concentrates on very small things.”
Ironically, it was the rise of rival combat sports such as K-1 in the 1990s that eventually proved professional pugilism’s salvation in Sweden. “The question became why the hell these professional sports were allowed when professional boxing was outlawed,” Olof Johansson points out.
“That embarrassed the politicians, because people suddenly realised there were contact sports which weren’t being pursued in the way boxing had been. The pressure grew and by the turn of the century the politicians looked silly.”
Eventually, a parliamentary investigation was launched and, by November 2006, a new law had been passed that ensured the legal status of professional combat sports, including boxing, from
1 January 2007.
There was a proviso, though — namely that contests would be restricted to 12 minutes. Bouts longer than this would require special approval from a newly formed three-person committee, named the Kampsportsdelegationen.
So it was, from 2007, that Swedish boxing slowly but surely rebuilt its profile. Due to the diligent paperwork and patient lobbying of the Kampsportsdelegationen by the likes of Rosengren and Johansson, permission even began to be granted for contests longer than 12 minutes, with the first full-length 12-round contest on Swedish soil since the 1960s being Erik Skoglund’s IBF intercontinental title fight against Oleksandr Cherviak in September 2015.
With this watershed moment having been reached, Swedish professional boxing is now in its best health since the mid-1960s, with a group of increasingly high-profile boxers jostling for position on the world and European scene.
The fighters themselves expressed a mixture of caution and optimism when Boxing Monthly asked them for their views on the sport’s current status. Rising heavyweight contender Adrian Granat, for instance, made the decision a few years ago to base himself in Germany to further his career. He believes this remains his best option if he is to progress to a higher level.
“It’s still a challenge to be a Swedish boxer,” the 25-year-old said. “Particularly compared to other countries, like the States and England. I had to move to get better opportunities because it’s not possible to live in Sweden and make a living in professional boxing. I think it’s going to change, but it’s going to take time. In Sweden there are still people that work against boxing.”
Former women’s super welterweight champion Lauren, who lives in Stockholm, where she fought Svensson in September, is more upbeat. “Swedish boxing is becoming bigger and bigger,” she said. “Right now it’s bigger than ever because we have so many rising stars. Badou Jack is WBC champ, then there’s upcoming stars like Eric Skoglund, Anthony Yigit and Oscar Ahlin. I think the future is looking really bright.”
Lauren admits that when she was a youngster the sport was dormant. “Boxing didn’t really have much of a profile in Sweden,” she recalled, before pinpointing compatriot Aasa Sandell’s world-title challenge against Laila Ali in 2005 as “the fight that opened up my eyes about female boxing and Swedish boxing”.
She believes that Sauerland Promotion’s involvement is vital. “Now Sauerland is starting to promote, that is going to help a lot,” she said. “In the past I had to put on shows by myself in order to be able to fight. Now I am with the Sauerlands I can focus on my training and preparation. I don’t have to worry any more about doing commercials, booking the arena, booking the fighters.”
Lauren often trains alongside promising unbeaten super lightweight Anthony ‘Can You Dig It’ Yigit, who will soon get the chance to impress British fight fans after Hennessy Sport won the purse bid for his upcoming showdown with south Londoner Lenny Daws for the vacant European title. Sauerland Promotion had planned to stage the contest in Nykoping if they had won the right to stage it. Nevertheless, the match-up will further increase Yigit’s profile, and that of Swedish boxing.
Unbeaten heavyweight prospect Otto Wallin is another riding the wave of Sweden’s new boxing boom. Although based in Denmark, his promotional contract with Sauerland Promotion means his last four fights have been in his homeland. The 25-year-old believes that the hangover from the professional boxing ban is gradually fading. “[When I was growing up] amateur boxing in Sweden was doing all right, but with professional boxing being banned, there was a different mentality in Sweden,” he said.
“There weren’t a lot of guys who turned pro. The ones that did were really good fighters. Maybe they had qualified for the Olympics or done very good as amateurs. But now professional boxing is picking up. The fights are on the TV and we’ve got some big talent. I think we have good times ahead of us.”
Björn Rosengren, though, who is now president of the Swedish Pro Boxing Commission, does not consider the battle to have been fully won. “It’s a miracle we got professional boxing back, but a miracle with some shadows, because we have this authority that we have to report to all the time,” he explained.
“Thank God I’m a lawyer, because you can’t possibly understand how much paperwork I have to complete for every event. So the campaign is not over until we have permanent permission to arrange matches. Whether I live long enough to see that, though, I don’t know.”