Luke Keeler: The Life of a Prospect

Luke1When I talk to Dublin’s Luke Keeler, he is just three days away from headlining a Friday fight night card in the Irish capital.  In just his sixth bout of a fledgling professional career, this is a big moment for the middleweight prospect.  Though in some respects just another step along the road, being the bill-topper in his home town increases the pressure and adds significance to how he performs on the night.  Preparation for the six three minute rounds should have his full and undivided attention right now.

But it is not as simple as that.  Where the Showtime Sports cameras to follow Keeler around for an all access look at his weeks building up to a fight, examples of Mayweather-esque largesse or Floyd’s opponent’s apparent Spartan-like devotion to training would be few and far between.  The former is just not in Keeler’s character: the latter is absent through circumstance.  The complicated reality of life as a boxing prospect means there are more elements in the equation than train, rest and fight.

“I’ve got 150 tickets to sell,” Keeler tells me.  “I need to sell them to cover me and my opponent.  It’s that or you don’t fight.”  It reminded me of the passage in Roy Keane’s autobiography were the ex-United man spoke of his performances suffering because he spent so much time running around sorting out tickets for friends and family.  But at least Roy got to play either way.  And at least his wages hit his bank account every month regardless of ability to move match tickets.

“Young guys, good amateurs who could make it in the pro game, contact me and ask me how to get started.  I tell them, unless you have a fan base that can guarantee at least 100 tickets, you won’t even get a start.”  With the type of purses we are talking about at this level, a €700 compulsory medical could be all it takes to devour any profits a young pro could make.

Others, such as super middleweight Brendan Fitzpatrick, make a start but soon drift away from the sport when promoters continue to offer peanuts.  The promising Fitzpatrick won six of his first seven pro fights but has been absent for almost two years now.  It remains to be seen whether we’ll see him back in the ring again.

Despite the great tradition of boxing in Ireland, it is tough to make a living in the sport here.  We talk about the increased opportunities across the water where a higher volume of shows, and thus potential sponsorship deals, can quickly open doors for fighters.  “I don’t mind going to England.  I don’t even mind losing money.  It’s about building a record, getting there and hopefully it’ll pay off.”  It’s an astute long-term view of things that Keeler describes as “investing into himself.”

Another important factor is having the right profile – a highly subjective concept which can vary across generations, countries and even weight divisions.  In general, a successful amateur career and a couple of medals in your pocket goes some way to providing the type of profile needed to sell tickets or, even better, tempt a promotional team to take a punt on you.  But once again, it is not as simple as that.

“I had a decent amateur career and just missed out on an Irish title.  I shared a couple of close fights with Eamonn O’Kane in the senior’s and lost a tight one to Jason Quigley as well.  But I was competing against full-time athletes on grants while I was studying full-time and working a part-time job.  It’s tough.”

Both O’Kane and Quigley were members of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association’s High Performance team.  This elite unit was founded in 2003 and, with funding from the Irish Sports Council, those who make the team receive sufficient financial support to allow them to concentrate 100% on their boxing.  They have all earned the right to be there, but it is difficult to fully quantify the advantages of being chosen.

luke3Donegal’s Quigley, for example, made full use of his opportunity and leveraged a World Amateur silver medal into a contract with De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions when he turned pro.  Needless to say, Jason quit any thoughts of a day job a long time ago.

Right now, Luke Keeler does not have that luxury and he’s up every morning to commute to his job with Intel, 20km west of Dublin city.  With an honours degree in structural engineering from the Dublin Institute of Technology, Keeler will always have the safety net of a good education to fall back on.

But since his uncle Stephen, himself a boxer, first brought young Luke into a gym, his heart has been set on boxing.  Stephen passed away tragically aged just 28 years old and he still serves as an inspiration and motivation to Luke who fights with his uncle’s name embroidering into his shorts.  “He was my idol, I was very proud of him.  To this day, doing him proud is a big part of why I have stuck with the boxing.”

Stephen will be looking down on Friday night as his nephew takes on Englishman Jamie Gelder, a 6’ 2” middleweight who will bring a 1 and 0 record into Friday’s contest.  Fresh off a couple of weeks sparring six rounders with the quality 6’ 1” super middleweight, Frank Buglioni, Luke is confident of taking care of business.  “I’ll hopefully get a couple of rounds, a bit of a workout,” is how he puts it.  His sights are clearly set much higher than Mr Gelder.

————————————–

“Up until the day of the fight, nothing is concrete in boxing.”  Luke spoke these words last week as we discussed other boxing matters: little did we know how prophetic they would prove to be.  Gelder never made it across the Irish Sea and so, instead of a tall, rangy 1 and 0 Englishman, Keeler was matched with a small, stocky 1 and 0 Hungarian on Friday night.

Though he took a comfortable six round decision against the tough and awkward Laszlo Kovacs, it was a below par performance from the Irishman and there was some despondency in his voice during post-fight interviews.

Three days on and he’s still not completely shaken the sense of not having done himself justice.  “I’ve learned a big lesson from that fight,” he tells me.  “I felt a bit run down and flat on the night. The fitness was there but I felt low on energy.  I was close to forcing a stoppage towards the end but just didn’t have the energy.”

Luke2That lack of zip in his work is not so surprising when you consider the average day for Keeler in the build up to a fight.  There is no question of cutting corners in the gym, but his preparation must be adapted to the financial realities of life on the preliminary rungs of the professional boxing ladder.

As well as his full-time job, Keeler admits he was then knocking down walls and hauling plaster board up two flights of stairs in the evening as he renovated an apartment.  He took the day before the fight off but spent most of that chasing ticket money.  Resting, both physically and mentally, is a pre-fight luxury Luke has yet to enjoy.

There are no truly easy paths in boxing, but even so, it is clear that Keeler is having to do things the hard way.  Fortunately the Ballyfermot boy has the stomach for the fight and, more importantly, he is fully aware of what it takes to make a success of it in this toughest of games.

“In about six months I hope to go full-time,” he says.  “I’ve opened my own gym in Dublin (Invictus Fitness in Parkwest) and with the income from that and regular fights, I’ll be able to dedicate myself to boxing.  It’s a 100% thing, all or nothing.  You need to be training full-time coming up to big fights.”

He hopes to be on the bill should Matthew Macklin fight in Dublin on November 15th.  That would mean Eddie Hearn, Matchroom, and Sky Sports in town and the type of exposure that can propel fighters to the next level.  You can have all the talent and dedication in the world, but without that break, that helping hand at the beginning of your career, life can be very difficult.

Right now, that is Luke Keeler’s life.  The life of the boxing prospect.

Floyd Mayweather: Loathing Without Fear in Las Vegas

Money_MayweatherI woke to watch this morning’s Mayweather v Maidana title bout with the intention of producing a bog standard write-up of the action.  I let social media alone during the fight before scrolling through reams of tweets immediately after.  The vast majority of people I follow are boxing writers, analysts or commentators of varying merit and reputation who, once all of their great minds are combined, generally provide a relatively balanced view of a fight.  Not so with Floyd “Money” Mayweather.

Almost to a tweet, it is possible to determine who is for and who is against from the first 140 characters or less.  The love or hate can manifest itself in a between-the-lines intonation or an in-your-face bias, but personal feelings of the man appear almost impossible to hide.  And for those in any doubt, the lovers are few and far between.

Immediate reaction to the alleged bite in the eighth round is a prime example.  It was ignored, brushed over or met with extreme mirth by the majority.  Some postulated that, through a padded glove, you’d barely feel a bite from teeth encapsulated within a gum-shield.  They could be right, but on the other hand, Tyson managed to remove a portion of Holyfield’s flesh, albeit ungloved, in similar circumstances in the same ring 17 years ago.

At time of writing, I’ve seen no 100% conclusive footage of the incident.  But the circumstance and reactions from both is enough for probable cause.  Did Maidana bite him?  Almost certainly.  Did it have any material effect on the fight?  Almost certainly not.

Floyd Mayweather Jr. v Marcos Maidana - Weigh-InThat being said, even light nibbles in the ring should surely be frowned upon and had other fighters been the perpetrator and victim, the same boxing heads laughing off the incident would be spleen-venting for days to come.  Herein lies the problem with seeking a considered and dispassionate analysis of Floyd’s actions between the ropes.

There are various sources of the antipathy towards Mayweather.  Sadly, and despite what the more self-righteous members of the boxing fraternity will proclaim, a conviction for domestic abuse tends not to be the main driver behind the loathing in Las Vegas every May and September.  Neither is it a naturally defensive style in the ring nor a perceived leading role in denying fans the one fight they have all wanted this century.  Instead it is the persona he, and various television networks, have cultivated for the self-styled TBE.

Within a couple of minutes of any given episode of All Access or 24/7, Floyd makes the top three in the average human’s, Guys I Could Never Be Friends With list.  It is a veritable 25 minute extravaganza of arrogance, misogyny and tasteless profligacy.  Think, the Wolf of Wall Street meets a professional wrestler in character in the middle of a Lil Wayne song.

The fact that it is a reality TV show, surely the most misleadingly-named genre in television, cuts no ice with the majority.  But while a kernel of truth normally lies at the heart of hyperbole, it is hard to believe that Mayweather genuinely lives each day of his life in such non-stop caricature self-indulgence and offensive bombast.

ac811f2c3f309f4b72c927730446e52b_crop_northBy the same token, not everyone he faces can possibly be the quiet, humble, respectful father/husband/son of the year nominee we are urged to buy into.  Marcos Maidana’s torso is peppered with jailhouse tatts for example.  Does that mean he is actually not the decent guy he comes across as?  Of course not.  But did he end up in the slammer due to a heart of gold and extensive volunteer work in the community?  Equally unlikely.  There is much more grey than black and white in the sweet science.

Of course, boxing needs these televised manufactured dichotomies.  Without the ingrained tribal allegiances inherent in team sports, it struggles to maintain relevance and sell itself otherwise.  Regardless of how outstanding the two athletes in question are, if they are just a couple of regular Joes with a healthy respect for each other, PPV numbers and ticket sales suffer.

Polemic rivalries and controversy are a must and while Muhammad Ali managed to generate it single-handily back when tweeting was just for birds, today’s largely characterless generation need all the help the media can give them.  That is the true reality that underpins the 21st century fly on the wall documentaries that are now the staple of big fight promotions.  It is a reality that has made Floyd Mayweather a very rich and very unpopular man.

Alleged carnivorous interlude aside, there was little of note in this particular stage of Mayweather’s 18 year unbeaten odyssey in the ring.  Nobody was predicting anything other than a comfortable points victory for the American and that is exactly what transpired.  Only El Chino’s more ardent fans, and the three ringside judges, will argue he deserved more than a couple of rounds.

4b18207de3c87023194f694c93f90138The Argentine brawler was strangely restrained throughout.  His team will undoubtedly apportion much of the blame for that on an over officious Kenny Bayless (who incidentally refereed Mayweather’s debut back when Ike Quartey was the WBA welterweight champ), and it is true that the referee was far too quick to call break from the outset.

But a relatively conservative Maidana appeared to be following a pre-determined plan to pick his punches in a more controlled form of the wild, heavy-handed aggression he is famous for.  If the Garcia family really came up with that tactic for a fighter like Marcos against a fighter like Floyd, I would consider revoking Robert Garcia’s 2011 trainer of the year award.

The result of the strategy was Maidana landing almost 100 punches less than the first fight.  On the basis that his sole chance of victory relied on landing one big one, buying less tickets for the raffle was never going to help his cause.  A big right wobbled Floyd at the end of the 3rd but the champ was never in mortal danger and countered to great effect all night long.

1379228396000-09-14-2013-Floyd-MayweatherWith one KO in seven years, and that the highly controversial ending to the 2011 Victor Ortiz bout, Mayweather appears to have given up on early nights and never looked likely to buck the trend tonight.  For that reason he has never been a feared champ in the mould of Tyson or, more recently, Gennady Golovkin.

Ws and $ are the only goals now and that was number 47 and at least 33 million respectively.  Where the next W and $ will come from is anyone’s guess.  But as sure as night follows day, both will come.  Universal respect and appreciation from the boxing world at large?  Now that’s a different story altogether.

Jamie Conlan: The Calm Before & After the Storm

jcBefore

The folly of conflating the combatant and non-combatant shades of a boxer’s character is regularly lost on those not involved in the sport.  That fighters can be so brutal inside the ring and so gentle out is still viewed as a delightful paradox by many who, I can only presume, believe that boxers live a life of barely restrained violence, always on the brink of converting latent pent-up rage into manifest hurt and pain.

In reality, of course, boxers this side of the Atlantic have a tendency to be amongst the more humble, amicable and accommodating of professional athletes.  Like the naturally shy and retiring lead singer of a band, or the inherently loud and wild small-town librarian, fighters don’t take their work home with them in this respect.  Any hint of menace or braggadocious savagery tends to be shed the instant they step out of the ring or gym and back into civilian life.

But even so, when speaking with Belfast super flyweight Jamie “The Mexican” Conlan, a man who has rendered four others unconscious in the last 18 months, it is impossible not to be slightly taken aback by just how genuinely nice he is.  On the eve of the biggest fight of his life, I ask him for 10 minutes and he gladly gives me an hour in which he appears as interested in my opinions as I am in his.  The only trouble I had was trying to keep him talking about himself, so keen was he to big up his Commonwealth gold medal winning brother Michael, stable mate Marco McCullough, or bill-topper Carl Frampton.

jc3There is a feeling that the 27 year old contender is now on the cusp of moving into the upper reaches of his division.  “It’s hard to believe really,” he tells me with a smile, that after a couple of years that were in his own words, “slow and stop-start,” he is now “knocking on the door for bigger things.”  The hard to believe comment is nothing more than standard Conlan self-deprecation.  In truth, anyone who recognises talent in the ring will attest to the fact that the only thing strange about where Jamie finds himself right now is that it took this long to get there.

The belated career catalyst has been his signing with Barry McGuigan’s Cyclone Promotions and the opportunity to fight on five big Belfast bills in succession.  Conlan has repaid the faith shown in him many times over with a serious of knock-out victories that have propelled him to number three in the British rankings, number eight and rising with the WBO, and on the radar of world level fighters.

“Hopefully now we’ll get this belt (WBO Inter-continental) and then push on for something else because I always like to progress, I don’t like to stay at the same level.”  Does that mean looking at numbers one and two in the UK, Paul Butler and Khalid Yafai, or further afield?  “Cyclone are trying to push on down the WBO path and go for the South American / Asian route because we’ve had trouble getting the British title on the line.  So we’ve said we’ll do things our way and, so far, it seems to be working.”

It seems to be working is more classic understatement from a man 24 hours away from fighting in front of 16,000 people for a WBO belt.  The WBO route he speaks of most likely means Argentinian, Mexican and Filipino opposition and potential fights in their back yard.  After so many home fixtures, how does Conlan feel about long haul flights and performing in a foreign land?  “Either way, the ring is the ring,” he responds.  “I’ve travelled the world as an amateur and enjoyed taking in the experience. Everybody has two legs, two arms and a head and until I meet someone with three arms, I won’t be worried.”

Conlan is not the type to get ahead of himself, however, and is fully focused on the job in hand, a ten rounder against Jose Estrella, a short, tough Mexican brawler he describes as like a mini Kiko Martínez.  “He’s a really dangerous opponent, a live opponent, especially dangerous in the first four rounds.  He’s a big puncher, constantly aggressive, throws good left hooks to the body and, like a typical Mexican, doesn’t mind getting hit.”

jc1The plan, he says, will be to “fight him with my footwork for the first two or three rounds, box around him, and then when I feel I’m stronger than him, press on and work my own power.  Our styles should gel well and produce a very exciting fight for the fans.”

This is the first Mexican Jamie will face and I wonder if Estrella and his camp have questioned why a Belfast boy has “The Mexican” emblazoned on his shorts and robe, a loyal band of followers donning Sombreros at every fight, and mariachi music accompanying him along each ring walk.  “He has,” he laughs, “he told my trainer John Breen that we’d find out on Saturday night what it feels like to be punched by a real Mexican.”

Needless to say that the prospect produces zero concern in Conlan’s voice for talk is just that, talk.  Nationality has no bearing on a boxing match and, having double checked that Jose does indeed have only two arms, Jamie has no reason to worry nor believe anything other than, this time tomorrow night, he’ll be 13 and 0 and another step closer to a world title challenge.

The Storm

With the sun reluctant to do its job, and a frigid breeze from Belfast Lough picking up the slack, the temperature at the first bell was fresher than anything they experience down Tijuana way.  This was Jose Estrella’s first fight on anything other than his native soil and, watching him bounce and shimmy in the ring whilst awaiting his opponent’s arrival, I half expected his trainer to pass him a shot of tequila to ensure the blood was still pumping hard enough to reach the extremities.

The unfamiliar climate perhaps contributed to an opening round that was relatively quiet by Mexican brawler standards and it was the second before he showed his true colours.  All the textbook Mejicano qualities you would expect were evident, but Estrella also had enough head movement to indicate he was much more than a punch bag with arms.

jc5He’d need to be to compete with Conlan, a boxer of deceptive power and lightening combinations that appear to increase in accuracy as a fight progresses.  There was little in the opening exchanges but the home fighter probably landed enough clean shots to nick, or at the very least not lose, the first three rounds.  But the frequent smiles and nods of the head from Estrella were telling and very early on I scribbled a note along the lines of, this is going the distance.

By the fourth, both the fight and Estrella had fully warmed up and Conlan endured the six most uncomfortable minutes of the contest, and probably his professional ring career.  Though never in mortal danger, a cut was clearly visible above his left eye and his face adopted the hue of a man who had spent the spent the day on an Acapulco beach and left the sun cream back in the hotel room.  Estrella’s pace at this point was clearly unsustainable, but while it lasted it gave Conlan plenty to think about.

By the seventh, Jamie’s brother Michael at ringside was shouting that Estrella was gassed.  That may have been overstating it but certainly the intensity levels and pressure coming from the little Mexican had dropped slightly.  The extra half second of time, or couple of inches of space, was all Conlan needed to take control.  A reasserted jab and more confident and accurate combinations took him away from trouble and into a final round that Estrella knew was todo o nada.

A Mexican stand-off was the only appropriate way to end a contest between these two and the final three minutes contained enough action, served up within a subtle ebb and flow, to warrant such a description.  It was Conlan who came out blazing before Estrella somehow mustered up a fifth or sixth wind to claim 30 seconds or so of his own.  They were trading until the end and the wide grins on both faces as they embraced appeared so quickly they may have begun amidst a final flurry of punches before the concluding bell rang.

jc2The judges scored it 97-93, 97-93 and 99-92, all in favour of the local Mexican.  The victory was fully deserved and seven rounds to three is pretty accurate.  But there is no contradiction between making that statement and then declaring that it was a lot tougher than the scorecards would suggest.  More importantly, it was exactly the type of fight Jamie Conlan needed at this point in his ascendency up the boxing food-chain.

After

Conlan was buoyant at ringside immediately after, like a kid just off the pitch having scored a hat-trick.  “I loved it in there, he was good, he gave me a test and they’re the fights you love. I’m buzzing right now.”  He was also quick to praise Estrella and acknowledged he was even better than anticipated.  “I hit him with some cracking right hands and he just nodded at me and smiled.  He hit me hard, he pressurised me well, he found the range well, and he boxed well which we didn’t think he could do.”

But though still only 27 years old, Conlan is wise enough to appreciate the benefit of a fight turning out to be more testing than expected.  “I thought if I hit him he would go over but I’m glad I got tested like that.  You don’t want someone who’s gonna fall down.  I don’t need my ego massaged, I want someone to hit me back and test me mentally and physically.”  Such level-headedness bodes well for when even bigger challenges inevitably arrive.

And what of Estrella’s pre-fight promise that Conlan was going to find out what a real Mexican punch feels like?  Another laugh as his team begin to usher him towards the warmth of the dressing room before he shouts, “He felt what a real Irish Mexican feels like!”

jc4Three nights later we speak again.  “I’m bored already,” he admits, “it’s only Tuesday and I’m already bored.”  Conlan is not the type to idle the days away.  As a qualified mechanical engineer and tiler, he’s as handy outside the ring as he is inside.  He tells me that normally “the missus” has jobs in the house for him and in the past he’d work in his dad’s tiling business.  But since John Conlan became the high performance coach of the Ulster Boxing team, that work has dried up for Jamie too.  “That’s why I usually go back to training straight away, but the missus has mentioned a holiday instead this time.”  I think he’s earned one.

We talk once more about the fight, now that he has had time to review the tape and consider his performance with adrenaline levels significantly lower than at ringside on Saturday night.  He is open and refreshingly honest in an assessment that mirrors how I read the fight from the comfort of a front row seat.  As with all perfectionists, he first focuses on the negatives, losing rounds four and five and struggling briefly with an awkward cut over his left eye, before astutely drawing the positives from the experience, reasserting authority in a fight in danger of getting away from him and remaining calm despite blood trickling into his eyeball with every blink.

He reiterated again that he is fully aware things are only going to get more difficult from here on in and the ten rounds with Estrella will stand him in good stead.  The WBO were impressed with what they saw, describing his work as a “statement performance”, and he could be as high as third in their rankings at the end of the month.  If a fight comes his way before Christmas, he is happy to take it.  If not, then he is fine with early 2015.  Two or three good wins next year and a world title shot would not be out of the question.

A couple of hours after Conlan’s victory in the Titanic Quarter, and with Jamie huddling ringside holding two cups of tea for warmth, Northern Irish boxing crowned its first world champion in 18 years.  Looking up, the cold, black, starless night sky reminded him of the only other time he had fought outdoors: an amateur tournament at the foot of the Austrian Alps.  A certain Carl Frampton, then an injured member of the same Irish squad, worked his corner throughout the duration of that competition.  How Jamie would love to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious friend and one-time spit bucket holder.

The Night of the Jackal

carl2For such a relatively small patch of land in the north east of Ireland, Belfast has a habit of producing very special sportsmen.  That rarest of rare breeds who, through the grace of God, are blessed with a particular, often intangible, gift that elevates them beyond the mere good and great and into the pantheon of sporting deity.  Think Best.  Think Higgins.  In a few years, think McIlroy.  As of last night, start thinking Carl Frampton.

The historic expanse of the Titanic slipways hosted his coronation.  The logic was build it and they will come.  The logic was sound and 16,000 braved the frigid air that drifts or gusts off the dark waters of Belfast Lough.  Among the masses were hard-core Frampton fans, pure boxing aficionados, and those simply wanting to witness, and be part of, history being made.

There were doubts over whether the flat-pack arena would be capable of generating an atmosphere to match previous nights of the Jackal in the Odyssey Arena or Ulster Hall.  And indeed, lying empty yesterday afternoon, the venue had a form more akin to a shallow soup bowl than a deep cauldron to be filled with thousands of rabid fans.  But the doubts were misplaced.

crowdThe din may not have been as constant, with single cries rising unhindered towards the night sky rather than reverberating back down to join the revelry, but instead arrived in great waves of emotion cascading ring-wards from a starting point high in the upper echelons of the stands.  We were engulfed at ringside so I can only imagine what Frampton and Martínez felt as giant swells of noise arrived simultaneously from the four points of the compass and crashed together in the centre of the square circle.

Away fighters will tell you the impact of fans and the atmosphere they create is negligible: home fighters that it provides an extra few kilojoules of energy.  I was just scribbling notes in the third row, but the adrenaline-fired roars that gained most momentum had me writing faster and pushing down heavier on the page.  So I have to side with the latter point of view.  Regardless, the truer cliché states that it is always one-on-one in the ring.  In this case, the champion, Kiko “La Sensación” Martínez, and the challenger, Carl “The Jackal” Frampton.

Ten Spaniards boarded the Titanic in 1912 and seven survived to tell the tale.  Despite the confidence emanating from Kiko’s camp in the build-up, they would have loved those odds last night.  There was much talk of témpanos, small icebergs, and tímpanos, eardrums (of the burst variety) in Spain beforehand but neither sentiment proved relevant as Frampton put on a display that his trainer, Shane McGuigan, later described as “the best performance he has ever seen.”

His charged seized the initiative from the first bell.  That this is the point in the fight when Kiko is traditionally at his most dangerous meant it was a psychological as well as physical blow that Frampton struck.  There has never been the merest shadow of a doubt that Frampton is the better boxer, but in the early rounds he made sure Kiko knew he was also the better fighter, the better brawler, the better everything between the ropes.

1113-Frampton-claims-IBF-titleThe first truly damaging punch landed in the third, a big right that sent the Spaniard hopping to his right.  In the fifth, after having been pushed to the ground and given a clip on the back of the head whilst there, an even bigger right put Kiko down onto the seat of his shorts.  The sixth was then almost exhibition-like as Frampton circled his foe and countered at will.

The challenger relaxed slightly and got caught enough to possibly lose the seventh but, in truth, he was always in complete control of the contest.  The only doubt at this point was how Frampton would decide to win the fight: counterpunch from the back-foot to win at an untroubled canter, or mix it up and go inside to trade with Martínez and guarantee crowd-pleasing flurries of action.  I believe the 16,000 would have gone home happy either way, but the Jackal decided to make absolutely sure.

The fighters, the fight, the people and the occasion deserved three championship rounds and that is what was received.  A barrage from Frampton in the eleventh had us all rising to our feet in expectation of a death knell, but Martínez stayed on his.  Had Kiko built the Titanic, I don’t think it would have sunk.

At the beginning of the twelfth there was a hug between the two men, a genuinely touching moment that dispelled any lingering animosity that had festered in the aftermath of their first fight and the preliminaries to this one.  It had a touch of the Gatti-Wards about it, although a trilogy is unlikely between these two.  Carl visited Kiko’s dressing room after for another embrace and to compare battered faces before telling Martínez with a grin, “I hope I never see you again.”

cfkmWhen the final bell rang, there was almost as much awe at the fact that Martínez was still standing and trading as there was at the mastery of Frampton’s complete boxing performance.  Two scores of 119-108 and another of 118-111 were accurate but don’t tell the full story.  Every round against a fighter like Kiko is competitive regardless of outcome.  But this is how first time world titles should be won.

In the press conference later, the entire Team Frampton could not speak highly enough of the defeated champion.  Carl said there is not another fighter he has more respect for and confirmed without hesitation that, by a distance, he is the toughest opponent he has faced.  Shane stated that Kiko would easily knock out Scott Quigg, whilst manager, Barry McGuigan described the Spaniard as, “phenomenally brave and every bit as tough a fighter, if not tougher, than Leo Santa Cruz.”  Martínez was compensated richly for making another trip to Belfast but no one would deny he earned every penny.

But the final words must be on the new IBF super bantamweight champion of the world.  It was a time to savour the moment rather than discuss the future in any great detail, but there is a very real sense that the sky is the limit now.  “I think this kid could end up being the best Irish fighter there has ever been, that’s how good he is,” was Barry’s view on his potential and added that the great Sergio Martínez described Frampton as “one of the most exciting fighters in the world.”

carlFor Carl himself, with the pain of a damaged left hand and swollen face dominating his senses, the achievement clearly hadn’t fully sank in.  In typical understatement he told us, “it has been a long time coming but I’m world champion now and very proud and very happy.”  Two feelings shared by everyone in Northern Ireland this morning.

The Carl Frampton Interview

carl6I catch Carl Frampton just after 9pm on a Wednesday evening as he crosses the River Thames heading towards his temporary home in that most affluent of London boroughs, Kensington and Chelsea.  He is acclimatised now to the rarefied air breathed in by the Dukes, Earls and Knights listed as notable residents of the area, but still laughs at the contrast of a five foot five north Belfast boy rubbing shoulders with a well-to-do population that, in his eyes anyway, “are all at least six foot two.”  Not that Frampton would have much to fear were it to kick off after too many Dom Perignons in the local wine bar however.

The Tiger’s Bay boxer is on his way back from a late evening session in the Battersea gym where he’s preparing for next week’s Super Bantamweight title fight with Kiko Martínez.  Battersea has long been synonymous with power stations, dog’s homes and, more recently, partial gentrification as a gaggle of actors, musicians and fashion designers have wandered south across the river to set up camp.  But now, nestled snuggly amongst Vivienne Westwood’s studio and Simon Le Bon’s pad, McGuigan’s Gym is staking its own claim as a local landmark.  Victory for Team Jackal in Belfast next weekend will certainly go some way to placing it firmly on the south west London map.

And victory is exactly what Frampton fans are expecting.  After all, their man will enjoy home advantage, has never tasted defeat as a pro, and knocked the very same Spaniard out 18 months ago.  Wee buns then, as they say in Belfast.  A ceremonial coronation rather than a twelve round war.  Thankfully, Frampton himself is under no such illusions regarding the task ahead.

carl2Kiko told me this week that Carl is comfortably the best he has been in the ring with and the Northern Irishman is quick to repay the compliment.  He describes their first fight as a “guts check” and Martínez as a “tough, tough man” for whom he has the utmost respect.  “This could be over in the first round or it could be a twelve round ball buster,” he says, before adding that if it turns out to be the latter, he has the “engine, heart and chin” to go the distance.

What of Kiko’s belief that he has improved immeasurably, is in a much better place right now and, for the first time in his career, he is actually planning a fight and developing a strategy?  “He has improved,” Frampton is happy to concede, “but it is still more of the same.  Perhaps he’s added a bit more movement but he has fought the same way for 35 fights so I don’t think he can suddenly turn into Sugar Ray Leonard overnight.  I’ve studied the last fight and seen I was far from perfect.  I made mistakes that night which I won’t make again so I’ll be much improved as well”.

And the confidence boost that wearing a world championship belt can give a fighter?  “He will be more confident now he is a world champion and has defended his title a couple of times, but when it is just the two of us in the ring he’ll look across and see a man who has knocked him out.”  How the Spaniard’s self-belief reacts to the harsh reality of that inescapable truth remains to be seen.

carlFrampton also believes Kiko is clutching at straws a little when he talks of putting the Jackal out of action for eight months with a perforated eardrum following their first encounter.  “Promotional issues kept me out of the ring after the last fight, not anything Kiko did,” he clarifies, and anyway, “a slap on the ear from your ma can cause that injury.”

Nevertheless, this fight is far from a gimme.  Compared to the immensely talented Frampton, Martínez may be a relatively one dimensional fighter, but that one dimension is very effective.  His new trainer, Gaby Sarmiento, may try to tweak a few things but, essentially, you know what you’ll get with Kiko: relentless, front foot aggression.  You also get a Latin temperament which is something Carl is fully aware of.  “He is an emotional man and he is coming here for revenge.  That makes him a very dangerous opponent.  But I believe I am a better fighter and I have the power to knock out anyone in the Super Bantamweight division.”  There is no hint of arrogance in his voice as he speaks that last sentence: it is more matter of fact.  And it is a fact that has the bookies making him a 9/2 on favourite.

Carl flies home to Belfast this week.  Back home to daughter Carla, wife Christine and another bundle of joy scheduled to arrive in mid-November.  He’ll also be arriving back into a city already buzzing with anticipation ahead of the big night in the Titanic Quarter. To a government eager to invest in the event to ensure both its success and their association with it.  To a temporary stadium being built in his honour as the country has nowhere big enough to accommodate the quantity of people happy to pay for the pleasure of watching him in action.  To a few hundred thousand people wanting to shake his hand, pat his back, and wish him good luck.

carl3Part of the reason for the Battersea training camp has been to keep him away from the hype and distractions and insulate him a little from the sense of expectation and pressure that comes with it.  But there’ll be no avoiding it once he’s checked into the Europa Hotel in the heart of the city and I wonder if there isn’t a risk of being overwhelmed by it all.

On the contrary, Carl tells me he can’t wait to go for a walk around town and start shaking the hands and feeling the buzz.  “I suppose it could all become a negative thing, but it actually helps me,” he continues.  “I perform best under pressure and, to be honest, I’ve always had it.”

It is true that, although the scale has increased with every victory, pressure is nothing new to Frampton.  Following a stellar amateur career, Carl started in the professional ranks with a natural composure and ring intelligence that belied his tender years.  It was as if he arrived on the scene with years of experience already programmed in and, as such, did not need to serve the traditional two or three year apprenticeship.

In his seventh fight, at a time when 99% of fighters are still being spoon fed tomato cans as the opening act on a card in front of a handful of friends and family, Frampton was topping the bill at a packed Ulster Hall against a guy who had fought 3 times for the European title.  That is pressure.

carl5And for anyone who couldn’t see the immense potential, manager slash promoter, Barry McGuigan, was never shy in telling all who would listen how special Carl was.  Although boxing is an industry fluent in hyperbole, McGuigan is actually a relatively phlegmatic character.  Nevertheless, in post-fight interviews he struggled to contain himself and was often at his loquacious best while speaking of a breathtakingly talented and assured fighter that can do it all and will go all the way.  That is pressure heaped upon more pressure.

Carl tells me he wanted this quality not quantity approach to keep his career moving forward at pace, although it undoubtedly opened him up to humiliation should he slip up.  And the praise from Barry just showed the faith the Clones Cyclone had in him. There were risks to the path they chose but they are now just a step away from being proved right in everything they have said and done.  One step from all the way.

carl4I’m not sure if Carl is a believer in destiny, but to listen to him speak is to hear a man who knows his time has come.  There is sadness that his biggest fan, his Grandfather Hughie, passed away just a few weeks ago, but he knows his life is good right now.  “This is my 20th year in boxing and everything is now falling into place,” he tells me.  “I’ve another child on the way, I’ve just bought a new house, we’ve got the fight in Belfast, they’re building the stadium for me, Carla is coming to her first fight and I’ve told her I’ll lift her up in the ring when I win.”  There is then a slight pause and a little laugh before he concludes, “2014 could be a very good year.”

The Kiko Martínez Interview

kiko2The sleepy Valencian pueblo of Torrellano nestles inconspicuously between Alicante and Elche in south eastern Spain.  With just 7,000 inhabitants and little to write home about, it is a small, rather unremarkable, one-horse town on the inner fringes of the Costa Blanca: but what a thoroughbred the sole caballo that resides there is.

I meet the IBF Super Bantamweight champion of the world, Francisco Martínez Sanchez, in a relatively modern coffee shop on the town’s only main road.  I see him pull up outside and greet a group of teenage kids loitering without intent on the fence of a children’s park.  He’s wearing a personalised basketball vest of the local side but everyone here knows his name without needing to read his back.  “Hola Kiko!” shouts the young girl behind the counter as he enters and spies me in the corner.  The boxer has lived here his entire life alongside his parents, two brothers and two sisters.  Torrellano is Kiko’s town.

He is relatively small for a super bantamweight but, in the flesh, Kiko is anything but diminutive and appears taller than his 5’ 3”.  It is a trick of the eye produced by the statures of perfectly proportioned athletic bodies that they never come across as particularly short or tall.  Ali was the same with his official height of 6’ 3”, just half an inch smaller than Foreman, surprising many who would have guessed an inch or two shorter.  He orders a fresh orange juice and ice and settles down, comfortable in both himself and his surroundings.

kiko3The small talk is relaxed to begin the conversation and it is soon clear that Martínez is one of the most unassuming champions of the world that boxing has produced.  His face lights up when I ask about his 17 month old daughter, Adriana, and he happily gives me advice on my own pending arrival – basically that the mother always knows what to do.  Lifting his top he shows me his most recent body art, the religious maxim, Only God Can Judge Me, and Rosary beads snaking down a hard, ridged belly.  He tells me he wouldn’t describe himself as 100% religious but he believes that there is someone up there in charge of things.

Kiko first walked into a boxing gym at 13 years old and it was love at first punch.  At 16 he gave up any aspirations of playing in La Liga and, with the full support of his family, dedicated himself to the sweet science.  Early opponents saw nothing sweet in La Sensación, however, as he knocked out the first 11 of them with none making it beyond the fourth round.  He then stepped up in class to win an EU title which put him in line for a crack at Bernard Dunne and the European belt.

He entered the ring in Dublin that night back in 2007 as a 21 year old unknown, fighting outside his country for the first time.  The Point Theatre was in party mode as Dunne walked to the ring with 8,000 in attendance gleefully singing along to the Irish Rover.  Nobody expected anything but a home win.  Kiko smiles broadly at the memory.  “He underestimated me and he was mistaken,” he says with no little understatement.  In 90 seconds of beautiful violence it was all over.

Yet in just seven months the Spaniard’s reign as European champion was over as well.  Rendall Munroe won a majority decision in Nottingham and then a rematch more convincingly a year later.  And when Kiko lost to Takalani Ndlovu in South Africa in September of 2009, a promising career was in danger of petering out before it had really got going.  So he dropped back down a level and strung together seven victories which bought his ticket to another big night in Ireland, this time in Belfast against Carl Frampton.

KikoCarl“It was nothing more than a bad night for me and Frampton fought well,” is how Kiko sums up the fight, the only time in his career he has been knocked out.  And while happy to admit that Frampton is the best he has faced, Kiko also points out that he was not the only casualty in the nine round war and that Carl needed eight months off to recover.  In reality, promotional issues were more to blame for Frampton’s period of inactivity but, either way, by the time the Northern Irishman was back in the ring, Kiko had fought again twice and was now a world champion having destroyed the Colombian Jhonatan Romero in an almost flawless six round performance in Atlantic City.

That earned him a rare opportunity to fight at home in Elche where he knocked out Jeffrey Mathebula, who had recently taken Nonito Donaire the distance, in the ninth round as Frampton and Barry McGuigan watched from ringside.  Business with the Jackal was clearly unfinished.

He was soon on the road again, this time to Osaka in Japan and a seven round guerra with Hozumi Hasegawa.  The local fighter displayed a heart as big as the rising sun to recover from a torrid two knockdown second round and push Martínez hard until a couple of vicious left hooks forced the referee to save the Japanese from himself.  Frampton limbered up with a couple of easier days at the office and the stage was set for Kiko Carl II in Belfast on September 6th.

kiko4Despite being the champ, it is Kiko who must once again travel to the challenger’s back yard.  This is down largely to the fact that boxing does not register in the consciousness of the overwhelming majority of sports fans in Spain.  In fact, such is the level of misunderstanding prevalent in society here that a law exists prohibiting the broadcast of any boxing on television between the hours of 6am and 10pm.

But the prospect of fighting away from home has never bothered Kiko.  “I like it,” he says, “It is better for me to fight outside Spain, it motivates me and helps me improve.  From the first day I won the title I have been asking for the rematch with Frampton and for it to be back in Ireland”.  And how does the atmosphere in Belfast compare to that of Dublin?  “Similar, but the crowd in Belfast are maybe a little more aggressive,” he smiles.

Isn’t all of that to the benefit of your opponent?  “None of that matters.  I’m not intimidated by anyone and I simply go out to do my job.  And after two and a half months of incredibly hard preparation, I’m completely sure I am going to win and the last thing I am thinking about is the crowd.”  “Plus,” he adds pointedly, “in the ring it is just him and me.”

True, but to paraphrase Muhammad Ali, the fight is won or lost far away from the ring, in the gym and on the road, so what is Kiko doing differently this time around with his new trainer, Gabi Sarmiento, who came on board at the beginning of this year?  “I am doing something I have never done before, planning a fight,” he states before divulging nothing more than an assertion that he’ll be victorious on the Titanic Slipways.

kikoIf he is right, the doors to big paydays will be further ajar.  Guillermo Rigondeaux, Leo Santa Cruz and Scott Quigg are all Super Bantamweight champions of varying merit but Kiko says he could easily move up or down a division in search of a big name.  That may mean the likes of Tomoki Kameda at Bantamweight or even Nonito or Lomachenko at Featherweight.  He will also hopefully receive from his countrymen a little more or the adulation traditionally reserved for footballers with half his talent and a much smaller fraction of his dedication and commitment to his chosen profession.

But first things first: La Revancha in Belfast.

Federer: Greatest of All Time or Second Best of his Generation?

RafaFedThere is a tennis Grand Slam tournament starting tomorrow and you all know what that means: reams of sycophantic articles in praise of the tennis doyen’s tennis doyen, Sir Roger Federer.  The Sir prefix is pure facetiousness on my part but it would not actually surprise me if a SW19 pressure group are currently lobbying furiously behind the scenes for Britain to invade and conquer Switzerland, incorporate it within the realm of the Commonwealth, and open the door for Roger to be knighted.

At 33 years of age, he is now well into the twilight of his career of course.  He last won a big one when he was 30 and that Major triumph arrived after a two and a half year wait.  You would have thought that with just one Grand Slam title in five years, the Swiss maestro would have already been consigned to yesterday’s news in the fast-paced, unforgiving, winning-is-everything world of 21st century professional sports.  But in fact, much like his old shaving buddy Tiger Woods, Federer continues to captivate his sport’s principle scribes and dominate the tennis press pages to this day.  Why?  Simple, he’s the greatest player ever to pick up a racquet.  Isn’t he?

I’m not so sure.  Not long after the red dust had settled on Roland Garros at the end of the 2011 French Open, Roger Federer said of his rivalry with Rafael Nadal, “If I play well, I will most likely win in the score or beat him; if I’m not playing so well, that’s when he wins.”  He had just lost the final to the Spaniard in four sets, presumably not playing so well for the 17th time in 25 meetings between the pair.  Perhaps moved by the distinct lack of logic, not to mention grace, in Federer’s comment, it got me to thinking about the Swiss player’s assumed place in the history books as the greatest to ever play the game.  I felt it a premature coronation back then and nothing has changed since to alter my view.

Sporting Comparisons

Attempting to compare and contrast individual sportspeople is a largely thankless task, fraught with various pitfalls and insurmountable difficulties.  Generational divides regularly render even the most informed debate pure conjecture as direct match-ups must take place within the realms fantasy.  No discussion on the merits of the greatest heavyweight prize fighters in history is complete without someone pondering aloud, “Could Tyson in his prime have lived with Ali at his best”?   This particular conundrum is made all the more unsolvable by the fact that in all likelihood, no one actually witnessed Ali fight at his peak – a three and a half year suspension for refusing induction into the US armed forces denied the world this pleasure.

RafaFed4

The majority of high profile sports being team events further muddy the waters.  Did Lionel Messi only appear better than Cristiano Ronaldo a few years back because he was surrounded at FC Barça by superior players to Ronaldo’s then Real Madrid teammates? Or conversely, does Diego Maradona winning the 1986 World Cup alongside ten largely unremarkable compañeros give him the edge over Brazil’s Pele who triumphed in the competition three times but each with the help of more illustrious colleagues? In addition you must factor in the vastly different roles within a sports team.  Who was greater, Bobby Moore or Bobby Charlton?  Or in a different type of football, Joe Montana or Jerry Rice?

A sport’s evolution, either naturally or through the onset of professionalism, also hinders a balanced evaluation of greatness as certain games can develop almost beyond all recognition.  As rugby players in every position appear to have doubled in size in the last three decades, asking which of Ireland’s two outstanding centres, Mike Gibson from the 60s and 70s or 21st century Brian O´Driscoll, is the greatest is akin to comparing apples and pears.

Technological advancement in sports equipment is yet another obstacle to ranking greatness.  Would Tiger Woods, standing on the tee gripping a steel shafted driver with a persimmon wood head a fraction the size of today’s clubs, have been able to match Jack Nicklaus around a golf course?  The javelin has ironically moved in the opposite direction.  In 1984 Uwe Hohn’s spear flew for over 104 metres.  Following adjustments to the design specifications two years later, no one has come within five metres of his mark since.  How far Jan Zelezny could have hurled Hohn’s javelin we will never know.

And in the sport of road bicycle racing, the development of a slightly different type of gear demands a pharmaceutical analysis to help settle who would prevail in a battle between Eddie Merckx and Lance Armstrong and wear the yellow jersey for eternity.

Federer v Nadal

The question of who is the greatest tennis player to have played the game encounters all of the above issues bar the team sport dilemma (few would argue that any of the great doubles specialists throughout the ages could make a genuine claim to the honour) and this article therefore makes no attempt to answer it.  Laver and Borg fans can relax.  The question of who is the greatest tennis player out of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, however, encounters none of the above issues.  This piece therefore aims to compare and contrast these two players alone.  It intends to posit that the Swiss is not even as great as the Spaniard and can therefore not possibly be lauded as the greatest of all time.

RafaFed2Federer’s position at the head of the pantheon of greats appeared cemented in place when he became the most prolific winner of tennis Grand Slams in the history of the sport.  To the majority of observers, this is the most significant statistic in tennis and the record book reads that Federer currently has 17 to his name, three more than his nearest challengers, Pete Sampras and Nadal.  But as the great 19th century American Statesman Henry Clay once said, “statistics are no substitute for judgement”.  The same record book also reads that as well as being 23 – 10 down to Nadal in head to heads, Federer does not have a winning record against Andy Murray after 22 matches between the two.  Even so, I doubt even the most patriotic Scotsman would argue that Murray is the greater player.  It is therefore necessary to look beyond the magic number 17.

Although I have stated that a comparative study of the pair is not hampered by a difference in playing era, it must be addressed that, due to Federer being almost five years older, their playing peaks have not been exactly identical.  Federer was winning titles while Nadal was still learning the game and it is likely that the Spaniard will keep triumphing in tournaments for several years after his great rival has hung up his racquet.  Every tennis player is different, but if we assume that these two entered their peak years around the age of 22 (the time Federer won his first Grand Slam title – Nadal had already won three French Opens before he turned 22) and both will compete somewhere around this level until their 30th birthday, that gives each an eight year period at the top of their game.  It also allows that both men faced each other in their simultaneous primes from the summer of 2008 until the summer of 2012.

Closer analysis of this window of time is telling.  They met 14 times in the period with Nadal emerging victorious on 10 occasions.  Federer’s victories were won on the clay of Madrid in 2009 and on the hard courts of London and Indian Wells – neither were Grand Slam events.  Amongst Nadal’s 10 wins, three were on hard courts, one on grass and the rest on clay.  Notably, four of his victories were when it mattered most, in the final of a Grand Slam.  They also occurred on three different surfaces – the Mallorcan ceased being a clay court specialist very early in his career.

RafaFed5

In total Nadal won eight Grand Slams during these four years compared to the five Federer collected, and amassed 12 Masters titles with Federer winning six.  Nadal also won the Olympic gold medal in 2008 and in 2010 became the only player in history to win three Grand Slams on three distinct surfaces in one season.  He has already bypassed Federer on the all-time list of Masters triumphs – no one has more than Rafa’s 27 trophies in their cabinet.

It should also be noted that in 2009 Nadal, struggling with tendonitis in both knees, suffered the only defeat of his career at Roland Garros (in the fourth round to Robin Soderling) and was unable to defend his title at the Wimbledon Championships.  In his absence Federer won both tournaments and in doing so completed the career grand slam of winning a Major on all four surfaces and broke Sampras’ record number of Grand Slam titles.  Few believe he would ever have won the French Open had he had to contend with a fit Nadal.

Clearly, the majority of Federer’s achievements have come when Nadal is not around.  Indeed, the Swiss already had twelve Grand Slam titles in the bag before Nadal entered his peak years.  This is perhaps not surprising when a quick look at his major rivals pre-Rafa reveals a distinctly different calibre of opponent.  Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin were all good players; but certainly no more than that.  When one sees the names of Mark Philippoussis, Marco Baghdatis and Fernando Gonzalez also on the list of Federer’s victims in Grand Slam finals, it suggests that this was not exactly a golden age in men’s tennis.

Of course, none of this is Federer’s fault.  As the old sporting adage goes, you can only beat what is put in front of you, and many will argue that the merits of Federer’s peers at this time should not be allowed to detract from his early achievements.  Nevertheless, those that argue that Federer is the greatest cannot then deny that Nadal never had it so easy in his quest for titles.  He has faced a potential meeting with Federer in every Grand Slam he has ever signed up for – indeed he has beaten his Swiss foe in nine of them and lost in only two.  Then we have the current world number one Novak Djokovic.  Already with seven Grand Slam titles to his name, the 27 year old Serb has more than the combined total Roddick, Hewitt and Safin managed in their entire careers and appears a safe bet to add to his tally before he retires.

RafaFed6So it is a fact that at this point in history, over the course of significantly less time, and with a clearly superior standard of opponent across the net, Nadal is already ahead of Federer in every relevant statistic you can think of – bar the big one.  It begs the question, should Nadal go on to claim 18 Grand Slam titles and eclipse Federer’s record, will Federer advocates acknowledge that their man has been usurped?

The answer is probably not.  The truth is that people do not like to admit they are wrong.  Federer was hastily coronated in the midst of his domination because nobody foresaw the teenage clay-court sensation from Mallorca developing into the complete player.  Roddick, Hewitt, Safin et al were happy to provide a tennis press, already enamoured with the multi-lingual Swiss (does anything impress a native English speaking sports journalist more than a sportsperson fielding questions in more than one language?), with monthly quotes extolling the greatness of the man that had seemingly effortlessly despatched them once again.  It legitimised their own failings.  It lessened their own sense of failure.  Why simply say he was too good for me again today when you can wax lyrical about him being too good for anyone, anywhere, at any time?

The mainstream press soon followed suit and so long as Sir Roger kept gracing the lawns of SW19 with his white blazer, Rolex watch and deferential acceptance of the Wimbledon trophy each July, few in the public felt moved to question his position at the head of the table.  To backtrack a few years later would make a lot of people look rather foolish.

Style v Substance

In an effort to head off the more lazy retorts that it is the way Federer wins that places him above Nadal in the all-time stakes, it is necessary to briefly consider the style dimension of this sporting greatness debate.  It is often said that there are few things in the world of sport more aesthetically pleasing to look at than Roger Federer’s one handed backhand.  If you ever wondered why striking a tennis ball is referred to as a stroke, then just watch him execute this shot.  He isn’t hitting the ball, he is caressing it.  It is a thing of beauty and, like almost everything Federer does on a tennis court, it is carried out with an effortless grace that belies the power and speed generated.  Nadal on the other hand hits the ball.  Relentlessly.

RafaFed3Federer continued his charm offensive in the press conference following his 2011 French Open defeat by disparagingly describing Nadal as being “content to do the one thing for the entire time” in a game.  Leaving aside the fact that a one-dimensional tennis player could not possibly win 14 Majors, why on earth would Rafa change a winning style, regardless of what it is or how it looks?  While his bludgeoning heavy top-spin blows may not be as easy on the eye, has there been a more devastatingly effective shot than his forehand in professional tennis over the past five or six years?  It is hard to think of one.  So should Federer’s perceived (beauty is in the eye of the holder remember) extra elegance swing the debate in his favour?  I don’t think so.

Style may well constitute a factor to be considered, but only to the degree that other clichéd intangibles such as grit, determination, perseverance and will to win figure in the debate.  They are all elements that make up or influence an individual player’s game.  But success or failure is determined by the sum of all the parts.  By the talent that each possess as a whole.  It is not merely Nadal’s strength or passion that beats Federer any more than it is Federer’s flair or ballerina-like movement around the court that beats Nadal.  Quite simply, over time, the greater tennis player will win more often than everyone else.  For the current tennis generation, that player is undoubtedly Rafael Nadal.

A Special Night for Kell

KellKell Brook’s California dream became euphoric reality tonight as he took a majority decision verdict and the IBF welterweight title off American Shawn Porter at the StubHub Centre in Carson City.  It was a Bramall Lane-esque game of two halves as Sheffield’s new favourite son overcame a tentative opening to grow in confidence and do enough to convince two of the three ringside judges to crown him the latest British champion of the world.

Yet it was Porter who started as hard and fast as the lead bull in Pamplona on the feast day of San Fermín.  At its best, his movement as he looks to engage can be reminiscent of a young hungry Tyson.  Naturally short and squat, with feet anchored to the ground by a low centre of gravity, he bobs and weaves a compact head and torso with violent, seemingly erratic movements as he advances into range.  Once inside his opponent’s jab he is all shoulders and head and raised elbows looking to leverage punches that arrive in a frenetic array of hooks, uppercuts and other miscellaneous blows.  Porter is neither a stylist nor fussy inside the ring, he just wants to punch you.

And he did enough of just that to win four out of the first six rounds, and draw the other two, on my scorecard.  Though he was not landing cleanly with any real frequency, he was as busy and aggressive as Dan Rafael around the breakfast buffet and that tends to be enough for a champ on home soil to take a round.

An awkwardly positioned, though thankfully shallow, cut opened over Brook’s left eye in round two and in the third Porter demonstrated his strength in crudely shoving and spinning his man around the ring.  The American then landed a couple of big body shots throughout the fourth and iced the cake with an uppercut towards the end as fears that this was one rung too high up the ladder for Kell grew by the minute.

The referee, Pat Russell, let them get on with it throughout and, though he’ll undoubtedly draw some criticism for allowing Porter to butt and Brook to hold, I’d take his style over his more pernickety peers every day the week.  When he did find it necessary to step in, the pause in the messy action was momentary.  British 100m legend, Linford Christie, famously said he reacted to the B of the Bang of the gun as he set off down the track.  At times it looked like Porter began his assaults on the B of Russell’s cry of Break as Brook wasn’t given a second’s peace to settle into the sort of rhythm that a slick boxer needs to fight his fight.

It was all pretty uncouth and the fifth got even rougher as Porter continued to burrow in and get to the dirty close quarters work he loves.  There was more of the same throughout the sixth, although it was by now clear that Porter was also cut over the eye, and I had it as a draw and Kell needing a miracle in the second half of the fight if he was to fly back to England with the belt.  A miracle, not because he was being outclassed or beaten up, but because he was a challenger, away from home, fighting on the back foot against a relentlessly aggressive, come-forward champion and, let’s face it, Brits abroad just never get the nod in the US.

Although I didn’t have Brook outright winning any of the first six rounds, I had noted his total calmness throughout the 18 minutes.  Porter was neither hurting nor flustering the Sheffield man and he remained focused and relaxed listening to trainer Dominic Ingle’s instructions at each interval.  He had looked slightly nervous and unsure at the start, but he now appeared to know he belonged in this ring.  The next step was to truly believe he could win.

I don’t remember Brook fully committing to a multi-punch combination in the first half of the fight but he now took confidence from the realisation that Porter wasn’t as powerful as Paulie Malignaggi had made him look last April.  An uppercut briefly buzzed the champion towards the end of the seventh and proved to be a watershed moment in the fight.  By the eighth Porter looked as knackered as Brook looked fresh and the Englishman was a whisker away from landing the finale of a crisp left-right combination.  Any previous similarities to Tyson were now distant memories and it appeared that if Porter attempted a bob, he wouldn’t have the energy to complete the weave back into position.  No one deserved to win a horrible ninth before Kell took a tenth to confirm it was now his fight for the taking.

Sending his charge out for the eleventh, Ingle told Brook there was nothing in this contest and that he could win it.  Trainers will often say whatever it is they think is best for their fighter to hear in the championship rounds of a title fight but on this occasion I think Ingle was entirely accurate in both what he said, and the urging tone he adopted to deliver the message.

Brook was finally letting his combinations flow against a dog tired Porter who, to his credit, continued to propel himself head first into the fray.  Now, however, rather than marching forward like a man on a mission with bad intentions, he was stumbling ahead like a drunk student towards their bed with the goal of at least 12 hours uninterrupted sleep.  He was merely paying lip service to his role as the aggressor and I had the challenger winning the final two rounds and the fight by a deserved point.

But champions mimicking aggressiveness has been enough to hold onto belts countless times in the past and I must confess I didn’t share the British twittersphere’s confidence that a new IBF welterweight champ would be crowned.  As I said before, American judges simply don’t give decisions to British boxers in tight fights in America.

And they didn’t break the mould tonight either.  With the two US judges scoring it 117-111 and 116-112, this fight was apparently as tight as Real Madrid’s purse strings every summer.  I thought Yorkshireman Dave Parris’ 114-114 was closer to the truth and Brook himself was spot on in gleefully saying “it were close but I knew that I’d nicked it” minutes after an announcement that he greeted with a mixture of surprise and unbridled delight.  But as usual, it comes down to the age old pugilistic question, what do you like?

It is always said that the answer to the above question in the US is very simple: aggression.  It is, of course, more nuanced than that but they undoubtedly like to see a fighter force the issue, move forward and throw punches.  For at least six rounds, Porter clearly did that so where does 117-111 and 116-112 come from?  Could it be that the heavy-handed reputation he has forged since the destruction of Malignaggi actually counted against him this time around?  That, as Brook was never in any danger, Porter was viewed as trying to con the ringside scorers with showy swings of big hollow bombs and flurries as light as the snowflakes of an Easter blizzard?

Whatever the logic, the name of Kell Brook is now added to Johnny Nelson, Clinton Woods, Herol Graham, Paul Jones and Naseem Hamed on the list of modern world champions from the Steel City.  And as a player in and around the most lucrative weight class in boxing, untold riches could be just around the corner.  Mayweather or Pacquiao bouts seem unlikely but knockout sensation Keith Thurman was ringside and didn’t look unduly perturbed by anything he witnessed.  Juan Manuel Marquez, Danny Garcia and Devon Alexander are further names on the list of possible paydays.

Another big night in America is certainly there if he wants it but most will hope a football stadium Battle of Britain with Amir Khan is made first.  Before all that, Kell just wants to finally receive the recognition he richly deserves.  And I for one hope that he gets it.

Carl, Kiko & the Book of Irish Invasions

carlkikotitanicThe countries of Ireland and Spain have for centuries been brothers-in-arms.  In fact, their relationship began even before it actually began.  The largely mythical 11th century Lebor Gabála Érenn, or Book of Irish Invasions, describes how, long before Jesus walked the earth, the eight sons of the Galician Míl Espáine stormed Ireland to avenge their uncle Íth’s murder and ended up spawning the Irish Gaels.  It’s a nice story and with Gael sounding suspiciously like Galicia, and Hibernia similar to Iberia, it was plausible enough to survive until the 18th Century.

By that time a more genuine bond had been forged between the two lands.  Though now known to be genetically distinct, there was much common ground intellectually, economically, politically, religiously and, of course, militarily.  The Emerald Isle’s geographical location made it the ideal pit stop for Spanish ships en route to battle with the English, and the Irish were in general only too happy to provide such a launch pad.

Míl Espáine is Gaelic for Soldier of Hispania, and a couple of millennia after the original set sail for Irish shores, España this week sent a modern day warrior to recommence battle in Erin.  Elche’s IBF super bantamweight champion of the world, Kiko Martínez, was back in town to help announce the venue for his title fight with Belfast’s own Carl Frampton on September 6th.

With indoor arenas made redundant by the sheer volume of people that now follow the Jackal, the historic expanse of the Titanic Slipways has been nominated to host the 16,000 eager to see the latest unsinkable Belfast icon to take on the world.  That great cursed Irish ship first touched water from these massive concrete mats but none in attendance in September expect anything other than a Spanish vessel sliding backwards helplessly into the murky depths this time around.

Frampton and Martínez fought 17 months ago but, although by definition this is a rematch, it is not born from the usual controversy or acrimony that traditionally accompanies two boxers renewing acquaintances in the ring.  Firstly, Frampton won fair and square by 9th round knockout last time around and by rights, Martínez should now be nothing more than a happy memory for the Tiger’s Bay boy.  But the dubious intricacies of boxing politics ensured it was the defeated Spaniard who went on to become a world champion while the victorious Irishman was left to patiently await his opportunity.  That time has now arrived.

Secondly, much like Ireland and Spain, the Jackal and the Sensation have struggled to generate any of the real animosity that tends to fuel a feud and make a rematch an inevitability.  As they grinned in each other’s faces in a head to head pose for the cameras in the Titanic Suite, they were more like mischievous school pals than snarling adversaries.  Any casualties would have been victims of a particularly friendly brand of fire.

In truth it was thus before the first bout as well.  Martínez’s belated cut-throat gesture at the weigh-in attempted to spice up the rivalry but the aggression appeared forced rather than a manifestation of deep-seated enmity.  Kiko’s claim that Carl calling him bald on Twitter was an unforgiveable action also reeked of pantomime offence.  I live in Spain and can guarantee that nothing was lost in translation here.  Taunting someone over a lack of follicle virility has no secretly vicious or hurtful connotations attached.

Furthermore, the Spanish are notoriously trigger happy with their verbal barbs and therefore a thick skin is pretty standard on these shores.  Indeed, I have more than once heard a happily married Madrileño father call his own son a hijo de puta (son of a bitch).  I doubt Martínez would have blinked twice had he just heard Mike Tyson express a desire to eat his children so Frampton’s tweet would have been water off a pato’s back.

Finally, Frampton Martínez II needs no hype to sell tickets in Ireland.  They’ll be scaling Samson and Goliath, the nearby Harland & Wolff gantry cranes, in an effort to catch a glimpse of this one.  The Spaniard was quoted as saying that the passion of the Irish fans will make his foe a very rich man.  I imagine he was talking financially but the riches in store for Carl Frampton add up to much more than mere dollars and cents.

The 27 year old has a country behind him and, in the next two or three years, the chance to write himself into the history of his island.  And not the pseudo-history of the medieval Lebor Gabála Érenn, but real, 21st century history that will live forever.  September 6th on the Titanic Slipways is another step towards that destiny.

Article first appeared in Ringnews24

On The Waterfront Brawl

conlanBefore tonight’s Cyclone Promotions show, the Waterfront Hall hadn’t witnessed professional boxing since Eamonn Magee and Shea Neary went toe-to-toe in the final round of their grudge match fourteen years ago.  Much too long for a decent venue in a top fight city like Belfast if you ask me.  Magee was given a contested decision back in 2000, and a furious Neary never fought again, but there was no such controversy this evening as the four big Irish names on the card came away with handsome victories.

Headliner Marco McCullough came through a 10 round battle against previously unbeaten Prague-based Slovak, Martin Parlagi, to claim the vacant WBO European Featherweight title.  It was a pulsating fight with Parlagi intent in turning it into a bar room brawl at every opportunity.  He was warned by referee Steve Gray throughout the contest for leaning, low blows and use of the head.  It was probably only the spirit of the contest and a sporting touch of the gloves at the end of each round that saved him from losing a point.

marco

Marco said afterwards that Parlagi’s power surprised him and indeed the Shankill man was stunned in a first round that I had him losing.  In the corner his trainer, the venerable John Breen, no doubt had an immediate word and the instructions were clear: don’t fight him, box him.

McCullough did just that, operating behind a long jab to turn the contest into a skilled technician against a raw and rugged purveyor of haymakers.  He had Parlagi down in the second, although it was scrappy and the Slovak protested, but was also absorbing some vicious body blows.  In the fourth, a big left hook rocked Marco and before he could fully recover, Parlagi sent him to the canvas with a couple of scuffed shots.

When a clash of heads opened a wound on the bridge of McCullough’s nose that gushed more blood than Saw III, the fight was still evenly poised and there was fear that Parlagi would be spurred on by the sight of the claret flowing freely.  Instead it was the cue for Marco to show his class and heart and box himself to victory in the final four rounds, despite the blood clouding his vision for much of them.

The judges scored it 97-91, 95-93, and 98-92.  For what it’s worth, I had it 96-93 for the Belfast boy.

The undercard was rife with further Irish success, starting with Limerick’s Willie “Big Bang” Casey getting his career back on track.  The featherweight had lost three of his last six fights but they were against Marco McCullough, a Dane in Denmark, and the untouchable Guillermo Rigondeaux so we’ll cut him some slack.

He had fought only once in a couple of years and you could smell the ring rust as he let his game Polish journeyman opponent start almost every round the stronger.  It was an unfamiliar back-foot strategy from the Munster man but he had too much class and stamina and comfortably took the decision.

conrad

Carl Frampton’s stable mate, Conrad Cummings was next between the ropes.  Shane McGuigan looks like he may have found himself another winner as a thumping left followed by a swift four punch combination ended the durable Hungarian Lajos Munkacsi’s night in the second round.  Cummings is a proper athlete and looks like he is going to be an enormous middleweight when he’s fully matured.  It should be a good ride watching the Coalisland man progress.

Finally, the sombreros were out in force for The Mexican, Jamie Conlan.  The unbeaten west Belfast super flyweight defended his WBO European belt in style with a three round demolition of Gabor Molnar.  That’s eight KOs in 12 fights now and on the ring apron after the fight a grinning Conlan said it’s always good for the wee men to have some power.

Speaking of wee men with power, the Jackal Carl Frampton was a ringside commentator for the night and did a sterling job.  When someone finally puts Jim Watt out of our misery in about 15 years, Sky Sports need look no further for some decent in-fight analysis.

Before that, however, Frampton has a date with 20,000 Irish fans somewhere in Belfast on the 6th September as he bids to win his first world title.  Expect to see Cummings, Conlan and McCullough continue their journeys on the bill as well.  Irish boxing in Belfast is absolutely buzzing.