Three Minutes: Gatti Ward I Round 9

gatti-ward-620x264Round 9.  If you are going to produce a series of articles based on Ring Magazine’s coveted Round of the Year award, there is really only one place to begin.  Round 9.  The fact that, even with the above headline and photograph removed, boxing aficionados would already know we are talking about the first Arturo Gatti v Micky Ward fight is all the justification needed for such an opening gambit.

The decision has me fencing with a double edged sword however.  On the one hand, what more can be written about these three minutes?  From Eric Raskin’s excellent primary source anniversary review, to Sergio De La Pava’s colourful metaphor for life piece, this one round of boxing has received more column inches in the pugilism press than anything since Ali ceased producing movie scripts every time he climbed between the ropes.  There is a risk that, 12 years on, everything that needs to be said about the men, the fight and the round is already out there.

On the other hand, nonsense.  Dead horses get flogged daily on sports pages all over the world, but Gatti Ward I Round 9 will never suffer that fate.  It lives on as a raging equine beast that the rest of us can only watch second-hand and cling on for dear life as it gallops across wild plains of the rawest human experience and leaves us helpless in a flash flood of contrasting emotions.

gattiward4These great moments of almost supernatural endeavour become personalised by each individual who views it through their own unique lens.  If we were to start a rota and, from now till kingdom come, every day a different one of us delivered our thoughts on the 180 seconds Gatti and Ward shared in Connecticut on the 18th May 2002, the exercise would never get tired.  What follows is my own tuppence worth.

The beauty of Round 9 is that even standing alone, removed from the context of before and after, it is clearly something very special.  An entire movie has been made of Ward’s life up to that point and yet it is not necessary to watch it to appreciate these three minutes.  Gatti had been in with Oscar, would later fight Floyd and he’s a Hall of Famer who died in circumstances as tragic as they were suspicious in Brazil at the stupidly early age of 37; but you don’t really need to know any of that.  That the round equates to little more than three percent of a legendary 90 minute trilogy between the pair does not matter either.  HBO’s moving documentary, The Tale of Gatti Ward, paints a fuller picture and is definitely worth a watch, but Round 9 stripped bare speaks for itself.

We are often defined by our nationalities and boxers are no different.  And at times the labelling is entirely appropriate.  Julio Cesar Chavez is Mexico.  Henry Cooper is England.  Sugar Ray Leonard is the United States of America.  Although there are of course many more layers to those three fighters than a mere country name on a passport, describing them as Mexican, English and American respectively goes some way to encapsulating who they are and what they represent.  A little more background is required on the Canadian Gatti and American Ward, however.

gattiArturo Gatti, as his name suggests, is more olive oil than maple syrup.  He was born in the town of Cassino, midway between Naples and Rome.  The area is famous for the World War II Battle of Monte Cassino which saw Allied forces bombard German positions in the area in a series of four bloody assaults that lasted 123 days.  A recent academic book on the carnage bears the title, The Hardest Fought Battle of World War II.  Gattis a generation before Arturo would have been familiar with physical and psychological suffering and, clearly, an above average ability to withstand such traumas quickly becomes genetic.

You need to go back another 100 years to understand the true soul of Micky Ward.  His ancestors fled famine and British oppression in Ireland in the middle of the 19th century and settled in the Catholic Irish ghettos of Massachusetts.  If Lowell was an option for nationality, that’s the box Micky would tick.  As it was, he fought under the moniker Irish and wears a large Celtic cross inked into his left arm.  Ward is proud of his country of birth but his boxing persona is a simple acknowledgement that a different brand of blood courses through his veins.  Fighting Irish rebel blood.

102_Ward-Micky_mainThe two men were made for each other.  Ward was never a boxer but rather a rough, honest, brawling fighter with a heart the size of Fenway Park.  Gatti, though no Sugar Ray Robinson, was a better technician and had skills, hand speed, and head and foot movement decent enough to box his way to victories against a certain level of opponent.  Until he got tagged that is.  Once you caught Arturo with a clean shot his pride took over and he went to war with you.  Micky, of course, never strayed from the front of the front line of any battle regardless of who was marching towards him.  They were warriors and we loved them for it.

When the bell is struck to open Round 9, Ward is already a foot from his corner and moving forward, head bowed, towards his opponent.  The bell’s timbre, partially swallowed by the noise of a crowd scarcely able to believe the continued intensity of the fight, had barely dissipated when he lunged forward with a reaching left hand lead and allowed his momentum to carry him into another prolonged assault that sent Gatti careering into the ropes and rebounding into the centre of the ring.  There, in the middle of the mayhem, Ward remembered and, more importantly, adhered to the game plan.  Body, head, body.

The culmination of this combination, a chopping left hook into the kidney and liver and whatever other unfortunate insides reside in the lower right torso, froze Gatti were he stood.  A second later his face crumples into an expression that is a mixture of pain and confusion.  It is almost like he is asking Ward: Why? Why did you do that?  A further second on and he is down on one knee, now devoid of any feeling other than lacerating pain as his battered diaphragm spasms and prevents his lungs doing their job.  Doctors recommend a minimum of 15 minutes rest following even the lightest of solar plexus traumas.  Gatti had less than 10 seconds to recover from a perfectly executed Micky Ward signature chopped liver punch.

gattiward6The respite looked cruelly inadequate as referee Frank Cappuccino waved a charging Ward in for the kill.  For the next 30 seconds Gatti was pummelled from pillar to post by a relentless Irish attack.  At times Ward literally ran at his backpedalling adversary in an onslaught that was as frenetic as it was uncouth.  There were occasional attempted body shots in there but too many swings were head hunters hoping to turn out Gatti’s lights.  On review, Micky should have continued with the trusted body head body formula, but who cares, Arturo was gone either way.  Wasn’t he?

Gatti was still dragging his exhausted body from his seat as Ward started forward in anticipation of the bell for Round 9.  In fact, when the first blow landed, his stool had not yet made it through the ropes to the sanctuary of its mid-round ringside position.  Round 8 had been hard on Arturo and commentators were already voicing doubts on whether he could continue.  Within 15 seconds he was down and the rest of the opening minute was spent in the autopilot survival mode that is hardwired into fighters with real heart.  And then we entered the second minute.

Gatti shares his birthplace with the Italian philosopher Antonio Labriola, a thinker famous for his description of Marxism as a philosophy of praxis.  Praxis is the process by which a theory, lesson or skill is enacted, embodied or realised.  It is a Greek term used by Aristotle to describe one of the three activities of man.  Whereas the end goals of the other two activities, theoria and poiesis, are knowledge and production, praxis, much like Arturo “Thunder” Gatti, is all about action.  Now was the time for him to put his Blood and Guts Warrior spirit into practice.

gattiward5It was as if the wind that left a temporarily punched-out Ward blew straight into the grateful sails of Gatti and carried him forward throughout an astonishing 60 seconds in which he backed up and dominated Micky.  Ward drifted almost listlessly into the ropes towards Gatti’s corner and paused, desperately trying to balance an urge to look ok with a need to suck in oxygen every time he peered through his high guard.  He beckoned Gatti on with waves of his gloved fists but the fleeting glimpses of his eyes betray a creeping, incredulous panic.  What the hell is this guy still doing on his feet never mind pressuring me into a corner, they say.

Round 9 is perhaps the only in boxing that can genuinely be described as three complete fights in one round.  And if rounds 10, 11 and 12 are known as the championship rounds in a title fight, then the final minute of this Round 9 must be the championship seconds.  It is at this point that bouts are won or lost and that reputations are made or broken.

With exactly one minute to go, they both clinch for the first time in the round.  It is Gatti now that is the more eager for a moment of respite, however brief it may be, and Ward senses it.  At the break they land big punches simultaneously, Gatti a left hook to the body and Ward a sharp right to the jaw, and the moment is the pivot on which the round turns again as Micky, blood streaming from a cut around his right eye, goes to work.

Watched in isolation, the final 30 seconds can be difficult viewing.  It is at times exhibit A type stuff for abolitionists presenting their case before the moral courts.  Gatti is to all intents and purposes gone, but he just won’t go down.  He doesn’t even have the strength to raise his gloves above waist level, let alone high enough to protect his head, and vision out of grossly swollen eyes cannot be more than around 25%.  As a consequence, he takes a couple of sickening shots that would have been the final nails in the coffins of many a fighter.

gattiward2But like his soul mate Ward, there is no quit to be found anywhere in Arturo’s being and the result of putting two such men together in a ring is axiomatic: someone else would have to say no más.  The referee and Gatti’s trainer, Buddy McGirt, were surely close and if the ringside commentator, Jim Lampley, had had a white towel close to hand, I believe he would have tossed it over the ropes on compassionate grounds.  As it was, nobody acted and to this day, despite all I know now, I am still not entirely sure I am happy about that.

Statistics are never a substitute for judgement and I’m not a fan of using them to analyse a boxing match.  Nevertheless, one piece of data is particularly striking and helps articulate the brutality of the round.  In that short space of time, Ward landed with 60 of the 82 power punches he threw while Gatti replied with 42 out of 61.  Both the quantity and success rates (73% and 69%) are frightening.  To put those numbers in perspective, Erislandy Lara recently landed just 52 power punches (37%) on Canelo Álvarez throughout the course of their entire 12 round fight and still felt he was robbed to lose a decision.

When the bell mercifully tolled, it was hard to believe that it had all only lasted three minutes.  They say that time speeds up in great sporting contests so that full-time appears to arrive quicker than expected.  War is different though: it always feels longer.

Micky’s tap on Arturo’s shoulder as they part for their corners still gets me every time I watch it.  There would later be more overt displays of the bond became forged between the two men, in their second and third fights they hugged before the final round for example, but it is that shoulder tap that is most special for me.  For such a non-descript gesture, it contains so much.  I can only guess what Micky Ward was feeling but I would wager that respect, awe, understanding, concern and love were all amongst his emotions.

gattiward1Despite the 98 years still to go, the great Emmanuel Stewart christened it Round of the Century live on television before the two fighters had even made it onto their stools.  Even in the hyperbolic world of boxing it did not smack of premature bombast at the time and does not do so today.  Stewart is with Gatti now and, looking down each weekend, I doubt he has seen anything since to change his opinion.  Personally, I do not believe I will ever witness another three minutes to rival it.

Anto Connolly: Minimum Weight, Maximum Potential

anto1It takes no great time, effort nor Poirot-esque powers of deduction, to pinpoint Anto Connolly’s three priorities in life.  In a very particular order they are as follows: family (partner Dee and young boys, Wyatt and Fionn), craft (professional boxer) and football team (Glasgow Celtic).

The first literally screams out its presence to me from over 9,000 miles away the instant Connolly answers my phone call – it is 10 week old Fionn articulating his concerns over Dee’s attempts to change and put him down for the night, while two year old Wyatt watches on knowingly.

Anto emigrated from Dublin four years ago on a working holiday visa and, finding the quality of life on Australia’s south western coast to be entirely to his liking, he never had much intention of using his return ticket.  Meeting Dee and starting an Austral-Irish family sealed the deal and Perth has been home ever since.

Recently, with priority number one going well, priority number two began to make its voice heard once again.  It must have made a compelling argument for, following a ten year absence from the sport, Connolly has been drawn back into the sweet science’s thorny embrace.

He was a decent junior back home in Clondalkin, a working class area of south west Dublin that has produced such prized pugilists as Bernard Dunne, Kenny Egan and Conor McGregor.  Good enough, in fact, to win Irish titles.  Amongst his scalps was Ireland’s current top Welterweight, Dean Byrne.  The two men are still close and Connolly credits Byrne’s encouragement and support as one of the big drivers behind his ring return.

But after years of drifting in and out of the ring, he left the scene altogether in his late teens.  “I always knew I had the confidence and the ability, it was a lack of dedication and willpower when I was younger that stopped me going on and winning international medals.  In going back into the boxing gym now, I’m looking for a bit of closure.”

anto2Connolly, a boxing nut who states that since the age of 14 he hasn’t read or watched anything that was not connected to the sport, has only ever had one dream: to contest a professional boxing bout.  This year, at the age of 29, the dream came true.

Photos from that encounter with Thailand’s Payak Sithpajuk also show priority number three coming to the fore.  Decked out in the green and white hoops of his beloved football team, his only disappointment was that a new pair of boots covered half of the Celtic-inspired tattoos that adorn his calves.

Anto tells me that he would have left the ring in Western Australia that night with a smile on his face even if he had been knocked out in the first round.  As it happened, it was his opponent who suffered that fate and Connolly’s dreams are thus rapidly expanding in their scope.

“Why not push on now, why can’t I make that dream bigger?” he states rhetorically.  “It’s only myself that can decide to put a stop to the dream or to continue moving forward.”

Chasing these dreams is further reason to stay down under, for Anto fights at that most exiguous of divisions: Minimumweight.  “If I had to go back to Ireland now, I may as well just call it a day with the boxing. From where would they fly in an opponent for me?”

It is a valid question.  Though the five foot four inch Connolly walks around at 48kg, few other fighting men in the northern hemisphere do likewise.  He is the first ever Irishman at the weight and searching on Boxrec for potential British, or even European, rivals results in a “No Data Found” message.

Boxing’s lightest category tends to be dominated by the naturally smaller-framed Asians and Mexicans, with the odd South African thrown in for good measure.  The Pan-Asian arena is very much Connolly’s target market and a base in Australia is ideal to mount a title challenge.

anto3This he hopes to do quicker than you might expect.  Part of the reason for this is that Minimumweight is the most sparsely populated of all boxing’s weight classes.  While 1,708 professionals are listed as campaigning at Lightweight, there are less than 300 Minimumweights operating today.  Put a different way, that is 1,400 less obstacles to claiming one of the belts on offer.

As Connolly points out, “the nature of this division, you go on an eight, nine, ten fight winning streak and suddenly you can get a crack at a genuine world title.”

First up may be a shot at the WBO or IBF Asian Pacific belts that are due to fall vacant in the middle of 2015.  Anto sees no reason why he shouldn’t be throwing his hat in the ring for either and points to the careers of two fellow Irishmen down under in TJ Doheny and Jake Hanney as justification for his belief.

New South Wales-based Super Bantamweight Doheny won a vacant Pan Asian Boxing Association belt in his fifth contest while, in Sydney, Welterweight prospect Hanney is in line for a PABA title shot after just four fights.

More importantly than citing precedents, however, Connolly backs his own talent to earn him an opportunity.  “I’ve good footwork, pros like Sam Hogan [unbeaten Australian Light Middleweight prospect] are getting in the ring with me just to watch how I move my feet.  I’ve a good chin, fast hands, I’m a natural at 47.6kg and I carry power for the weight.”

anto4In addition, as a late bloomer, Anto bears none of the mental or physical scars from brutal ring wars that some contemporaries may be carrying.  A keen student of boxing, he also points out that, at the lower weights, it is not as uncommon for a boxer to emerge in their late twenties.  Indeed, looking at the rankings, six of the top fifteen are over thirty years of age with a seventh in his forties.

The ingredients are all there, all Anto needs is a decent pot to stir them in.  A carpenter by trade, he spends his days waterproofing residential properties in the Perth suburbs.  But whereas a younger single man can spend his cash on strength and conditioning, Connolly prioritises his family’s needs when his pay packet arrives.

He has recently linked up with CDL Boxing Promotions and hopes to be on their upcoming November 22nd card, but the search goes on for meaningful sponsors keen to join him on his journey and ease some of the financial pressures all fighters face early on in their careers.

As philosophical as ever, Anto knows it is all in his hands, however.  “It is up to me to go out there, do the business, and make people want to get involved.”

It is the type of positive attitude the affable Connolly displays throughout our conversation.  With quotes like, “there’s no point letting small minds tell you that your dreams are too big”, he could be positioning himself for a run at the motivational speaker circuit when he hangs up the gloves.

imagesBut that won’t be for a while yet and, in the meantime, his disposition will stand him in good stead as he deals with the pressure, and simultaneously balances the demands, of a professional boxing career, a full-time job, and a young family.

There may be bumps in the road along the way but, in speaking with Anto, his genuineness tends to make you not just a supporter, but a believer as well.  Look out for his name in 2015.

A Boy Named Steve Collins Jr

collinsIreland was a great place to be back in the mid-1990s.  World Cup qualification and Eurovision hegemony appeared a given, while the roar of a green, white and gold Celtic Tiger was ushering in an unparalleled, though ultimately arenaceous, period of economic growth and prosperity.

Amidst the revelry, a Celtic Warrior rode the crest of the emerald wave across the Irish Sea to gate-crash and then dominate the golden age of Super Middleweight boxing in the British Isles.  All in all, it was a fine time to be an Irishman and, presumably, even better if you were an Irishman named Steve Collins.  Right?

“I used to think that my life was like that Johnny Cash song, A Boy Named Sue, that’s how I used to look at things.  I had to fight a lot of people growing up, boys wanting to tell everyone that they beat up Steve Collin’s son.”

Steve Collin’s son is, of course, Steve Collins Jr. and growing up in Dublin, his was the biggest scalp for local hard lads looking to stamp their authority on the playground.  With the, my da could beat up your da claim highly unlikely to hold much water in this instance, young Steve was, in the late, great Mr Cash’s words, forced to grow up quick, with mean fists and a keen wit.

collins2Yet it was as a hooker on the rugby pitch rather than the boxing ring that Junior first made his mark.  “From an early age I showed a lot of talent and a lot of potential at the rugby so they sort of kept me out of the boxing gym so I could concentrate on that.”

That talent and potential led to a place in the Leinster youth setup before signing professional contracts with a variety of teams including Lansdowne in Dublin and Wasps and Irish in London.  They were all short-term deals, however, and the nomadic front-rower describes himself with a laugh as “almost like a journeyman of rugby.”

So it wasn’t until he was in his twenties that Steve Jr., by this time six foot tall and almost 17 stone of solid muscle designed to withstand the rigours of ball carrying and tackling on the rugby field, finally laced up the gloves and climbed through the ropes.

“I remember the first time I did pads with my uncle Paschal [renowned Dublin-based trainer], he kept telling me to keep my hands up, but due the density of my muscles from all the weights I’d been lifting for rugby, but I just couldn’t do it and I remember thinking, Jesus, I won’t be able to do this.”

But with the decision made to concentrate on the boxing, the iron-pumping was cut out completely and, slowly but surely, Steve started to come down to a more natural fighting weight.  He has already shed three stone to sit comfortably within the Cruiserweight division and the twelve and a half stone Light Heavyweight category could be where he finally settles.  Just three kilos above his father’s old Super Middleweight stomping ground as it happens.

collins1Steve Jr. knows that, at least at this early stage of his pugilistic career, his old man is bound to crop up in the vast majority of conversations he has in boxing circles.  And his mature acceptance of this fact is made clear by the measured way in which he discusses the patronymic double-edged sword.

It has undoubtedly been somewhat of a cross to bear at times, but Collins Jr. is the type of young man that prefers to focus on the positives.  “I’m very happy with my name because it has made me mentally and physically stronger and given me a lot of drive to make my own mark.  I want people look at me and say, there’s Steve Collins, and not, there’s Steve Collins’ son.”

He also acknowledges that it can open a few doors in boxing and cites the example of Frank Warren being eager to put him on his cards after just one professional fight.

But perhaps the greatest advantage of his illustrious name is the automatic entry to the Celtic Warrior gym in Dublin it affords.  A shoulder injury, and the subsequent inability to fight or work in England, has led to Steve spending a year back home in the Irish capital.  There, he is thriving under the tutelage of his uncle Paschal and absorbing information from the pros that frequent the family gym.

When I suggest the place has the potential to develop into the world class hub that Irish boxing so craves, Collins tells me it is already well on its way to achieving such status.  “We’ve guys coming over [from the UK] for sparring and camps, we’ve just signed the high profile Frank Buglioni, and with guys renting from uncle Paschal you sometimes have five or six trainers with a couple of guys each using the gym at the same time. The place is hopping”

As well as Buglioni, the likes of Stephen Ormond, Spike O’Sullivan, Luke Keeler, Sean Turner and Ian Tims are all regulars so Collins does not struggle for quality sparring.  “I’ll jump in with anyone, it doesn’t bother me.  I’ll get in with Luke and try to keep the pace fast and then with Sean and try and work a bigger more powerful guy.”

collins3Fellow Cruiserweight, Ian Tims, receives special praise.  “I need Timsy, he’s like a mentor to me. After sparring he’ll sit down with me and tell me what I did great and what I might need to work on.  He’s very clever, a cute boxer, and I’m lucky to have someone like that around.”

He certainly is, particularly when you consider that Collins Jr. does not have the traditional foundation of an amateur career to build on.  He describes his surroundings as feeling alien during the first minute of that first fight, but he is quickly settling into his new profession.  “I know I have the talent and I’m more than capable.  I’m only lacking one ingredient: experience.”

When he says this I immediately recall the famous Einstein quote about experience being the only source of knowledge.  In normal circumstances I wouldn’t dare argue with the logic of a functionary in the Swiss patent office, but in this case I have to question whether Albert factored in the possibility of a boxer having Steve Collins as a father when he delivered this particular pearl of wisdom.

Certainly, Steve Jr. is fully aware of the advantage of having such an invaluable resource so close to hand.  “The one-on-one time I got with him while I was in England was great for me – it turned me into a different fighter.  He broke everything down and then fixed a lot of things and I developed very, very quickly while working with him.”

If anything is going to make up for a lack of experience, it is a father-uncle combination like Steve senior and Paschal.

That said, it must be acknowledged that the lack of ring-time undoubtedly makes the process of building Collins Jr.’s record and managing his career progression even more delicate than usual.  But he is adamant that he is neither receiving favours nor being wrapped in cotton wool.  Even at this fledgling stage, he is keen to be tested and pushed.

collins4“I want high end journeymen at this stage, not a Lithuanian plumber who’s there to get banged out for a few quid because that’s not going to help me at all.  So I ask Paschal to get me someone tough, someone who will take and throw shots.”

And that is exactly what he has faced in his first four contests, all swing-bouts that ultimately went the distance, with none ending in defeat.  The shoulder injury has kept him out of action for the past seven months but he is now back in the ring, very close to full fitness, and a spot on the Fury Chisora undercard at the end of November has been inked in as the comeback date.

At the end of the interview, and with the tune of A Boy Named Sue still buzzing around my subconscious, I wonder if Steve Jr. has ever traded leather in anger with the man who named him.  I picture the two crashing through the ropes and into the street, kicking and a’ gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer.  It would make for a great story but, of course, there has been no such showdown.

Throughout our conversation, Collins Jr. comes across as a man with his head firmly screwed on his broad shoulders.  He is open and engaging and speaks with an assured confidence that never spills into arrogance.

collins5There is great respect and admiration in his voice as he discusses topics as varied as his father’s achievements, his uncle’s coaching ability, his stable mates’ performances, the role journeymen play in the sport or, having taken in Frampton v Cazares at the Odyssey Arena in April, the Belfast fight fans.

He basically comes across as someone who is destined to achieve great things in life, regardless of his surname.  And in case you are wondering, no, despite the gravel in his guts and the spit in his eye, Collins Jr. has no intention of naming any sons he may have Steve.

Frampton Quigg is No 50:50 Fight

Quigg-Frampton-1Scott Quigg is a nice guy.  The number of fighters, managers, promoters and pundits to preface an opinion on the Bury boxer with a comment on his affability means that, despite having never met the man, I take his genuine pleasantness as read.

Pronouncements of his niceness from rival camps are, of course, more often than not a polite proviso rather than an unalloyed compliment.  Something along the lines of, Scott’s a great guy, inevitably followed by, but I’ll knock him out or he’s not in my class, is par for the course.

But in the boxing press, the good egg line is actually very rarely a sheepish qualification of a more damning passage on the fighter in question.  Put simply, nice boxers get an easier ride off those paid to fill the column inches.

If you want proof of that, just look at the vast majority of reporting on the two biggest names in the sport over the past decade, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao.  Now imagine that their personalities were switched and the Filipino is the brash, arrogant, woman-beater while his American foe leads the apparently respectful, humble, family-man life.

In such a parallel universe the annals of boxing history would almost certainly adopt a very different hue.  Manny would become just another good fighter with five losses and a whiff of PED use following him around.  Floyd meanwhile would be an unbeaten pound for pound genius to be mentioned in the same breath as the Sugar Rays.

Quigg_2744157bThis is all human nature of course.  Even with the best of intentions, subjectivity tends to triumph over objectivity.  It is simply much easier to deliver harsh critiques of assholes than it is one of life’s good guys.  But here goes nothing…

Scott Quigg is wandering hopelessly lost within the realms of fantasy if he truly believes he deserves a fifty-fifty split of the loot should he enter the ring against Carl Frampton.  Yet, following his three round victory over unheralded Belgian bantamweight Stephane Jamoye last weekend, that is exactly what the Bury man and his promoter Eddie Hearn have demanded.

Their fallacy begins with the perpetuation of the myth that Quigg is a genuine world champion.  Even by the standards of the multiple paper-belt era we live in today, the legitimacy of that claim is tenuous at best.

Guillermo Rigondeaux is the undisputed WBA super bantamweight champion of the world, full stop.  But back in 2012, the WBA took it upon itself to manufacture an interim title and let Quigg and Rendall Munroe battle for the honour.  Then, aware that Rigo was the most avoided boxer in the sport, they decided to elevate the Cuban to super (duper?) champion status and told Quigg he was now a regular champion, whatever that means.

Overnight, what had been a bog standard fringe title suddenly became open to interpretation.  Who can blame Team Quigg for going right ahead and interpreting it as a legitimate world title?  Certainly not the good old WBA who, hungry for the revenue that extra title fights and sanctioning fees provide, happily encouraged the whole charade.

carlIBF super bantamweight titlist Frampton, on the other hand, is, alongside Rigo and Leo Santa Cruz, a bona fide world champion.  An honour he assumed by beating one of the division’s other true world level operators, Kiko Martínez.  Mentioning Kiko’s class brings us to another point that must be pertinent within the negotiations: the calibre of opponent both have faced.

The two men continue to boast unbeaten records, although Quigg does have two draws and two knockdowns against his name.  The greater disparity between them lies with who they have faced.  Frampton’s foes have entered the ring with an average of 15.4 wins and 3.7 losses, while Quigg’s boast much less favourable averages of only 13.4 wins and an incredible 14.1 losses.

Only two fighters have touched gloves with both boxers: Yuriy Voronin and Gavin Reid.  Voronin took Quigg six rounds before, two bouts later, he was knocked out in the third by Frampton.  Reid lasted nine stanzas with Quigg but, in his very next fight, Frampton stopped him inside three.  Granted, that is not a huge pool of data to analyse: but the only possible conclusion that can be drawn is that, when they’ve been given a similar challenge, Carl has handled it much easier than Scott.

Rate of career progression is another marker by which to compare the merits and worth of two fighters.  The above mentioned Reid was the 19th bout of Quigg’s professional career while Frampton faced the Scot in just his eighth outing.  Voronin was opponent number 16 for Quigg but only number seven for Frampton.  For a little more perspective, the Northern Irishman’s 16th fight was a slightly tougher assignment: a first match-up with future world champion, Kiko Martínez.

The point to be taken here is that, comparing their two records to date, Frampton has had the greater success, while performing to a higher standard, against a better calibre of opponent, much earlier along his career path.  Though he began his journey more than two years after his domestic rival, in truth, Frampton has always been a step or two ahead of the Englishman.

ScottQuigg_2965683Nevertheless, boxing is, and always has been, as much a business as it is a sport and it is therefore necessary to consider that murky side of things in any squabbles over who deserves the biggest piece of the pie.

Whatever way you look at it, Frampton is far and away the bigger draw of the two.  This could be because Belfast is bigger than Bury.  Or Northern Irish fans have less world class fighters to choose from than their northern English counterparts.  Or maybe Frampton is a higher quality and more exciting performer.  It doesn’t really matter.  The why is not important in this particular debate.  It is all about bums on seats and neither Barry McGuigan nor Eddie Hearn could give a monkeys how they get there.

Quigg was fully correct when he stated that this particular fight would be massive because of the involvement of both men.  But that is not really the point either.  Every fight Frampton is involved in is massive now regardless of opponent.  More than 1,500 attend the Jackal’s weigh-ins and they have to purposely build 16,000 seater arenas for him to fight in.  To say that neither is true of Quigg is the understatement of the year.

Frampton is on record as saying, “the only man I want is Scott Quigg.”  Want being the operative word in that statement.  Carl wants Scott.  But Scott needs Carl.  It is a subtle difference, but one that can be readily turned into dollars and cents in any negotiation room.

Hearn knows all of this of course.    You can tell by reading between the lines of his words or analysing his actions.  The one ace he had up his sleeve was Quigg’s contract with Sky Sports being able to guarantee a much bigger television audience (and potential PPV revenue if the bout gets hyped to the rafters) than Frampton could via his deal with Boxnation.

carlBut that Boxnation deal ended with the recent Martínez fight and Cyclone Promotions are now free to play the field and sign with another channel should they wish.  Hearn is fast running out of reasons to be cheerful and it is possible to sense a hint of panic fomenting beneath his standard cool, calm and collected exterior.

He is already talking about two fights between the pair for example.  The outcome of the first bout being a comfortable Quigg victory that renders a second instalment pointless, and propels his charge onto bigger and better things, clearly hasn’t entered his thoughts.

Then there is his cynical latching on to Top Rank’s Chris Avalos, who just happened to be Frampton’s mandatory.  Hearn made the Machiavellian move in order to have stick to beat McGuigan with in the negotiation room: play ball in agreeing a domestic super fight with my man Quigg, or I’ll force you into a less lucrative bout with my man (sort of) Avalos.

Now that Avalos appears to be the latest sacrificial lamb to be clinically slaughtered by the gloved fists of Rigondeaux, it remains to be seen how effective that crafty stratagem proves to be.

Even the fact that Team Quigg are openly settling for half the profits can surely be interpreted as a sign of weakness.  Why publicly state that the absolute dream scenario for them is to walk away with a fifty-fifty split?  Why not march into negotiations declaring that Quigg, a world champion (of sorts) for the past two years with five successful defences and more wins and knockouts to his name, is the main man?

quiggframpWhy?  Because even in the perfidious world of boxing negotiations, such brazen chicanery would be laughed out of town.  In reality, all Quigg has to hold onto is the fact that Frampton wants to fight him and the whole of the UK and Ireland want to see the pair in a ring.  And who knows, that may even be enough to get him the split he believes he deserves.  If so, good luck to him.  Because when all the talk is over and the first bell sounds, not even Eddie Hearn will honestly give him a 50:50 chance of winning.

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.