There will be no love lost inside Blackpool’s Winter Gardens this Valentine’s night as the latest instalment of the Prizefighter series hits England’s answer to Atlantic City. Barry Hearn’s innovative one night, eight man, twenty-one round shoot-out returns in its 35th incarnation and this time it will be a merry band of middleweights vying for the £32,000 first prize.
For those unfamiliar with the format, it is effectively a knock-out cup competition for boxing. With eight in the hat for Thursday’s draw, we begin at the quarter-final stage and each of the guaranteed seven bouts are scheduled for three three-minute rounds.
The concept, much like the sport itself, is rough-and-ready and continues to draw some criticism from the boxing purists who don’t get out of bed for less than ten rounds. Yet these naysayers, perhaps distant cousins of the cricketing class that feel faint at the mere mention of a Twenty20 fixture, either fail or refuse to appreciate the true spirit of Prizefighter.
While at times dismissed as a response to the impetuous demands of a society whose thirst for knowledge on any given subject is now often sated by a 140 character tweet, it is in fact a much more worthy venture for fighter and fan alike. Certainly, for a particular level of fighter it is at the very least.
In the same way that the top snooker players prefer the best-of-nineteen frame minimum at the Crucible rather than first-to-five-frame showdowns in regular ranking events, Prizefighter is not designed for fully-established boxers at, or approaching, the peak of their careers. This is no place for champs or contenders. But for virtually every other fighter on every other rung of boxing’s rickety ladder, the format is a Godsend.
For the small-hall pros, who tend to constitute the majority of the fallers at the first fence, it is a decent payday and, in performing in front of an invariably sold-out crowd, live on Sky Sports, it is the best exposure they are ever likely to receive.
For the old warhorses enjoying one last, or almost last, hurrah, it is a golden chance to further feather their nests before retirement. As multiple winners, Michael Sprott and Audley Harrison fall neatly into this category.
But by far the most interesting participants are the up-and-coming prospects taking a calculated risk in an attempt to fast-forward their careers. For many fans, not to mention promoters, the most satisfying result is to see one of these men walk away with the trophy and then demonstrate in the following years what a springboard to success Prizefighter can be. Martin Murray and Terry Flanagan are two fine examples.
Back in 2008, a 9-0 Murray won the original Middleweight Prizefighter and he is now a week away from facing Gennady Golovkin for the WBA crown. Flanagan, then 15-0, was the Prizefighter Lightweight champion in 2012 and this Saturday he challenges Stephen Ormond for the Irishman’s European belt and the right to fight for world honours next time out.
Luke Keeler, just like Murray and Flanagan before him, is a bona fide up-and-comer. Unbeaten in seven with five stoppage victories, Keeler is one of five men putting their perfect records on the line on the boardwalk this weekend. That prospect doesn’t faze the Dubliner one little bit, however.
I first spoke to Keeler last September as he prepared to headline a show in his home town in only his sixth professional bout. At the time he was balancing a full-time job, renovating a flat and running around trying to sell enough tickets to cover himself and his opponent. It was no surprise then that he felt a lack of zip on the night and, although he took a comfortable six round decision against the tough and awkward Laszlo Kovacs, it was a below-par performance.
But with an honours degree in structural engineering from the Dublin Institute of Technology to his name, Keeler is a smart guy who is quick to learn from past mistakes. Changes were made and the results were immediate. On the undercard of Macklin v Heiland last November, he stopped the durable Gary Boulden in a couple of explosive minutes to get back on track.
Eddie Hearn was ringside in Dublin that night and his “a star is born” tweet revealed a genuine admiration for the Ballyfermot boy. The Prizefighter invitation was in the post soon after and rumour has it a Matchroom contract will be waiting should Keeler emerge victorious on Saturday. It’s an opportunity he is determined not to waste and his training camp this time reflects that.
“I took a full four weeks off work this time around.” he tells me. “That takes a lot of the pressure off, gives you time for the morning runs and the resting, napping and relaxing necessary to train at 100%.” It is a truism that is lost on many that what you don’t do can be just as important as what you do do in the weeks leading up to a fight.
Or in this case, three fights. I wonder how training is tailored to cater for the unique challenge of three high-intensity mini-wars with barely time to catch your breath between each cavalry charge.
“Running and strength work remained basically the same,” Keeler says, “but the focus in the gym was on replicating the Prizefighter format with three three minute spars and ten minute breaks for skipping to keep sharp.”
Sharp is a word Keeler repeats several times throughout our conversation. Though known for his heavy hands, it is his belief that a sharpness in the ring, a liveliness and an ability to get off to a good start is the secret in the short-form game.
He had previously mentioned a hat-trick of knockouts being the goal but he now laughs when I remind him of that bold statement. “It was a throw away remark at the end of an interview. It’d be nice of course but I know if you load up on your shots you run the risk of leaving yourself open to damaging counters.”
With only nine minutes in which to impress, it does not take many such counters to leave a fighter frantically and raggedly chasing a stoppage to win. Just ask Paddy Gallagher.
Belfast Welterweight Gallagher took a rather gung-ho approach to his venture into the Prizefighter arena last April and in just over eighteen minutes of harum-scarum action, Pat-Man or his opponents hit the deck an at a rate of once a round, every round. The fans loved it but Gallagher now has two defeats on his record.
Keeler is more likely to follow the template of his stablemate, Jono Carroll, who emerged from relative obscurity to produce a trio of mature performances and win the most recent edition of Prizefighter. With renowned Dublin trainer Paschal Collins again masterminding the Celtic Warrior Gym’s latest assault on British soil, it is safe to say Keeler is receiving plenty of good advice.
When the draw is made on Thursday he’ll sit down with Paschal to review strategies for individual match-ups while Carroll has already passed on some acquired wisdom concerning time management while waiting backstage for your cue.
“He told me some of the other boys he was up against were getting very hyped up between their fights whereas the key is just to stick the earphones in, chill out, stay relaxed and wrap a blanket around you to keep warm.”
Come Saturday evening, Paschal will actually be about two hours south along the M6, manning the corner of Stephen Ormond in the aforementioned biggest fight of the lightweight’s career. Fortunately, he has the luxury of calling upon his brother, former two weight champion of the world Steve, to step in for the night: not a bad replacement as Keeler is quick to acknowledge.
“It’s fantastic to have someone with the experience of Steve to come in. He’s similar to Paschal in many ways but he’ll bring his own style and ideas. There is also the extra attention and a kind of intimidation factor that comes with having him in your corner.”
All very true but as every boxer is only too aware, once that first bell chimes, you’re essentially on your own in there. At this point, Ali’s great quote about fights being won or lost in the gym and on the road, long before the dance under the lights, achieves a special resonance in the mind of each combatant.
Again though, Keeler is at ease. His final full-blooded sparring session last Saturday was with European super middleweight champion Frank Buglioni. The impressive Irish middleweight, Gary ‘Spike’ O’Sullivan, who will also be in the corner on fight night, is another regular training partner. Suffice it to say that few of his potential Winter Garden foes will have been benefitting from spars in such illustrious company.
“I treated each day like a mini Prizefighter competition against Frank and Spike. They are a few levels above anything I’ll face in Blackpool and I handled myself okay with those boys so I’ve nothing to fear at the weekend. I feel like I’ve ticked every box”
Box ticking for elite athletes today includes preparing the mind as much as the body and, to this end, Keeler has employed the services of the sports psychologist, Alan Heary. A key member of Steve Collins’ team back in the day, Heary was instrumental in the mind games that so upset Chris Eubank and he has since worked closely with a range of top sports names. As Keeler puts it, it’s all about finding the extra one percent at this level and Heary might be able to provide that.
We end our conversation talking about perspective; something Keeler appears to have a better grasp of than many of his peers. It was his uncle Stephen, himself a boxer, who first introduced young Luke to the sport before tragically passing away at just 28 years of age. Stephen still serves as a major inspiration and motivation for Luke who fights with his uncle’s name embroidering into his shorts. “He was my idol, I was very proud of him,” Luke tells me, “and to this day, doing him proud is a big part of why I have stuck with the boxing.”
Such sentiments ensure Keeler won’t get carried away whatever the results on Saturday night. He knows that Prizefighter is a win-win scenario for the vast majority who enter it. There is no contradiction in saying that while victory in the tournament can be life-changing, defeat tends to have little negative impact on a boxer’s career. The fact that virtually anyone can find themselves on the wrong end of a three round decision on any given night makes recovery from a Prizefighter defeat a less harrowing experience than from a traditional loss.
Regardless, it is unlikely Alan Heary allows his clients to dwell on any such negative thoughts and Keeler fully expects to follow in the footsteps of compatriots Martin Rogan, Willie Casey, Eamonn O’Kane and Jono Carroll to be crowned the fifth Irish Prizefighter king. The bookies seem to agree and I for one certainly won’t be backing against him.