Earlier this year I penned an article in the Guardian questioning why a sport-obsessed country like Spain displays such indifference towards the sweet science. I described Spanish boxing as having been subject to a standing eight count for more than a generation and, while most involved in the sport here reluctantly agreed with my assessment, a few plumas were understandably ruffled nevertheless.
Fast forward two months and an email arrives in my inbox from Maravillabox, the promotional company set up by the great Argentine middleweight, and adopted Spaniard, Sergio “Maravilla” Martínez. It was entitled, Spain Breathes Boxing, and it detailed the launch of an initiative to “boost, increase, develop and spread professional boxing nationwide.”
Basically, the major promotional forces in Spanish boxing have joined forces. Guantes de Lobo, Euskobox, Tundra, ND Boxing, Gallego Prada and Maravillabox sat down together over a glass of Rioja and a plate of paella, settled their differences, and constituted the Spanish Association of Professional Boxing Promoters.
According to the email, “Each and every one of them is dedicated to defending the interests of Spanish boxers, and are looking for ever more support from public institutions, sports departments and public administration.”
Last night in Madrid, I was invited to sit ringside and take in their first show.
The venue was the impressive 14,000-seater indoor arena, Palacio de Vistalegre, in the southern barrio of Carabanchel. The neighbourhood was once best known as the location of some of the bloodiest fighting during the Spanish Civil War and, until 1998, the home of a notorious Franco-era prison.
Today it would be rather euphemistically described by estate agents as vibrant and diverse. It’s a poor and rough part of town, the type of place to which North African and South American immigrants to the Spanish capital naturally gravitate. Walking to the venue I traversed a maze of narrow, graffitied one-way streets, many of which appeared to be either literal or metaphorical dead-ends. There is a grubby, raw feel to the environs that cause an outsider like me to quicken their step. Where better to put on a boxing show?
Inside the arena, the upper banks of seating had been curtained off, leaving 1,800 on the floor to sit the fight fans. It’s a cavernous space, big enough even to house Real Madrid, the most successful basketball team in Europe, until their 2010 move to an even larger home in a more salubrious part of town.
By the time of the first bell of the first fight, there is probably already 1,000 in attendance. Despite the grand surroundings, this is effectively a small hall show so I’m impressed at the turn-out so early in the night.
The crowd is an interesting mix as well. The cheap seats that lurk in the shadows are largely populated by pockets of youngish men, none of whom look like strangers to the odd scrap themselves. Moving forward towards the ring the couples appear: date night at the boxing is obviously a thing in España. Once close enough to feel the heat of the lights, it’s a rather well-heeled clientele: middle class Madrileños in freshly-pressed chinos and Ralph Lauren shirts.
Despite the high ceiling creating a slightly hollow feel, the punters’ enthusiasm succeeded in creating a decent atmosphere. The standard mix of air-guitar classics, from Bon Jovi to AC/DC, were blasted out at every opportunity to maintain a lively vibe and each solid blow landed elicited a roar of approval.
The people seemed involved and engaged with the action: more than I can say for the 80,000 that fill the Santiago Bernabéu every other week and, outside clasicos, derbis and important Champions League fixtures, often sit in relative silence.
They were largely knowledgeable too. When the unbeaten welterweight, Nabil Krissi, threw a couple of naughty right hands while his left was still cuffed around the back of the neck of his opponent, he drew loud whistles of admonishment even before he received an official ticking off.
That’s not to say there was not the traditional smattering of armchair faux-experts, however, barking out the same tired, clichéd advice you hear at every show in the UK and Ireland. Last night I enjoyed the novelty of listening to the wisdom pearls in another tongue but they are basically the same the world over.
The fights themselves were a mixed bag. A couple of game but limited novices opened proceedings before Krissi stopped the rugged Michael Oyono in four. An impressive-looking young Basque super featherweight prospect then won in a round, before flyweights Angel Moreno and Javier Venteo fought a rematch of their split draw from two years ago.
Venteo is from Elche, Kiko Martínez’s town, and he wore a Kiko T-shirt into the ring and had the super bantamweight’s trainer, Antonio Matias, working his corner. Moreno is Spain’s answer to Naseem Hamed when it comes to ring entrances. He likes to begin the show as soon as he steps out of the dressing room, in the past arriving as both a zombie and an Italian gangster.
Last night he dusted off an early nineties Halloween costume and graced us as Hannibal Lector, resplendent in straight jacket and face-mask while being pushed along upright on a trolley surrounded by a bevy of police officers. It’s a harmless gimmick and as he backed it up in the ring to take a six round unanimous decision I’m prepared to let him away with it.
Fight of the night saw the Dominican Republic-born Spaniard Ruddy Encarnación taken the distance by the tough Mallorquin, Santiago Bustos. Bustos has no problem eating a punch, as he proved over eight rounds with the hard-hitting Irishman Anto Cacace last February, but Ruddy had enough elan to see it through.
With the short, squat Bustos happy to ship punishment while wading in to land a big hook, and the tall, elegant Encarnación controlling the distance and rocking his man with either glove, if you squinted your eyes, and I mean really squinted them, there were tiny echoes of Robinson and LaMotta’s great battles.
Afterwards, Ruddy told me proudly that it was his 62nd fight of a career that began in the twentieth century. When he discovered my city of birth he then happily admitted he had just fought in a pair of Carl Frampton’s old boots: the IBF super bantamweight champion gifted them to Encarnación after a week’s sparring at McGuigan’s gym in Battersea earlier in the year.
The headline act saw unbeaten local boy Nicolas Gonzalez face the 17 and 1 Serbian Petar Zivkovic for the vacant WBC Mediterranean super lightweight strap. Zivkovic dominated the notoriously slow starting Gonzalez over the first two rounds before a blow that appeared suspiciously close to the back of his head dropped the Serb in the third. The referee counted as Zivkovic complained and after an innocuous-looking scuff twenty seconds later it was all over. It was a bizarre ending and the Serb’s trainer looked as mystified by his charge’s lack of heart as anyone.
Whatever the circumstances, a Spaniard had his arms aloft and a flash new belt around his waist and that was enough to send the locals home satisfied with their night out at the boxing. And I too was suitably impressed with the product on show.
Immediately after I went for a cerveza and tapas with Jorge Lera and Ivan Ramos, a couple of fixtures on the Spanish boxing scene for the past twenty or thirty years. Jorge commentates on bouts for Eurosport and is a respected fight writer, while Ivan is a qualified referee now working on the promotional and matchmaking side of things.
A show like we just attended could be possible every two or three months was their feeling, taking in other Iberian boxing hotspots such as Barcelona and the Basque Country. We also wondered whether their might exist opportunities for the new junta of Spanish promoters to link up with MGM Promotions in Marbella and put on bills in Andalucía as well. All in all, despite lamenting the lack of television interest, there was cautious optimism that the sport has taken a stride in the right direction.
As I rose to leave, a couple of framed posters in the back caught my attention. Black and white images of the great Catalan fighters from the 1930s, José Gironés and Carlos Flix, stared out at me. I had referenced the two in my Guardian piece as being the main pugilistic victims of Franco’s oppressive, anti-Catalonia regime following the Spanish Civil War.
I would love to claim that my article sparked a boxing revolution here but, of course, unifying talks between the major promoters began before anyone knew my thoughts. Whatever the catalyst, all involved should be applauded for the renewed efforts to put Spanish boxing back on the map. They won’t be selling out 80,000 seater stadiums, a la Froch Groves, any time soon, but I saw enough on Friday night to believe the sport definitely has a future here after all.