THERE are a lot of hard, hard miles between the main ring at the Excelsior Club in Cannock and the bright ring at the O2.
Right now, only Sam Eggington and I have been in both rings. Sam, obviously, doing the fighting and me asking a few questions. In the space of 48 hours last week, I managed the double. I had a night at York Hall in the middle, a night that starts with egg and chips in the café across the road and ends with a taxi ride through the backstreets of east London. Did you know that there is a Michelin star restaurant at the back of York Hall and that their own distilled gin will set you back about 25 quid a pop?
The three days of fights – a total of 24 – ended with a lively ringside at the O2, a subdued winner in the ring; it started on the Thursday night with two unbeaten boxers fighting over four rounds. Anthony Joshua’s robe probably cost more than the money split by Lewis Howells and Mitchell Woollard in the opening bout at the launch of Scott Murray’s new Excelsior Sporting Club. The upstairs at the club had been transformed with lights and the people had come out in their velvet dinner suits and frocks. It was an impressive start and the debut of GB regular, Niall Farrell, deserves to be mentioned.
When I asked Woollard how many he had had, he replied: “What, at the bar?” When I asked Joshua about his win he replied: “No knockout, no good.” Two men separated forever by far more than the 137 miles between Bar Sport and North Greenwich. One man with an entourage of none and the other at the mercy of nearly 18,000 adoring fans. That is not the same business and at the same time, that’s the very hardcore centre of the British boxing business right there, I guess.
In Cannock, which was sold out, I listened to Kerry Kayes and Jon Pegg have one of those strange corner boxing conversations. Kerry was working with Sam, protecting him if he was cut and Peggy was in the corner. They spoke without looking at each other, focusing on Sam, but still able to have a full talk. “You there Saturday?” Pegg asked. “Yeah, got Campbell on.” Kayes replied. “Campbell? He’s in with one of ours.” “Is he?” “Yeah, he’s in with Louis Fielding. He can fight.” “Can he?” Fast forward about 46 hours and they were reunited in the O2 ring, but only just. Kerry had missed the ring walk when he was stuck in the Blackwall tunnel traffic hell for hours. “I got there in time for the pictures at the end,” he joked. He did, by the way. Hatton won in the first round. The gridlock at the O2 lasted until nearly dawn.
Ray Boom Boom Mancini was the guest at the Excelsior and then appeared at ringside at York Hall the following night. Boom Boom looked at home in both locations. “I had fights in places like this,” he said in Bethnal Green. “It reminds me of the Blue Horizon.” It does and watching fights at both of those venues is another rare club. Mancini had been at the Repton, which is a short walk from York Hall, in the afternoon. He had spoken to Ray Winstone, the actor, after spotting a picture of Winstone on the wall. Winstone won a London Federation of Boys Club title at the Café Royal in the Seventies. I think I was there on the night and have the programme somewhere. Another rare club. “Ray told me that being a member at Repton made him,” said Mancini.
At York Hall there was a mystical look in Mancini’s eyes. That happens a lot when boxing people sit down at York Hall for the first time. I told him Johnny Tapia and Big John Tate, two truly tragic fighters, had fought there. He just shook his head and smiled. It still makes me chuckle that one of the long-serving York Hall rings is now a permanent fixture in a royal palace in Saudi Arabia. It was a move made possible by Ring King, Mike Goodhall. All three rings over the weekend were, incidentally, part of the Goodhall empire.
There was a conversation over the three nights about the role that sporting clubs once played in the British boxing business, Murray had launched with Eggington and Farrell, which is good. In 1973 the St. Andrews launched with Ken Buchanan and Jim Watt in a British title fight. It is a fight and location that still puzzles me; Buchanan had topped the bill at a capacity Garden just seven weeks earlier. That is possibly the greatest and oddest change in consecutive fights in British history. So many other obscure fights took place behind closed doors at sporting clubs. Alan Minter won a bronze medal at the Munich Olympic Games and was watched by millions on the BBC. A few months later, he was having his fourth and fifth fights behind closed doors at private clubs, where shouting was not tolerated; polite applause was allowed between puffs on fat cigars.
However, the craziest sporting club story is from 1968. Chris Finnegan won a gold medal at the Mexico City Olympics and nine weeks later he made his debut at the Hilton in Park Lane. That is truly astounding. Two Boom Booms, by the way. Now, that would have been a night out a few years go if they had met at the door of a bar.
There was another big meeting at the O2, unscheduled but important. In the tunnels away from the ring, I was standing with Conor Benn when Robert Smith of the Board suddenly appeared. They shook hands, no words, just looks. No cameras. It was all part of a long, long boxing weekend. From Cannock to glory, with a Boom Boom, a dream or two and an uncertain future for a national idol. That was a triple shot.