By Steve Bunce
THIS is not a review of an unforgettable year in rings all over the world.
There is an argument that a review of the British boxing year could start and end on one May evening. It was all done and dusted in a couple of hours. It was the evening in May when the promoters and the broadcasters went toe-to-toe and delivered just about everything in three locations and on three channels. Sure, there were not the heroics of Sunny Edwards or Anthony Yarde. And nothing that night came close to the ‘wow’ moment when Francis Ngannou whipped over the looping left hook to save the blushes of the MMA horde. Sunny, Yarde and Francis will live with us for a long, long time.
Still, the night had a lot of everything and not all of it was pretty.
In Belfast, there was heartbreak and tears when Michael Conlan was stopped in the fifth by Mexican, Luis Alberto Lopez. A world title was the prize and Lopez was against it; I fancied Conlan big. On the night, against a relentless din of noise, which was at times a desperate mix of hope and prayers, Conlan was dismantled, Lopez was brilliant, and the crowd silenced.
I went to see Conlan after in his dressing room and there was a look that you only see on the faces of the very best fighters when they have been badly beaten. It is a look, mixed with bruises, cuts and swellings, that is also thick with utter confusion. The beaten boxer has no idea what just happened. Ricky Hatton had the look after losing to Floyd Mayweather and Enzo Maccarinelli had it after his David Haye defeat. Boxers know they can lose, but the look comes when they have no idea that they could lose like they just did. I guess Sunny had it last Saturday; Sunny certainly had the damage that accompanies the look.
On the Belfast undercard, Ludamo Lamiti, of South Africa, was stopped in the 12th and last round by Nick Ball. Lamiti staggered for a bit, looked unsteady and then he collapsed. Carl Frampton and I watched from six feet away and knew it was serious. Lamiti had surgery to remove a blood clot later that night, made a good recovery, was visited by Frampton all the time and is now back home. It was the end to any night that we all fear.
At about the same time, at the Vitality Stadium in Bournemouth, another local idol was getting ready for the ringwalk of his life. The fans had come out, the night was clear and loud.
Chris Billam-Smith had shared a gym and the sparring ring with the WBO’s cruiserweight champion, Lawrence Okolie. The pair knew each other well and Shane McGuigan, who had guided Okolie to the title, was confident he could do the same with Billam-Smith. The sensible reasoning on the night was that Shane knows something that we have missed. There is a lovely idea in our sport that romantic endings can be conjured if you want it enough – that is a great story, but it is a fantasy. There are ten reality checks for every fairy tale. Surely there would not be a happy ending? Surely it would just be the local dreamer left in bitter tears of defeat.
Okolie was unbeaten in 19 fights, seasoned, smart and an acquired taste. He did what he did very well; Billam-Smith would have to take the risks that Okolie so often exploited. Billam-Smith was at home, Okolie had no boxing home. The sun shone all week in Bournemouth, the setting looked tropical at times.
The fight was chaotic, truly odd. Okolie was sent stumbling three times in ugly knockdowns and lost two points for infringements. He was reluctant at times, bullied at times and still one judge scored it a draw. Billam-Smith finished on his knees in tears, the new champion but a very old-fashioned boxer. One judge scored it to him by eleven points. It was a strange fight, not quite a fairy tale.
On the undercard, Sam Eggington was hired to lose against Joe Pigford. In the end, Eggington’s flawless win in five rounds was close to perfection. Pigford was unbeaten in 20 fights, with 19 knockouts or stoppages; Eggington ruined the run. Any night when Eggington is an underdog and wins is a good night.
And, at the same time in Manchester it was time for one of the boldest rematches that I can remember. In February, Mexican Mauricio Lara had come from behind to drop and stop Leigh Wood. It was hard to watch, it finished with Ben Davison pulling off a brilliant piece of corner work to save Wood from his own heart and desire. Ben got some stick, Wood went back in the gym.
Their rematch for Lara’s WBA featherweight title had a tricky start; Lara failed to make the weight. Sure, Lara looked different, but nobody was predicting the fight’s outcome. The rumours always surface safely after the fight. The rematch was still a brave fight to take, forget all the talk. It was Mauricio Lara, he knocked out donkeys for fun.
Wood boxed a dream fight on the night. He dropped Lara in the fourth and two of the judges gave it to him by eleven points. That was a win. We are often too quick to dismiss great wins; the story of this fight, in my opinion, was not the Mexican’s chaotic life, but the grit and belief of Wood and Davison. Credit where credit is due, you know that story.
It all happened between about 9pm and midnight on that one May night. I never want to see three televised shows, with so many storylines behind so many fights on the same night again, but it was special. The rest of the year was not bad. As I say, this was not a review of the year, just a glance at a night that perfectly captures what we can do in this business.