Last night I stayed up way past my bedtime, specifically to watch a heavyweight version of the Sky Sports Prizefighter format, in which eight fighters take part in a mini-tournament of three-round bouts to claim a £32,000 bounty.
An added attraction was the opportunity to witness a cameo appearance on the York Hall bill by twenty-four year old reigning Olympic superheavyweight gold medallist Anthony Joshua, having his third fight since turning professional on 5th October.
Forty years ago I was a big boxing fan. I frequently went to ‘live’ boxing shows in and around London and kept up with developments via the UK’s weekly Boxing News, the US Ringside magazine and whatever fights were being televised.
Those were the days of ‘old school’ promoters Jarvis Astaire and Mickey Duff – against whom the young upstart Frank Warren was making his first promotional challenges, having emerged from unlicensed boxing – and other luminaries such as the BBC’s commentator Harry Carpenter, presenter Desmond Lynam, manager Terry Lawless and British pugs such as John H. Stracey, Dave ‘Boy’ Green, John L. Gardner, Tony Sibson, Maurice Hope, Lloyd Honeyghan, Mark Kaylor, Herol Graham and, of course, Frank Bruno.
Whilst being swept up by the romantic aspects of pugilism, including a deep sense of admiration for those with the guts to step between the ropes that I didn’t possess, I and my pals were all too aware of the seediness inherent in the business side of the sport.
On the Duff promotions we used to attend at York Hall and the Royal Albert Hall – and ‘duff’ was often the appropriate word – nobody in the auditoria was kidding themselves that all was as it appeared.
I’m not suggesting bouts were ‘fixed’ as such, but the match-making was habitually skewed to ensure that whichever young boxer was currently being built up by the promoters and their acolytes did not slip on a metaphorical banana skin as he hopefully forged an unbeaten career justifying future title contender status and monetary gain, not least for his manager and promoter.
Habitually this required that bright young fighters were fed a careful diet of ageing, out-of-condition, journeymen, mostly sporting a record comprising a handful of victories in a 50-plus bout career so far.
On the one hand, you might file this under ‘kid prospect learning the pro trade’. On the other, it amounted to near-defrauding the paying public, not that the journeymen were being paid to lie down, or – to be fair – they weren’t trying. Generally, they gave all they had, but they just weren’t very good. They were a species of boxing pond life making a living below the media surface. Their task was to keep in reasonable shape, ready at a moment’s notice to travel the length of the country in order to act as a real-life punch bag to some young prospect and collect a couple of hundred quid for their pains.
We punters didn’t mind. The atmosphere in a ‘live’ boxing event is always heady and exhilarating, the opportunity for people-watching second to none I have experienced.
Occasionally, of course, things did not proceed according to plan. A kid might just have a bad night – or stumble onto a stray punch, get stunned and then under-perform – to the extent where a draw or even a loss would have been the appropriate outcome.
Over time, I lost count of the number of bad or ‘hometown’ decisions I witnessed in the flesh. You got frustrated and felt sorry for the journeymen in such circumstances but – from the boxing business point of view – the newspapers next morning would show yet another ‘W’ in the young prospect’s results column and, within a week, the circumstances would be long forgotten.
I haven’t really followed boxing in depth for about fifteen years, but last night it was both ironic and strangely reassuring to behold so much that was familiar.
Well, except that the promoters, managers and boxers are different because, of course, Time waits for no man.
The Prizefighter tournament was upgraded a notch on this occasion by a Team USA versus Team UK element. The only participants I knew were 45-year-old James Toney for the USA (a three-time world champion, most recently at cruiserweight, who had his first pro fight in 1988) and Michael Sprott, the former British and Commonwealth champion, for the UK.
Former all-time heavyweight great Larry Holmes was on hand to lend his knowledge to the Sky Sports team led by Johnny Nelson.
I learned overnight that Sprott eventually won the final – I’m afraid that I didn’t stay up long enough to see it first hand.
Suffice it to record that I decided to draw stumps after a series of agricultural contests between these badly-blowing monsters, when Sky’s commentator noted in passing that the average age of the four semi-finalists was thirty-nine. The fare on offer thus far had been closer to professional wrestling than the Noble Art, in the sense that the ‘car crash fascination’ entertainment quotient significantly outweighed the technical quality on display.
Then came the Anthony Joshua interlude.
It was repeatedly hyped through the evening as the latest chance to see Britain’s best new heavyweight hope in action and in the presence, of course, of former world champion Larry Holmes.
Joshua, interviewed before the action in his dressing room, seemed a nice boy – articulate, humble, eager to learn and please.
He also looked like a million dollars at six feet six, an Ancient Greek stature seemingly hewn from granite. When the time came, he strode all of thirty yards from the edge of the hall to the ring without falling over, surrounded by a baying crowd. Needless to say, both crowd and your viewer at home were now feeling the adrenalin rising at the prospect of seeing this superman being given a serious test.
Then we first set eyes on Hrvoje Kisicek, his Croatian opponent, on the other side of the ring. Hrvoje was a pudgy, pasty-coloured man, completely devoid of muscle tone, looking at least six inches shorter and three stones lighter. And fought like it.
I think I heard the announcer record the time of the ending as “One minute thirty-eight seconds of the second round’, shortly before promoter Eddie Hearn – son of Barry – announced that Joshua’s next two fights would be on the Froch-Groves bill next Saturday (23rd November) and then 14th December.
Some things in life never change. I guess boxing is one.