2015 has been a mixed year in British boxing. Several of the biggest possible PPV events have not transpired – Frampton vs. Quigg; Khan vs. Brook and for reasons entirely disparate DeGale vs. Groves 2 or Froch vs. Anybody. Anthony Joshua’s rise has continued apace & Tyson Fury upset both the boxing world & the world in general in one act of sporting greatness & one of moralistic vulgarity that will forever be linked to his legacy within wider society. Eddie Hearn has continued his utter dominance of the domestic landscape with his nearest competitor in many ways now, oddly, being his quasi-partner Al Haymon who has signed up a succession of elite British talent in Carl Frampton, James DeGale & Lee Selby.
2016 brings with it much optimism as the aforementioned Frampton vs. Quigg has, after a solid 2 to 3 years of frustrating negotiation ala Mayweather vs. Pacquiao, been agreed. The two super bantamweights are, though, still within the limits of their primes & the event promises to showcase a meaningful domestic super fight of the era.
I have had the privilege of seeing several of the best fights of 2015 in a British ring from ringside & submit my listing of the ten best as follows:
Eddie Hearns’ Matchroom Boxing provided London fight fans with the Card of the Year at London’s 02 Arena on Saturday evening.
Hearn has had bigger nights in the last 2 years but I’d wager he’s never offered such a long; varied & stimulating from multiple perspectives card as was the case last night:
Dave Ryan W John Wayne Hibbert TKO 9
Scott Cardle W Craig Evans UD 12
Kell Brook W Frankie Gavin TKO 6
John Ryder L Nick Blackwell TKO 7
Jorge Linares W Kevin Mitchell TKO 10
Evgeny Gradovich L Lee Selby TD 8
Anthony Joshua W Kevin Johnson TKO 2
Nathan Cleverly W Tomas Man KO 1
Lucien Reid W Elemir Rafael TKO 4
With the exception of the Cleverly bout which was over in under 25 seconds none of these contests failed to deliver some dynamite in one form or another. The events production value was also world class with Michael Buffer & Paulie Malignaggi both drafted in for the big night.
The promoter’s chargers endured a mixed bag of results on the night with losses for John Wayne Hibbert, Kevin Mitchell & John Ryder. John Wayne Hibbert was on the wrong side of a fight of the year candidate against Derby’s Dave Ryan. Mitchell put in a valiant effort against Jorge Linares in what was nominally a ‘world’ title fight. Indeed the entire concept of a world title has taken on the utility of marketing tool first; being based on reality a distant second.
Mitchell had been on a six fight winning streak following his last loss to Ricky Burns in 2012 – against varied opposition. This marks Kevin’s first loss under Hearns’ promotional banner. The end, when it came, was as humane a referring decision as you’re ever likely to witness.
Nick Blackwell’s 7th round TKO victory over the quality international level operator John Ryder was a minor shock to many. Ryder has suffered from a dearth of quality opposition since losing a highly competitive contest to the world rated Billy Joe Saunders back in September of 2013.
Anthony Joshua made the most noteworthy statement of his 13 fight career with a brutal 2nd round TKO victory over Kevin Johnson – a man who once went 12 rounds with Vitali Klitschko. His display of sickening power punching will have got the attention of every major name in the division. Referee Ian John-Lewis was rightly chastised in many circles for allowing a near out-cold Kevin Johnson to continue beyond the first round. Throw in his laughable scoring of the Mitchell-Linares bout (he had Mitchell up by 6 points at the time of being stopped in a far more competitive bout than that implies) & you do ask yourself what qualifies someone to officiate in these contests.
James ‘Chunky’ DeGale was also on hand to parade his recently won belt in front of an adoring London crowd of some 18,000.
Lee Selby boxed his way to a somewhat fortuitous 8th Round Technical Decision over Evgeny Gradovich who was stopped on a cut caused by an accidental clash of heads which meant they went to the scorecards with the Welshman leading 72-80, 73-79 & 73-79 at that time. Selby entered this contest as the #9 ranked featherweight in the world according to Boxrec.com & is in the perverse position of having won an alphabet title against a man ranked below him on that same mathematically grounded ranking system. According to Hearn there are no plans for Selby to unify any titles anytime soon – so where they’re headed in terms of matching remains somewhat unclear at this juncture although Gary Russell Jr might be a name they’d consider in the medium term.
Frankie Gavin failed to consistently exploit the awkwardness his southpaw stance created for Kell Brook. Besides the second round where the former (& Britain’s first ever) amateur world champion presented a very illusive target he was systematically dismantled by the far larger at the weight opponent. Brook appears resigned to being swerved by Amir Khan as another big fight appears to go begging for the time being – Keith Thurman; Manny Pacquiao & Brandon Rios are all possible next opponents for Sheffield’s now 35-0 welterweight. After consecutive sideways steps since beating Shawn Porter this would represent some form of positive professional development for one of the more protected 35-0 records in boxing history.
Frankie Gavin, who drops to 22-2, for his part is apparently heading down a level to campaign at European level.
All in all a superb evening of boxing with upsets, devastating performances & a uniquely 21st century British fight atmosphere – London was buzzing under the wave that is the Eddie Hearn factor – a man who has seemingly single-handedly reinvigorated the trajectory of the once ailing UK fight scene. News that Hearn & SkySports have extended their exclusive contractual relationship through 2021 can thus only be viewed in a positive light by anyone with an interest in British boxing – bar the now largely irrelevant other promoters in the United Kingdom.
Hearn’s continued willingness to play a high risk brand of matching his impressive stable of fighters is good news for fans – although John Ryder; Frankie Gavin; Kevin Mitchell & John Wayne Hibbert all suffering defeats on one night might well have the net effect of slowing this tendency or impulse in the Matchroom boss in the short term.
DEGALE: I’LL FIGHT ANYONE AT 168
Newly crowned World champion on cloud nine after historic night in Boston
James DeGale MBE created British boxing history last night when he claimed the vacant IBF World Super Middleweight title in Boston against Andre Dirrell – and told his rivals at 168lbs: “I will fight anyone”.
DeGale became the first British Olympic Gold medal winner to land a World title with a superb performance at the Agganis Arena, in a fight that started in explosive fashion for the Londoner.
‘Chunky’ began well in the opening round but then appeared to be hampered by a cut on the right eyebrow early in the second session. Dabbing away at the blood, DeGale touched Dirrell to the body and then unleashed a thunderous left that sent the American to the canvas. Dirrell bounced straight back up but was on unsteady legs and another flurry of punches saw him crumbled to the deck again – and the Michigan man was fortunate that it was late in the round so he could get back to his corner and regroup.
DeGale rocked Dirrell again late in the third round as he dominated the first half of the fight, but to Dirrell’s credit, he not only regained his composure but began to close the gap on the Brit in the mid-to-late rounds.
The visitor sensed he needed to claim the last two rounds to create history though and finished strong – and was rewarded for his part in an enthralling contest with a unanimous decision and his father Leroy placed the World title belt he had craved around his waist to the delight of the travelling fans.
“I am speechless,” said DeGale. “In my whole career, what I have been building up to is winning a World title and I have finally done it. It is an unbelievable feeling. I have made history, I am the first British Olympic Gold medallist to become a World champion.
“I am back now and injury free. I will take on any Super Middleweight in the world. There is no other Super Middleweight in the world who will beat me. I am hard to beat when I am at my best. Let’s not forget he is a very good opponent, very, very talented and hard to beat. Andre Ward is top of the rankings and then there is me.
“I am super fit, feeling good and I am ready. I am IBF World champion and I intend to keep this belt for a long time, and add more titles by beating more great fighters.
“I was surprised he managed to get up from that shot so credit to him for that. I didn’t want to just steam in and try and blast him away. I stayed composed and assured and although he got back into the fight I always felt in control, my fitness was great and I had more gears to go through.”
16 fights into his professional career Callum Smith has been given a varied introduction to the paid ranks – he’s already faced Nikola Sjekloca; Ruben Eduardo Acosta & Patrick Mendy – all fighters with some if not earth shattering pedigree. ‘Mundo‘ next faces the accomplished world #24* Christopher Rebrasse whose most notable fight came against George Groves during which he displayed ruggedness & extreme durability. Indeed even before facing the Frenchman the Liverpudlian has ascended to as high as #11 in the world in the ultra-competitive Super Middleweight division based on accomplishment – above the likes of Anthony Dirrell; Brandon Gonzales; J’Leon Love & interestingly enough his own brother Paul Smith.
On the basis of recent evidence the top 4 168lbers in the UK – Carl Froch, James DeGale, George Groves & Callum Smith – are briskly going to evaporate into the Big 2 as Froch walks off into the sunset (£9.2 million cheque in hand from Wembley) & Groves – who looks a spent force at the elite level – endures a long, less glittering second half of a career that peaked far too early & ultimately far too briefly. The likely short to medium term target for the WBC’s #3 ranked contender Smith appears to be the still sell-able George Groves – who happens to hold the WBC Silver title.
If you’re asking how the most heavily touted of the Smith brothers did in the amateurs… Callum Smith’s attempt to represent Great Britain at the 2012 Olympic Games in London ended in controversy at the final Olympic Qualification Tournament in Turkey. Smith ‘lost’ 16:14 in comically corrupt fashion to Vatan Huseynli. He’s thus a non-Olympian in the same sense as Mike Tyson was a non-Olympian – with a huge asterisk next to that fact.
The AIBA subsequently decided that an invitational place at the Olympics was to be made available to a wildcard pick of their choice. This place was somehow given to Boško Drašković of Montenegro, a fighter Smith had convincingly beaten earlier in the tournament. Drašković, unsurprisingly, was knocked out of the Olympics in the first round. As many amateur boxing trainers often remind me – corruption & skulduggery are not the exclusive remit of the professional ranks. This travesty though – to me anyway – makes the 25 year old more likely, not less likely, to forge a very successful professional career – he knows more than most in his blue chip prospect position what real hunger means & he’s been shaped by (unjust) adversity.
* Prospect as defined as never having previously fought for a World title. Criteria include the perceived sum of talent; youth & promotional situation – ie. a very talented fighter who isn’t particularly young & doesn’t have strong promotional backing they can still rank should that talent be of significant enough significance to overcome these handicaps.