Frontline Diary: Brook vs Spence Jr
Andrew Harrison braves the weather and speed cameras to bring us his ringside observations and thoughts from the Brook vs Spence Jr card in Sheffield...
Barbecues, paddling pools and sunburn were all the rage in Britain this week, as a mini heatwave tantalised this damp grey rock we call home. After a few blissfully hot days, the atmosphere inevitably lodged an objection, in the form of wind, thunder and flash floods that moved north, sweeping over those of us travelling down the A1 to Sheffield to see Kell Brook fight Errol Spence.
After exiting junction 36 and taking a wrong turn into a maze of speed cameras that appear to be breeding, it became obvious that the decision not to bring a jacket, waterproof or shower cap, would prove folly. The sky was bruised and threatening to weep. After passing Hillsborough Stadium, haunted by the 1989 disaster when 96 football fans were unlawfully killed, I could have joined it. It felt like I was looking at something that shouldn't be there (with the greatest of respect to Sheffield Wednesday).
As the sat nav guided me to Bramall Lane, a majestic monument to bygone days when football was still great, the idea of parking in a side street next to the ground immediately had Max Bygraves and Les Dennis tormenting my inner Family Fortunes-style electronic scoreboard with huge, farting 'X's' while I crawled around the neighboring streets. The Cricketer's Arms on the corner of John Street opposite the ground was overflowing. It was precisely where I'd rather have been.
After asking for directions to a long-stay car park, an affable local fellow called Keith offered me his driveway, as he rode a bike. He lived in a Housing Association block about a mile away but his directions were too complicated to follow. With a £1,000 excess on my hire car hanging over my head, I settled for an overpriced multi-storey in the middle of town.
There was a buzz outside the stadium when I arrived on foot. Hawkers were selling t-shirts for a tenner. They weren't bad and it was an opportunity missed, as Sheffield was about to get cold and, being from the North East, my genetics had demanded that I underdress for the weather.
Security had been tightened after the terrorist attack in Manchester, meaning the press had to climb umpteen flights of stairs to get to the top of the ground, only to then descend down from the Gods on to the pitch.
The Ingle Gym was well represented on the undercard, with Kyle Yousaf taking apart Louis Norman as I took my seat (after wandering around backstage hoping to find a vendor selling waterproof ponchos, to no avail). 'The Golden Kid' is 23, unbeaten in eleven and fights at super flyweight. Shepshed's Norman had previously lost decisions to the likes of Andrew Selby, Don Broadhurst and Charlie Edwards but Yousaf became the first man to drop him, when he put Norman over in the final round to seal a 59-55 points verdict. He looked good: fit, keen and intelligent.
Dronfield super middleweight Lewis Taylor gave Swindon's Jamie Cox a few problems early in their contest, before a bad cut, suffered when they bumped heads in the opening round, hampered Taylor's efforts and ultimately led to the fight going to the cards in round nine (Cox clinched a wide technical decision) when the ringside doctor intervened. Taylor did well with short lead rights and sneaky counters. Cox started bullishly, was rough inside but a tad too eager to impress on his Matchroom debut. He'll now face Rocky Fielding for the British crown – a sensible next step and a fight he'll be favoured to win.
There were quick blow-out wins for Anthony Fowler, Lawrence Okolie and Joe Cordina while Bradford's Nadeem Siddique continued an improbable comeback, halting stubborn Hungarian Pal Olah in three rounds. Siddique, 39, retired with a record of 22-2 in 2009, after back-to-back defeats to Martin Gethin and Tom Glover. Then, in 2012, he was involved in a car crash on the M1, that nearly took his life.
After having his hand raised he gestured over to the Godfather of Sheffield boxing, Brendan Ingle, and his wife Alma, who'd cheered 'Siddy' throughout the contest, his third consecutive win in three years.
The quality of the main event was reflected in the number of fighters, past and present, who'd made the trip to sit ringside. In order of popularity with the crowd when they were announced, that included: Prince Naseem Hamed, Tony Bellew, Carl Frampton, Barry McGuigan, Carl Froch, Johnny Nelson, Paulie Malignaggi, Shawn Porter and Amir Khan (who was booed and barracked with gusto).
Also present were the McDonnell brothers, Jamie and Gavin, Tommy Coyle, Josh Taylor, Junior Witter, Conor Benn and Jason Quigley. Hamed took to the ring at one point to provide an address, leaving the sharp suited Porter, clearly amazed at Hamed's current, comfortable physique to remark: "I have to focus on his head, as that looks the same."
As the sun gave up attempting to break cover, the cold closed in on press row, while the grey clouds continued to spit and threaten. Showtime's Steve Farhood was concerned about a contingency plan should the heavens open (I couldn't help him). A cheery, garrulous fellow behind me who has some affiliation with the Wincobank Gym looked after Ingle, now 76, offering him his coat and later obtaining a blanket from the on site medical crew.
I was fortunate to be sat with writers Terry Dooley, John Evans and Tom Gray (though sadly, Dooley had ran out of spare hoodies). When Showtime produced a list of American fighters who'd won titles on British soil, we naturally set about trying to find someone they'd missed, coming up with Steve Little, who dethroned a lackadaisical Michael Nunn for the WBA super middleweight belt as a 40-to-1 underdog, on a Nigel Benn undercard at Earls Court in 1994.
Later Leeonzer Barber sprung to mind: Barber, fighting out of Detroit's Kronk Gym, won a vacant WBO light heavyweight title in Leeds in 1991, against Tom 'The Bomb' Collins. Collins fought the likes of Johnny Nelson, Jeff Harding, Dennis Andries and Mark Kaylor. Little died in 2000, aged just 34. Unknowingly, he fought the last few fights of his career suffering from the colon cancer that killed him.
Barnsley super featherweight Andy Townend won his third fight on the spin, obliterating Jon Kays in two rounds. The hard-punching Townend failed to make weight, and so missed out on the chance to win the Commonwealth title. '2 Smokes' Kays, a solid pro and former English champion from Ashton-under-Lyne, announced his retirement after the fight and is hoping to start training young fighters.
Heavyweight fan favourite Dave Allen laboured to a split decision points loss to Florida-based Jamaican Lenroy Thomas, who boasted the much superior technique. Evans said he imagined watching Allen was what it would have been like to watch Don Cockell, who took a hiding from Rocky Marciano: similar haircut, similar pudgy physique and similar plodding, ponderous style. Thomas, 21-4, 10 KOs, who picked up the Commonwealth heavyweight title in victory, was elated when he got the nod, sinking to his knees in mid-ring. The scoring was excellent.
After the main event ended, the stadium quickly emptied. One of Spence's team hollered down to ringside: "He quit! He quit." A fan, clearly the worse for wear, gave him the finger in reply. Checking my notes, I had the fight level after seven rounds, but was in the minority with that score. Scottish writer Shaun Brown had only given Brook one round. Others had only been slightly more generous.
Spence was top quality, yet is clearly still learning. He doesn't look like the next Floyd Mayweather, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. As I headed out into the cold after midnight, past the drunks and the vomit, and back to the multi-storey, I shared a lift up to the sixth floor with Doncaster trainer, manager and promoter Stefy Bull, who seemed in good spirits after Townend's win. His compadre, carrying a load of kit, was having a rant: "My wife sees the TV coverage and the girls at ringside and that and thinks I'm having the time of my life – it's bloody hard work!"
Nearing frostbite and with a 140-mile drive ahead of me, I knew what he meant.
We do it, though, because we love it. It's the reason Brook will come back.