Frontline diary: A natural high

Luke G. Williams
29/10/2019 10:35pm

Photo: Stephen Pond/Getty Images

Click here to read Luke G. Williams' report on the full fight card from Saturday night

Luke G. Williams provides his behind the scenes reflections and insights from the O2, as he argues that the World Boxing Super Series didn’t get the credit it deserved for brokering Josh Taylor’s epic contest with Regis Prograis …

The O2 is a tremendous venue for boxing. It possesses a remarkably compact structure for an indoor arena that can hold close to 20,000 people, ensuring excellent sightlines.

When the main event ignites like it did on Saturday night there are few places I would rather watch boxing (and not just because of its south-east London location, within easy proximity to Chez Williams.)

Josh Taylor and Regis Prograis touched each other’s souls in the ring on Saturday night as they struggled for super lightweight supremacy. They also touched the lives of all those in awe-stricken attendance with a titanic struggle that offered validation of their world-class pugilistic credentials, as well as confirmation that no sport in the world can come near to boxing at its best.

However, in the rush to acclaim the dynamic duo, I can’t help but feel that a crucial aspect of what made Saturday such a marvellous night for boxing has been shamefully overlooked – namely how brilliant the World Boxing Super Series has been for the sport.

Consider this: The Ring magazine now recognises seven ‘champions’ among boxing’s 17 weight classes, and of these no less than three (Taylor, Naoya Inoue and Callum Smith) have been crowned as a direct result of WBSS tournaments.

This already impressive tally would be four out of eight if we included Oleksandr Usyk, who only recently vacated The Ring magazine and unified titles he won in last season’s WBSS cruiserweight final.

Indeed it will rise to this figure once again when The Ring’s number one 200lb-er Mairis Briedis faces number two Yuniel Dorticos in the WBSS season 2 cruiserweight final in December.

These are staggering numbers, particularly considering the WBSS is only just concluding its second season. They are also numbers that – to be frank - put the likes of the PBC, Top Rank and Showtime - whose fighters regularly duck and weave away from each other - to shame.

Saturday's show was resolutely a Matchroom production - Eddie Hearn's outfit having, it seems, helped resurrect the Prograis vs Taylor bout after the American at one stage pulled out of the tournament.

The paucity of the WBSS’s usual branding in the O2, as well as the absence of the tournament’s dynamic lighting rig and regular ring announcer David Diamante – who MC-ed the undercard contests but not Tayor vs Prograis or co-main Chisora vs Price – seemed to symbolise the disappointingly muted profile the tournament has received in some quarters.

Instead of ‘fighter podiums’ and ‘step into the light’ we were left with ‘Sweet Caroline’ and Michael Buffer - I would argue the night was a touch poorer as a result.

***
Scoring a fight brings out the armchair expert in everyone. Sat in the ringside media section of the arena (a loose description to be fair, as paid ticket holders and press are mystifyingly mixed together at many boxing events these days) I had Prograis ahead after eight rounds on my live twitter scorecard on the @boxingmonthlyed account.

My score drew the ire of one follower of the BM account who messaged: “how have you got Prograis winning this fight?”

At the final bell my scorecard was 114-114, and a quick scan of Twitter revealed some sound boxing voices that I trust demurring dramatically, having scored the fight fairly wide in Taylor’s favour.

In the arena itself, most people I spoke to saw a much tighter contest.

Matt Christie of Boxing News and Jeff Powell of the Daily Mail both told me that they also scored the fight a draw, while Mike Coppinger – seemingly the sole American media representative to make the Transatlantic trip to cover the fight – had Taylor ahead 115-113. I later discovered that commentator Mike Costello and BM columnist Steve Bunce – calling the fight for BBC Radio – also had it level.

Not for the first time it is worth emphasising that scoring a fight live in an arena is a completely different kettle of fish to doing so while watching on television, particularly if you have the commentary on.

I was left wondering if those watching on Sky Box Office or on wonky mobile phone screen streams had been able to appreciate just how dominant Prograis looked early on, when he was sometimes scoring with two or three punches in quick succession that could easily have been missed, diluted or sanitised by television.

***
It was good to see several major British newspapers represented at ringside. As well as the aforementioned Powell, Colin Hart of The Sun was also in attendance, looking a little resigned and downcast as he recounted how he had recently attended the funerals of legendary fight scribes Neil Allen and Ken Jones, who both passed away in recent months.

I never met Allen or Jones, but after interviewing Jones’ delightful and talented journalist daughter Lesley-Ann for a local newspaper I did have the pleasure of a couple of extended phone calls talking boxing with Ken. Most of the time I sat spellbound and jaw agape as he recounted wondrous tales of his glory days, sat alongside the likes of Hugh McIlvanney watching Muhammad Ali in action.

Ken struck me as a man of warmth, talent and integrity. He certainly deserves more frequent mention when discussions about the greatest boxing writers of the past spring up. Like the WBSS, he was extremely underrated.

I’m not sure if it's true that he once wrote and filed copy on McIlvanney’s behalf when the latter was too drunk to perform his journalistic duty, but it could well be – for my money Ken was every inch as talented as Hugh was.

***

Another major writer at ringside was Don McRae. The South African maestro is one of the most decent, encouraging and humane scribes I’ve had the pleasure to meet in my time on the boxing beat.

His work ethic is also admirable – a major interview pretty much every week for The Guardian for years now, and a roster of books that includes two William Hill Sports Book of The Year winners.

In the days leading up to Prograis vs Taylor, McRae had interviews published with both fighters in The Guardian, it was particularly heartening to see his Prograis piece receive a big spread on fight morning.

McRae has enjoyed a detailed email correspondence with the ‘Rougarou’ for several months now – often recommending books to the New Orleans native who has a keen interest in boxing history - and also spent significant time with him in the build-up to the WBSS final.

When I bade Don goodbye on Saturday night he was preparing to spend Sunday working on a James Milner interview, before diving into the final stages of the book he is writing with England Rugby Union coach Eddie Jones as soon as the World Cup is concluded.

As with all McRae, each one of them will be must-reads.

***

With two young insomniac children waiting for me at home, and having been in the arena since 4.45pm for every punch of the action, I made my way home before all of the post-fight press conferences had concluded. David Haye and Dereck Chisora were first to appear and made for an extremely engaging double act – ‘War’ teasing the ‘Hayemaker’ with his repeated insistence that “retirement is for pussies”.

I ducked out of the presser at the same time as Matt Christie, editor of BM’s friendly rival Boxing News. It was already well past midnight and we were frustrated as we proceeded to spend a good fifteen to twenty minutes failing to negotiate our way out of the labyrinthine O2 complex, all the while sidestepping the staggering drunks and wide-eyed coke-heads who had stumbled out the main arena earlier in search of more alcoholic and chemical pleasures.

What are drugs and alcohol, I wondered, compared to the natural high of watching a great prize-fight?