Frontline diary: Two worlds collide at NXTGEN

Chris Williamson
23/03/2017 7:49pm

The branding may have been a little disconcerting, but the action at Matchroom's first 'NXTGEN' show last Friday night at York Hall was certainly up to scratch. Read on for Chris Williamson's ringside report...

As the proud owner of a copy of Penguin books' recently published 'The Mid-life Crisis', I feel qualified to point out that it's sometimes a little uncomfortable when corporations or older people use text or youth language, presumably to appeal to a younger generation.

With this in mind, it's fair to say I approached Bethnal Green's historic York Hall venue for the first show in Matchroom's new 'NXTGEN' strand wondering if good, old-fashioned boxing requires such youth orientated re-branding at all.

Matchroom's Head of Media Anthony Leaver handed me a leaflet in place of the usual programme, smiling while explaining "It's a bit more budget, this show!" Mike Goodall's 'Ringcraft' company was contracted to supply the ring equipment and when I asked him if he's well, Goodhall quipped: "I keep waking up in the morning, so that's a bonus."

I tend to consider York Hall as a kind of safe, self-policing venue; since there are so many individuals present one wouldn't want trouble with, nobody really interferes with anybody else. On this night however, security was super-tight, with the queue of fight-enthusiasts curving from York Hall all the way around to Cambridge Heath Road.

image16Felix Cash (now 5-0) and Jay Byrne (4-1) served up a lively six-rounder at middleweight, with Cash showing good fundamentals while landing some excellent left hooks and uppercuts en route to a 60-54 victory on referee Ian John Lewis' slate.

Former British and European super-middleweight champion James Cook is a true boxing success story, having been awarded an MBE in 2007 for his work with young people in Hackney. Cook once beat British icons Mark Kaylor and Errol Christie at York Hall and, here tonight in his capacity as a trainer, it was good to see him looking close to his old 12-stone fighting weight.

Belfast's Paul Hyland Jr (15-0) and Hartlepool southpaw Peter Cope (14-4) put on a competitive scrap at lightweight in what was originally billed as a ten rounder, later reduced to eight. Hyland wore a four-leaf clover on his shorts and enjoyed loud St Patrick's Day support as he was judged the 78-76 winner against the heavily-tattooed Cope.

When the programme was printed, cruiserweight Issac Chamberlain's (7-0) opponent wasn't yet confirmed. Eventually revealed as Lithuanian Imantas Davidaitis, Chamberlain's foe came attached with the dramatic moniker of 'The Giant'.

Following a slow start from the Brixton favourite, 'Chambo' came to life in the third by felling 'The Giant' with a body-shot, before a series of follow-ups saw the fight sensibly stopped.

The downstairs gents' toilets were largely flooded quite early on and patrons might have benefited from the sort of platform shoes Wladimir Klitschko sports at weigh-ins. But quirks like this are part of the rough-and-ready charm of York Hall and, despite gentrification taking the price of a local pint in local pubs here to above £5, it's not an experience for those afraid of some harmless dirt.

Super-middleweight Iain Jackson (5-35-2) walked to the ring to the well-worn Eye of the Tiger, but the match was gift-wrapped for birthday boy Danny Dignum, who landed a number of hard body shots before a clubbing right finished his second professional opponent in the second.

Promoter Eddie Hearn seemed to have a hand in presenting the show, some of which was broadcast on Sky Sports' Facebook page. The dress code all around seemed to be more casual than usual for the new offshoot show, with presenter Anna Woolhouse joking to Boxing Monthly that she'd feel a bit daft being all dressed up at York Hall.

Due to an over-run with Sky Sports programming, there was a gap of around forty minutes before unbeaten super-middleweights Craig Richards (8-0) and Alan Higgins (now 12-1) squared off for a competitive ten rounder for the Southern Area title.

There was by now a typical east-end atmosphere and Richards proved immensely popular. Two very vocal girls in particular were dressed in black with Richards' gold 'Spider' design on their T-shirts - it was no shock when one told me she was the 26-year-old Crystal Palace-based pugilist's sister.

At the end of a hard-fought battle where the momentum switched a number of times, referee Jeff Hinds scored for the taller, rangier 'Spider' by two rounds. The gutsy Higgins can consider himself unlucky, but he won friends with this performance and will surely have earned further chances.

In the main event, Reece Bellotti (now 9-0) won an eliminator for Ryan Walsh's British featherweight title, breaking down veteran Dai Davies (14-25-2) with a quick pace before finishing the show with a quick left-jab/straight-right combination which saw the 33-year-old Welshman face down on the canvas in the third round.

The music at the NXTGEN show certainly seemed more youth orientated than normal and JD Sports, who recently signed a partnership agreement with Matchroom, draped their banners all over the hall. Dillian Whyte, Anthony Yarde and Conor Benn were among the fighters present and pleasantly mixing with fans.

The fights were generally competitive and exciting, and one suspects that - whatever the branding - that's what matters to the fervent and resolutely old school York Hall faithful.