Frontline Diary: A fight city
Andrew Harrison with his ringside reflections from Belfast and the Burnett vs Zhakiyanov card, as he sees a Frenchman ejected from ringside, water spilt on the canvas and a wonderful range of boxing-related murals...
That Belfast is a fight city, is evident on the walls of its narrow, red-brick streets. Carl Frampton and Barry McGuigan are depicted in murals within Commercial Court, a tourist trap opposite the Duke of York pub in the Cathedral Quarter. Michael Conlan sits on the corners of Cavendish Street (close to where he grew up) and Oakman Street; Paddy Barnes on Old Park Avenue.
Then there’s Freddie Gilroy, Eamonn Magee, John Lowey, Ray Close, James Warnock, Davy Larmour, Tommy Armour, Wayne McCullough and Rinty Monaghan among others, scattered across its communities. The latest, painted in electric blue on the side of Cassidy’s, a pub on the Antrim Road, is a portrait of bantamweight world title-holder Ryan Burnett, who I’m in town to see fight.
Saturday’s Belfast card, care of Matchroom Sport, faced tough competition in the shape of Frank Warren’s show in Leeds, England, on the same evening. On balance, the former shaded the argument (we’ll call it a split decision) and fully justified the epic journey from England’s North East (via bus, train, tram and then plane).
The SSE Arena (formerly known as The Odyssey Arena) sits on the River Lagan. It’s a very similar set-up to the Leeds Arena (where Warrington would be strutting his stuff later): a three-sided auditorium with an 11,000-seat capacity.
On arrival, there is a moderate police presence both outside and inside the venue (considered enough not to feel overbearing, sufficient enough to assure good order). After sniffing out my credential, the second priority is coffee, though events staff aren’t certain whether drinks can be taken into inner-ringside (I figure they have enough to deal with and grab one later, during an interval, while having a mooch around the foyer).
I’m first to press row and I’m greeted by middleweight Andy Lee, who is watching the prelims. The former WBO titlist, here working for Sky Sports, is studying London’s Craig 'Spider' Richards, 10-0 (4 KOs), a technically sound light heavyweight, who beats up Hungarian journeyman Norbert Szekeres in three rounds with a minimum of fuss (Richards, spotted drinking water in the bar area afterwards while his trainer celebrated with a beer, will now fight British 175lbs boss Frank 'Wise Guy' Buglioni on the Anthony Joshua vs Carlos Takam PPV card this coming weekend, after Buglioni’s original opponent, Callum Johnson, withdrew).
Frenchman Renald Garrido, known as 'Le Lion' had similarly been parachuted in at short notice, this time to test hometown super-lightweight prospect Tyrone McKenna, after Hull’s Tommy Coyle injured a hand. An absolute breath of fresh air in the build-up, with his gracious comments and infectious smile, Garrido, 19-17-2 (3 KOs), had been inspired by an eight-year-old Londoner, a little boy named Jayden who is battling a rare and incurable genetic disease (Garrido is supporting the fund-raising attempt to help Jayden’s cause).
The 34-year-old from Marseille, whose appearances throughout fight week (at workouts, pressers, the weigh-in etc.) presented a welcome relief to the abusive shtick a lot of fighters get entangled in these days – labelling one another ‘bitches’ and ‘shithouses’ and the like – behaved like a model pro. Not only that but when it was time for action, Garrido fought his guts out.
Sadly, the fight of the night (which was some accolade considering the overall quality of the card) wasn’t part of the live TV broadcast. Garrido, who has battled the likes of Martin Lindsay, Jack Catterall, Frankie Gavin and Bradley Saunders (handing the latter his first defeat, when Olympian Saunders suffered two broken hands and attempted to fend Garrido off with his head), continued his eccentric behaviour by entering the ring to the theme tune from Disney’s The Lion King dressed as a flea-bitten Simba (even crawling under the bottom rope and into mid-ring).
The clowning stopped on the opening bell. Dwarfed by 6’1” southpaw McKenna (almost absurdly so), Garrido ignored his disadvantages and unloaded with a barrage of powerful hooks in a bid to gain McKenna’s respect. McKenna, 15-0-1 (6 KOs), who boxes behind a terse one-two (often dropping in a left hook to the body behind it) was forced to open up, just to keep his man honest.
Garrido would loop his punches (think Marcos Maidana against Floyd Mayweather) in order to get inside, and he managed it often enough to edge the second round. McKenna opened up in the third, with both men braying one another about the ring.
McKenna, who starred as Donal in the film The Mighty Celt alongside Robert Carlyle, Gillian Anderson and Ken Stott back in 2005 - hence the nickname - backs up in straight lines and lolls against the ropes a lot. Against Garrido, that was a headache (McKenna’s lack of head movement compounds matters). Against punchers like Ohara Davies or Coyle, it may prove his undoing.
After McKenna lost his gum-shield for the third time in the sixth (the consequence of an ill-fitting replacement, he explained afterwards), Garrido screamed out in frustration (his game is all about building forward momentum). McKenna, his left eye swelling, was winning rounds but this was becoming an ordeal.
At the end of the eighth (a round in which the visitor worked McKenna over), one of Garrido’s seconds clumsily dropped the spit bucket and soaked the canvas in the away corner. After using up two towels (delaying proceedings), one of the team had to whip off their jacket to mop up the residual water (Ryan Burnett would later slip on it while under fire in the main event).
Garrido took the ninth (a round in which McKenna was badly hurt just prior to the bell), and after Tyrone lost his gum-shield for the fourth time (the score ended up 4-3, however, Garrido, crucially, had his punched out on each occasion), he was also docked a point. That levelled things up on my card, with McKenna nicking the last (both men took turns to thrash away at one another with abandon). While some on press row felt Garrido had done enough to win, referee Marcus McDonnell’s score of 96-94 for McKenna seemed to be on the money.
After such a bruising encounter, the last person I expected to see prowling around ringside was Garrido. However, the Frenchman, back in his street clothes, smiling and full of beans, was on the hunt for fellow boxers to sign the gloves he had draped around his neck. He grabbed who he could from those in attendance: Paul 'Dudey' McCloskey (who challenged Amir Khan for his WBA junior welterweight title in Manchester in 2011), Anthony 'The Apache' Cacace, Paddy Barnes, Eamonn O’Kane and, working for Sky TV, the aforementioned Andy Lee, Anthony 'Million Dollar' Crolla and Jamie Moore.
Unfortunately for Garrido, strutting like a peacock (and who can blame him?), he didn’t have a ticket, and was gently ejected from ringside to continue his quest backstage (the gloves, it turns out, were for Jayden).
The third televised bout of the evening was a three-round punch-out at super featherweight between Belfast’s James 'The Assassin' Tennyson and Aberdeen’s Darren 'Trayn-Wreck' Traynor. The 24-year-old Tennyson, 20-2 (15 KOs), is always value for money. A rugged, red-headed puncher who can be prone to recklessness, he had his hands full with an on-form Traynor, 14-2 (6 KOs), who looked the naturally smaller man of the two.
A fighter’s body language prior to the opening bell will often provide clues as to how they’ll fare. Tennyson possessed a favourite’s air: super-relaxed and ready to perform. Traynor looked nervous, yet keyed-up – a steely expression indicating he felt he could win (rather than just giving it a go).
The pair met in mid-ring and began testing one another out with hard combinations. As the crowd geed up Tennyson - “Let’s go Teeny, let’s go!” - he thumped home a succession of sharp rights to win the round.
The second stirred the crowd further. Tennyson immediately cracked home a sweet right that flung Traynor back on to his haunches for a count. As Tennyson searched for the finish, Traynor dug in and uncorked a crisp left hook that rocked Tennyson back on his heels.
Both fighters stood toe-to-toe thereon in – a shootout that hung on a knife edge. Tennyson, though, cleared his head between rounds.
As both swapped heavy punches in the third, Tennyson repeatedly targeted the body (hurting Traynor and lowering his guard), setting up a right over the top (as Traynor covered his ribs) that landed on Traynor’s chin and laid him flat out in his own corner (he was counted out as he attempted to rise).
A local derby between Tennyson and fellow puncher Anthony Cacace (scouting from ringside) would be one hot ticket.
The chief support was a lightweight contest between Paul Hyland Jr. and Stephen 'The Rock' Ormond. Ormond, 34, from Dublin, is a hot and cold performer who had lost two of his previous five contests. Hyland Jr., 27, from Belfast, meanwhile had won 16 straight and notched two creditable wins over Adam Dingsdale and Peter Cope earlier in the year.
Ormond, a short and stocky, shaven-headed buzz-saw, made the better start, landing a winging left hook that had Hyland touching gloves as they returned to their corners. Hyland (who has a look of former cricketer Andrew 'Freddie' Flintoff) responded to win the second (Ormond slipping on that pesky water patch in the corner) and then dropped the visitor with a right cross in the third (Ormond jumped straight back up).
The bout then developed into a brawl, with Hyland – the better boxer – edging rounds (though Ormond was the one dishing out the hurt). At the half-way point, Ormond had worked up a head of steam and Hyland had the ‘Ok pal, just leave it’ look of a man who had lost the argument. Hyland’s seconds, peering out nervously from under the bottom rope, also seemed to have that sinking feeling.
Ormond seemed to take everything from round seven onwards, letting fly with two-handed bursts (shouting “HA, HA, HA” each time). Hyland’s right ear swelled profusely, as if trying to abort from the side of his head.
At the end of 12 excellent rounds, Boxing Monthly scored for Ormond seven rounds to five (with Hyland closing the gap by a point due to the knockdown). Somehow, American judge Valerie Dorsett found a score of 117-110 for Hyland (which seemed ridiculous), with the other two judges splitting the fight by much tighter margins (114-113 Hyland; 115-112 Ormond). One of Ormond’s corner-men slammed a water bottle off centre ring in disgust as Hyland’s name was announced (just what the canvas needed) but it was easy to empathise.
The most eye-opening performance of the evening belonged to 'Pretty Boy' Josh Kelly, a former Olympian from Sunderland, who looks a sensational talent. In terms of sheer ability and flashy moves, it’s not a stretch to say he takes you back to an early Naseem Hamed (the best Naz there was, down at super bantamweight).
The good-looking Kelly, 4-0 (3 KOs), a welterweight, took care of Mexican 154lbs champion Jose Luis Zuniga, 13-3-1 (7 KOs), a tall 28-year-old who looked capable, inside two rounds. The quicksilver Kelly is developing a hands-down, reflex-based style. At times, he aped Vasyl Lomachenko’s ‘now you see me, now you don’t’ footwork and his best punch is the left hook, which he doubles up at times (in fact, that’s how he finished the fight, with Zuniga still on his feet).
Afterwards, promoter Eddie Hearn declared that Kelly’s trainer Adam Booth (Kelly and Burnett live with Booth in his Surrey home) has requested a top 30 ranked opponent for Kelly’s fifth fight (the aim is to box on 17 December). That points towards Mohamed Mimoune, 19-2 (2 KOs), the Frenchman who dethroned Birmingham’s Sam Eggington earlier in the month. You can bet Kelly will start favourite.
Elsewhere on the card, Liverpool’s Anthony Fowler looked as flat as a pancake in outpointing stubborn Hungarian Laszlo Fazekas over six rounds at junior middleweight (it happens), while Mullingar lightweight David Joyce, 4-0 (3 KOs), made quick work of Gloucester’s Andy Harris, catching him cold, high on the head, and then blowing him away in just 103 seconds.
Laid-back local cruiserweight Tommy McCarthy, 10-1 (6 KOs), scored the KO of the evening meanwhile, bombing out Hungarian Peter Hegyes with a booming right hand in round one (just after someone nearby remarked: “Is Tommy the most patient cruiserweight around?” in relation to his gentle padding around the ring). McCarthy will be back in a few weeks, on the Carl Frampton undercard.
After a great night at the fights, I faced the usual conundrum of finding a taxi in the howling wind and rain, with Belfast’s bewildering system beyond me (only certain cabs can be hailed in the street due to government regulations). As scores of pre-booked taxis hared over the river to hoover up the fight crowd (quite how the drivers managed to locate their fares is another mystery), that meant even slimmer pickings in town.
I eventually caught a black cab close to city hall, with the driver keen to discuss Burnett’s winning performance, which I report on in detail here. “Look out for Tennyson’s younger brother,” he said, as I reached my B&B on the outskirts of town. “He’s only eleven but no-one will fight him!” Another mural in the making then.