Frontline diary: Smith repels spirited stand-in

Paul Zanon
26/02/2018 9:28pm

Paul Zanon reports from freezing cold Nuremberg as Callum Smith books his place in the WBSS super-middleweight final after beating spirited stand-in Nieky Holzken...

nurmWhile the UK is suffering its biggest cold snap in a while (just below freezing) due to the aptly named ‘Beast From The East,’ temperatures around Nuremberg were dropping to around -15 degrees Celsius. According to one of the locals this wasn’t even considered extremely cold: "It’s not so bad. You should be here when it’s minus 30." I graciously declined the idea of a return visit to the heart of Bavaria in such conditions.

Arctic temperature or not, the venue for the next instalment of the World Boxing Super Series [WBSS] was one of Germany’s most historic spots. As you walk up to the Arena Nuremberg, you pass a rather desolate looking stadium/ grandstand. Unless you’d been tipped off about its historical relevance, you could easily think it’s just another football venue which fell on hard times and is awaiting a financial injection to convert the land into 500 apartments.

Thankfully, my taxi driver, a gentleman of Ethiopian origin but based in Germany, who spoke fluent English, explained to this Anglo Italian the relevance of the plot of land: this was none other than the 'Zeppelin field', famous for Nazi rallies in the 1930s. The thought of 100,000 people marching across this land, following the mindset of Adolf Hitler added a few extra degrees of chill down my spine.

Thankfully, the stadium and the night of boxing which followed provided warmth in a variety of ways.

Despite the attendance being rather depleted due to the last minute withdrawal of Juergen Braehmer, the WBSS organisers ensured the quality of their offering was still be delivered in its full glory - hence we had lights shining, music blaring and a very good turnout of the tournament’s best boxers to have competed in the WBSS to date. The likes of George Groves and Murat Gassiev made themselves available for any fan wishing to have a chat or a selfie.

First up was debutant Florian Sparakowski from Germany against Girogi Gujejiani [9-6-2] from Georgia, fighting four rounds at middleweight. The local lad worked through his gears well, forcing a fourth-round stoppage.

Next up was a scheduled six-round cruiserweight contest between Edin Puhalo [13-0] from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Hamza Wandera [19-14-3] from Uganda. There’s no kind way of saying this – Wandera didn’t want to be in the ring. He was put down in the first round by a big right hand and from that point on decided that any punch he’d receive that looked vaguely convincing, he’d go down. Thirty seconds into the third round, he rolled over from what looked to me like a phantom punch and the contest was called to a halt.

The third fight didn’t look very evenly matched on paper, but actually delivered a decent contest. Arijan Sherifi [17-1] from Germany took on Yevgeni Makhteienko [9-9] from Ukraine, over six rounds at light heavyweight. From the first bell it was jab for jab. Sherifi sustained a cut under his left eye, but this wasn’t the decisive factor in his downfall - Makhteienko was simply too heavy handed in the second half of the contest and, after a number of knockdowns, clinched a convincing unanimous points victory, to hand Sherifi just his second professional loss.

Next up was a local hot prospect, the 20-year-old James Kraft [13-0], against fellow German, 37-year-old veteran Bernard Donfack [23-17-3], over eight rounds at super middleweight. With former cruiserweight world champion Juan Carlos Gomez in Kraft’s corner, you got the impression that the Cuban must have been working with Kraft because he saw ‘something’ in the youngster.

However, the fight wasn’t what anyone expected. Donfack arrived in immaculate shape and his 17 losses certainly didn’t pay tribute to how tough a character he is. Despite being slower than his younger counterpart, Donfack came to fight and was relentless with his pressure.

By the sixth round, Kraft had his mouth agape and looked like he was already digging into his reserve tank. When the decision was announced as a draw, Kraft’s fans booed, but there were no arguments from the youngster. It’s not a case of back to the drawing board for Kraft, more a case of embracing this contest as a learning fight and perhaps improving his fitness. Hats off to Donfack for showing that journeymen should never be taken lightly.

The fifth bout of the evening was contested over six rounds, between the IBF youth super-middleweight champion, Leon Bauer [12-0-1], from Germany and Marco Miano [6-5], from Italy. From the opening bell, Bauer pumped out his immaculate jab and everything flowed beautifully behind it. Straight right, hooks, uppercuts, all beautiful, as was his silky smooth jab.

By the second round, the Italian’s face was heavily reddened and one might have thought from his body language that the spite from the German’s punches were pointing towards a stoppage. Not so. Despite the Italian losing on all fronts, he bit down on his gum shield and brought the fight to Bauer. The German was too slick, displaying lovely defensive skills behind shoulder rolls and weaving, but he was made to work for all 18 minutes of the bout. Despite the Italian throwing a good volume of punches and having some success in landing in the final round, the winner was always going to be Bauer.

The ring entrance for the next fight at middleweight was certainly different. Wanik Awdijan [20-1] from Germany was up against Florian Wildenhof [27-14-1], also from Germany, over six rounds. Awdijan walked into the ring dressed as Darth Vader accompanied by several Storm Troopers. Unlike Tyson Fury, who dressed as Batman then beat Wladimir Klitschko, super powers were lacking for the 22-year-old. Despite possessing a good jab, he was simply outworked and outfoxed by Wildenhof. A cut over the left eye of Awdijan didn’t help, but the majority decision which went to Wildenhof was the right one.

The seventh contest of the evening was over eight rounds at heavyweight, between 2016 Olympic bronze medallist, the Croatian Filip Hrgovic [3-0] and Ireland’s Sean ‘Big Sexy’ Turner [12-1]. Hrgovic was the heavy favourite going into the fight; his first two contests were over in under three minutes and his last performance on the Briedis/Usyk undercard, was a one-way destruction of Tom Little, which was halted in the fourth.

'Big Sexy' however hadn't turned up to merely to make up the numbers. He came to fight and fight he did. From the first bell, you had to sit back and admire the Croatian’s technical brilliance, but you also had to credit Turner for how he was taking hard punches with little effect. In the second round, Hrgovic unloaded some huge straight rights, but as opposed to his three previous victims, Turner was straight back in front of him throwing vicious hooks in return and keeping Hrgovic on the back foot.

In round four the tide started to turn; Hrgovic landed with a big left hook just above the ear of Turner, which seemed to temporarily scramble the senses of the Irishman. For the next two rounds the Croatian started hunting down 'Big Sexy' and things looked a little bleak for Turner.

Into round seven, and it seemed that Turner had recharged and came out throwing better volumes. Despite losing the round, it propelled the Irishman into the eighth and final round with confidence, in which he unleashed every possible punch he could on Hrgovic. The official scores were 80-72 [x2] and 80-73. The fight showed that Hrgovic is not immortal and that Turner is one very tough man! I sincerely believe 'Big Sexy' could rock the apple cart of a number of ranked British heavyweights. I certainly look forward to seeing both these fighters again in their respective next fights.

The penultimate bout was between Dimitri Chudinov [20-2-2], from Russia and the old warhorse, Siarhei Khamitski [30-14-3], from Belarus. Chudinov’s original opponent was meant to be Nieky Holzken, but with the injured Braehmer out of the picture, Holzken was upgraded to challenging Callum Smith, which left Chudinov at a loose end.

Cue, Khamitski at the eleventh hour.

Despite not being the most entertaining of fights, both men unloaded on each other for every minute of the eight, super middleweight rounds. The referee could have pretty much sat ringside as neither fighter had the want or will to hold on. The crisper and more defining shots came from Chudinov. Khamitski, for the first time in a long while, looked like an old man, which he’s more than entitled to, as at his next birthday he will be 44.

In the fourth round, Khamitski was dropped with a short right hand to the head from Chudinov. Khamitski was rocked, but not rattled. Chudinov had a very strong round in the sixth, landing heavily with hooks to the body and head, followed by some destructive uppercuts, but Khamitski fired back with his own arsenal to let the younger man know he wasn’t going out of the ring with a stoppage loss. The result was a very respectable 78-73 win for Chudinov.

The ninth and final contest of the evening was between Britain’s Callum Smith [23-0] and last minute stand-in, Nieky Holzken [13-0], from the Netherlands. The general consensus in the arena, unless you were Dutch, was that Holzken was out of his depth and would be lucky to last three to four rounds, before being stopped.

The only similarity between Holzken and Braehmer was their height [5ft 11½ inches]. Apart from that, the sensible money told you that Holzken - better known as a kickboxer than a traditional pugilist - was simply too inexperienced to step into the lion’s den...

The first round looked like a template for how the fight might pan out. Smith working successfully behind his jab, using his height and reach to good effect. Holzken threw about eight punches, of which two just about landed.

Second round, the Dutchman woke up and started to load up with his overhand right, but again, Smith replied in kind, keeping the fight at the distance and at a pace he felt comfortable with. Despite applying slightly more pressure in the third and even handing Smith a bloodied nose, Smith was clearly 3-0 up at the end of the third session.

Holzken came out for the fourth round meaning business. Most of the naysayers had already written him off at this point, but this is where he started to impress. The Dutchman unloaded a barrage of punches at close quarters, which Smith responded to with a smile. The fact is – they were good punches. Smith responded with arguably the more telling blows, but it was a close round, which I shaded Holzken’s way.

By the fifth round it was evident that Holzken’s confidence had grown. It was also obvious that the former kickboxing world champion, with 90 wins out of 105 contests, did not intend to change his flat-on, martial arts stance. As opposed to boxers who lead with their shoulder, Holzken, by being flat on, stood with a maximum target for Smith to hit. However – by being flat on, he was able to generate power and not telegraph his punches, due to the shorter distance of the blows needing to travel.

Smith was back in play in the sixth round, landing the stronger punches and, despite Holzken finishing the next round with more venom, the Englishman was in control again.

In round eight, Smith got back to basics. He had the jab working well and landed some chopping body shots. Despite Holzken hunting down Smith and engaging the Liverpudlian in some nice exchanges, it was a clear Smith round and the next one was similar in all respects.

By the eleventh session, Holzken was showing small moments of success, while Smith was landing heavily. Holzken was shaking his head as if to say, ‘That didn’t hurt,’ which is usually an indication that it did. In the twelfth and final round, Holzken unloaded with bombs and Smith responded in kind. A close round which could have gone either way.

The final scores were 118-110 and 117-111 [x2]. I had a case for 116-112, but certainly wouldn’t begrudge the 117-111 scores. The 118-110 on the other hand...

We now have a super-middleweight final then and an all-British one at that: Groves versus Smith. Hopefully the WBSS committee will grant the Hammersmith man an extension and move the bout into July to allow for shoulder repair, as a last minute stand-in for Smith would be wrong on all levels. Groves is already favourite with the bookies, but how it pans out come fight night is there for the taking.

Holzken in the meantime can hold his head up high. He showed that he’s able to mix it with a very good calibre of super middleweight and deserves a chance to jump in the ring with some good contenders. Eubank Jr v Holzken anyone?

Congrats to the WBSS on yet another instalment of a fantastic tournament.