Frontline Diary: Azerbaijan and Baku 2015
Arriving at Azerbaijan airport at 3am in the morning isn’t the best way to begin a Boxing Monthly fact-finding mission ahead of the inaugural 2015 European Games. For starters, you have to purchase a Visa. The task is made especially hard if, say, your passport is almost a decade old and you have had a drastic haircut plus added an Epping Forest-sized amount of hair to your face in the meantime.
“This man, he looks nothing like the man before me,” claimed a bemused official when I brandished my old passport plus the photo I had taken the night before to attach to my Visa application. “Are you really him?” he asked, which prompted a brief existential crisis.
“Is anyone really anyone at all?” I countered, running the risk of opening up a conversation that could have lasted all night. Whether through tiredness, boredom or both, he eventually stopped staring at me and rubber-stamped my entry into the country.
After a short sleep, it was time for a meeting with Simon Clegg, Baku 2015’s Chief Operating Officer - he was also one of the planners of the 2012 London Games - and Jayne Pearce, Baku Press Operation Consultant. There were a few questions about the country’s Human Rights infringements - I can attest, I only had eight pillows on my king-sized bed - but these were batted aside using the “It’s about sport, not politics” card and the focus was on the legacy aspect of the Games.
Clegg swiftly moved on to the Games themselves, saying: “It's the inaugural Games so we're making history here. This puts Baku on the sporting map but not just that, this is putting Azerbaijan as a whole on the world map.
“This is a very young country, one of the youngest populations across the whole of Europe, and they’re using this event to engage with young people - not just in Baku, across the whole of Azerbaijan,” stated Clegg.
Jayne was up next, outlining a new wrinkle that they intend to implement. I-Zones will be set-up for the media, with athletes brought over to them to answer questions from the assembled press.
“The I-Zone is a big thing,” stated Pearce. “Media conferences in venues have been too last century, too stilted and with people not asking enough questions, so we’re not having standard press conferences. We’ve tried to make a more relaxed environment. We’ll bring the athletes to the I-Zone and you can interview them.
“The pods, or zones, can have single stools or benches. We’ll put the athlete there, and put in rows (of seats) if it makes things easier. It’s working well. It’s new, different and less demanding of athletes.
“It’s a new concept that is meeting the needs of the media, but without bringing athletes to areas where they’re not required. The media goes to the where the story is, rather than the main press centre where there’s nothing taking place.”
Boxing writers are used to waiting until the post-show press conference to grab their quotes. Alternatively, you can take part in the Kafkaesque process of trying to get to the dressing room between fights to obtain interviews, which tends to be hit-and-miss, or you can speak the fighters when they come back into the arena.
However, anyone who has tried to conduct interviews in three-minutes bursts whilst standing around awkwardly for a minute while the PA systems blasts out some turgid pop song can attest to how poor the British approach has become since promoters decided to entertain the crowd with music, rather than letting them discuss the round or fight they’ve just witnessed.
I-Zones could eliminate some problems, not least the fact fighters and reporters are jaded by the time the post-midnight press conference takes place. It is an elegant, simple and effective measure to ensure the best press coverage, so there is no chance of it being introduced here in the UK.
The timing of my flying visit was such that I had missed one boxing event and was unable to take in that night’s scheduled test event. The irony was not lost on Pierce O’Callaghan, Director of Sport for Baku 2015. “So you’re here for the boxing and will miss it?” he asked before offering an impromptu invite to that night’s test card, which was due to start within the hour.
As an online, so-called boxing writer of many years standing, there wasn’t a chance in hell that I would turn down a free fight pass. I soon found myself marching through the streets with Pierce as he tried to give his location to his driver and picked up his two daughters, who accompanied him to the event.
“You’re lucky to have bumped into a fellow Irishman,” he said before waxing lyrical about the boxing venue, the Crystal Hall. It is in Flag Square and sits on a peninsula that juts out into the Bay of Baku and was whipped by fierce, wailing winds from the Caspian Sea throughout the evening.
“The boxing is going really well,” he said, before explaining why a growing number of amateur boxers remain in the unpaid ranks. “The removal of the helmets and the World Series of Boxing offers boxers a lot more options. They can still earn some money as amateurs and still go for the Olympics. Amateur boxing is a popular sport, no doubt about it. It’s a very strong sport here.”
“I’ve also been interested in the I-Zones idea,” he added. “We’ve tested it, it works and we get more feedback - it’s more civilised.”
Due to our late arrival, I didn’t have a list of bouts or fighter bios, and could barely make out the names from my vantage point. However, I really enjoy watching two boxers box when I know absolutely nothing about them (some would say I adopt this position whenever I watch a fight) as it helps hone objectivity.
Stripped of names, back stories and everything else, there is nothing for the mind to latch on to, either consciously or subconsciously, and you can watch the fight unencumbered by anything other than what’s going on in the ring.
As we made our way from the venue in Pierce’s car, a passenger in the front seat turned around and said: “Are you Terry Dooley from the BoxRec British Forum?” I confirmed, pre-confessed my many forum sins and hoped for the best. My fears were unfounded, the voice belonged to Paul Porter, a man of great standing in the amateur game here in the UK, so I was on safe ground.
Pierce, his daughters and Paul had enjoyed the fights. The two girls excitably discussing their night out at the boxing while Paul and I had a quick catch-up.
Porter is the Boxing Manager for Baku 2015, this isn’t his first rodeo. “I'd worked as Field of Play Manager for boxing at London 2012, and Technical Operations Manager at Glasgow 2014, so I knew my way around this sort of event, but it was still great to get the call for this one,” he told Boxing Monthly. “Multi-sport events are quite a challenge, so it's pleasing to know your name is near the top of the list for this sort of thing and hopefully people choose me because of my love of the sport.”
Porter was more than happy with how things were progressing. “The quality of the test event was very high,” he continued. “The test event, the Great Silk Way Tournament, went very well. It was a real multi-national team event backstage, with a team of Azeris, Russians, Germans, Irish, Australians, loads more, even one or two English! Personally, it was great after the first session to think I'd put on a boxing show in Azerbaijan.
“As a test event, the main point is to test all of the systems out around the sport, everything from cleaning and catering to security and the IT, but to have a world class invitational event in the middle of it was great. The Azeris, Kazakhs, Uzbeks etc don't have many weak boxers, and all of these would have looked at home in any top event.”
They enjoy combat sports in this region so there should be no problem attracting spectators to the boxing events. “Yeah, they love their boxing and combat sports over here,” confirmed Porter. “Winning a medal will mean a tremendous amount to any of the athletes and I'm expecting a full house for most of the sessions - we shifted all the available tickets for the test event.
“Mind you, just like at the Olympics, I'm only really bothered that we make things as good for all the boxers as we can, so that they can show their best. Every Games throws up one or two true greats, like Vasyl Lomachenko and Serik Sapiyev at London 2012, or emotional moments like Charlie Flynn being presented with the Gold by Dick McTaggart at Glasgow 2014. I'm sure there will be something special that people will remember Baku 2015's boxing competition for.”
The country has a lot of promising amateurs, but little in the way of a professional scene. Could these Games help spark one into life?
“From what I understand the 'amateurs' get well looked after over here and there's a lot of investment in the sport, such as in their fantastic new national training centre,” he revealed. “Then there's WSB and APB, so they can do OK without leaving that set-up. Anything that raises the profile of the sport and the country will help though.”
Still, there is a reservoir of talent to tap into should and plenty of budding boxers in Baku. Porter outlined the depth of love this country has for the 'sweet science'.
“About 80 of our young volunteers who helped us to run the test event were from the local boxing academy,” he explained. “They all turned up for every session. No pay, and sometimes not even actually seeing any of the boxing, but they gave their time just to support the event. I think it would be true to say that the general public here 'get' boxing in a way that people in England did while there was still a lot on terrestrial telly.
“I read that there were more than 50,000 boys in the national schoolboys’ championships in England in the early 1950s and ABA champions were nationally known. Here everyone seems to know the national boxing champions, which is very nice for a fan like me.”
Despite the glitz, glamour and graft of the Games, Porter is missing the ins and outs of the UK amateur scene.
He said: “I'd love to stay involved with the boxing scene over here, but I also miss my boxing academy at Bradford College, The Bradford Police and College Boxing Academy. I watched the England Boxing National Senior Finals online, and I had a bit of a lump in my throat when our former students Mo Ali (Flyweight) and Conor Loftus (Welterweight) won their titles. Maybe we can have the Azeris over for a training camp sometime and a Yorkshire versus Azerbaijan Select match. That would be good.”
A good Games could be good for the long-term future of boxing in Azerbaijan. O’Callaghan mentioned that families were buying tickets together; his own daughters enjoyed the events they had attended, particularly the boxing.
Long after the dust settled on these Games, his two girls will have fond memories about the night they went to the boxing with their dad and his friends, staying up a bit later than usual and enjoying the craic with the adults. If other families across the country share similar nights the legacy of the Games will be love for new sports or a renewed vigour for the sports they've become used to.
In particular, boxing grows in the heart like a flower, usually with the brain saying: 'Don't do it, son, don't do it' after anticipating the endless, waking nightmare that is boxing. But once in a while you catch your breath, enjoy a fight and remember why you love the sport. Hopefully, there will be many such moments over the next few weeks, or at least enough to counter the politics that lurk within the dark heart, and nefarious black arts, at the centre of the sport.
I’ve also seen entire families attending big shows over in Germany, but in the UK the sport tends to attract a football crowd once you move beyond the hardcore fans and VIPs. It would be nice to bring families into the fold, but, sadly, the atmosphere at British professional shows might be too unpredictable for that.
And that was that, it was time to bid adieu to a town that is a curious mixture of old and new. The skyscrapers tower over the UNESCO protected charms of the Old Town - I got to know it especially well after getting lost in its winding little streets late at night - and it threw up some odd sights, oil drilling machines in what looked like back gardens, but it is well worth a visit.
Who knows? There may be professional boxers aplenty there a decade down the line as they have the fighters, an iconic venue and plenty of money - three things that are essential to building the sport.
#Baku2015 by the numbers:
50 countries represented.
16 of them Olympic sports.
£1 billion official cost of the Games.
£6+ billion estimated unofficial cost.
68,000 seats in the National Stadium.
50 Estimated number of years they can continue to tap into the gas and oil reserves in the region.
3 Number of records Nicola Adams will hold if she becomes the first woman to win a European Gold Medal (to add to her London 2012 and Glasgow 2014 wins).
24 Years of independence for the host nation since splitting from the Soviet Union.
12 Team GB boxers (including Nicola Adams, Anthony Fowler, Max Maxwell and Muhammad Ali, a fighter Amir Khan has picked for great things in the future).
2003 The year current President Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father.