Frontline diary: 'Emptiness and loneliness...And an unlit Christmas tree...'

Garry White
20/12/2018 1:10pm

York Hall never disappoints, says Garry White as he reports from last Friday night's MTK show which saw good wins for Larry Ekundayo and Akeem Ennis Brown...

The chaotic human anthill that is Victoria station was radiating its usual chaos, as I trudged from the platform through the concourse. Such a scene should have been anticipated considering it was 6:30 pm on a Friday night, two weekends before Christmas.

But without sounding like an agoraphobia sufferer or - at the very least - a curmudgeon, after two minutes I wanted out. Fields, farms and golden beaches would have been my preference, but in their absence, I settled on a moderately well-known golden arched, Irish-American eatery.

Ordinarily, it would have been a boozer. Either the miserable sports bar on the top deck or better still holding my thirst and letting it break gloriously free at the Dundee Arms, across the street from the apex of my journey; Bethnal Green’s York Hall.

But I have been ruthlessly cutting back of late. There is something about turning 40, now 41, that makes every random ache and pain feel like an advanced knock from St. Peter. Especially so when you have spent the last 20 years putting your body through the proverbial wringer. I’m on tablets, or as I prefer to say, armed with a silent Sid James cackle, “under the doctor”. Booze is now only for essential occasions and not pointless, little throwaway sojourns. Better to bank the ones and twos and save them for the occasional round dozen.

So, on to the Victoria line and then the Central. Christmas party revellers everywhere, knocking back cheeky canned G&Ts on the tube. The hardcore and the once-a-year crowd tuned in perfect harmony, for now. But I can already gleefully feel their hangovers. Sometimes it feels good to be out of this racket, even if it is only on a part-time basis.

The York Hall never disappoints, ubiquitous airport type security excepted, and the familiar embarrassment of having to empty my pockets of all kinds of unimaginable detritus. Boxing Monthly sent me here for MTK’s latest and final show of 2019. A decent card featuring two IBF European title match-ups and a swathe of young, emerging talent. Although a boxing arena could never be sufficiently charitable to double as the mythical Bedford Falls, there was at least a faint echo of seasonal frivolity in the air.

Fashionably late, I took my seat as Eastbourne’s Scott Hillman (0-34) began his entrance. With the exception of his bespectacled trainer, he appeared predictably friendless. To such an extent that, rather than walking out to some anonymous dance track, he may have been better served plugging in Mud's Yuletide classic 'Lonely This Christmas' instead.

“And the only things I see

Are emptiness and loneliness

And an unlit Christmas tree”

Joining Hillman in the ring was London-based debutant James Hawley. Scheduled for four rounds at super welterweight, Hillman pitched his flag into the ground and sought only to survive until the salvation of the final bell. His gloves held high, he waited for the onslaught that grew in ferocity with each round.

This wasn’t a sporting contest, but a one-man defence of the mission station at Rorke's Drift - in other words a mission facilitated without any weapons or obvious attacking options. Hillman was intent only on showing the paying public that he can take it. A 34-fight career of “you never got me down, Ray,” moments, except - of course - when they did.

As the stylish Hawley battered his way through Hillman’s high-guard in the second, the Eastbourne man gave him a wink and then embarked on a Chris Eubank-style strut. For a moment, and from a very long distance, it could well have been 'Simply the Best', but for the complete absence of everything else.

Hawley, who impressed on the night, tried everything to stop Hillman in the closing stanza and perhaps rushed some of his work. He will go onto greater challenges and Hillman will take his permanent half-smile somewhere else and derive continued pride from his ability to endure.

Billed as the evening’s international bout, Kazakhstan’s Sultan Zaurbek (2-0) missed the Christmas memo and entered the ring in a Halloween-style clown mask ahead of his super-featherweight clash. But it was his Romanian opponent Stefan Nicolae (2-13) that was quickly made to look the clown as the Kazakh ended proceedings abruptly in the opening round.

A big, fast left-hand unsteadied Nicolae early on, and the end came with a minute still left in the round as Zaurbek landed solidly with a left to the body. Heavily outgunned and outmanoeuvred by his classy-looking opponent, the Romanian opted to stay on his knees for the full ten-count. To add insult to injury the opening lines of George Ezra’s ‘Shotgun’ were immediately fired up: “Gotta hit the road, gotta hit the road” blasting out as he staggered to his feet, although he probably shivered at the line “I could get used to this”.

Sandwiched between the two main events, Essex southpaw Danny Dignum (8-0) needed only three of the scheduled six rounds to deal with Huddersfield’s Alistair Warren (11-21-4). In a one-sided encounter the 26-year-old dominated from the first bell, before securing the stoppage at 2:03 in the third with a coruscating jab, short left combination that broke Warren’s nose. Dignum, completing his second year in the pro ranks, maintains his unbeaten record and continues his progress up the domestic middleweight rankings.

In the first showpiece bout of the evening, Strood’s previously unbeaten former southern area champion Louis Greene challenged London-based Nigerian Larry Ekundayo (14-1) for his IBF European welterweight title.

Greene, inactive since March, following hastily cancelled defences of his area title against rising prospects Jez Smith and Chris Kongo, was hungry to get back into action. Ekundayo was last seen in July where he picked up the vacant belt via a unanimous points decision against Edinburgh’s John Thain.

The ever-popular Ekundayo  entered the ring accompanied by a colourful entourage, including a trumpet player, who treated the assembled crowd to the full Roy Castle 'Record Breakers' experience. The bar emptied as the first bell rang and ringside became blurred with lyrical renditions of "Larry, Larry” and terrace chants of “Greene Army, Greene Army!” from the “Medway Mauler’s” supporters, positioned directly behind me.

In a cagey opener, Greene fighting out of a half-crouch, lived up to his nickname, as he pawed forward and looked to close the space on the imposing Ekundayo. The template was set for the remainder of the contest, but with Ekundayo happy to keep his bad intentions to himself for now.

In the second the champion used Greene’s forward momentum to artfully turn him on the ropes and nail him with a couple of solid right hands. This combination of deftness and brutal execution elicited a loud cheer from “The Natural’s” vocal following.

Still searching for a way through, Greene landed with a decent right-hand, over-the-top as the fight entered the third. But his insolence was immediately punished via a sharp combination from his opponent. With Greene continually boring forward and having already been warned, the referee deducted a point in the fourth for use of the head. It was a decision that was met with multiple salty expletives from his verdant ringside platoon. In fact, their consensus for much of the night was that their man didn’t get the rub of the green from the referee, with a perhaps unfair suggestion that Marcus McDonnell was breaking up the best of his work on the inside.

As the contest entered the middle and later rounds, Ekundayo continued to call the shots, boxing fluidly and living up to his nickname of ‘The Natural’. Despite the majority of rounds being relatively evenly contested, Greene was despairingly unable to exert any sustained pressure. On the occasions where he did find openings his efforts were routinely met with swift morale-sapping counters.

Comfortably ahead going into the last couple of rounds Ekundayo engaged in some minor showboating, before picking up a wide points victory on all cards and retaining his title. At 36, and with an unsuccessful WBO Intercontinental title tilt in his locker [the victor, Gary Corcoran going on to unsuccessfully challenge Jeff Horn for the full World title], time is of the essence and his team need to plan his next move carefully in a division that is stacked full with talent both domestically and globally.

The crowd had thinned out somewhat before the final bout of the evening featuring Australian based Irishman Darragh Foley (15-2-1) and Gloucester’s unbeaten Akeem Ennis Brown (11-0), although there were still a decent number of Irish tricolours on display. With the vacant IBF European super lightweight title on the line, Foley entered to the aptly seasonal refrain of 'Fairytale of New York' and thus stole a march on compatriot Katie Taylor, by a good few hours.

In what was an altogether scrappy affair between two southpaws Ennis Brown demonstrated the slicker more accomplished work, whereas Foley showed a preference to power punch and tried in vain to land his corkscrew of an uppercut in the early rounds.

Despite the fight containing no official knockdowns, both men found themselves liberally on the canvas as the contest began to exhibit all the characteristics of Greco-Roman wrestling spiced with elements of GAA.

By the end of the middle rounds, it was already clear to many that Foley was entering the realms of needing a knockout to win. Always game, he kept coming forward looking for that pivotal moment of game-changing perfection, but the Gloucester man was sufficiently savvy to evade and spoil.

As Foley became more desperate and reckless in the seventh, he was tagged with some well-timed counters from close range. With the Irishman beginning to tire Ennis Brown traded with him in the eighth before staggering him in the death throes of the tenth and picking up the unanimous verdict on all three cards.

Thus Ennis Brown adds the IBF European edition to his earlier WBC Youth and English title successes. Lacking big-time connections and emanating from a part of the country not necessarily characterised by boxing success, the 23-year-old has come up the hard way. Some may point to his lack-lustre knockout record – just one in 12 wins – as potential evidence of his limitations, but it further reinforces that he has had no freebies in his career thus far.

Ennis Brown continues to grow in stature and could be one to watch in 2019.