Frontline Diary: I went to be a part of it...

John Evans
14/06/2016 5:52am

The novelty of visiting New York during fight week will never wear off for me. Last week I ventured to the United States to see Vasyl Lomachenko take on Roman Martinez, and Felix Verdejo face Juan Martin Martinez. Rather than spending all of my time eating, drinking, roaming around, and mixing with the regulars in Jimmy’s Corner like usual, I decided to combine those staples with some actual work.

Straight off the plane and straight on to the subway to Astoria in Queens for a Thursday night meeting with unbeaten heavyweight hope, Jarrell Miller. Loud, brash, very funny and extremely ambitious, Miller’s jaw dropped when talk turned to the attendances and purses that heavyweight boxing is currently attracting in Britain. Miller has sparred Tyson Fury and been an invited member of Klitschko training camps. He also faced one of the most intimidating tests in all of combat sports by taking on the legendary Mirko Cro Cop twice during his time as a high level kickboxer.

Anthony Joshua cuts an imposing figure and seems to intimidate many opponents but the thought of facing the IBF champion in his own “Lion’s Den” made Miller laugh. If he can successfully handle a step up in opposition later this year, expect to see plenty of ‘Big Baby’ on our shores.

Brilliant Ukrainian cruiserweight Oleksandr Usyk was casually milling around in the lobby of the hotel on Friday morning. Usyk was in town to support his friend and countryman, Lomachenko, but was happy to sit down and patiently wait for his interpreter and I to get our acts together.

“Krysztof Glowacki is a good boxer,” Usyk said about his upcoming WBO World title fight.

“He has my respect because he took the belt from Marco Huck. He crushed him. That’s why I think Glowacki is a good boxer. This won’t be easy but when I box with him I will do what I do always. Win. I only win.”

The cruiserweight division is set for a new lease of life in the UK after Tony Bellew’s dramatic destruction of Ilunga Makabu earned him the WBC title last month, and Usyk would happily visit the UK.

“I heard Bellew say that he likes me, and I respect him too,” he said.

“Makabu is a strong man, and that was a good victory. I’m ready to go to Liverpool and win in Goodison Park. In this division there are some dangerous boxers, but I think I am the best. It isn’t the most popular division at the moment, but it is very dangerous. Maybe, with the fighters and fights we have, we will eventually become the most popular division.”

Freddie Roach never turns down a request for a photograph and made hundreds of fans days over the weekend. Despite his battle with Parkinson’s disease, Roach looked well and was in excellent spirits as we waited for Zou Shiming to make his way down to reception for the weigh-in. Of primary interest to British fans was his interest in seeing Miguel Cotto take on WBO World light-middleweight champion, Liam Smith.

“Oh yeah, I’m aware of that,” Roach said.

“Liam trains in my gym quite a bit. It’s a fight I like and I’ve talked to Miguel about it, and as long as we can figure out where we’ll fight and where the money is going to come from I think it’ll happen someday soon.

“I like Liam a lot. I like guys like that. He’s very aggressive and he’s a world champion. He just isn’t well known yet because he hasn’t fought in America. Once he makes a splash here he’ll be a star but if he fights my guy, Cotto, he’ll be in trouble.”

“I know Liam,” he laughed. “I’ve gotta give him a little shit!”

“I thought Scot Quigg would beat the boy from Belfast [Carl Frampton],” Roach said, changing topic. “He got beaten up a little bit in that fight, but it was a good learning experience and I hope he comes back better. Barry McGuigan’s boy is a very good fighter. He's very strong, a good puncher and a very dangerous guy.”

The weigh in-passed without incident and once the headline fighters had successfully made weight, I was unexpectedly whisked away to a private suite to join in with an interview a colleague had arranged with Top Rank president of boxing, Todd DuBoef. It is rare to be granted a 40 minute private sitting with a man of DuBoef’s standing in the game, and it was extremely interesting and useful to hear about his thoughts on Top Rank’s future and the way he feels the sport and its fans are evolving.

DuBoef is extremely good company and sharp witted, and never even missed a beat when my jet lagged brain [that’s a legitimate excuse, right?] decided to think up a question based on Freddie Roach’s earlier comments about Miguel Cotto and Liam Smith. The same Miguel Cotto who now fights under the RocNation banner. DuBoef had plenty to say on the explosion of success British boxing is currently enjoying, and his early thoughts on any potential future negotiations for a fight between WBO lightweight champion Terry Flanagan and the number one ranked Felix Verdejo. More of which soon.

I first saw Verdejo fight in the flesh during my trip to see Guillermo Rigondeaux dominate Nonito Donaire back in 2013. Since then, I have seen him in action a further three times and have been in regular contact with Verdejo through his trainer, Ricky Marquez.

After our latest interview [which will be featured in an upcoming edition of Boxing Monthly] I decided it was time to meet Team Verdejo in person, hence the trip. Despite having a very important fight just 24 hours away, Ricky invited me up to Verdejo’s room. Felix is a very friendly, almost shy young fighter with a ready smile and an ever increasing grasp of English. I was struck by how slight he seems in the flesh compared to his ripped, muscular appearance in the ring. His narrow torso and wide shoulders seem to suggest that he seems destined to naturally fill out, and maybe end up at welterweight. After some pleasantries, I passed on a gift of a ‘Turbo’ Terry Flanagan t-shirt which he and Ricky accepted in good natured fashion before leaving Felix to return to his favourite pastime: sleeping.

On Saturday morning I was up and out early with a Denver omelette and too much coffee inside me, and the sole aim of tracking down one of my favourite fighters. Three-weight world champion, Iran ‘The Blade’ Barkley. I had heard that Iran had recently moved into a new place in The Bronx and can sometimes be found in a gym in the area, but was also aware that he helps out at the famous Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn.

I figured Gleason’s would give me a higher likelihood of finding other fight figures should Iran not be around so hopped on the F train. Gleason’s is a fantastic place to be. Fighters of all ages and abilities mix with each other, trainers point out mistakes and give tips, and people hop in and out of the various rings for sparring sessions. The next time I visit, I’m packing my gear.

Iran wasn’t around so I called by the office to chat with Bruce Silverglade [owner of the legendary gym] and see if he knew when he may call by. One phone call and half an hour later, in strolled Iran. A full article on our encounter will appear soon but, after a tough few years, it was nice to see Iran in good health, sharp and with a sparkle in his eye.

New York’s theatre district is currently host to the Lion King, Aladdin and Wicked. Ten blocks down Broadway on Saturday night, Vasyl Lomachenko staged a live action version of The Matrix to rip the WBO World super-featherweight title away from Roman Martinez. I’ve been lucky enough to see some special fighters in action in the Big Apple and Lomachenko is right up there alongside Roy Jones Jr, Guillermo Rigondeaux, Gennady Golovkin and Roman Gonzalez. He might even be better.

Before I left for New York, Billy Graham told me that Lomachenko would hit poor Martinez “from every angle imaginable, and then he’ll invent some new ones". How right he was. Lomachenko made a three-time world champion look like a raw novice and closed the show in spectacular style. Martinez’s attempts to take Lomachenko’s space simply enabled ‘Hi Tech’ to dance around him like a Maypole. At times, hardened boxing writers were turning to each other and laughing at the skill and audacity of Lomachenko’s footwork.

Verdejo has attracted criticism recently with some people claiming his star quality has dimmed. Juan Martin Martinez gave him the opportunity to show just why he is still such a special talent. Verdejo’s punch picking and accuracy was pin point, and his left hook and right hand are lightening quick. He is far less gung-ho than he was when he first burst on to the scene, but his style needed to evolve if he was going to be successful on the world stage. On Saturday, he seemed to be comfortable with his game and unaffected by the pressure of being his island’s hottest prospect. He wasted virtually nothing and was throwing hard during exchanges.

After leaving Madison Square Garden, I made my way slowly along a darkened 32nd street with Verdejo and Marquez. Boricuan fans in party mode ahead of the annual Puerto Rico Day Parade stopped him to ask for photos every couple of yards. In a much more relaxed mood, Verdejo’s English came to the fore and he spoke about being happy and his previously troublesome hand as we crossed seventh avenue and entered the hotel. After negotiating a Puerto Rican party in the lobby and making it to the eighth floor, Marquez produced a ‘Diamante’ Verdejo t-shirt. “I have a present for you. You can give this to ‘Turbo’! I know he is a good guy,” he laughed. Boxing never ceases to provide surreal, special moments. This was yet another. We’re extremely lucky to be involved in such a sport.

All that was left to do on the Sunday was wander up to the Puerto Rican Parade via the annual BBQ festival at Madison Square and get ready to leave. When you go to see special fighters for the first time, you want them to show exactly what they can do. Lomachenko and Verdejo did that.

When’s the next fight?