Frontline Diary: Oh what an atmosphere
Almost a year to the day since I last went in search of a bit of atmosphere, I was in Leeds and on another hunt. So 2014 was all about Belfast: the revelry and dancing in the cool night air that served as a drop curtain to Carl Frampton’s battle with Kiko Martinez. This year, I had alighted in Yorkshire to see whether Leeds featherweight Josh Warrington could instigate anything remotely comparable.
I arrived at the First Direct Arena (situated just off the city’s inner ring road) at 5pm but those of us who were on time had to wait a good twenty minutes before being admitted. For only the second occasion since I’ve attended a boxing show, I was made to empty out my pockets outside the door (resulting in further delays). An overzealous rub-down by one of the event staff uncovered only a business card for the B&B I’d drawn a short straw with when making a late booking (which I subsequently mislaid to ensure the journey back was more mystifying than it really needed to be). As consternation began to spread at such invasive security measures, I escaped through the glass doors of a venue the bus driver had expertly described as, “the big green one over there somewhere.”
During a brief sojourn in a bar situated inside the complex, Twitter tipped me off that Tyson Fury was in the building. Dressed in a grey two-piece tweed jacket and waistcoat with matching flat cap, Fury looked happy - like a man temporarily released from the rigours of training. Tall, slim and unmarked he appeared to be on weight; fit but perhaps a tad tired.
Fury has an easy manner and is popular inside the boxing community. He shakes plenty of hands. He’d called in to cheer on an undercard fighter, and was scheduled to resume training the following day to commence a crucial phase in camp.
“I’m here to support my little team mate Isaac Lowe, a little featherweight who’s fighting for the English title tonight,” he told me cheerily. “Training’s going good. Six weeks in now, another six weeks and I’ll be ready. I’m sparring Monday. I’ll let you know how many times I get chinned in sparring - give ‘em a bit of confidence.”
Fury’s frankness is an antidote to the dreary athlete-speak that permeates sports. Attempting to discern much from his capricious discourse, though, is foolish. He’s a roguish fellow and his tongue oscillates between sharp and in-cheek, often within the same sentence. If he thinks something, he’ll say it.
“I’m looking forward to going in there and destroying this cunt,” he stated. “It’s a good opportunity, isn’t it you know? I should have boxed on PPV before against David Haye - which didn’t happen because he shit himself. Let’s hope Klitschko doesn’t do the same thing. I am a menacing target, so we’ll see if he stands the course.”
Was Fury genuinely that confident? “What do you think?” he growled. “What do I look like? Do I look confident? What am I to be feared of? A man with a pair of gloves on? People say to me: ‘He hasn’t lost in eleven years’ but he’s going to lose this year, so it doesn’t matter does it? He’s been knocked out before; he’ll get knocked out again…hopefully. That’s providing he don’t chin me first…”
Tyson’s cousin, Hughie Fury (16-0, 8 KOs), was quietly ensconced at the opposite side of the ring with his mobile phone. No-one bothered him. Tyson confirmed that Hughie, too, had been offered a world title shot.
“Yeah, he got offered to fight [WBC titlist Deontay] Wilder,” Fury nodded. “It didn’t happen because they gave [Hughie] two weeks notice. He’s only had sixteen fights; he’s only 20-years-old. It’s not really the right time now. I’ll get Klitschko out of the way and then, hopefully, I can get Wilder in the ring.”
Fury was non-plussed with regard to a potential rematch clause and was convinced a sizeable proportion of his countrymen wanted to see him beaten. It brought to mind the siege mentality that served his football team – Manchester United – so well under Alex Ferguson. It could be Fury’s unpredictability, though, that unhinges Klitschko over in Dusseldorf.
A chant of “Olé, Olé, Olé” filtered down from the stands from a small group decked in green shirts, who drove on Dublin middleweight ‘Cool hand’ Luke Keeler (9-1, 5 KOs) to a six-round victory over stubborn Jason ‘Daddy Cool’ Ball (9-20-1, 5 KOs). Keeler triumphed 60-55 and was shorn of his gloves and wraps on a ringside seat. He seemed downhearted. One of his seconds, sensing as much, geed him up with: “He was big. If you’d been fitter, you’d have stopped him.” Keeler trudged back to the changing rooms nonetheless. The names of twin sons ‘Archie’ and ‘Alphie’ were stitched into his emerald green and white trunks. Fathers and sons became something of a theme on the night.
Prominent boxers at ringside (outside of the Fury family) included Kell Brook, Frankie Gavin, Anthony Fowler, Kid Galahad (currently serving a ban) and the Sky Sports contingent of Jim Watt, Carl Froch, Johnny Nelson and Paul Smith. It was interesting to observe the latter trio behind the scenes. Every second that Nelson is off-screen, he is buried in his lines, practising, projecting and enunciating unabashedly. It was impressive to see a man lost in his work. Froch meanwhile focused on his appearance, fastidiously buttoning and unbuttoning his jacket in front of a monitor while Smith – accompanied by his young son Paul Jr. – appeared laid back and gregarious. His eyed each bout like a hawk.
Another prodigious ringside worker was IFL TV co-founder James Helder. Web channel iFL TV has cornered the market in boxing video uploads within the UK. With such immediate content, though, every second counts. Observing Helder operating his laptop was reminiscent of Tom Cruise in sci-fi thriller Minority Report. It’s a far cry from a pad and pen.
'The Tipton Slasher' Lee Glover (9-3, 3 KOs) briefly threatened to upset Barnsley’s Andy Townend (14-3, 10 KOs) during the opening stages of their English super featherweight clash. Glover’s fans were situated on the row directly behind my own. Only a chair or two separated them from Townend’s supporters (who included a scampish little lad I assumed to be his son). The dichotomy of views was fascinating. While Glover edged the first two rounds, he was sailing close to the wind. Townend was overreaching with his punches, but found a sneaky right in round four that tipped Glover over. Glover’s fans grew audibly deflated as the contest ticked on. Bleeding over one eye, Townend finished his man in round seven and the little boy celebrated as elatedly as any of the adults.
Martin Murray and Tony Bellew won their fights at a canter (both via TKO 5) and Murray lingered for so long posing for pictures afterwards that featherweight Jamie Speight (13-8, 1 KO) – who’d been gloved up for hours - bumped into the St Helens man as he ducked through the ropes to tackle Fury’s “little mate” Isaac Lowe (11-0, 4 KOs). Sporting an Amish-style chin strap beard, Morecambe’s Lowe had a few more moves than Devon’s Speight and won a pleasing affair by TKO 9.
As Neil Diamond made his customary appearance over the airwaves during the interval, the atmosphere crackled. House of Pain injected it with steroids. Aussie Joel Brunker entered the main arena stooped, self-conscious, and unloved. All fighters crave respect - love by any other name - and there was no love here for poor Brunker. It was worse than he’d imagined.
The contrast between that and Warrington’s emergence to the strains of ‘Marching on together’ (a Leeds United anthem) followed by ‘I predict a riot’ (Warrington’s patented roof-lifter) was jarring. The crowd – notably the section directly opposite the ring – was as energetic as anything I’ve ever seen. A Frampton crowd may be bigger and more jovial (perhaps) but a Warrington crowd is surely more animated. It looked like a box of firecrackers thrown into Anthony Gormley’s Field for the British Isles. Russ Abbot would have been in his element.
Warrington boxed a shut-out. Paradoxically, ‘The Leeds Warrior’ had to block out his support, who insisted he whip them into frenzy. His father and trainer Sean O’Hagan, though, kept him on message to draw out a mature, intelligent performance. It was another father and son story among a whole evening of them.
Photo: Lawrence Lustig.