Frontline Diary: Symmetry in Glasgow
Andrew Harrison's diary from a WBSS weekend in Glasgow, as Taylor dazzles, Burnett is forced to retire and Billy Connolly's mural has a few words to say...
Glasgow was wearing a familiar frock when I arrived into Central Station: windswept with sullen skies and teeming with life. I’m in town to kill three birds with one pen: 1. To experience my first Scottish fight night 2. To catch super-lightweight wonder Josh Taylor live before his star outgrows his homeland and 3. To check out the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS), an innovative concept that just might be the future of the sport.
It’s early afternoon and I have a couple of hours to idle away before I can access my digs in the east end. I dodge the puddles along Argyle Street and head towards Merchant City. There’s an independent clothing store on King Street that sells boxing-themed sweatshirts – including Joe Frazier, Jake LaMotta and Benny Lynch: 'The Little King of the Gorbals'.
After fishing to see whether the £45 sweaters might find their way onto the sales rack in the near future (impossible with a mop-haired kid as amenable as a cliff-edge, whose response to my fishing consists of repeated “Na man” responses delivered in a laconic drawl) I give up and double back along Osborne Street.
There, I’m confronted by John Byrne’s playful, 50-foot mural of Billy Connolly, one of three commissioned to mark the native king’s 75th birthday. "Hello 'Big Yin'" I think, as if I know him personally, and I wonder what Billy is thinking back as I stand there gawking up at him. Maybe he’d croon down to me: “Hulloooo sonny, isn’t it just wwwonderful to be a huge talking building”? As I look closer, he clarifies things for me.
“Fuck off,” he says with his eyes. Perfect.
Glasgow is said to be a hard, mean city. That’s the stereotype anyway. A city of confrontation and of withering tongue. Of sharp patter and the murky art of Ken Currie and Peter Howson. A city where sectarianism resurfaces whenever Rangers and Celtic play a game of football. A city with an abrasive air and aggressive pride – one rooted in the working-class experience of the Industrial Revolution.
I see no sign of it – only warmth. Yet one can no sooner presume to understand the nature of a place from a two-hour loll around its edges than you could discern the Scottish psyche from a trip to the tartan tourist shops that sell tweed and bonnets to tourists. Glasgow is both complex and unpretentious above all else.
Taylor possesses a combative spirit that screams Glasgow rather than Edinburgh (his home city). He’s a cheery fellow but there’s an edge to him, a gravel in his stomach. You sense that it wouldn’t take much to cross him, for those wild eyes to widen with the offer of a ‘square go’, and a selection of windows to take your leave from.
I arrived at the SSE Hydro early, which is handy as media passes are allocated from the SEC box-office in an adjacent building to the opal green, futuristic arena, that juts out impressively against the black sky (they know a bit about architecture in these parts). After belatedly heading into a hushed ringside, I catch Edinburgh prospect Stephen Tiffney (10-1, 4 KOs) touching down after copping a right hand from Mexican Arturo Lopez (5-8-3).
The man from Aguascalientes (via Barcelona) plays the rugged South American to perfection. His nickname is 'Tarahumana', which points to the Rarámuri – Indigenous folk renowned for endurance running, which seems ironic tonight. With blood smeared all over his face, Lopez snarls at Tiffney and waves the Scotsman to him as if to say: “Don’t box, fight!” Tiffney passes and jogs home a 58-55 winner after six rounds (the word around the campfire is that Tiffney didn’t have time to warm up).
Lopez leaves the ring with an arm around one shoulder and a blood-soaked towel over the other. Another loss but a lesson for the winner: You don’t mess around with a man named Arturo.
The set-up is the most professional I’ve come across in my time covering fights. Media are allocated tables with power points – a far cry from jockeying with your elbows on packed rows of seats that soon resemble a snake pit of wires and cables.
The gigantic lighting rig means it’s so bright at ringside you can’t actually see out into the crowd. Promoter Kalle Sauerland suggests they’ve sold close to 6,000 tickets inside the 12,000-seat venue, yet even through a squint, that looks wildly optimistic. You could hear a pin drop during the first co-main event.
The hope is that fans will invest in the concept and start supporting it in numbers. A tournament format offers clarity amid mass confusion. The WBSS provides champions in an era of belt-holders.
Taylor’s previous opponent, Viktor Postol, arrives into the ring. He’s here as the super-lightweight alternate, should either Taylor or opponent Ryan Martin, for whatever reason, fail to come up to scratch. Hackney-based Turk Siar Ozgul (14-2, 3 KOs) has been pitched in against him and you fear the young man is out of his depth.
The Ukrainian has long, wiry arms that snake out in a smooth action. His precision and form are startling in the context of his position on the card.
Ozgul, though, has a plan. Fit enough to withstand Postol’s sniping, he throws a winging left hook counter off the ropes whenever the favourite moves into range. It works for him and he lasts the full 10 rounds, going down 99-91. He looks satisfied as he leaves the ring but he’s taken his licks.
The bantamweight understudy - former world title holder Paul Butler (27-2, 14 KOs) of Ellesmere Port - is up next. He faces Yoan Boyeaux (41-6, 26 KOs) of Côte-d'Or, France. It’s rare you forget a fighter you’ve covered from ringside and after scrolling through Boyeaux’s record, it comes flooding back. In 2010, I watched him receive the high hat from referee Michael Alexander, who to my mind awarded a hometown decision to Brampton’s Josh Wale. They fought on the undercard to John Murray’s European title defence against rugged Russian Andrey Kudryavtsev in a Wigan sports hall. I resolve to fish out my notes when I return home.
Butler goes through the gears early, whacking away at the Frenchman’s body and head with two-fisted combos. Boyeaux, though, is tough and defends well and Butler soon settles into a Postol-like groove to win every round bar one.
After a bitty British super-middleweight title fight between unbeaten duo Zach Parker and 'Dangerous' Darryll Williams (won by the former, controversially, on points) that no-one around me manages to score for a variety of reasons (Elliot Foster of the Liverpool Echo and BoxingScene.com is chasing copy, Tom Gray of Ring Magazine is being pulled up for conversation at every turn, and to my shame, I’m watching it but it’s not going in, the previous two contests having seemingly put me into a trance) it’s time for Burnett vs Donaire, bang on schedule at the welcome time of 9pm.
The setting up of the waist-high plinths the fighters parade on before entering the ring (a WBSS motif) proves entertaining. How many men does it take to construct a plinth? And how does the master of ceremonies manage to trip over something that big? And is that a dagger inside his sock? We need a serious fight to get us back on track.
I covered the co-mains here but a few more notes: I felt Donaire was warming to his task well. I thought he won round two (in hindsight due to missing a big right hand from Burnett that we were blinded to from our angled viewpoint) and had bossed the fourth round behind his jab prior to the injury (which may actually have occurred in the third, listening to Burnett’s corner in between rounds). 'The Filipino Flash' looked incredibly powerful and was hurling grenades at Burnett whenever the Ulsterman backed up into corners (which he did often, to the bemusement of press row). There was danger in the air.
This was the second time I’d seen Burnett live and the second time his body had betrayed him. In his title unification win over Zhanat Zhakiyanov a year ago, he suffered a mid-fight scare after injuring his collarbone and was rushed to hospital afterwards complaining of severe headaches.
On Taylor vs Martin: It was hard not to pull a Joe Calzaghe vs Jeff Lacy reference out of the bag when describing Taylor’s dominant display. And when you compare where Taylor is now to where Calzaghe was after 14 fights, you’re getting into dangerous hyperbole territory. He does look special.
The erudite Barry McGuigan wasn’t able to put his finger on it, this extra something Taylor has. The Prestonpans man can do it all in the ring yet you feel he’s having to continually restrain himself from going full throttle at the opening bell. Trainer Shane McGuigan is invaluable to him in that regard. He provides intelligent and level-headed oversight that can harness Taylor’s innate genius.
After Taylor addresses the crowd with the carefree manner of a fellow walking home swinging his morning paper, we’re invited to attend a press conference backstage via a labyrinth of narrow corridors. It’s a small room and the videographers have already taken up residence on the front row. A wall of tripods and camcorders form a barrier between many of us and the top table.
Nonito Donaire holds court with veteran trainer Kenny Adams. He talks about feeling 20-years younger, of becoming the undisputed bantamweight king. Adams rues his inability to team up with Donaire years earlier after falling sick but says they’re now going to “kick ass”.
Donaire surmises Burnett’s herky-jerky movement may have contributed to his injury. “He was pulling back when he was punching,” he says. “So his body wasn’t co-ordinated properly.
“I was hitting him hard to the body. That was my goal, to go in there and tear him apart. I did notice when I made him miss that he was pulling too much – he was putting too much velocity [into] pulling himself back.”
After Taylor arrives, the semi-finalists embrace and take pictures together before Donaire makes way, shaking numerous eager hands on his way out. There is a genuine affection for the man here. His world title haul is becoming hard to keep track of but bottom line: Donaire is a true champion.
“I knew I was gonna win the fight,” Taylor begins after taking his seat. “I was expecting a hard 12 rounds because – credit to Ryan Martin – he’s a good fighter. He’s very strong, he can punch pretty hard and he’s strong in his defence as well, so credit to him and thanks for coming over and putting up a good fight.
“He couldn’t get a punch off against me. He just couldn’t read me. My timing, my speed, my distance control – everything was just on song tonight."
“He was everything he wasn’t against Viktor Postol there tonight,” continues trainer Shane McGuigan. “He was measured, he was disciplined – he learned so much in that fight against Postol that he’s got a different approach to his training, his mind-set. He knows he can’t give away nothing at world level.”
He fought like that kid in the clothes store.
As the presser wraps I attempt to find my way out, like a lab rat with a laptop. I see a changing room with a blood-drenched towel wedged up against the window and wonder whether I’m lost. Surely I’d have noticed that coming in? (Who’s in charge of this experiment anyway?)
Martin strolls around a corner with a member of his team. He’s been patched up over both eyes yet is still smiling, sauntering along as though an extra in a headphone commercial. I head towards wherever he came from.
I eventually stumble out into the night, bracing against the cold wind and rain. I flag a taxi down in town. The driver isn’t supposed to pick up but our nodded contract is mutually beneficial. He rips me off for £15, though I’d already decided to give him everything in my pocket for his benevolence (£15.10). His deceit serves only to make us part on less amicable terms (I shoot him Billy’s eyes and keep the 10p) but he probably felt like he’d won a punt, so there’s no harm done.
The following morning I take a stroll into town, crossing Victoria Bridge into The Gorbals. It’s a pilgrimage of sorts to find a mural of Benny Lynch, Scotland’s greatest fighter, who resides under a gloomy railway underpass on Cleland Street.
There has been a magnificent three-year-long grassroots campaign to fund a statue of the former flyweight world champ in the city centre. The ‘Remembering Benny Lynch Committee’ have raised £45,000 and recently commissioned artist John McKenna to begin work. It will be a more fitting tribute than this, or the dilapidated painting on the wall of The Clutha pub yon side of the bridge.
Opposite the mural there is a quote taken from The Herald newspaper in 1935: “The Scot fought like a human tornado from the first bell.”
Symmetry in Glasgow after all these years. What would Billy make of that for a closing line?