Frontline diary: 'The traditional stuff has had it!'
Garry White with his observations from ringside at the Ultimate Boxxer II tournament in London, as Shakan Pitters triumphs on a night of lively boxing drama...
Exiting North Greenwich station on a Friday night and entering The O2 proves to be a simultaneously inspiring and sterile experience. The environs are impressive; a modern cathedral, but one bowing to the coldly clinical altar of consumerism. Surrounded by bright lights and high-end, but nevertheless chain store brands, it is both heaving with people and achingly lonely. Perhaps, in its own way, an unselfconscious metaphor for the modern globalised world.
Here to witness Ultimate Boxxer II, it is only the second time that I have ever visited this vast concert and retail expanse. Considering that I live less than 20 miles away, this is probably a stark admission. Just across the river resides the shabby, faded old grandeur of Bethnal Green’s York Hall. A sweaty, bloody home-from-home for myself and many of tonight’s assembled fighters. An old and unprepossessing world squinting in the neon glow of its imposing yet strangely featureless neighbour.
To get to Indigo at O2 I navigate my way through a huge, snaking queue of punters lined up to see Andrea Bocelli in concert. The sight of his billboard enough to transport me back nearly 15 years to days and nights bumming around in Vegas, drunkenly spellbound by the Bellagio’s dancing fountains and catching the fights 'Under the Stars' at Caesar’s Palace. The likes of Calvin Brock, Jameel 'Big Time' McCline and myriad prospects that never quite made it. Like them, I spent nights trying to land the big one, among rivers of booze and afternoons hung-over watching Sly Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard presenting 'The Contender.' Peter Manfredo Jr. was my adopted dog in that particular race. He never quite made it there or after.
And that is basically what Ultimate Boxxer is: a new and improved model, based on the initial principles laid down by 'The Contender' and later adopted by Matchroom's 'Prizefighter'. Unlike the former and like the latter, it assembles its cast in one night of high impact, no holds barred action, rather than being drawn out over weeks. Some people love the concept and others hate it. Party lines are really split in the same way that they are between traditional Test Match cricket and the hit and hope Twenty20 version.
Ultimate Boxxer's three-round format deprioritises certain skills, and places additional emphasis on others. It isn’t inferior to a ten-round contest, just different, serving as a provider of constant action to those with limited attention spans and an active Instagram account. There can also be no doubt that the fighters involved crave the audience, the television exposure and the winner’s cheque.
At ringside and in the bar the crowd is new and different. Younger than the grizzled wide-shouldered veterans that populate the York Hall and their beery, overweight middle-aged counterparts in tracksuit bottoms, shouting unnecessary expletives at some bemused Polish plumber, employed to provide fodder for their boy.
This is a better dressed, more image conscious crowd. It is a night out with boxing, rather than the other way around. The radio 1 DJ Charlie Sloth supplies the tunes in-between bouts and the fighting provides the additional gritty, faux urban edge.
Eight lads fighting for their futures as a backdrop to someone else’s ‘selfie.’
As the MC loaded up and the fighters took centre stage, for many it was all about the upcoming expectation of the knockout reel. But my head was unwantedly wired in to the voice of fictional 'Anchorman' sportscaster Champ Kind repeating over and over again: “Whammy!! Whammy!!”
Following a cagey opening, Portsmouth’s Joel McIntyre (17-2) waited for an opening before dropping Chelmsford’s Darrell Church (7-2-1) with his first proper shot - a short snapping right - a little over a minute into the first round. Despite beating the referee's count, the fight was over as a contest from this moment onwards as McIntyre landed at will with his right hand. Church is to be congratulated for seeing it through to the final bell in a contest where he was overmatched against a former English title-holder.
In the second bout, two-fight novice Sam Horsfall had the unenviable task of facing off against a highly focused Dec Spelman (12-1). The Scunthorpe man opened strongly and hit hard with right and left salvos to Horsfall’s body. Fighting on the front foot he continued to find his target with booming right hooks.
In a brutal war of a second round Horsfall found himself on the canvas three times, despite giving his opponent a bloody nose. The third occurrence, seconds after rising from the referee's count, saw him stand motionless as Spelman bounded in with a savage right-hook, reminiscent of a 'Happy Gilmore' tee-shot, to bring a premature end to proceedings.
As Horsfall lay prone on the canvas for several minutes, many of the assembled throng had reverted back to their selfies and refilled the bar, but for those of us that know Spelman’s story, it was an anxious time of looking at our shoes and shifting uneasily in our seats.
Mercifully, Horsfall was ok. But it is only really boxing and jump racing that deliver these truly stomach churning moments. In the equine world it occurs when some noble chaser has instinctively followed orders to go over the top once too often, and they wheel out the screen to protect the public from the inevitable consequence of the noble beast’s misplaced faith in humanity.
Next up, Birmingham’s tall and rangy Shakan Pitters (7-0) dealt comfortably with Sam Smith (5-1) on his way to a unanimous points victory. Utilising his huge reach advantage he dropped Smith twice in the second, including one via an impressive right-hand counter off the ropes. A canny Pitters, knowing he was home and hosed with the judges, carefully saw out the third round on the back foot and conserved energy for the semis.
In the last of the quarter-finals, late replacement Georgii Bacon (1-1) pulled off a surprise victory over the vastly more experienced Jordan Joseph (7-2-1). The Londoner, who last time out was in with the highly touted Joshua Buatsi, was down inside the opening seconds. Fighting back he caught Bacon on the inside later in the round and dropped him heavily.
In a contest that ebbed and flowed throughout and where both combatants exhibited casual disregard for defence, it was Bacon that nicked the narrowest of split decisions on the judges' cards.
The first semi-final saw McIntyre clash with Spelman in a contest featuring the two most experienced fighters of the tournament. With both men wary of the other's power, they circled and worked behind their jab throughout the opening round, McIntyre leaving his left hand low and languid in order to entice Spelman in and eventually landing with a clubbing right hand. Just enough in my view for the Portsmouth man to secure the round.
Midway through the second, and as both men traded in the centre of the ring, the referee sent Spelman to a neutral corner for a standing count. With McIntyre sensing an early finish he began to open up and surge forward, before walking into a sharp counter from Spelman that put him on his backside. He rose quickly with a rueful smile. The cagey third round mirrored the first.
Spelman was given the nod by a majority decision, to noisy acclaim from his travelling fans, in a verdict that could really have gone the other way. McIntyre has sufficient grounds to feel disappointed with the outcome, although no one could begrudge Spelman the opportunity to progress.
In the second semi-final Pitters dealt with the inexperienced Bacon so comfortably that it felt like the biggest mismatch of the night. Bacon possesses raw power and a heavy shot but he just couldn’t get close enough to the 6’6" Pitters to cause him any problems. His punches routinely fell short and when he did manage to close down the space, he walked into an avalanche of fast-handed, energy sapping strikes.
His spirit slowly being drained by his opponent’s efficiency, Bacon hit the deck twice in the second round. On the occasion of the second knockdown, caused by a solid left hook to the mid-section, he was unable to beat the referee's count.
Ultimately, the final contest for the golden robe proved something of an anti-climax. The impressive Pitters set the blood flowing again from Spelman’s nose in the early exchanges and quickly scored a knockdown against his tiring opponent.
Left with a mountain to climb on the judges’ cards, Spelman tried to close the gap on his opponent, but to no avail. With sharp lateral movement, adept at staying out of trouble and unloading on the counter, Pitters proved a worthy winner by unanimous decision.
Never under any pressure in any of his bouts and with an educated boxing brain, he moves to 10-0, with an English title shot surely on the horizon soon. Perhaps, against McIntyre, should he triumph over Miles Shinkwin at York Hall next month in what would be an intriguing match-up.
Post-fight in the bar I got caught talking to a supporter of Darryl Church’s. Amicable, well-oiled and gutted for his mate he told me: “this sort of stuff is the future of boxing. The traditional stuff has had it.”
I don’t agree. But it does have a place and long may it continue.