Frontline Diary: 'Ye Buck Eejit'
Andrew Harrison on all the goings-on in and out of the ring in Belfast as Paddy Barnes makes his pro debut, Jamie Conlan edges towards a world title eliminator and Carl Frampton proves a class act at ringside ...
The inherent difficulties involved in matchmaking in boxing were never more pronounced than in Belfast on Saturday, as debutant Paddy Barnes, the triple Olympian with the impish charm, was given the runaround by Bulgarian spoiler Stefan Slavchev (now 8-25-1, 4 KOs).
Flyweight Barnes, 29, who’d been ushered into the Titanic Exhibition Centre ring behind a rollicking reception from the 3,000 fans in attendance, resembled a man who’d choked down a bowl of Bulgarian nettle soup after his journeyman opponent mugged, held, marred and eventually contrived to disqualify himself after less than four rounds of frustrating endeavour.
Two minutes into the fourth round, the rust-haired Barnes - who could be heard to mutter “fuck’s sake” through a clenched mouthpiece every time he tried, and failed, to batter Slavchev against the ropes - leant over his man (who was repeatedly ducking low).
True to form, Slavchev, acting the goat (as opposed to The G.O.A.T), hoisted Barnes above his head with a fireman’s lift that prompted referee Hugh Russell Jr. to throw him out. While something of a knee-jerk decision from the official, everyone - including Barnes - seemed keen to move on from this debacle and proceed with what is set to be a colourful career.
Though it was a confusing fight, two things were obvious: firstly, 'The Wee Man’s' judgement of space and distance is incredible and, secondly, they love him in these parts.
Thrill-a-minute super flyweight Jamie Conlan (now 18-0, 11 KOs), had been scheduled to headline the bill before his prospective opponent, Tanzanian Julias Kisarawe, ran into visa issues.
After Hungarian David Koos (now 8-3-1, 2 KOs) stepped into the breach, Conlan - the current Commonwealth champ whose bone structure leaves him prone to marking up in fights - was given a clear brief: put rounds in the bank and come out unscathed.
Conlan, 30, who was involved in arguably the domestic fight of the year against Geordie Anthony ‘Babyface’ Nelson back in April, boxed steadily to orders from the impressive Danny Vaughan.
And, while it seemed likely that he could have blown the dread-locked Koos away with a barrage of right hands and left hooks to the liver (his pet punch), ‘The Mexican’ - with his eyed caked in Vaseline - used his time shrewdly to win every one of the eight rounds on offer. A world title eliminator for Conlan could now be in play for 2017.
Fight of the night pitted jackhammer-punching Dubliner Phil 'Sucko' Sutcliffe Jr. against mulish Welshman Chris Jenkins - and the duo battled tooth and nail over ten torrid rounds (fought a touch outside the super lightweight limit).
Sutcliffe’s power had cropped into conversation all day with fighters, managers and trainers. Thick-set, burly and with an anvil for a head (bearded at one end), Sutcliffe is extremely heavy handed. And so it proved in the opening round, when he bowled the visitor over with a short left.
Jenkins, though, is as game as they come and he refused to buckle in the face of some serious firepower. And as Sutcliffe (now 12-1, 7 KOs), tired through the middle rounds, Jenkins (16-2-1, 8 KOs), appeared to out-hustle the Crumlin bruiser - punching freely with him at times - to nick a close decision.
The 98-93 score in favour of Sutcliffe (from Russell Jr., who had a poor night all round) seemed absurd. The Welshman’s trainer Gary Lockett, who had nodded bullishly down towards the BoxNation team on the final bell, looked incredulous when the scores were announced and he stomped back to the changing rooms as Jenkins completed the obligatory post-fight TV interview.
In truth, despite broken hands and busted thumbs, it was a fight that should benefit both boxers.
The venue is a temporary structure located in the Titanic Quarter, close to the studios where hit TV show ‘Game of Thrones’ is filmed. The warm glow of the ring lights, suspended beneath what resembled a giant poly-tunnel from the inside, made for a welcome respite from the piercing wind blowing in off Belfast Lough.
After heading straight for the refreshments stand in search of a comforting cup of tea, we were confronted by a queue jumper in the shape of Jenkins - in full ring garb and with his hands taped ready for battle - angling for a few bottles of water. Needless to say, no-one complained about the Garnant man’s lack of social grace.
It was good to see former British middleweight champ Nick Blackwell and BoxNation presenter Charlie Webster working at ringside. Blackwell, who was forced to retire after suffering a bleed on his brain, and Webster, who was stricken with a life-threatening strain of malaria back in August, looked the very picture of health.
Featherweight star Carl Frampton was in attendance (as were fellow fighters Hughie Fury, Derry Mathews and Michael Conlan) yet he was rarely permitted time in his ringside seat. 'The Jackal' courteously completed a never-ending procession of interviews and was snapped with more fans than Clinton or Trump (yet stopped just short of kissing babies). He also boasted vastly superior hair (though the coat was a bit of a rascal).
Fan of the night was the Conlan supporter who turned up in full mariachi costume. There were regular bursts of the football chant “Olé, Olé, Olé!” as both Conlan and Barnes did their best to finish like Javier Hernández. The absence of a sombrero stall in the foyer suggested that someone, somewhere had very definitely missed a trick.
A press row colleague pointed me towards the evergreen Gerry Storey MBE - the legendary 80-year-old custodian of the city’s Holy Family boxing club. Storey grew Barnes from an acorn, and so it was fitting that he helped sprout him into the pros (Barnes is expected to hook up with Vaughan over in the MGM Gym in Marbella ahead of his second bout).
The fighters keep him young – even the eejits among them.