Frontline diary: The King of Belfast

Danny Winterbottom
24/04/2018 11:55am

Danny Williamson reports from ringside as Carl Frampton confirms his position as the 'King of Belfast' with a comprehensive victory against Nonito Donaire...

Nonito Donaire’s week-long charm offensive may have endeared him to the Irish public but on Saturday night inside a sold-out SSE Arena, Carl Frampton proved there can only be one king of Belfast when he scored a lopsided decision victory over the 35-year-old four division titlist.

In doing so Frampton claimed the vacant ‘interim’ WBO featherweight title and was also granted his wish of a huge summer blockbuster at Windsor Park, likely to be against the winner of the upcoming IBF 126lbs title fight between Lee Selby and Josh Warrington that takes place on 19 May in Leeds.

Summer had seemingly already arrived in Belfast as I walked out of the George Best International airport terminal to be greeted by piercing blue skies that framed the city landscape like a beautiful water colour painting, enhancing the ‘feel good’ factor in the city ahead of a huge night of boxing. Frampton is big business in Belfast and the city was already buzzing with excitement when my flight from Liverpool John Lennon Airport landed ten minutes ahead of schedule.

“The beer gardens will be packed out later,” remarked one fan before he spotted BT Sport commentator and former world champion Richie Woodhall squeezing his 6’1” frame into the leather-clad rear seats of his chauffer-driven Jag. Woodhall accommodated the fan for a few minutes before his Jag took off down the A2 and I quickly (ok, not so quickly!) gave chase aboard my less glamorous ride, the airport shuttle bus to Europa terminal about 15 minutes’ drive away.

About an hour or so later my backpack was dumped in room 412 at the Maldron Hotel, a newly constructed four-star establishment (my original hotel booking, a more modest choice, was unfortunately shut down due to ‘environmental issues’ a few days earlier) just a stone’s throw away from the imposing Europa Hotel that Frampton calls home on fight nights, and I was off towards the Titanic Quarter to meet up with my friend Tom Gray, associate Editor of Ring Magazine. Pizza Hut seemed as good an idea as any to line our stomachs ahead of a marathon night of boxing and a group of Donaire fans thought the same as they occupied three large tables next to us before posing for a photo.

John Evans of BoxNation fame and Manchester Evening News Sports reporter Sheldon Kay joined us at a sports bar just around the corner from the SSE Arena before we made our way to ringside where former outstanding amateur Sam Maxwell was about to make short work of his overmatched opponent in front of a smattering of fans. A right hand finishing proceedings in 56 seconds as the 2014 Commonwealth Games Bronze Medallist moved to 7-0 as a professional.

Newtownabbey light heavyweight Steven Ward enjoyed some loud vocal support during his third-round TKO victory over Polish import Michal Ciach, but despite enjoying huge physical advantages he was caught too often for my liking by Ciach from long range and his own shots lacked explosiveness. Ward is trained by Jamie Moore at the VIP gym in Astley, Manchester, and has time to improve.

As is often par for the course with televised shows we then endured a lengthy wait whilst BT Sport went live on air at 19.30 with the first ‘live’ fight of the evening, a highly anticipated super lightweight clash between friends and former amateur rivals Tyrone McKenna and Anthony Upton. Toilet breaks and small talk got us through to the first bell where the moustachioed southpaw stalked Upton around the ring as he attempted to corner his smaller rival whilst Upton countered nicely off the back foot.

A pattern for the fight had been formed and then in round nine McKenna sent Upton to the canvas from what looked like a body shot but it was hard to make out for certain from my vantage point at ringside. McKenna also suffered a cut over his right eye but ran out a 98-92 victor on referee Marcus McDonnell’s card, although Boxing Monthly scored it for McKenna by a closer 96-93 margin. McKenna gained revenge after being stopped by ‘Anto’ in the amateurs.

Just as the McKenna-Upton bout was coming to a close a rumour began to circulate around ringside that a ‘fix’ was in for the upcoming WBO European middleweight title fight between Dubliner Luke Keeler and Manchester based Belfast man Conrad Cummings. Apparently betting had been suspended and flagged as unusual activity by the European Sports Security Association on a third-round TKO victory for Keeler following several maximum bets from new Manchester based online accounts.

People at ringside who had heard the rumour nervously glanced at each other as the bell sounded to signal the start of round three but thankfully the rumour proved to be total nonsense as Keeler and Cummings fought each other to a standstill over the next seven rounds. Keeler, the older man by some four years, used his greater hand speed and punch variety to rack up an unassailable lead on the cards, despite suffering horrific cuts over both eyes in round five due to a head clash, finally running out a 99-91, 97-93 and 98-92 victor. Cummings simply didn’t throw enough punches.

Zolani Tete, the WBO bantamweight world champion, was supposed to use his title defence against grizzled Argentine veteran Omar Narvaez as a showcase bout for a proposed clash with WBA title holder Ryan Burnett. However, any prior knowledge of Narvaez, who claimed to be 42 just as Ken Norton always insisted he was 32 throughout the 1970s, would have told you this was unlikely to happen.

Only the exceptional Japanese fighter Naoya Inoue had found a way to prise open Narvaez’s clamshell-like defence when he blitzed Narvaez in two rounds in 2014, with the diminutive South American’s only other loss coming on points to Nonito Donaire in 2011. It was a horrible fight to watch, only Tete’s mother sat directly behind me at ringside gave any kind of entertainment with her enthusiastic support of her son.

Narvaez, nicknamed ‘El Huracan’ was more of a ‘Light Breeze’, hardly throwing a punch in anger - in fact I think I devoured more of a fellow writer's Revels between rounds than Narvaez threw punches. It was a stinker, one of the worst, if not THE worst world title fight I can remember seeing in the flesh. Thankfully the final round bell finally put everyone out of their misery and Tete won 120-108 on all cards.

Does the WBSS bantamweight tournament lay in store for the man they call ‘Last Born’? Hopefully so and it also looks like Burnett will be in the rumoured tournament alongside Jamie McDonnell, Paul Butler and the Ellesmere Port man’s 5 May opponent Emmanuel Rodriguez.

Following Frampton’s masterclass over Donaire, in which he survived an 11th-round scare when the Filipino’s vaunted left hook crashed against his chin, I opted to make my way back to the hotel aware of my early morning flight to Liverpool. A few hours back at the Frampton after party sounded tempting but I left the warmth of the Arena to be greeted by a sharp, but not too uncomfortable post-midnight breeze as the darkness around the Arena was littered with people hoping to catch a taxi home. Some gave up and headed in the direction of fast food outlets on foot, others were drawn in by the sound of house music pumping from behind the mysterious façade of dimly lit clubs. Me? I headed straight for bed…..