A great weekend for the noble art
Luke G. Williams
The chief sportswriter of a national newspaper in the UK last week referred to boxing as a "failing sport". Given the poverty and paucity of coverage afforded to boxing in the pages of the mainstream media, the existence of such a perception among one of Fleet Street's leading scribes is disappointing, but not surprising,
Thankfully, the events of this past weekend in the prize ring, as numerous boxers in numerous countries showcased the bravery and nobility of their art, were the most eloquent repudiation of these words imaginable.
From Auckland to Omaha and Los Angeles to Manchester, we were treated to a series of wildly contrasting yet equally compelling displays of the pugilistic arts in front of healthy and enthusiastic crowds both live, on television and even - for it is a valid albeit illegal sign of the deep well of the sport's popularity - via unauthorised video streams.
Everywhere you looked there were performances to admire.
Joseph Parker and Andy Ruiz Jr got the ball rolling in Auckland with a WBO heavyweight title clash that - while not a battle accounts of which will echo through the ages - was nevertheless an intriguing contest that contained much to admire. Both men emerged with reputations intact and possibly enhanced after a fight which could arguably have ended in a draw but edged Parker's way via majority decision.
Both Parker and Ruiz were equally gracious in victory and defeat respectively, and the build-up to the contest was noticeably and refreshingly devoid of any semblance of 'trash talking' from either participant or the media. From the moment he arrived in New Zealand, Ruiz was afforded a warm reception despite being on 'enemy turf', which seemed to genuinely touch him. The local media did not demonise or demean him, for which they should be commended, but instead treated him with genuine respect and interest.
Hearteningly, Parker vs Ruiz was also an event which captured the public imagination of two proud sporting nations, dominating the back and front pages of newspapers in both New Zealand and Samoa, temporarily putting a halt to the usual hegemony of rugby in the process.
From Auckland we moved to Manchester and Matchroom's latest Anthony Joshua headlined PPV spectacular. I am, unashamedly, a pay per view atheist, but there was no denying the quality and depth of this card, which showcased so much that is admirable about the British boxing scene right now, as well as providing a platform for that rare and special Irish female talent Katie Taylor on the undercard.
Hosea Burton and Frank Buglioni conjured the most thrilling spectacle of the evening, a truly stupendous seesaw battle in which the Enfield man somehow reached deep into his considerable reserves of bravery and 'bottom' in order to conjure a Rocky-esque last-round stoppage triumph.
Boxing Monthly editor Graham Houston, a man who sensibly avoids hyperbole, was moved to comment on Twitter that the climax was "One of the greatest last-round finishes EVER in British boxing. What a chin and heart from Buglioni". It was impossible to disagree, and how refreshing it was that Buglioni's reward for emerging victorious from such a wonderful battle was a Lonsdale belt and British title, rather than some insignificant alphabet bauble.
Post-fight it also warmed the heart to see an image of Buglioni and Burton on the former's Twitter page in which the duo were smiling and sat together after the fight - the sort of sportsmanship that would draw considerable comment in most other sports but will probably go unnoticed among non-boxing sports fans whose experience of boxing, as filtered through the national media, mainly consists of table throwing, trash talking and controversy.
Ironically sportsmanship such as this is far more characteristic of pugilism than the overblown rhetoric that usually dominates the headlines whenever the mainstream media sees fit to grant boxing coverage within its football-infested sports pages.
Talking of overblown rhetoric and table throwing, in the weekend's most unexpected development, Dillian Whyte vs Dereck Chisora turned out to be a heavyweight classic, rather than the scrappy spoil and foul-fest many predicted. Although ringside observers were split as to the merits of the points verdict in Whyte's favour, the unanimous opinion was that the duo's endeavour and bravery were of such an admirable nature that they had atoned for their mutually juvenile histrionics which blighted the build-up to the contest.
On any other night, Kal Yafai's super flyweight masterclass, in which the Birmingham man dropped and dominated an excellent champion in Panama's Luis Concepcion, would have been the highlight of the evening. Not that the UK's newest world titlist will mind being overshadowed now that his rich talents have found well-deserved recognition on the global stage.
By the time Anthony Joshua took to the ring the Manchester card was running crazily late. In normal circumstances the ease with which AJ dismissed the passive challenge of Eric Molina would have been anti-climactic and tiresome. However such was the patient and awesome savagery of Joshua's performance, and the euphoria engendered by the announcement afterwards that his next fight will indeed be a Wembley stadium spectacular against Wladimir Klitschko, that within the context of this heady Saturday evening in Manchester, even this mismatch seemed forgiveable.
Across the Atlantic plenty of drama also followed in the next few hours: Abner Mares, who many had written off after inactivity and eyesight issues, defeated Jesus Cuellar to complete a heartwarming comeback, while a star may have emerged in Jermall Charlo, who savagely KO'd Julian Williams in what had been seen beforehand as a 'pick 'em' fight. Meanwhile, in Omaha, Terence Crawford continued to stake his pound for pound claims in front of an adoring and record crowd in the CenturyLink Center as he dismantled John Molina Jr.
Amid the many high points of the weekend there were, of course, some lows and disappointments. Luis Ortiz under-performed for the second fight in succession, for example, while Charlo's refusal to shake hands with Williams after vanquishing him, and thus bury their pre-fight bitterness, also left a sour taste. (I hear that he later made amends at the post-fight press conference, although I have not seen this footage myself yet).
But in the grand scheme of things, these disappointments were fleeting. On so many occasions, sometimes justified, sometimes not, boxing finds itself in the spotlight for the 'wrong reasons' and the sport's advocates are thrust into a defensive posture in which we feel we must justify the sport from ethical, commercial and sporting perspectives.
In the face of such negativity - too much of which, frustratingly, emanates from within the sport itself - even the most die-hard boxing loyalists can find themselves doubting the sport, or their own interest in it.
And then we have weekends like this one - which act as a glorious reminder of why we fell in love with the sport in the first place, and why we will never be able to renounce it or tear our eyes away from it.
This has not been a vintage year for boxing, but 2016 has now ended strongly with Kovalev and Ward's intriguing battle, Lomachenko's masterclass vs Walters and now this weekend's richly entertaining global pugilistic feast. Next week we will bid farewell to tyhe great Bernard Hopkins, a suitably apt and emotional moment for the sport to move forward with confidence to a calendar year that already bulges with tantalising contests, including Jack vs DeGale, Frampton vs Santa Cruz 2, Garcia vs Thurman and now Joshua vs Klitschko too.
Boxing should take heart and confidence from this weekend, which has served to remind us that no sport can match pugilism's unique combination of raw combat and scientific technique. The sport's capacity to produce moments of high drama which are simultaneously intense and noble is unrivalled.
As the original and probably still greatest boxing writer Pierce Egan once mused: boxing, at its best, is an endeavour which serves to "invigorate the human frame" and "inculcate principles of generosity and heroism".
They are words that were true in the early 19th century when he penned them, and they remain true today.
Roll on 2017.