Boxing bonanza in Monte Carlo

Paul Zanon
15/11/2016 9:12am

Paul Zanon was ringside for Boxing Monthly on Saturday night in Monte Carlo. Here he reflects on the slightly surreal setting and an evening of bittersweet action in the ring ...

"A different kind of venue." This is a common response from many boxing scribes who have been asked: "What was the arena like in Monte Carlo?"

Salle des Étoiles has a capacity comparable to Brentford Leisure Centre - a couple of thousand people, give or take a few hundred. In the UK, some might even go as far as to brand this ‘small hall boxing.’

And the atmosphere? Very subdued. You’ll hear the occasional shout from fans egging on their man, but you certainly won’t encounter anybody standing on their seat with a pint of (20 Euro) lager in their hand screaming obscenities, or acting in a foul manner. If they do, the next people to greet them will be a small group of extremely well-dressed and polite bouncers, who will escort them to somewhere other than the view of the boxing ring.

So what is it that gives Monte Carlo that je ne sais quoi?

The answer is primarily sporting exclusivity. Despite having a history steeped in Formula 1, boxing is not a stranger to Monaco, a country which has roughly 36,000 inhabitants nestled snugly into 200 hectares. Many in recent times have commented that Monte Carlo is carving itself a niche in championship boxing. The reality is, this niche has been alive since 1912, ever since the International Sporting Club of Monaco organised a match between Britain’s Jim Sullivan and France’s legendary George Carpentier for the European middleweight crown. Since then famous names such as Carlos Monzon, Marvin Hagler, Gennady Golovkin and many others have all battled it out on Monaco’s extravagant hectarage.

The latest instalment of boxing on Monaco’s shores came courtesy of Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing on Saturday 12 November, with a televised bill, which featured live on HBO and Sky Sports. It was a first for many, including Hearn, who was hosting his first mainland European show, as well as Jimmy Lennon Jr, who added Monaco to the list of 33 other countries he’d previously announced from.

Unfortunately, for boxers and fans alike, it turned out to be something of a bittersweet evening.

First up was a rather frustrated Martin Murray, who up to a fortnight ago was due to face Arthur Abraham in the opposing corner. However due to an elbow injury, Abraham dropped out and Dmitry Chudinov stepped in ... only to withdraw with a virus 48 hours before fight night. Germany’s unbeaten Nuhu Lawal then came into the picture - in the words of Murray on Twitter, "By this stage, it is what it is."

With Oliver Harrison in his corner and former sparring partner, close friend and former European light middleweight champion, Jamie Moore assisting with advice, Murray put the last two weeks of madness behind him and cracked on.

After a cagey first round, Murray hit home with a damaging straight right in the second. Lawal was rocked, but evidently able to continue. Unfortunately, the first hard punch from Murray changed the dynamic of the fight. Lawal, despite being game in very small bursts, was more intent on making it to the end of each round from here on out, as opposed to actually trying to win.

Rounds three and four saw Murray unleashing accurate combinations to the body and head, with the left hook counter to the head landing a treat. After a few nods of recognition from Lawal, acknowledging Murray’s power and accuracy, Lawal started holding on at every opportunity - but in a rather clever manner. He started to tie up one of Murray’s arms, the one which was not visible to the referee, whilst tapping Murray’s other arm, as if to indicate it was Murray holding on. From ringside, it was clear to see that Lawal was not only checking to see where the referee was positioned, but he was also checking the television camera above him.

By the fifth round it was evident that Murray’s frustration was leading him to look for the stoppage. Unloading and landing with pretty much everything he threw, Lawal somehow managed stayed on his feet, where many of Murray’s former foes would have been counted out.

Setting traps beautifully and landing perfectly placed body shots, it looked like an early night for the man known by many as the Pride of St Helens. Unfortunately, Lawal’s holding to boxing ratio increased to the point where the referee gave him a warning. The first of many in fact. The sixth round was even messier and, by the end of round eight, trainer Harrison, normally a quiet reserved man, came flying through the ropes to express his disappointment at the referee’s lack of action concerning Lawal's holding and dangerous head movement in the clinches.

Even more enraged going into round nine, Murray landed with a big right that evidently hurt Lawal and was able to keep the pressure on right to the end, finishing with a barrage of punches that saw Lawal stagger to his corner.

Chants of "There’s only one Martin Murray," from his self-proclaimed ‘Barmy Army,’ helped Murray start off positively in the tenth, but Lawal soon went back into hugging mode, causing Jamie Moore to fly through the ropes at the end of the round to point out the obvious – again.

There was a brief moment where Lawal decided to have a go in the eleventh, swinging wildly, but on receipt of the first straight right from Murray, the holding game was back in full flow. To add insult to injury, Murray was deducted a point for use of his head in the final round, after Lawal had more than merited half a dozen points being deducted throughout the course of the contest.

monte1The final scores had Murray winning by a wide margin of 116-111 and two cards of 117-110, seeing him pick up the WBA continental super middleweight strap for his troubles. Although a win for Murray, it was the bitter icing on a year of boxing he’d probably like to forget. It’s also doubtful the referee will be on his Christmas card list.

Next up was the 1-7 bookies' favourite, WBA world bantamweight champion, Jamie McDonnell, against the former IBF and WBA super flyweight champion, Liborio Solis. The fight was never deemed a walkover for McDonnell, but the bookies and the media had this down as a one-sided match on paper, with Solis, the man standing six inches shorter, needing to fight out of his skin to win.

From the opening bell, Solis engaged McDonnell in a dogfight. The first round was clearly in favour of Solis, despite McDonnell landing with the harder punches, Solis was connecting with greater quantity and also managed to make a bloody mess of McDonnell’s nose. The second was running with the same script, until McDonnell landed with a peach of a straight right, which then had Solis on his bike for the balance of the round. The next couple of rounds saw McDonnell settle down and work behind his skills instead of his heart. The straight right was connecting with great accuracy and he’d now found his rhythm.

Not one for sitting back and taking punishment, Solis came out for the fifth session intent on repaying McDonnell’s instalment of punches with interest. Firing back his own straight right, Solis reignited the flow of blood from McDonnell’s swollen nose and won what was a very competitive round.

By round eight, McDonnell was putting together some lovely combinations to the head and body, working through a great variety of punches. Solis, undeterred with McDonnell’s offering, continued to fire the straight right, with ample success, eventually opening up a small cut on McDonnell’s left eye.

The home straight was owned by McDonnell. Despite a phenomenal work rate from Solis, McDonnell was simply too slick and naturally more powerful. The final round turned out to be the best of the fight, with a 30-second non-stop exchange at the end, which had the crowd on the edge of their seats.

The general consensus ringside was that it was a close fight, but McDonnell won. Without a doubt he did enough to retain his world title. The two scorecards of 115-113 and 116-112 had fair merits, but the 117-111 was, in all honesty, an insult to Solis.

The third and most anticipated fight of the night was between the newly signed Matchroom heavyweight, Luis ‘King King’ Ortiz, and Malik Scott. Keen to impress on Sky and HBO, Ortiz promised a stoppage in the build-up. With 22 wins out of 25 contests, a KO was what everyone expected.

Unfortunately, the most anticipated fight of the night turned into the biggest stinker. Scott was pedalling back so fast in the first round that the referee had to warn him to stop and fight. He looked genuinely petrified. With his shark-like eyes, Ortiz continued to hunt Scott down, until finally, in the fourth round, he connected with a left hook to the head which forced Scott to take an eight count.

In the fifth round, Scott suffered another knockdown, despite claiming it was a blow behind the head. Coming back with his own efforts, Scott landed with a straight right, flush. Ortiz didn’t even flinch.

By the start of the seventh, the fight was reminiscent of Henry Akinwande vs Lennox Lewis, minus perhaps some excessive holding. Then Scott connected with a right hand which wobbled Ortiz. Despite a small headbutt in advance of the shot, it exposed the vulnerability of the Cuban - something which nobody else has been able to achieve yet. Intent on finishing the fight for a moral victory, Scott, despite suffering a further knockdown in round nine, managed to hold on for dear life until the final bell. The judges' scorecards were 120-105, 120-106 and 119-106 in Ortiz's favour.

Landing less than 50 punches, Scott took Ortiz from the mantle of extremely dangerous heavyweight world title contender, to average, slightly old looking fighter who’s perhaps been over-hyped. If he doesn’t perform in the guise of 'King Kong' for his next scheduled fight on 10 December at the Manchester Arena, intercontinental level is perhaps where he belongs.

The fourth and final bout of the evening turned out to be a scorcher and most likely a contender for fight of the year. Despite being the underdog, the affable Stephen Smith was expected to be leagues below the WBA super featherweight champion Jason Sosa.

Unfortunately for Smith, during the first three rounds, that’s exactly what came across. Despite both fighters working behind solid jabs, Sosa was demonstrating better lateral movement and, in the second round, forced Smith to the canvas for an eight count.

In the third round, Sosa continued the assault with head, body, head, body, which eventually opened up a nasty cut over Smith’s left eye. The consensus at ringside at this point was that Smith would struggle to get past five rounds.

As the fourth stanza started, Sosa went to work on the cut and the doctor was called over by the referee to inspect how serious the wound was. As the doctor nodded that he was okay to continue, Smith came out a changed man. It was either fight or flight and he chose fight. The balance of the fourth round was reminiscent of Macklin vs Moore and the tempo pretty much stayed that way until the final bell.

The Stephen Smith who showed himself to be cautious and perhaps a little low on ideas from the first three rounds, had left the building. This new version went out and walked straight over to Sosa in the fifth and started to land with some cracking right hands. Although cautious to throw his right too many times and expose his cut, when it was thrown, it was done so with venom and accuracy.

Cheers of "Swifty, Swifty," rang out in the seventh and eighth rounds as Smith dived into some cracking exchanges with Sosa that had the crowd clapping for virtually the full three minutes of each session.

Midway through the tenth, the doctor was called over to inspect the cut again, but thankfully Smith was given the all clear. As the referee indicated for the fighters to continue, Sosa went in for the kill, but Smith stood his ground and came firing back.

By now, Smith's face was heavily swollen, which reflected how tough he was, but also revealed that Sosa was, deceptively, a technically very good boxer. In rounds 11 and 12, Sosa was still on the hunt for a stoppage, but Smith, bruised and battered, showed massive heart and simply wouldn’t back down.

With 30 seconds to go, and a massive fan base encouraging Smith, he made it to the final bell, with his head held very high. The judges' scorecards read 116-111, 117-110 and 116-112. Sosa won the fight, perhaps not as widely as a couple of the judges indicated, but Smith’s stock certainly rose.

A rematch would be eagerly anticipated - certainly a lot more than a further helping of Ortiz vs Scott.