Ringside report: Taylor edges Prograis in instant classic
Luke G. Williams
Photos: Stephen Pond/Getty Images
Luke G. Williams reports from ringside on an epic night at the O2, as Josh Taylor defeats Regis Prograis in the World Boxing Super Series super-lightweight final in a battle for the ages…
2019 has not been a great year for boxing.
The fatalities involving Maxim Dadashev, Hugo Alfredo Santillan, Boris Stanchov and Patrick Day have cast a pall over the sport, while top-class 50-50 contests have been in scant supply. Not for the first time, the boxing cognoscenti have seemed more hung up on the fights that are not currently scheduled (Fury vs Wilder 2, Canelo vs GGG 3, Crawford vs Spence Jr), than those that actually are.
Against this customarily dissatisfying backdrop, the pairing of Regis Prograis and Josh Taylor in the final of the World Boxing Super Series super lightweight final always seemed too good to be true.
Indeed in August, when Prograis and his promoter Lou DiBella announced that the New Orleans native had withdrawn from the tournament and filed suit against the WBSS and its organisers, this ‘fantasy fight’ pairing looked set to become the latest victim of boxing’s terminally convoluted financial and promotional politics.
That a deal was finally brokered which enabled the match-up to go ahead was an unusually heartening development in a sport accustomed as it is to inherent dysfunctionality.
All of which left one question remaining – if Prograis vs Taylor wasn’t, after all, too good to be true, was it too true to be good?
In other words, would a fight that possessed such potential on paper actually deliver the goods?
On Saturday night, in front of around 15,000 spellbound spectators we got our answer – a resounding ‘yes’ which reminded us of the many and varied reasons why we love this battered old sport, whose roots as an organised spectacle extend 300 glorious and not so glorious years into our collective past.
Quite simply, Prograis vs Taylor delivered and delivered in spades. It was a fight that had it all – drama, momentum shifts, technical brilliance and - by its compelling climax - blood, guts and thunder.
The road to 12 rounds of boxing that no one who witnessed them will ever forget began at 5pm amid the environs of a near deserted O2 arena as MC David Diamante took to centre ring and announced the impending arrivals of German super middleweight Denis Radovan and Lancashire’s Luke Blackledge.
Radovan displayed admirable patience in breaking Blackledge down, largely via impressive work to the body, knocking him down in round three and hurting him in round four before Blackledge’s corner withdrew him before the fifth stanza began.
Radovan rose to 13-0-1, while former Commonwealth strap holder Blackledge (26-9-2) has now lost seven of his last 11. The German looks to have a ceiling however, and I’m not sure it extends as far as a chance of succeeding at European title level.
Next up was Houston’s highly touted Austin ‘Ammo’ Williams, a 23-year-old middleweight who was signed in February by Matchroom USA. Williams won all four rounds against Czech Miroslav Juna, but never looked like notching his fourth successive stoppage.
Juna’s determined bobbing and weaving exposed the fact that Williams (now 4-0, 3 KOs) needs to work harder on his jab, and may lack the speed to prosper at the highest level. Time will tell.
More impressive was the Sauerland stable’s super welterweight Abass Baraou, who fights out of Germany but is of Togolese heritage. A skilful livewire with fast hands and a decent amateur grounding, Baraou dismantled Ireland’s experienced former Commonwealth champion John O’Donnell with slick work and confidence that grew round by round.
O’Donnell, on a run of nine straight wins, had some vocal supporters in attendance and in the third round the Galway born pugilist felt confident enough to drop his hands in a taunting manner, but by the fifth he was looking increasingly desperate after being tagged by a beautifully timed left uppercut.
Baraou closed the show in the sixth, a barrage of shots forcing O’Donnell to the canvas before more sustained pressure saw the referee enact a merciful and correct stoppage. Baraou moves to 7-0 (5 KOs) while O’Donnell drops to 33-3 (11 KOs). The Berlin based 24-year-old is certainly one to watch with interest.
The third fight of the night was an entertaining super-bantam scrap between Shannon Courtenay and Jasmina Nad. Despite an unpromising 11-22-5 record, Serbian Nad came to fight, displaying admirable spirit and a wild, relentless style that reminded this writer of the Duracell Bunny.
Courtenay was discomforted at times, but managed to find enough clean shots to win three rounds to Nad’s one on referee Robert Williams’ scorecard – a verdict that chimed with how BM saw it.
Crowd-pleasing welterweight Conor Benn was next into the square circle, with Belgian Steve Jamoye in the opposite corner. Benn displayed, at times, some improvements to his usual wild and uncultured style, working patiently behind a jab which looked sharp at times and targeting his opponent’s body effectively.
In the second round Benn badly winded Jamoye, but was also twice warned for low blows. Into the third and Benn had some problems, looking short of ideas and being caught too regularly. In the fourth Benn’s pretence to self-control and discipline evaporated when he was deducted a point for straying once again below the beltline.
Benn pounded the ropes in fury at the referee's decision. Blood still boiling, within seconds of the restart he had flattened Jamoye with a couple of vicious rights and a finishing left as the contest ended abruptly and excitingly. The stricken Belgian required treatment and oxygen before finally getting to his feet.
Benn’s take on the points deduction raised a chuckle: “I was angry, it's not my fault he's short!” The Ilford welter is now 16-0 (11 KOs) but we are no closer to discovering whether his career is a grand illusion or not.
Hackney cruiserweight Lawrence Okolie was next in line, facing Belgium’s European champion Yves Ngabu. At 6’5” to the Belgian’s comparatively diminutive 5’11” all the warning signs were there that the contest might prove untidy and so it proved.
Okolie received a warm reception but the fight itself – its sudden and violent conclusion aside – was barely tepid. Ngabu failed to get inside Okolie’s long, awkward arms for six tedious rounds, with the Briton usually guilty of holding and clinching more than he was fighting. Referee Jean Robert Laine failed to exert sufficient control as the action veered between the mediocre and the mundane.
The finish, at least, supplied some drama. Okolie measured and delivered a textbook left hook followed by a crunching right hand which left Ngabu’s head spinning and legs wobbling. The referee – like the rest of us – had seen enough and called a halt.
Post-fight Okolie declared: “If I hit any cruiserweight on the chin they’re gonna go.” Fighting talk, but until the 26-year-old, now 14-0 (11 KOs), matches his undoubted talent with a more crowd pleasing style and a higher and more effective punch output, his ability to make an impact on the world scene must be in doubt.
Two men who have won world honours before but whose ability to contend for them again was in serious doubt before Saturday night provided us with the seventh bout of the evening, as Wales in the form of Lee Selby squared off against Scotland in the shape of Ricky Burns in a 12-round lightweight bout.
This always had the look of a distance fight and so it proved. Selby displayed his customary fast hands and slick footwork, while Burns attempted to walk his man down and overpower him with industry and desire. The fight periodically threatened to ignite, but never quite fulfilled its promise.
By the fifth, in which he scored with two clean lefts, Selby looked to be in command, with Burns sufficiently frustrated to fling a shot after the bell. The sixth saw Selby play the role of fleet-footed matador, slipping Burns’ attacks smoothly while picking the Scot off.
In the second half of the fight, Burns enjoyed some fleeting successes, most notably when he appeared to hurt Selby with a big right in the closing seconds of the final round, but BM saw it as a comfortable albeit uninspiring win for the boxer versus the brawler by a score of 117-113.
The official scores were 116-112 and 116-113 in Selby’s favour and 115-115. Burns is now 43-8-1 and seems to have nowhere left to go, while Selby - 28-2 - can once again dream of world honours, declaring after the fight that he wants to become “the first from Wales” to win world titles in two weight divisions.
(Let’s not tell Joe Calzaghe that the Barry man clearly doesn’t recognise the Ring magazine belt he won against Bernard Hopkins to be a legitimate world strap).
The final fight before Prograis vs Taylor saw an entertaining if predictable heavyweight showdown between Dereck Chisora and David Price.
The gargantuan Price entered, Wild West gunslinger style, to the strains of Ennio Morricone’s unforgettable theme to The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, while Chisora strode in with his customary Union Jack bandana stretched across his visage to the tones of The Eagles’ Hotel California.
From the outset Chisora looked sharp, bobbing and weaving in Frazier-esque fashion and ripping punches into Price’s head and torso whenever he got the chance, his chopping, vicious hooks backing the Liverpudlian up against the ropes with regularity.
With six stoppage defeats already on his record before this fight, Price operates under a constant aura of frailty and impending disaster, and he constantly had the look of a man who might disintegrate at any moment. In the third he was on the verge of being stopped after being wobbled by a succession of heavy shots, only to reply with a big uppercut before the bell that seemed to hurt Chisora.
However, the end was now nigh for the Liverpool man. Early in round four Price attempted to rally was but was stunned and floored by a right soon afterwards. He managed to regain his footing but his legs and eyes told the story of a man who was not fit to continue. It was a relief when his corner threw in the towel.
The 36-year-old Chisora’s remarkable late career renaissance continues then, as he moves to 32-9 and rumours build of a WBO title showdown next year with Ukrainian maestro Oleksandr Usyk.
The Finchley man has also become one of the more unlikely fan favourites of recent times, as evidenced by the O2 audience’s enthusiastic and unified cries of “Oh, Dereck Chisora!” during the fight.
Chisora himself, ever the showman, conducted a further rendition after the fight’s conclusion before flinging his gloves into the crowd and declaring, at the post-fight presser while sat alongside manager David Haye that: “retirement is for pussies”.
Later IFL TV footage emerged of Chisora – an enthusiastic 'Brexiteer' - being congratulated on his win by Nigel Farage backstage. You genuinely couldn’t make it up.
Undercard and ‘co-main’ complete, it was time – at last - for the main course. With two world titles and the Ali trophy on offer to the winner the stakes were high and the crowd were buzzing.
Taylor was the first to enter, to a cascade of cheers and accompanied by the Happy Mondays’ Step On. A fairly functional entrance, as befitting the Prestonpans man’s no-frills nature. More theatrical was the appearance of Prograis, in full Rougarou garb, as he channeled the spirit of his Louisiana heritage.
The first round proved the cagiest of the bout, as the two warriors feinted and felt each other out, alternating between the roles of leader and shadow. Taylor arguably edged it via a couple of clean, sneaky shots.
Into the second stanza, though, and Prograis suddenly slipped into gear. The American’s constant head movement and lateral shifting, and his rapid, rapier jab discomforted Taylor, who unusually was being outlanded and outworked on the inside, and seemingly unable to get his rhythm on the outside either.
This pattern continued into rounds 3, 4 and 5, every Taylor success being matched or surpassed by Prograis’ impressive hand speed and shot variety.
However, slowly, inexorably, Taylor now gained the measure of his foe, tagging him from range in the sixth and working him to the body in round seven.
The eighth was a quieter round, but with Prograis’ nose now seriously bloodied and Taylor’s right eye swelling terribly, a storm was brewing.
What had hitherto been a high quality pugilistic chess match now became something else altogether – a technically accomplished war of attrition.
Taylor began to rough up Prograis in round nine, and suddenly the American, so smooth, elusive and artistic in the first third of the fight, began to look panicked and heavy legged. The Scot’s own trajectory paralleled his opponent’s, but in reverse, his earlier hesitancy now replaced by steely confidence, verve and resolve.
The tenth saw Prograis backed up and hurt to the body. Taylor, scenting victory, was now a ruthless automaton, his momentum appearing irresistible.
But just when the American’s stamina appeared to have failed him, Prograis came roaring back in the 11th, exchanging blows with Taylor punch for punch and landing a big uppercut.
By the final round Prograis and Taylor had entered the zone of total commitment and no return – the action and the tension were unrelenting. Offensive technique remained, but defensive guile had almost evaporated. The action oscillated tthrillingly one way and then the other as both men attempted to wrest decisive points in their favour and establish superiority.
At the final bell BM had it 114-114, in agreement with one judge, whose will was overruled by cards of 115-113 and 117-112 (far too wide) in favour of Taylor.
To Taylor the sparking baubles then – comprising the WBA, IBF and Ring magazine belts and the Ali Trophy – and the glory of victory, but this was truly a night and a fight that elevated both men, in both reputation and stature.
Prograis – decent to the ends of his bootstraps - declared with astonishing good grace given what must have been a crushing feeling of disappointment: “It was a close fight. The better man won on the night so that’s cool. I thought it was pretty even all the way through.”
As for Taylor, he stuck an ice pack on his eye, gathered his belts and trophy and cracked a wry smile.
“This will be my first furniture in my new house - no bed, no TV but we'll sit and look at these.”