By John Wharton [@WhartoJohn]
Almost two years ago I was privileged enough to be in the dressing room with WBA super-bantamweight champion Scott Quigg prior to the first defence of his title against Yoandris Salinas.
This article was initially scheduled to appear in a now defunct magazine but sadly the publication went under before the article could be printed.
On Saturday 5th October 2013, the 02 Arena in London, formerly known as the Millennium Dome and once labelled a white elephant, became the venue for the biggest night of one young man’s life.
Deep in the bowels of the arena, Scott Quigg sits in his dressing room. A study in concentration, he sips from a bottle of water passed to him by former Thai Boxing coach and close friend Darren Phillips. At the other side of the room, trainer Joe Gallagher empties his kit bag out onto a table. Various tapes, gauze and hand-wraps are placed in an orderly fashion. Scott Quigg’s gym-mate, Anthony Crolla, is on his phone organising ticket collections for the night’s fight.
Scott, who is making the first defence of his WBA super-bantamweight title, against slick Cuban Yoandris Salinas, appears to be the most relaxed member of the team. A singularly determined man, he has always been focused on his goals.
As a 10 year old, the WBA super-bantamweight champion asked his parents to buy him a dog for protection, so that he could run along the canal in his home-town of Bury. At 14 years old, he asked his parents to help convince teachers at Elton High School to expel him, so that he could concentrate on his goal of becoming a world boxing champion. His family insisted that he take a job sweeping floors at the factory where his father Kenny worked, an experience that as a 15 year old he didn’t enjoy.
Quigg often arrives at Gallagher’s Gym early, so that he can receive one-on-one training with his coach. In preparing for his bout with the Cuban, he’s received excellent sparring with fighters such as IBF bantamweight champion Jamie McDonnell, Ryan Doyle and Samir Mouneimne, the only man to defeat current British and Commonwealth featherweight champion Lee Selby. As well as the sparring, Gallagher has had his charge training like a Spartan for this bout, with early morning swims, running up the hills of Dovestones, Lancashire, extensive circuit training in the gym and track sessions at Sports City, Manchester.
The mood in the dressing room is one of quiet confidence, as Scott begins his warm up for the bout. Crolla is giving a blow-by-blow account of the Wadi Camacho versus Tony Conquest cruiserweight bout currently being shown on the TV.
Gallagher’s iPod has been turned on and the opening bars of ‘Get Ready’ by The Temptations booms out of the docking station. Almost subconsciously, the champion starts nodding his head in time with the Motown beat, jumps up and starts shadow-boxing. The music has lifted the mood in the room. Anthony Crolla is dancing, whilst Gallagher warns me not to write anything derogatory about his music taste.
The preparation begins in earnest when trainer Joe Gallagher calls the Bury-based champion over to apply his hand-wraps. Witnessing this is Salinas’ manager and a British Boxing Board of Control (BBBoC) official. The music is lowered and the hand-wrapping begins. Joe is his usual convivial self and talks almost constantly throughout. Conversely, the champion is silent and almost motionless. With his chiselled looks, Quigg could almost pass for a renaissance statue at this moment. Despite the music, and the almost non-stop chatter in the room, he remains cool, calm and silent, barely acknowledging any comments made towards him. Crolla chats animatedly on his phone and tells all present that the Smith brothers are struggling in traffic and may not arrive at the arena on time.
“War! What is it good for?” sings Edwin Starr. An appropriate song for the forthcoming bout, yet nobody seems to notice. The hand-wraps have been applied and the champion is warming up with more shadow-boxing, whilst his trainer watches a scrap for the British featherweight title between Lee Selby and Ryan Walsh.
There is a palpable sense of excitement in the air, as the Bury fighter begins to change in to his kit. The trunks are his only nod to any form of glitz or glamour, with the solid black offset by gold trim. With the clock ticking, Scott is visiting the bathroom more often and is shadowed by a UK Anti-Doping Agency official.
Surprisingly, tonight’s fight at The 02 Arena will be the first time Scott has fought in London as a professional. The team receive a bit of a surprise when a Sky Sports producer informs them the floating fight between Luke Campbell and Neil Hepper will be on before Kevin Mitchell versus Marco Lopez, thus delaying the fight. As with everything Quigg does, the news is taken in his stride as he continues to shadow-box.
Scott, still shadow-boxing, asks for the music to be changed to something more up-tempo, and a shift in the look of his eyes signifies he is now entering the zone. The first song on the play-list is ‘No Diggity’ by Blackstreet and, despite the lack of bass in the song; most people in the room are tapping their feet.
WBA lightweight champion Richard Abril, who is here to support his fellow Cuban in the bout with Quigg, comes into the dressing room and poses for a photograph with Anthony Crolla. Joe Gallagher mischievously suggests to the Cuban fighter that he could defend his title against Crolla, also in the room is BBBoC Chief Executive Robert Smith, who comes in to offer his best wishes to the champion ahead of his first defence.
Despite the influx of visitors to the dressing room, the champion’s concentration doesn’t seem to waiver. He remains impassive as the conversation turns to the Lonsdale Belt, and Robert Smith says he can’t remember a year when so many champions had won a Lonsdale Belt outright. The fight is getting ever closer and the Smith brothers still haven’t arrived, but they phone ahead to inform Gallagher they have parked the car, taken the tube, and will be at the arena in ten minutes.
Lightweight contender Kevin Mitchell is walking to the ring to face Mexican Marco Lopez. With the big fight next up, the tensions are more evident. Quigg has put his full kit on and all that’s left are his gloves. Salinas’ team once again enter the room, to see if the champion is ready for his gloves to be laced-up so they can witness it. The Bury fighter tells them to come back in five minutes. The champion starts doing some pad work with his trainer as the Sky Sports camera enters the dressing room. The two look oblivious to the presence of the cameraman and continue the routine they have been working on for weeks in the gym. The camera leaves the room. For the first time, nerves are apparent on the faces of the team. Quigg looks as if all that he wants is to get in to the ring and take out his frustrations on the Cuban. Crolla is pacing nervously. Gallagher sits on a chair facing the TV screen, but how much of it he sees is anyone’s guess.
Suddenly, the dressing room doors burst open and a cacophony of noise fills the room. Paul, Stephen and Callum Smith have entered, followed by Mick Williamson. All of a sudden, the tension seem to have evaporated and the mood seems to have lightened. Jokes are being cracked and Scott manages a smile, despite the nerves he must still be feeling.
The driving drums and fuzzed out bass of Kanye West’s Black Skinhead thunders out of the docking station, and now there is a genuine buzz in the changing room. Mitchell has stopped his opponent and a Sky Sports producer comes in to tell Scott he has five minutes before his ring walk.
Crolla leaves the dressing room to witness Salinas’ gloves being laced up, whilst a representative from the challenger’s camp come in for the same thing. Promoter and former fighter Spencer Fearon enters the dressing room with British light-welterweight champion Darren Hamilton, to wish Scott and the team good luck.
The team are given a three minute warning and Gallagher walks around shaking hands and wishing everybody good luck before he, as usual, leaves the dressing room before his fighter. Everybody files out into the corridor. The Smiths, Crolla and Darren Phillips make their way to Scott’s corner. The champion himself waits impatiently in the corridor, ready for his cue to make his way into the arena. All who file past him offer their best wishes.
The opening bars of Rock’N’Roll Star by Manchester band Oasis echo out across the arena, as Quigg makes his way to the ring. The arena is bouncing and people sing along with the chorus. A large contingent of fans begin to sing ‘There’s only one Scott Quigg’ to the tune of Winter Wonderland. The Quigg fans who have been ferried down from Bury in free coaches are making their presence known.
Salinas, from Ciego De Avila in Cuba and now fighting out of Miami, is in the ring wearing trunks in the colour of the Cuban flag. Looking relaxed and confident, he is shadow-boxing in his corner with a smile on his face.
The first round is a tentative affair, with both fighters feeling each other out, already though the challenger’s jab is looking sharp and a razor jab and overhand right certainly get the champion’s attention. Round two is the best of the early rounds for Quigg as he lands a left hook that puts Salinas on the back foot for the rest of the round. Rounds three and four belonged to the challenger who has begun to establish his jab and is not allowing Scott to find his rhythm. The pro Quigg crowd are becoming more silent as the rounds go on, they can feel that their man may be letting his crown slip. Both men improve in the fifth but once again the eye catching stuff is coming from the challenger, the Cuban appears to be pulling away on the scorecards now. Salinas’ jab is still the honey punch for him, at the end of round seven the majority of people on press row have Salinas’ ahead on the scorecards.
Then something unexpected happens, the tide begins to turn, Quigg begins to land his body shots and starts to enforce his will on the challenger. The Cuban doesn’t like being put on the back foot and the champion can sense Salinas’ unease, and begins to apply more pressure. By the end of round ten most observers agree that the fight is in the balance and Quigg has done well to turn the fight around. Body shots and uppercuts from the Bury native are looking like they are starting to break the Cuban’s resistance and in round eleven two right hooks followed by a body shot and a straight left hurt the Cuban. At the end of the round Salinas looks exhausted and has to put his arms on the ropes to prop himself up, Gallagher issues the final instructions to his charge as he gets up off his stool for the twelfth and final round. The pro Quigg crowd raise the noise at the beginning of the twelfth and cheer their man on as he begins to stalk the challenger and early in the round Quigg lands a right hand that stiffens the Cuban’s legs. The champion continues to stalk his opponent until the final bell, and when the final bell rings most in the crowd feel that the champion has done enough to retain his title.
The moments before the scorecards are announced, MC John McDonald announces the scorecards, Judge Ruben Garcia scored the bout 115-113 in favour of Quigg, whilst Judges Jean-Louis Legland and Leszek Jankowiak scored the bout 114-114, and this means that the champion had retained his title via a majority draw. The atmosphere in the arena is a strange one, the fans aren’t quite sure how to react to the announcement. After the bout Quigg told Sky Sports that he felt that he deserved the win and now he does indeed feel like a world champion.
As Scott begins the long walk back to the dressing room, the arena, which little under an hour before had been bouncing as he made his way into the ring, is now silent. A numb feeling in the air following what many perceived to be an injustice to the 25 year old.
In the dressing room, Quigg slumps back onto the seat, understandably upset at the outcome of the fight. Incredibly, he apologises to all in the room, believing he has let people down. Joe Gallagher reassures him that he hasn’t let anybody down and asks everybody individually if they believe he has. The answer from everyone is an unequivocal ‘No!’
It’s a strange atmosphere in the dressing room. A sense of disappointment tinges the air, but underneath that is a sense of pride. The game-plan devised in Bolton worked well in the ring. Paul Smith and Mick Williamson are discussing the fight, and both believe that their man won. Crolla is now giving us a blow-by-blow commentary of Olympian Anthony Joshua’s début. Stephen Smith is discussing the fight animatedly with his brother Callum.
In the midst of this sits Quigg, a towel over his head, being interviewed by a reporter from a Manchester newspaper. The tiredness is etched on his face, as he downs bottle after bottle of water in order to provide a sample for the UK Anti-Doping Agency official.
Promoter Eddie Earn enters the dressing room, walks over to his fighter and shakes his hand. He believes the fight was close but that his charge just shaded it. Anthony Leaver, Matchroom’s Press Officer informs Scott he is needed at the post-fight press conference, and the retinue wind their way through the back corridors of the venue to face questions from the gathered press.
The questions are asked, the questions are answered, and Quigg is escorted back to his dressing room by security. He looks drained as the biggest night of his career to date comes to an end. It’s hard to shake the feeling that a majority decision denied the right man a victory but, like the warrior he is, Quigg is already eagerly awaiting his next fight, where he will get a chance to defend his title in front of his home fans on the Froch v Groves under-card, in Manchester.