There’s something about boxing events in football stadiums. Granted, nothing beats the intensity and closeness of a small hall fight but reality dictates that fights of a certain magnitude are unable to be held at such venues. If the stars align and we manage to avoid a typical British summer downpour, a card at a football venue can be a beautiful thing. A hot summer’s day, drinking in the sun, sitting outside as the hot day turns into a warm but comfortable night – it can create an environment where special things happen and such evenings can be ingrained into one’s memory forever.
For Liverpool’s Tony Bellew, Sunday 29th May could well be one of those nights. Not only is he fighting for a world title against hard-hitting Congolese fighter Ilunga Makabu, but he is fortunate enough to be doing so at a venue close to his heart, Goodison Park, the home of his beloved Everton Football Club.
In the modern world of soulless stainless steel, concrete and fibreglass bowls, with names that sound like a Palo Alto tech start up, it’s easy to fall in love with Goodison Park. The Archibald Leitch designed Bullens Road stand and the fact the fans are so close to the action makes it a venue that is all too sadly dying out now in modern football, and, indeed, it seems in the not too distant future Goodison Park itself will go the way of Highbury, Roker Park, Maine Road and Upton Park.
Bellew and Makabu are the two latest names to join the roster of boxers who have appeared at football stadiums, and the names they appear alongside are some of the top names in the sport.
As a British-based website, the logical place to start would be at the home of English football, Wembley Stadium. Now some of you may have heard that Carl Froch once fought in front of 80,000 fans at Wembley, not from Carl, of course, as he doesn’t like to talk about it. However, in 2014, Froch faced off against George Groves in a rematch of their controversial November 2013 bout. The fight was billed as the biggest bout in British boxing history. Their 900,000 PPV sales was a British record and the 77,000 attendance is a post-war British record. The rematch was closer than the first fight and Groves was holding his own as the last few seconds of the eighth round ticked away. Groves retreated to the ropes and was looking to land a left hook but he was too slow and the champion detonated a huge right hand to send the Londoner crashing to the canvas. Referee Charlie Fitch began his count but quickly abandoned it and waved the fight off.
It was Froch’s last fight and the seventeen rounds the two shared appeared to take a lot out of both contestants. Groves hasn’t looked the same fighter he did before those two punishing bouts.
Not too far from Wembley lies Highbury once one of the great institutions of English football but now sadly replaced by apartments – back in 1966 the famous old venue hosted the rematch between Muhammad Ali and Henry Cooper. Their previous meeting almost three years earlier saw Cooper land his famous ‘Enry’s Ammer’ that deposited the future champion on his back and barely make it through the round. The then Cassius Clay rallied to stop his brave opponent as referee Tommy Little stopped the fight due to the severity of the cuts Cooper had suffered.
Unfortunately, the rematch wasn’t as eventful as the first meeting and in a competitive fight that the judges had level going into the sixth round Clay once again repeated the feat as he sliced Cooper’s face to ribbons before referee George Smith stepped in to halt the bout.
Heading to West London and Shepherd’s Bush, we find Queen’s Park Rangers’ stadium Loftus Road, and it was there in June 1985 that popular Irish fighter Barry McGuigan challenged the legendary Eusebio Pedroza. The Panamanian had been WBA featherweight champion since 1978 and was making the 19th defence of his crown, whereas McGuigan was making his world title debut. The Irishman was one of the most popular boxers in the whole of Britain and Ireland and, as a Catholic Irish fighter, he was popular amongst the Protestant community too after marrying a Protestant girl. McGuigan’s fights were a big event in the UK and it was a common sight to see his father Pat singing the Irish ballad ‘Danny Boy’ before his bouts.
The beginning of the night for the Irishman was unsettling, as Pedroza’s Santiago Del Rio stormed into the challenger’s dressing room demanding that his wraps be cut off as he wasn’t present to see them being applied. Eventually, the shenanigans ceased and the fighters were able to begin their bout.
Unfortunately for Del Rio, his mind games were in vain. The Irish fighter dominated the fifteen rounds and ripped the title away from the Panamanian, ending his long reign as WBA Featherweight Kingpin. Pedroza never fought for a title again and lost his next fight before retiring. He made an ill-advised comeback in 1991 and won three fights in five months before losing to journeyman Mauro Gutierrez
The Azteca Stadium in Mexico City has hosted two FIFA World Cup Finals in its illustrious history and seen two of the great goals in footballing history. In 1970, Brazil stylishly played their way to glory and the final goal in the World Cup final was one of the best ever seen. A team goal, that saw almost every outfield player touch the ball, led to Pele nonchalantly laying off a square pass for Carlos Alberto to smash past the helpless Italian keeper. Sixteen years, later Argentinean legend Diego Maradona scored one of the great solo goals as he jinked and jigged his way through the England midfield and defence before rounding Peter Shilton and slotting it into the net.
February 1993 saw Mexico’s greatest stadium and Mexico’s greatest boxer combined to give boxing fans a treat, as the legendary Julio Cesar Chavez aimed to win his 85th consecutive bout against American Greg Haugen. The pre-fight build-up was confrontational, as Haugen accused the Mexican of padding his impressive record with what he called ‘Tijuana taxi drivers’. The accusation came back to bite the American, as Chavez punished him inside five brutal rounds before referee Joe Cortez stepped in to save him from further punishment. The card also featured three other world title fights. Ghanaian legend Azumah Nelson edged Gabriel Ruelas to defend his WBC Super-Featherweight title; Michael Nunn blitzed the woefully mismatched Danny Morgan in the first round; ‘Terrible’ Terry Norris knocked out former welterweight champion Maurice Blocker in the second round to defend his WBC Super-Welterweight title; whilst rising stars Felix Trinidad and Gerald McClellan both won on the undercard.
There’s something special about boxing in football stadiums – there really is.