There’s been a bit of discussion flying around recently on a subject that’s very dear to my heart. As most people who read this column will know, I wrote a book a couple of years ago about the small hall scene in the UK and some of the journeymen fighters who inhabit it. Unlike writers who busy themselves with hagiographies of stars, my only aim on writing that book was to be honest – to present an accurate picture of how boxing in this country really works.
The reality, which a huge number of people are unaware of, is that to a large extent the game is rigged. Home corner boxers sell tickets which pay for the event and the officials. Guys boxing in the away corner often do so in their wrong weight class, at very short notice and are sometimes even given specific instructions to lose on purpose. They then have to enter the ring against young prospects determined to make a name for themselves in front of their friends and families, often going all out for the stoppage. To do this week on week, in front of crowds who do not understand what they are seeing, along with supposed media experts who misrepresent the reality, takes a considerable degree of guts and character. My book did not portray them as heroes because I’m suspicious of regarding anyone as a hero, but as what they really are and what they should be perceived as – real fighting men. Naturally it disappoints me when their role in the game is still misconstrued.
At York Hall, East London, last Saturday night, two journeymen stalwarts gave fine demonstrations of what is now a dying art. First of them was Nuneaton’s Kristian Laight (10-210-7), ‘Mr Reliable’ himself who gave a perfect reminder of why he has earned that tag. Laight was in with Islington’s Michael Peart, known as ‘Mustard Mike’ in a six rounder he was never going to win for reasons explained below. Despite that, people sat behind me, presumably Mike’s friends or relatives, shouted some horrible stuff, insulting Kristian’s manhood and ability to box. “He’s not even fucking fighting!” one cried.
Yes, Laight was defensive, but in his situation so would anyone else have been. Here’s the truth. Not only was Kris in the away corner, and therefore aware of the fact that he was unlikely to be given a decision anyway, but he had taken the fight on one day’s notice. Mike’s supporters were not to know this, but Kris had planned a quiet weekend with his girlfriend and new-born son, only to be phoned on Friday night and offered the bout because of a late withdrawal. Matchmaker Kevin Campion would have had very limited options at such at a late stage. The contest was scheduled for welterweight, not Laight’s preferred division. He usually boxes at lightweight or super light, but he accepted anyway, because that’s what he does. That’s where his nickname comes from. For promoters in need, Kris does not say no.
What that meant was that Mustard Mike, who was making a comeback from injury, actually still had a fight. It meant that all his hundred-or-so fans who bought tickets still got their night out to see their boy in action and that he did not have to suffer the disappointment of a wasted training camp. Yes, Laight was being paid for appearing, as well he should be, but to a large degree he was doing everybody connected to the opposite corner a big favour. His reward? Abuse.
Despite all that Kristian controlled the pace throughout, apart from a brief period at the start of the sixth when Peart really tried to get him out of there. Laight gave his man a good, competitive workout and came through the evening unscathed. As a result he is already booked in for fights on the next two Saturdays. Within the present system, regardless of ignorant comments by fans and even some writers, his services and ring experience are very much in demand.
I can understand anyone disliking the model under which professional boxing operates. Home corner ticket-selling, with its natural imbalance, is not always a pretty sight. Many aspects of it are a long way from sporting ideals, but it is what it is. Holding individuals like Kris Laight responsible for that, criticising and disrespecting them, which many people do, is simply splashing around in the wrong puddle.
Elsewhere on the card, Northern Ireland based Ugandan Moses Matovu (5-64-4) put in the performance of the night in his cruiserweight bout against Essex debutant Mark Little. Matovu is another classic journeyman and displays considerable boxing flair whenever he climbs between the ropes. On Saturday his movement and footwork, his ability to slip and ride shots were all vastly superior to his opponent. In the last two rounds he began to openly play with him, holding his right hand up in the air, then bringing it crashing down. More often than not the Essex man took these on his gloves, but it made for a thoroughly entertaining spectacle. Predictably Matovu’s efforts were not rewarded by ref Kieran McCann however, who awarded Little a 40-37 points decision. You sensed throughout that the African was capable of doing as he pleased.
Without knowing too much about Matovu’s life story, you suspect that an African living in Northern Ireland would have had problems selling tickets early on and that otherwise his career could have been very different. Given the ability to pick and choose his fights, train for individual opponents and dedicate himself to the sport, Matovu looks as though he could have really achieved something and it is this that should rankle with fans – that fighters with ability are disregarded unless they can sell tickets, forcing them into a career on the road – it is a wasteful and callous situation.
It was noticeable that other fights on the show, which did not feature British journeymen, but rather utilised opponents with so-called winning records from Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, were far less competitive and simply provided a body for the home fighter to beat up. Several of these bouts resulted in one-sided stoppage victories and little real competitive action.
Headlining Saturday’s card, promoted with real razzmatazz by Goodwin promotions, were the Ricky Hatton trained Upton brothers, Paulie and Sonny, who had the usual green clad, drum beating, several-hundred-strong cheering section roaring their every move. Both picked up wins. Most impressive of the two was Sonny, who outpointed tough and experienced Ryan Toms in an English title eliminator. Although tidy enough technically, it is this writer’s opinion that both brothers could do with a bit more devil in their punching if they are really to trouble the upper echelons of the domestic scene.
Photos courtesy of Arrangar de Bloof