They say he was fat, as a kid. And in the first instance boxing, for him, was a means to lose weight. On Saturday in Manchester, Liam ‘Beefy’ Smith put all that hunger to good use.
For five-and-a-half rounds he was second best against New Jersey beanpole John Thompson in their tussle for the vacant WBO light-middle title. The American’s long levers created puzzles he struggled to solve and although the 27 year old scouser was never in trouble – Thompson’s frequent, pepperpot shots weren’t heavy enough for that – in the early stages the fight seemed to be slipping away.
Something changed in the sixth. Thompson may have tired. Smith may have tired of being outpointed, but suddenly the flurries of deft hooks and uppercuts, the long, trombone-like jabs that had cuffed him for five rounds started to miss. Smith began to slip inside, driving forwards into his own jab, lancing it into Thompson’s face like a pike then bouncing the taller man’s head around with ferocious two-fisted flurries. Within the course of three minutes, the fight had been won.
Those skinny legs barely bore Thompson back to his corner at the end of the session. He was in an awful, agonising position – badly hurt enough to know that hope was lost but not badly hurt enough to be pulled out. He sat drunkenly on his stool, mouth agape, eyes blank. He carried the vacant look of a man lost in the fog of war, only semi-aware, a shell-shocked soldier staggering on a Dunkirk beach, looking for his missing arm. His survival would have required a miracle. And Smith wasn’t going to wait for one of those.
Shot after shot careened off Thompson’s head in the opening minute of the seventh. Ref Marcus McDonnell considered the rescue, but the brave American still fired back, albeit limply. The delay was temporary, lasting only until a crushing right brought the inevitable end against the ropes, sending that long, lean frame toppling, face-first. Thompson lay scattered on the canvas like a dynamited skyscraper. Liam Smith is now world champion.
It was a tough act to follow, but top-of-the-bill Mancunion Terry ‘Turbo’ Flanagan wasn’t about to be upstaged. Smith’s performance had been all about patience. Flanagan’s veered towards perfection.
Up against highly rated Las Vegan Diego Magdaleno, whose only previous defeat was an undeserved split decision for a world title, Turbo was on devastating form. He took just two rounds to demolish his man, crushing him with ambidextrous hooks of machine-like accuracy then landing two uppercuts sent from the Gods. Ref Terry O’Connor waved it off after three heavy knockdowns and with Magdaleno in serious danger of being badly hurt.
Who knew Terry had that in him? There had been those who questioned his credentials, who said his title victory (defeating Jose Zepeda when the Californian dislocated his shoulder in July) was lucky, undeserved. Any doubt regarding Flanagan’s world class status has been completely erased now. What a performance. The Manchester man, WBO champ, can rightly now be considered our pre-eminent lightweight and if he continues to fight like that, would cause problems for anyone, anywhere – Linares, Perez, any of them. He could possibly be the best guy in his weight class out there right now.
With Flanagan standing at the vanguard of British lightweights there has surely never been a time when the UK 9-and-a-half stone scene has been so strong. Where have all these nasty little bastards come from? Traditionally well stocked around middleweight and super-middleweight, 135 pounders are now clearly taking over in the UK. In and around world level we have Flanagan, Crolla, Mitchell, Matthews, and Campbell, with Ricky Burns’ weight division and career path still in question, while young hotshots like Scotty Cardle and Ohara Davies wait in the wings.
Yet Saturday night did not only deliver two British world champions and two awesome performances. Watching from the comfort of the sofa, it just seemed an evening where everything came together. Bunce was on full throttle, both Billy Joe Saunders and Andy Lee offered calm and wise insight, Barry Jones continues to be the best co-commentator in the business while Steve Lillis demonstrates encyclopaedic knowledge of all things boxing. Yet I was left with one burning question – what the hell has happened to Jim Rosenthal?
Beyond all the heady success, the story of the show came from way down the undercard, where Johnny Greaves went above and beyond the call of duty, in a wonderful demonstration of the strange and delicate intimacy shared between fighting men. Retired now and working as a trainer alongside brother Frank at the Peacock gym in Canning Town, the former journeyman travelled up to Manchester on Friday night, with one of his boys, Sonny Whiting.
Whiting was slated to go in with Indian amateur hero, Vijender Singh, a huge name in his home country, having starred in several Bollywood movies while winning Olympic and World Amateur medals. By contrast Sonny is yet to appear in any major motion pictures and earns a pound note as a scaffolder. He did well to hang-in with someone of Singh’s pedigree for three rounds, before being caught with a barrage against the ropes and stopped on his feet.
“Obviously not the result we wanted but Sonny did himself proud. He’s glad he took the chance. I love the kid!” Johnny said afterwards.
Elaborating on the bond they share, Greaves explained, “the worst thing about it all was when Sonny was fully gloved up, ready to walk to the ring and decided he needed a piss. Obviously in gloves he couldn’t hold it himself… What was I supposed to do? I’m sure you can guess the rest…”
One show, one night – dazzling glory and tales to make your toes curl.
It doesn’t get much better than that.