If you didn’t know better, you would think they had done it on purpose. For what has felt like forever, Sky’s boxing schedule on the standard channels has been desperately, maddeningly poor. Then the football season ends, fight fans countrywide consider cancelling their subscriptions, yet suddenly Sky Sports One is showing two nights of world championship action in one bank- holiday weekend.
Maybe we’ll all wait another week before making that phone call, eh?
Bellew v Makubu and Burns v Di Rocco should both produce absorbing action (with interest in the undercards in the form of Sean ‘Masher’ Dodd, David Price, Conor Benn et al) and let’s be honest, boxing badly needs it. The emotional scars caused by the appalling circus of ‘Haye Day 2’ will take a while to heal.
The reaction to the Hayemaker’s latest outing has been vitriolic. And it should be. Rarely has there been such an outpouring of derision aimed at televised show. Even Barry Hearn was quick to twist the knife on Twitter.
“Terrible night for boxing” he wrote. “Awful TV production. Embarrassing.”
Hearn Sr may not be the most objective analyst, but he has a point. Haye’s bullying of hapless Arnold Gjergaj was the most one-sided bill-topping mismatch on these shores since Joshua v Martin, Brook v Bizier or even Eubank Jr v Tony Jeter – and obviously neither Barry nor his son would have anything to do with match-ups as cynical and insipid as that. Heaven forbid that they would even try to flog any of them off as pay-per-view events.
This is the current climate. It is where UK boxing is going and the Hearns have a great deal to do with that. Their business model, which Haye is following, may have been great in turning tedious pub games like Darts and Snooker into TV phenomena, but boxing doesn’t need all that. The drama and character of boxing is innate. You don’t have to invent it.
On that note, it has surely been obvious from the get-go that Haye’s comeback was purely financially motivated, no matter what he says about ‘legacy’. The emergence of the AJ PR phenomenon means there is life changing money on the table for whichever British heavyweight can make a stadium fight with him first.
Having languished around on reality TV growing out his hair for three years, Haye saw the potential for a lottery win and announced his comeback. Can we blame him for that? Not really. Given the current style-over-substance state of everything, he is making the same move that most in his position would make. Three or four fights against stiffs to box Joshua and pocket a seven-digit sum – who wouldn’t?
What is amazing is that despite picking opponents of the quality of Di Mori and Gjergjaj he still fills the O2 arena. How is he so popular among the undiscerning masses? Did I miss a meeting?
There must be either genius or dark magic at work and those Salter brothers look pretty suspect to me. Despite the predictably abysmal quality of the action on Saturday night, there was barely a murmur of displeasure from the crowd. They even seemed to, you know, enjoy themselves. What exactly did they buy tickets for? To be exhorted to ‘stay Dench’ by Lethal Bizzle? And was Dame Judi even there?
So on one hand it’s unfair to lambast David for his money-motivated comeback and unfair to criticise his choice of opponents. After three years out and serious injuries, it’s probably sensible to build slowly. What annoys many within the game, which is the same thing that grates about the majority of Sky / Matchroom promotions, is the amount of energy and time invested in shamelessly mugging off the general public. The only difference is that while Sky’s presentation is slick, Dave’s was slack and amateurish. At least it was free-to-air.
Haye’s team somehow got Mark De Mori ranked at 10 by the IBF in January, to give the impression that their man poleaxed a contender when that patently was not the case. Then they presented unbeaten Gjergjaj as a stern test, even though he had only one recognisable name on his record, in the form of shopworn Denis Bakhtov.
Everybody around boxing saw through it, but many others are suckered in and doubtless will soon support the vacuous pantomime brought by Shannon Briggs, to fill the O2 again. I can say right now that Briggs will be KO’d or stopped, but of course it means he gets his pay day too, which is why he is here.
It was highly significant that in the post-fight interview, Haye rubbished the possibility of rematching Klitschko, saying the Ukranian is now too old, while hyping up a bout with Briggs, who is four years Wladimir’s senior and has not beaten a credible opponent since 2006.
In modern boxing, you don’t earn your money by winning big fights. You earn it by creating a buzz, employing the right marketing people and a lot of lowest-common-denominator WWE style slapstick. It is deeply sad, but there it is.
By contrast, Tony ‘bomber’ Bellew may not be everyone’s cup of tea and has been criticised in the past for talking big, (“these fists feed my kids”) then failing to deliver, but if he does manage to win a world title in his third attempt on Sunday, no-one could accuse him of doing it the easy way. Congolese southpaw Ilungu Makabu has cemented a fierce reputation since coming to Europe and 18 KOs from 19 wins tell the story of a destructive puncher.
One of only two men to stop ancient, but steel jawed Jamaican, Glen Johnson, Makabu has been waiting for his shot for a while, roundly avoided by many leading cruiserweights. Among those giving him a wide berth was Nathan Cleverly, who he was scheduled to box in 2014, only for the Welshman to withdraw. This crack at the vacant WBC title is his opportunity to crash the big time and Makabu will doubtless be fired up and ready.
Bellew, on the other hand, a dedicated, determined pro, has often looked just short of true world class. The Hollywood ending has been laid on for him at Goodison Park, home of his beloved Everton FC, but he will have to be at his absolute best if Makabu is as good as we think he is. Is the scouser really strong enough at cruiser to trouble a natural in that division? He was never a huge hitter at light-heavy. While the heart yearns for a home win, the head suggests that a brave effort will end with Bellew succumbing to the African’s power at some point in the later rounds.
The night before, on Saturday, in front of what will doubtless be a heaving Glasgow crowd, the faltering career of former super-feather and lightweight champ Ricky Burns takes another twist. Having looked all washed up a couple of fights back, following the broken jaw against Ray Beltran and a series of lacklustre showings, Burns boxes Italian Michele Di Rocco for the WBA super-lightweight title.
Can the Rickster pull it off, making him a three weight world champ? The answer is undoubtedly yes. Di Rocco is a European level fighter, yet to box in true world class, whose best win, arguably, was over Lenny Daws in 2013, a victory marred by accusations that he had an illegal substance applied to a cut. (He also outpointed current European champ, Rueben Nieto). The Italian is a tidy boxer who does the basics well, but is not destructive or especially quick or tricky. As a world championship contest, it must be said this is pretty soft.
Burns will never get a better chance to snag another world belt. If he can start at a high pace and maintain it, he is more than capable of staying ahead of Di Rocco throughout and with home advantage, should be a very good bet to win by UD.
Let’s hope that this weekend there are no DJs, no one hamming it up as the ‘bad guy’ and no-one bullshitting the audience they are watching something they’re not. We really don’t need any more of that, from anyone. All we need, from now on, is some boxing.
A £10 double on a Burns victory and Makubu to stop Bellew between rds 10-12, returns £91 with Paddy Power.
My book ‘Journeymen, the other side of the boxing business’ was longlisted for William Hill Sports book of the year and named one of the sports books of the year by The Guardian. It is still available from all usual outlets.
Please listen to this excellent and very topical podcast about the darker side of boxing, featuring interviews with Ryan Rhodes, Paul ‘silky’ Jones, Glyn Rhodes MBE and Jerome Wilson.