During the year I kissed wild camels, I filed columns at 5am from Times Square, I posed with tanks in Chelyabinsk, I saw the boxing dream vanish from too many eyes and I sat witness to some unforgettable fights with some memorable people.
There were so many winners and losers on both sides of the boxing ropes: from the town of Illusions in Los Angeles to the city of a thousand fights in New York and then a new venue in the Saudi Arabia to end the year. Each week about 100 professional boxers fought in rings all over Britain, most anonymous men, some boxers reaching 200 fights and also kids having their first. This is the story of the boxing year in twelve rounds and in no particular order.
In the guts and no glory category it’s Anthony Yarde and his 11th round loss in Chelyabinsk for the WBO light-heavyweight title in August. Yarde was unbeaten in 18 with 17 ending early, had not lost a round before stepping in with Sergey Kovalev. The Russian idol was fighting in his hometown. Yarde was in the fight, really hurt Kovalev in round eight, but was exhausted when he was sent down for the count.
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The British cameo of the year was in another fight in August; Vasyl Lomachenko, arguably the finest fighter in the world, was made to work and think for the full twelve rounds by Luke Campbell for three of the lightweight titles at the O2. Campbell was dropped in the 11th, survived until the final bell and pushed Lomachenko in just about every round. The British public got to see a grittier side to Lomachenko’s ring genius. Campbell was a stunning loser.
Selecting the female boxer of the year in a British ring was simple: Lauren Price, a Welsh amateur. In a short, packed career of difficult and frustrating fights at major tournaments, where the experienced women swap the gold medals and the officials stick to ancient agendas, Price won the World Championship; previously she had won a bronze at the same event and three bronze medals at the European version. She also won gold at the European Games.
The finish of the year was delivered in late December when Daniel Dubois connected cleanly to send Kyotaro Fujimoto down heavily and disturbingly to rest in a still heap in round two at the Copper Box in east London. Fujimoto was in a dangerous land from the start and he knew it; Dubois finished with the type of ease, precision and power so few heavyweights can combine. In many ways Dubois improved to 14 wins – 13 short – once the bell sounded for the easy night, but that is still the only way to build a heavyweight to last. Remember, no risks, lots of patience and a heavyweight will grow.
The death of Akay Isola was awful news for generations of amateur and professional boxers, some famous, others just influenced. In the mid-Seventies Mr. Akay was forced to build a temporary boxing gym on the landing of his flats in west London after his son, TeeJay, who would as a pro win the British title, was refused entry to a local boxing club because he was black. Isola used every part of his flat for local kids to skip, hit pads, spar and do their groundwork. He was eventually found premises and then he created All Stars boxing club. It is still there and Mr. Akay is proof that unsung heroes are praised each night in thousands of homes by the men they changed and saved.
The year’s number one homecoming was the summer festival in Belfast when Mick Conlan fought outdoors in Falls Park. The field sloped, the ring was held in place by bolts, hope and love and a crowd stood in rapture as Conlan, their idol, walked to the ring with the Belfast hills and Black Mountain forming a majestic backdrop and every soul was singing Grace. It was an emotional night, part of Conlan’s moving journey and he won as expected. The win was only part of the night.
The odd event of the year took place at Bar Sport in Cannock when Scott Welch, former British heavyweight champion, introduced his initiative, wheelchair boxing. It is far more skilful than you think. “It can give you back some of the things you lost,” said Dan Biddle, the most seriously injured survivor of the 7/7 terror attacks. Biddle was ringside and will be back in the gym soon.
The fight of the year was Josh Taylor and Regis Prograis for two of the light-welterweight belts, the Muhammad Ali trophy, plus one other jewellery addition. Both were unbeaten, Prograis was set to become a massive American star and the fight was perfect in every way. Two class boxers, never wasting a shot, constantly changing, moving, showing shots and feinting and then standing toe-to-toe. A joy to watch – Taylor was the right winner on the night at the O2 in October.
The neglected choice during a year when too many boxers were overlooked is Liam Williams, who started with a defence of his British middleweight title and then stopped world-ranked men in back-to-back fights. Williams has stopped or knocked out the last 14 men he has beaten, is ready now and must get a crack at one of the world titles.
The most tearful visitor was Zolani Tete, the fearsome little South African and a night when it all went so horribly wrong in Birmingham in November. Tete lost his WBO bantamweight title when he was stopped in an early shock by Filipino John Riel Casimero. I had to interview Tete in his dressing room after the fight, but for five mins I stood against the door listening to the sobbing, hearing the despair. That was horrible.
Finally, round of the year and event of the year: Anthony Joshua was in both. In June, it was round three at Madison Square Garden and Joshua was over twice after first dropping Andy Ruiz. Then it was rematch and revenge time in Saudi Arabia in December. Joshua made the job easy, Ruiz helped by failing to pass a fridge door. Joshua had three heavyweight titles back, the Saudi fight week was truly unforgettable, the simplicity of the fight was mad.
Apologies to the champions, winners, losers, rejected coaches, drug failures, incompetent officials, charlatans, other liars, miserable sods and just about everybody else I missed from the list. It was a fine year.