Manchester was hit hard by last week’s bombing at the City’s Arena. In the days that followed people rallied—politeness and caring made a comeback, at last—and when this writer went out to the Unicorn pub, a boozer a stone’s throw away from the venue on Friday night, punters sang Oasis songs, which is a shame as they are one of the worst bands this place has ever produced, before breaking out some Stone Roses classics, much more suitable, in a vocal show of unity and defiance.
I bumped into some Scottish fight fans, too, who had made plans to come down for a few nights out in the city to show solidarity. As we chatted about fights night past, mainly Joe Calzaghe’s win over Jeff Lacy at the venue, my mind turned to the following nights’ fights between IBF welterweight holder Kell Brook and Errol Spence Jr, and George Groves’s fourth world title attempt against Fedor Chudinov, with the one of the WBA’s myriad Super middleweight belts on the line, at Sheffield’s Bramhall Lane. Fellow Manc John Evans got us there, and we were joined by Scottish boxing stalwarts Shaun Brown and Tom Gray.
On reflection, in some ways it is fitting that boxing’s first post-Manchester bombing PPV was headlined by two fighters who have both graced the Manchester Arena’s impressive stage.
London’s Groves has enjoyed, for want of a better word, three outings at the venue that Ricky Hatton turned into the Cathedral of Manchester boxing during his pomp: Charles Adamu (W TKO 6 for the Super middleweight Commonwealth title in 2010), Kenny Anderson (another sixth-round win in his maiden defence in November of that year) and Carl Froch (L RSF three years and 10 days after the win over Anderson).
Groves went 2-1 in that hat trick of fights, but, unfortunately, was 0-3 when it came to world title wins going into last night’s WBA Super World Super middleweight title fight against Chudinov. It was either going to be fourth time the charm or forever the perennial bridesmaid for Groves, who lost a rematch against Froch for the IBF and WBA belts in May 2015 (L KO 8 in front of 80,000 people at Wembley Stadium) and then dropped a split decision to Badou Jack for the WBC belt in Las Vegas in September 2015.
In a week in which the ugly head of terrorism had threatened to reign and rail over the UK, rolling dark clouds created the constant threat of rain over Bramhall Lane and the odd drizzle and drop of water kept the crowd in attendance gazing skywards to look out for even darker clouds—the threat of a thunderstorm always seemed to hang heavily in the air.
There were dark clouds early on for Groves, too, as he ceded centre ring from the get-go, which seemed odd as he owned that spot when when meeting Froch at the Manchester Arena that first time, flooring the international superstar in the first round of what become a memorable, and controversial, fight for reasons that I shouldn’t have to outline to you, and if I do you’ve come to the wrong site.
From rounds one to five, “Saint” George was a strangely sad sight; everything looked off, he was harried and harassed and had the appearance of a man, and fighter, who was trying to force himself to do the things that once came so easily to him. A boxer trying to recapture the form that had almost taken him to an upset win over “The Cobra”, but that boxer had seemed to exit the same door that former trainer Adam Booth walked through just prior to the Froch fight.
Then something changed, in round six Groves planted his feet and started to look, and punch, like George Groves again, landing a series of sickening shots on his opponent that forced referee Steve Gray to hover for a while before doing the decent thing and ending the fight at 1:14 of the round to hand Groves the title that his talent has long deserved. During that glorious fusillade of punching Groves returned back to himself again, and picked up that elusive world title in the process.
Groves wasn’t done, either, as he paid tribute to Eduard Gutknecht in an emotional and raw post-fight interview. Gutknecht suffered swelling on the brain following his decision defeat to Groves in November, entering the fight that looms on the horizon for all fighters and yet is the one that no one wants to face: the battle to something approaching full health after a bleed on the brain.
As he paid an emotional tribute to his former opponent, Groves stated that he was so determined to win the world title he would of carried on punching until they turned out the lights and closed the doors, but, thankfully, Gray’s timely intervention came at just the right moment.
Still, the fact that Groves continued his assault not only brought him the title but also told us that the mental scars incurred by the events following his previous win had not dulled his edge. He got his man on the hook and then kept him there, trusting in the third official to do the right thing. Someone in the row behind me said that the stoppage was premature. It wasn’t, and it is a good job that Gray is a solid, compassionate referee who will also give a fighter every chance to fire back. Chudinov didn’t, and that is why it was waved off.
With Groves now titled and looking to cement his position, the night’s torch was passed to Sheffield’s own Kell Brook as he sought to bounce back with bounce back from last September’s fifth-round TKO loss to middleweight kingpin Gennady Golovkin by taking the scalp of unbeaten American hopeful Errol Spence Jr.
A talent is always a talent, and Brook is one, but talent can sometimes lead to drift and ill-discipline, and “Special K” is one of those fighters who balloons between fights then brings themselves down to an optimum weight, an artificial figure that only applies for the few moments that they stand on the scales. Brook has hit 147 time and again, albeit briefly, before hydrating to a higher poundage.
However, the leap up to 160lbs for the Golovkin mission was always likely to be the straw that broke that camel’s back. “How would he make it back down to 147”, we all asked, “and what would be left of him?” But there was the odd ray of hope among those dark, overcast pre-fight clouds. In July on 2009, Brook’s arch rival, if not yet opponent, Amir Khan decisioned Andriy Kotelnik to lift the WBA World light-welterweight title (not the Super lightweight title, that one does not exist) and Brook beat Michael Lomax on the undercard. It was Brook’s third defence of the British welterweight crown, his fourth fight in a row against a southpaw, and he registered an emphatic third-round TKO win to underline his dominance over portsiders.
Since that night, Brook has taken on three southpaws: Philip Kotey (W TKO 2 in 2010), Dan Ion (W RTD 4 in March 2015, Brook’s maiden defence of his IBF belt) and Frankie Gavin in May of that year (W TKO 6 in Brook’s second defence). You can see where this is going, number four seemed to coming up as Brook does not slip up against southpaws.
That was then, though, in the now, the moment, Brook looked like most fighters in their thirties who step up and then back down in weight, terrible. No longer special, just brave, Brook, despite some odd interpretations of the fight at ringside, was always one step behind Spence, whose herky-jerky style is as readable as a David Peace novel, throughout the early going and especially when Brook’s left eye started to swell.
Against Golovkin, Brook sustained a fractured right eye socket, so it seemed a surprise when his left started to bother him in this fight. However, and I am not an eye surgeon, sustaining damage in that area much set a precedent, a weakness that can march across the bridge of your nose and corrupt the other side. With his eye swelling, the fight slipping away from him and his title hanging by a thread Brook took a knee under pressure in round 10 then tried to fight his way back into it in the 11th only to take another knee after taking a few clips to that angry, clearly damaged eye to cede the fight, his title and no small amount of pride to the younger man.
There have been cries of “Quitter”, and Brook did to some extent quit—although in technical terms he was actually counted out in the act of rising after trying to get up at nine of referee Howard Foster’s count—yet there is quitting for no reason and calling time for good reason. Behind, on the wane, his last bolt well and truly shot, the former titlist did the right thing. Some may say he lived to fight another day, this writer, though, hopes that he calls time on his ring career as he has money in the bank, a house or two and achieved more than most.
Nigel Benn suffered a badly swollen eye when losing against Thulani Malinga in their second encounter in March 1996. “The Dark Destroyer” said that every punch that went into his damaged eye was like having a load of needles pushed into it. Benn saw that one out, but retired in the corner against Steve Collins in November of that same year when meeting the Irishman for the second time at the Manchester Arena—he had lost by fourth-round TKO to Collins in July at the same venue. There were murmurs of discontent, but no one doubted Benn’s fighting credentials, the same respect should be offered to Brook, who knows all too well the pain of an eye injury and, despite seeing the finishing line in sight, decided to draw a line under a fight that he was not going to win.
All things considered, it was a strange first night of PPV boxing following last week’s shocking attack. An event that left a shroud over many of our thoughts as it was an attack that took place in a venue that many of us have visited, got lost in when chucking out time comes around and has hosted so many of British boxing’s finest talents. In winning a world title, Groves finally fulfilled that early career potential; in losing his, Brook may have called time on a career during which for so long his talent looked like it may go unfulfilled. Strange portents, odd times. However, in a week of a tale of two cities, omens, precedents and memories of memories of past fights at what will always be the MEN, the sport delivered—although Matchroom’s PPV undercard didn’t, once again—and the boxing world keeps turning. And it always will.
The only drawback of the night, and it was a major one, was the decision by some in the stands to chant “Eng-er-land” during a proposed minute’s silence in tribute to the victims of last week’s attack. The chants were deafening when so many were silent. It was the same loutish chanting that shopkeepers across the continent have no doubt heard in the moments before England football “fans” have smashed their windows and terrorised local residents. The type of narrow-minded group mentality that has dragged the world into the state it is in. Tribalism topped with misogyny along with a side order of ignorance.
Arguing that we shouldn’t have even attempted it do not wash, either, as people should be capable of self-regulation and reflection, showing a bit of thought for others and a situation.
It was a depressing and shameful spectacle that should not have come to pass.
In Mitigation, however, former footballer turned boxer Curtis Woodhouse has released the statement below:
— Curtis Woodhouse (@curtiswoodhous8) May 28, 2017
Woodhouse is a bullshit free zone, which is a breath of fresh air in the sport of boxing, and it could indeed be the case that the nationalistic chants were prompted by the prospect of the looming U.K. Vs U.S. encounter.
Certainly, and in my experience, Sheffield’s boxing fans have always been an excellent crowd and fight nights in the city are always special. Therefore, and presuming it was merely the effect of a clusterf*ck, it is reasonable to ask, or demand, that the organisers release a statement about what turned out to be an absolute farce.