Southpaws

28th February 2022

I had had some previous experience of being a sports spectator at boxing events – the Oxford versus Cambridge Varsity Boxing Matches of 1977 and 1979 to be precise, as reported in An Ordinary Spectator – but that had been a long time ago and, of course, those contests featured amateur combatants. Last Saturday evening was somewhat different: Josh Taylor versus Jack Catterall at the OVO Hydro in Glasgow.

This was a fight for the Super Lightweight World Championship with Taylor’s WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO titles – acquired at various times over the last three years – all on the line. In other words – cutting through the alphabet soup – the winner would be the undisputed world champion at the weight limit of 140 pounds (10 stones or 63.5 kg). It was the first time that all 4 versions of a championship title had been at stake at a fight in Britain.

Although Catterall was the more experienced professional boxer – and unbeaten in 26 fights over 10 years – Taylor was the clear pre-bout favourite. On the morning of the fight, the bookmakers’ odds on his win were 14 to 1 on, compared with the challenger’s price of 13 to 2 against: a marked difference for a two-horse race. Moreover, Taylor – also undefeated in an 18-bout professional career since winning a gold medal (in the Hydro) at the 2014 Commonwealth Games – had the anticipated advantage of a vociferous home support, given his Prestonpans birthplace. Catterall, from Chorley in Lancashire, knew that he was entering hostile territory.

The Taylor-Catterall fight was one of no fewer than 11 on the card. The first bout was in the early evening, but the main protagonists were not scheduled to “ringwalk” until 10pm – as determined by the satellite television schedule, of course. Moreover, in what I gather is the normal way, the final details of the running order on the undercard were not announced until Saturday morning, apart from the Featherweight contest between Roseisy Ramirez of Cuba and the Irishman, Eric Donovan.

I took up my seat – an excellent view from the front row of the second tier – at about half past five, by which time the first fight had already taken place. Although there were perhaps only a couple of hundred spectators in the arena at that time – like me, no doubt, determined to get full value for money (in my case for a £60 ticket and £22.44 in other charges) – it was noticeable that the noise level was already high, principally in support of the Irish Super Welterweight, Keiron Molloy, who won his first professional fight in the second round. I asked myself what the volume would be like for the main contest, when the Hydro’s full 11,000+ capacity – many lubricated by a lengthy session of beer consumption – was in place.

The dramatis personae of the undercard performed in front of us: a combination of the inexperienced taking their first steps on the professional ladder and the occasional journeyman pugilist. This contrast was evident in the Cruiserweight contest between Scott Forest, also in his first professional fight, and Erik Nazaryan, a veteran from Georgia with a 49 per cent success rate from 57 previous contests: the former won when his opponent retired in the second round.

There was certainly a variety in the fights on offer. There were impressive wins for Bilal Fawaz and John Docherty, respectively a Middleweight and Super Middleweight, the latter with the only straight knock-out of the evening in overcoming Jordan Grant. In the only women’s contest, Ebonie Jones, in her second professional fight, and the 40 year-old Effy Kathopouli stood toe-to-toe and slogged it out for 6 rounds: the draw was a fair result, I thought.

Later, two Glaswegians, Nick Campbell and Jay McFarlane, disputed the Scottish Heavyweight title that had lain vacant for over 70 years. Campbell seemed to take control in the 6th round with a succession of head shots that, somehow, McFarlane – at just under 20 stones and attired in a kilt – managed to walk through. McFarlane then launched a spirited counter-attack to the accompanying support of the growing numbers in the crowd. However, when Campbell launched another fusillade in the next round – and McFarlane again remained upright – the referee stepped in to end the contest. The general consensus around me was that this had not been before time.

The main supporting bout was the Ramirez/Donovan contest. The Cuban is highly regarded as a candidate for further honours and, after an evenly fought start, the fight ended with a technical knock-out in the third round, when the Irishman was pinned on the ropes and succumbed to a crushing body punch. This was the second occasion on which a shot to the body – rather than the head – had ended the fight. The Czech boxer Jaroslav Hriadel suffered the same fate against the well-supported Kurt Walker from Northern Ireland and was clearly in some pain afterwards.

All major sporting occasions have their own rituals and, of course, Saturday evening’s events at the Hydro were no exception. The arena was in constant darkness – I couldn’t read my notes in front of me – but the ring was clearly illuminated by the overhead lighting with other beams of light flashing across the ringside seats. The boxers made their individual entrances down the walkway to the ring accompanied by the music of their choice. Not surprisingly, Eye of the Tiger (from Rocky III) featured a couple of times, though I was more impressed by Ebonie Jones’s choice of Nancy Sinatra singing These Boots are Made for Walking.

All the contestants on the undercard seemed to adhere to the sport’s acknowledged codes of conduct. There was a uniform touching of gloves at the start of each fight and, occasionally, at the end of a round. The defeated boxers congratulated their victorious opponents. Of course, the vanquished were then faced with the return journey back up the walkway to the changing room: a lonely walk with their own thoughts, I would guess, though each was chaperoned by a member of the security staff. Thankfully, on this occasion, all were able to walk back unaided, albeit with clouded heads (Grant and McFarlane) or aching ribs (Donovan and Hriadel).

I made an effort to focus on each of the undercard’s defeated fighters as they made their way back up the walkway. I wondered about the circumstances of the individual journeys that had brought Malam Varela from Portugal, Miroslav Serban from Kromeriz in the Czech Republic and Damian Esquisabel from Santander in Spain – amongst others – to this place at this time. All three of these particular fighters are now in their early 30s. In their preparation for their appearance at the Hydro – and their casual dismissal by a chattering crowd impatient for the main event – they had endured the training, the sacrifices and the pain of a brutal and unforgiving sport. With their stars apparently on the wane, what would their futures bring?

The arena was nearly full by the time of the Ramirez/Donovan contest. When this finished earlier than scheduled, there were about 25 minutes to fill before the Taylor/Catterall showdown. It was not wasted. This was party time in Saturday evening Glasgow and the house DJ knew his market: Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, the 1970s Euro disco Yes Sir, I can Boogie (now appropriated by the Tartan Army of Scottish football supporters) and Queen’s Radio Ga Ga as well as a couple of club anthems with which, I must confess, I was not entirely familiar. Interestingly, he also played the Oasis track Don’t Look Back in Anger, which I thought might have been deemed provocative, given the band’s shared regional roots with Josh Taylor’s challenger. But that was looking for subtleties that didn’t exist. The singing and dancing revellers belted out the song with gusto.

The musical interlude ended with Amy Macdonald leading a rousing rendition of Flower of Scotland. Again, I wondered about the subtext. I’m sure I was not the only one to register that to have “sent him homeward tae think again” might be applied more immediately to Jack Catterall and his supporters, rather than a long-dead English king. I have to say, though, that – aside from the occasional isolated exhortation for Taylor to smash the English bastard – there was no great sense of a Scotland/England conflict, and nor had there been in the week-long pre-match hype on the television sports news channel. One of my neighbours told me that Taylor has a sizeable support base in England.

And so to the main event. Catterall entered the arena to widespread – and predictable – booing, apart from the cheers of a group of supporters on the far side from me. Taylor was preceded by an entourage that proudly hoisted the four championship belts that he possessed. My earlier question was answered shortly afterwards. When the MC came to make the formal announcement of Taylor’s name to the crowd, his words were drowned out by the huge roar.

Here – as an aside – I must own up to another confession. When I was very young and occasionally watching the boxing highlights on television, I did wonder for some time why so many boxers came from Southport. Perhaps it was Harry Carpenter’s diction in presenting the action on the BBC’s Sportsview. The word is southpaw, of course, and it refers to the fighter leading with his right hand and with his right foot forward. I had a wry smile when I saw both Taylor and Catterall take up this stance.

It was evident from the first bell that, contrary to what was implied by the pre-match odds, these were two evenly matched fighters. Whatever his status as the underdog, Catterall was certainly not intimidated by either his opponent or his surroundings. Neither man gained control in the early rounds as the contest regressed into a scrappy affair with little fluid movement and a great deal of holding and grappling. I thought that Catterall decisively took the 6th round, the end of which marked the mid-point of the bout’s scheduled duration. I also sensed that Taylor’s supporters around me were becoming worried at his lack of clear dominance and the prospect of an adverse outcome. This concern was then amplified in the 7th when Taylor was cut below the right eye and the following round, when he was temporarily floored.

Both boxers incurred the wrath of the referee: Catterall was publicly warned for excessive holding in the 10th round and then, at the end of the 11th, Taylor was similarly penalised for striking his opponent after the bell. At the end of contest, both my immediate neighbours – a middle-aged man attending with his adult daughter and a younger man celebrating a mate’s birthday – were distinctly pessimistic about Taylor’s chances of getting the judges’ verdict.

It was a split decision – 2-1 – which, in his announcement of the result, the MC knew how to exploit for its full dramatic effect. The first scorecard was read out in Catterall’s favour and the second for Taylor. The marks of the third judge were announced, followed by “… and still undisputed…”. As at the beginning, so at the end: the crowd’s roar drowned out the rest of the MC’s proclamation.

It was a roar of triumph, but also – I suspect – an expression of relief. As it turned out, my neighbours’ assessments had been fully in tune with most independent analysts, including those who had maintained their running blogs throughout the contest. The Sky Sports blog stated that Taylor had been “outskilled and outmanoeuvred by Catterall, who has been relentlessly good” and that the judges’ verdict was “unbelievable” and “absolutely staggering” and the MainOnline called it “a truly shocking decision”, whilst the Irish Times diplomatically suggested that “not everyone will be happy with that result”.

The furore has continued since the end of the fight. Yesterday, Sir Lindsay Hoyle tweeted his opinion that “it was a disgraceful decision… the result is a travesty of justice”.

I was aware that Sir Lindsay is a keen follower of sport (notably rugby league), but I did wonder why the Speaker of the House of Commons – no less – should take such a public interest in the judges’ controversial decision. However, it did not take me long to determine why he should move away from his usual position of strict neutrality. Sir Lindsay Hoyle has been the Member of Parliament for Chorley since 1997.

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