RingSide Report

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The Big Outdoors…

By Donald “Braveheart” Stewart

An opinion piece from the only Donald worth listening to…

Full Stop – In British English grammar a full stop is a lengthy pause, in the US, you call it a period. In the UK that tends to suggest feminine products. Here it means a period of time where I look at something in boxing in a little more depth. I am typing from my perspective of a fan who watches the sport closely. It’s an opinion. It is my opinion. Don’t like it? There are other opinions out there but if you don’t like it then good, debate and democracy are a good thing. If you do like it, feel free to spread the word.

The Big Outdoors…

It could be argued, as it once was that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. Noel Coward wrote, and sang that because in the UK, when the sun shines, people rush to get their tops off and get a tan often by any means. I had a friend who was a chef who once told me that when he had burned himself pretty badly in the kitchen, he went to the hospital to have it attended to. It was the first sunny day in Glasgow of that summer. The burns unit of the hospital was filled with so many people with scars and red bodies he thought there had been some form of industrial accident. The nurse patiently explained it was just locals who went out and rather than putting on sunscreen had poured olive oil or vegetable oil over them to get the tan they were after: instead, they were burnt to bits. The outside and decent weather confuses us.

In boxing terms, the outside stadium fight is the greatest example we have of how optimistic fans in the UK, love to see a contest outdoors. The optimism comes because in the UK, summer can often be deemed a one day wonder!

The best example of a recent stadium fight which caught our imagination was the world title fight between Ilunga Makabu and Tony Bellew at Everton football club’s Goodison Park. It was emotional not just because according to Bellew his camp had been horrendous, but also because as an Everton supporter, this was a stadium he had been in since a kid watching his football (soccer) team.

It should come as no surprise that boxers are huge fans of other sports. In the UK, soccer is the biggest sport and the dream for all fighters is to headline at the venue they have supported their local soccer team as a kid. And so, in June 2024, we all got giddy over Richard Riakporhe (Crystal Palace) taking on Chris Billam-Smith (Bournemouth) for Billam-Smith’s WBO belt at cruiserweight at the home of the challenger’s football stadium – Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park. Billam-Smith had already headlined his hometown soccer ground and was happy to indulge his opponent by going on tour to South London – even happier when he won. His joy is doubled because now, as a soccer fan he ahs fought at two English Premier League grounds – cannot think of many who match his record.

The stadium fight does have, however a firm pedigree. For Scots fans, we dig deep to remember our own Benny Lynch who fought more than once in Cathkin Park before the Second World War, home of the now defunct Third Lanark in Glasgow. I have stood in the centre of that derelict ground and felt the atmosphere. At the time it was our national stadium for our national soccer team, so it has a special place in our hearts despite being in a state of disrepair.

Decades later, at Hampden Park, in 2003, the new national football stadium for Scotland, which you can see from Cathkin Park, Mike Tyson did a first round number on Lou Savarese which was undoubtedly, the worst 38 seconds of boxing in the UK at that time. The environment proved it was no guarantee of world level performances.

We also, of course, had Henry Cooper fight Cassius Clay in 1966 in Highbury, then home of London’s Arsenal. I am unsure if Cooper supported the Arsenal but he was a London boy so the venue would have been as home as home could be. Didn’t help him much, as he lost, though this was the fight where Clay’s gloves needed replaced giving him a great deal of time to recover from a torrid fourth round – by fair or foul means, Clay triumphed!

Staying in London and remaining with the heavyweights, at Tottenham Hotspur’s old White Hart Lane, Joe Bugner took on Frank Bruno in 1987, and more recently Oleksandr Usyk / Anthony Joshua I was at Tottenham’s new stadium. Bruno was no stranger to the outdoors and in 1993, he fought in Wales against Lennox Lewis at Cardiff Arms Park, home of Welsh Rugby Union. Having beaten Bugner, six years earlier, he was to falter against Lewis. Wales was also, at the Millenium Stadium to host AJ a few times, but also saw the Joe Calzaghe / Mikel Kessler fight for the ages – in 2007, where Calzaghe unified three belts and took a decision win against Kessler to give Kessler his first loss.

“Judgement Day” was in the same year as Lewis/Bruno and saw Manchester United’s Old Trafford in use for the final Nigel Benn/ Chris Eubank boxing story. It ended a draw. Across the city, at the City of Manchester Stadium, home of his adored Manchester City in 2008, Ricky Hatton recovered from being beaten by Floyd Mayweather with a win. He did, however need the crowd to help him to recover from a game Juan Lazcano rocking him in the eighth round, but Hatton got the decision.

Finally, having brawled in Germany after Derrick Chisora lost to Vitali Klitschko, David Haye and Chisora got it on at West Ham United’s Upton Park where Haye did what he could not do in the German press conference – he knocked Chisora out.

The most obvious reason for hosting fights in these venues is the capacity they have for people to attend. Taylor Swift has just started her UK tour in Scottish Rugby’s Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh and Hampden Park hosts a number of concerts per year, but there is one stadium fight that is always quoted when discussing stadia – especially by one of the protagonists. It is the former record holder for post war attendance at a fight – Carl Froch – George Groves II. The sight of Groves arriving on a London bus, the 90,000 people in the stadium making an incredible noise and the fight which laid to rest the controversy as Froch beat Groves I was magnificent. It was a fight to capture the age and propel British boxing to new levels. We have been celebrating it this year with podcasts, memories and everything short of a commemorative tea towel being issued.

And of course, like the sun being out the British do like a bit of nostalgia. I am sure there is a Republican nominee who is envious of the fact that these wee islands have the word Great in their title, but when it comes to the outdoors, the great bit, is if it does not rain on the day – and that can often be the miracle of our summers!

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