Thaxton and Francis: a big month coming up for two ageing warriors

by Mark Gregory - October sees two British veterans look to prolong the perhaps unexpected success that has characterised the twilight of their respective careers. Jon Thaxton gets a second chance at the European title he failed to win when stopped on cuts at the end of the fifth against classy Yuri Romanov in April this year. Dean Francis meanwhile has the chance to extend his impressive unbeaten run at light-heavyweight when he defends his British and Commonwealth belts against the talented but green Nathan Cleverly..

For Thaxton, the fact that he is fighting for a significant title at lightweight at this stage of his career is only just short of miraculous. Thaxton began his career more than 15 years ago, and it is now well over 6 years since a crushing defeat to Eamonn Magee led most pundits to believe that Thaxton was done as a credible fighter. Instead, Thaxton spent the best part of two years away from the sport before returning at 135lbs, 5lbs below where he spent his peak years fighting the likes of Ricky Hatton and Emanuel Augustus.

For a fighter to drop down a weight class so late in their career is very unusual. To do so successfully is virtually unheard of, just ask Chris Byrd. However, Thaxton went on to put in a string of impressive performances which culminated in a dominant win over the well-regarded British champion, Lee Meager. Two fairly routine defences followed, before Thaxton’s winning streak was finally ended by Romanov. As a result of the cut sustained in that fight, Thaxton could not keep a scheduled defence of his British title and subsequently had to vacate, just one defence short of winning the belt outright.

However, when he steps into the ring on the 4th of October against Spaniard Juan Carlos Diaz Melero (36-1 (19KOs)), Thaxton will use the disappointment of missing out on the Lonsdale belt to spur him towards an unlikely European title. The quality of his opponent is difficult to judge. His only defeat came against Thaxton’s conqueror Romanov by way of third round KO. Aside from Romanov, the aged Stefano Zoff is the only recognisable name on a record that takes padding to a new level.

If Thaxton can win, and I expect him to (probably via late stoppage), then it will guarantee him a decent ranking with at least one of the major governing bodies. Thaxton’s record will tell you that, game as he is, he is not a world class fighter and would likely be beaten quite badly against any of the current belt holders, but for all that he has been through in his career I doubt anyone could begrudge him a shot at the big time. More likely would be a fight with recently defeated domestic rival Amir Khan, who may see a shot at the European title as the perfect stepping stone towards re-establishing himself as a factor in the division. That would be a winnable fight for Thaxton, and certainly an excellent pay day. Again, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who would say that he doesn’t deserve that.

Francis on the other hand faces a seemingly longer road to the big pay days and potential world title shots. Where Thaxton has that history against big name opponents like Hatton, and a dedicated fan base to boot, Francis’ career was cut short just as he seemed to be on the verge of big things in the super-middleweight division. When Francis climbs through the ropes to take on former Enzo Calzaghe charge, Nathan Cleverly, it will be just a fraction short of ten years since the fight that defined his career for all the wrong reasons.

Having handed David Starie – who went on to lose close decisions in world title fights with both Joe Calzaghe and Sven Ottke – his first loss via a dominant sixth round stoppage, and then winning the European title in similarly destructive fashion in his next fight, Francis looked destined for big things. There was talk amongst UK boxing fans that he could be the biggest threat to Joe Calzaghe’s increasingly dominant reign. However, fighting in front of his hometown fans for the first time as a pro in what looked to be a routine fight with veteran Undra White – scheduled as an eliminator for the IBF title to boot – Francis threw an innocuous looking right hand at his much shorter opponent and, catching him on the top of the head, popped out his right shoulder.

Francis would only fight three times in the next seven years as recurrences of the injury, a spell in prison for assault, and general disillusionment with the sport seemed to have put paid to his once promising career. However, he eventually refocused and came back at 175lbs after a brief spell at cruiserweight. After winning the Commonwealth belt with an emphatic first round stoppage of Ovill McKenzie, Francis broke the heart of the teak-tough Tony Oakey to add the British light-heavyweight title to his trophy cabinet with a ninth round stoppage in June this year. It was a highly entertaining bout in which Francis had initially struggled with the unorthodox pressure applied by his opponent, before his greater technique and power eventually won through.

Francis’ defence of those belts on the 10th of October ought to be routine enough against the largely untested, non-punching Cleverly. However, Francis’ shoulder injury still casts a shadow over his career and he is now largely a one-handed fighter. Although he says that the shoulder is close to 100%, he now only throws it when he is certain it will land, and against Oakey it was barely used at all prior to the ninth round. Such is Francis’ technical ability that he can beat fighters at this level using a combination of a stiff jab and one of the best left hooks in the game. That should also be enough to see him stop Cleverly late, with the youngster never having faced a fighter with Francis’ class or power, and never having fought a scheduled 12 rounder either.

With Frank Warren’s stable rapidly dwindling and seemingly lacking in championship quality, there is a real opportunity for Francis to establish himself as a top name in the Sports Network stable. He won’t be helped by how fragmented the 175lb division is right now. Joe Calzaghe is the Ring champion following his win over Bernard Hopkins, and the seniors’ tour involving those two and former pound for pound number one Roy Jones Jnr., as well as Glen Johnson and Antonio Tarver, is where the money is at in the division. The belts have been vacated and passed around like worthless trinkets, with none of the belt holders – aside from IBF champion Tarver – being universally recognised as top five in the division. Francis is also not helped by the fact that he has struggled to gain a high ranking with anyone other than the WBO, who have him at number five, and their champion (and, bizarrely, the linear champion), Zsolt Erdei, is not keen on leaving Germany. Without wanting to perpetuate old stereotypes, Francis may have to KO Erdei just to get the draw.

Whilst a win against Cleverly won’t do a lot to increase his stock, an impressive performance may just convince Warren to focus a bit more time and effort on the highly talented Francis. A domestic showdown with the fading Clinton Woods is one possibility that could help propel him towards a title shot in the final stages of his career. With father time against him, if he is to fulfil his dream and win a world title the chance will need to come soon. With some pretty average title holders around at 175lbs right now, Francis may just be able to do what many think he could have done a decade ago and become a ‘world’ champion. And, as with Thaxton, who could really begrudge him that?

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Article posted on 19.09.2008

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