By John Wight: If anyone was in any doubt that British boxing is in a state of rude health, hopefully such doubts will have been put to bed after watching Frank Warren’s latest promotion, billed as the ‘Night of the Champions’, which took place at London’s Wembley Arena on Saturday night.
In hindsight, given the performances of two of Britain’s much vaunted Olympians, in the shape of Frankie Gavin and James ‘Chunky’ De Gale, the East End’s very own Kevin Mitchell, and not forgetting the ever improving Nathan Cleverly, the night should have been billed as the ‘Night of the future World Champions’. For make no mistake, each of the aforementioned displayed to varying degrees the ingredients required to ascend to the heights of the sport within their respective divisions..
First up was Frankie Gavin fighting at light-welterweight. Immediately apparent during his six round win over tough Irish slugger, Peter McDonagh, was a maturity beyond both his years and five outings as a pro. Being able to keep his composure when faced with an opponent coming at him as if the fight was taking place outside the local pub is no mean feat, with McDonagh’s gameplan simply to brawl and mawl, swinging wildly and staying close in the hope of knocking Gavin out of his rhythm and drawing him into a gunfight. But the young man from Birmingham refused to be drawn and throughout peppered his opponent with crisp combinations and counters, at the same time utilising excellent balance and movement to avoid taking punishment himself. Indeed, Gavin’s head movement and footwork was a joy to watch, allowing us to paraphrase Bill Shankly’s famous quote and claim that boxing at its best is ballet for the working class.
One thing that should be avoided is any attempt to rush Gavin’s progress through the ranks. With just six professional victories under his belt he remains at an early stage in his apprenticeship, and with no disrespect intended to the Peter McDonagh’s of the sport, is yet to be tested by a fighter of comparable speed, movement and ring awareness. The domestic light-welterweight division at present offers more than a few options for Frank Warren to consider next, with a match-up against Nigel Wright, victorious over Alex Arthur in his last fight, perhaps a useful next step in his career as a pro.
What can be said about the inimitable James De Gale that hasn’t been said already? Love him or hate him, no one can ignore him, though with a ring entrance that came somewhere between daft and dafter, he’s definitely in need of help when it comes to this part of his game. Employing the services of his very own personal rap artist to accompany him to the squared circle, he arrived like a man still trying to make his mind up if he was going to fight or sing and dance when he got there.
Such confusion was immediately dispelled, however, when the bell rang for the start of the first round. De Gale regaled us with the fruits of his continuing progress under the supervision of trainer, Jim McDonnell, who deserves credit for getting his fighter into such superb condition. Indeed, by the end of the first round, De Gale’s opponent, Matthew Barr, had the unmistakeable look of panic in his eyes - like a man standing in front of an oncoming train with no escape. De Gale never took his foot off the gas for a moment and had his man down three times in the second round, before the referee wisely intervened to prevent any more punishment. The vast improvement in De Gale’s work was evident, particularly in the power and accuracy of his shots, and though the ring entrance could certainly do with an overhaul, to see a British fighter so confident and cocky at such an early stage of his pro career makes for an exciting spectacle for the fans.
Kevin Mitchell is ready to be a world champion now. Undefeated in 31 pro fights over five years, he’s now entered his prime, especially after taking the wise decision to team up with Jimmy Tibbs, a man with the countenance and demeanour of someone who knows his way around a sawn-off shotgun. The East End of London has been as synonymous with hard men and boxing as Oxford and Cambridge universities have with British prime ministers, though I know which legacy has done more damage to the country over the years. But though Tibbs looks like he could tear the derriere off an elephant, his Phd in the sport of boxing has seen Kevin Mitchell add the finesse of a craftsman to his undoubted stock of minerals when it comes to having a tear up. Not satisfied with adding the considerable scalp of Amir Khan executioner Breidis Prescott to his record last time out, on Saturday Mitchell dismantled another Colombian in the shape of Ignacio Mendoza in just two rounds. The power of the shot which KO’d the unfortunate Colombian was terrifying, with the reward of a fight against interim WBO lightweight champion, Michael Katsidis, making Mitchell’s night a short but fruitful one indeed. Based on his last two performances I fancy Mitchell to have too much for the talented Australian champion, and in his future I definitely see the name Amir Khan looming. Just imagine what a fight that would be.
The danger when Joe Calzaghe vacated the stage was that Wales would enter a long period without anyone of comparable prowess to keep Welsh boxing fans singing in the Valleys. How fortunate then that providence has timed Nathan Cleverly’s emergence in the sport with the precision it has. Fighting for the European light-heavyweight title against a dangerous Italian opponent in the shape of Antonio Brancalion, the tall Welshman was stepping up a level. Indeed in the early rounds, the upright Italian proved that he’d come to win with a display of neat counter-punching to match his opponent’s speed and power. However, by the fourth the Italians’ fate was all but assured when Cleverly dropped him with a straight right hand to the jaw. In the very next round, with the Italian’s chin by now hanging in the air like his mother’s washing, the referee mercifully stepped in to rescue the Italian from a series of right hands he had no answer to.
At just 22, the new European light-heavyweight champion now has 19 professional fights under his belt. Add to that the fact he also happens to be studying for a Maths degree and you have a young fighter with time on his side. Across the pond the light-heavyweight division offers an embarrassment of riches, with men like Chad Dawson, Antonio Tarver, Bernard Hopkins, Roy Jones Jr and Glen Johnson all presenting a considerable obstacle to any young pretender. With this in mind, it makes sense for Cleverly to fight at European level for another year or so before taking on the Americans. The way he kept getting caught with counters from the Italian in the first couple of rounds on Saturday suggests that he still has a few things to work on before making the step up to the highest level. That said, there’s no doubt he possesses the firepower and talent to claim a world title in the not too distant future.
So all in all then, on Saturday we were treated to another great night of British boxing. And with news that former British featherweight champion, Paul Appleby, is back in training after a lengthy lay off, even with the loss of Amir Khan to American shores the future for the sport in this country looks as bright as it’s been in a very long time.