LAST week was probably the best week I’ve had all year; it was just so varied and interesting.
On Monday I headed down to Miguel’s Gym in Brixton to see Isaac Chamberlain who’s boxing at the 02 this weekend. Any excuse to go to Miguel’s and I take it, it’s a great place. The location, under the railway arches, is classic but the best thing about it is how busy it is. It was a sparring day and at one point (bear in mind this was mid-afternoon on a Monday) I counted 20 fighters all crowded around the ring waiting for their chance to swap in and do some rounds.
Chamberlain was up first and worked with Richard Riakhporhe and then John Harding before Chris Kongo stepped in with another fighter I didn’t recognise. Rakeem Noble was down there too just starting off camp ahead of his fight with Phillip Bowes in September which, he told me, will be his last before he heads off to live in Japan for a year. I’ve got a lot of time for Rakeem; not many people would just up sticks and move to the other side of the world for a year but he’s not the kind of man you meet every day, and I mean that in the best possible way.
It was swelteringly hot and the pace was terrific; trainer Ted Bami doesn’t stand for any fiddling around. The time just disappeared and I’d been there three hours when I finally sat down with Isaac for a chat.
The next day I was off to Karkhiv in Ukraine for a flying visit to the European Championships. I was out there for just one day to commentate on the quarter-finals on the Wednesday. They have two rings until the semi-finals when they reduce it to one and I was accompanied by Alex Steedman, who’s a good mate of mine and great company. Alex stayed on for the rest of the tournament whilst I needed to head home in time for Sky’s NextGen bill in Newcastle on the Friday.
It was a shame to have to leave with the GB fighters doing so well. AIBA competitions are great. I’ve covered quite a few now and the standard is tremendous. Niall Farrell, Peter McGrail, Callum French, Luke McCormack, Pat McCormack and Frazer Clarke all boxed their quarter-finals in my ring, ring A, and all won, whilst Galal Yafai and Cheavon Clarke both won across in ring B. So by the end of the day we had eight bronze medals guaranteed which was astonishing.
I’m a big fan of Bunce’s Boxing Hour and its host, the big man himself, who has been involved in amateur boxing since before I was born (I’m not trying to make Steve sound ancient, he isn’t, but it’s just a fact) often talks about how GB never used to get anything at the Europeans, that our fighters barely used to win a bout. It’s incredible how that’s changed over the last few years. In 2015 GB netted one gold, four silvers and one bronze and this time around that haul had somehow improved to one gold, six silvers and one bronze.
I’ve only really been following the amateur code in depth for the last three years and even in that time I’ve seen a marked change in our fighters in terms of belief. In early 2015 we had a poor WSB season but then went to the Europeans and performed superbly; the bar was raised and since then it has remained high and has been inching higher. Our fighters now feel, look and perform like they belong at the top table alongside Cuba, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and anyone else.
The exploits of Niall Farrell, who was boxing at flyweight and in his first major, senior tournament after just one bout in WSB (a very creditable SD defeat to two time Olympian Olzhas Sattibayev just a few days before leaving for Karkhiv) epitomised the confidence that fortifies the squad. Not all that much was expected of him under the circumstances but he expected a lot of himself. He felt he was ready and he duly delivered, going all the way to the final. The only fighter to win gold was Peter McGrail, not long a senior himself, and he fights with such skill and swagger it’s easy to forget how young he is. But I shouldn’t single anyone out because they are all the same in that regard; when they pull on that vest it makes them feel bulletproof, it doesn’t weigh heavily on them in the slightest, and it’s great to see. And all this at the start of a new Olympic cycle, when your team has been decimated by defections to the pro ranks. I honestly think the set-up and level of coaching at GB Boxing is as good as you’ll find in any sport, anywhere.
Karkhiv’s a nice place too. You go to some unusual locations with AIBA (my passport now has stamps from Armenia, Kazakhstan, China, Uzbekistan, Venezuela and Ukraine thanks to my boxing travels) but they’re always interesting and they’re always places where the people genuinely love boxing.
Just a year ago the likes of Josh Kelly and Anthony Fowler were part of that GB set-up, having just qualified for the Olympics. Last Friday night in Newcastle they were the main men on Matchroom’s second NextGen show that I was working on for Sky (it was a busy week). There were former GB fighters everywhere you looked really with Simon Vallily and Warren Baister in action, Bradley Saunders making a comeback and Natasha Jonas making her professional debut.
Wembley and Bramall lane were great obviously but I’ll always love the smaller shows just as much. It was packed out at the Walker Activity Dome and the Perspex and corrugated iron roof had trapped the day’s heat making it very hot and sweaty under the lights for everyone, which is just as it should be; air-conditioning has no place in a boxing venue in my opinion.
Our guest was Lawrence Okolie, another recent Sheffield graduate, and I had a long chat with him as we waited to go on air. He’s an entertaining chap but is deadly serious about boxing and his attitude is great. He wants hard fights and he wants them now; he has an 0 but he’s not afraid to risk letting it go. The way he looks at it is very simple; he knows he can crack, that he has power, that he can dish it out but what he doesn’t know is can he take it? And he wants to find out. He’s not just going to let his next opponent hit him flush of course, but he’s actually looking forward to the day when he gets hit hard with small gloves, under the lights for the first time, and he wants it to happen sooner rather than later, a padded record is of no interest to him. I love that, I just suspect that finding opponents of a similar inclination might be more than a bit tricky.
He’s flourishing as a professional so far, as are Fowler, Cordina, and Taylor, and as, I’m sure, will Jonas. The fighter flourishing most out of all the recent Matchroom additions though may well be Josh Kelly who produced a succession of left hooks that left Tom Whitfield wondering what on earth had just happened to him.
But the line-up of Rio 2016 Olympians doesn’t end there.
On Saturday at the 02 we’ll see Joshua Buatsi make his debut. I’ve just been finishing my page on him for the Sky notes I produce for the team for each show and watched his destruction of Elshod Rasulov again just to remind myself of what we have on our hands here. And what we have is a special fighter. I advise you to tune in and follow his journey from the start this weekend, it promises to be a thrilling ride.