THE weekend just gone may well have been my favourite of the season.
I commentated on two great wins, at opposite ends of the boxing spectrum, but both just as rich in emotion as each other. One was for an area title, the other for a world title, but there was no difference at all in what they meant to the boxers. The value of victory was the same for each of them; priceless. And their reactions to winning were so raw and so personal that I almost felt like I was intruding, that I should slip away and leave them to it. Boxing’s like that, it’s so intense that it can make you feel like you’re an integral part of something when actually you’re on the periphery. It’s possibly my favourite thing about the sport; the fighters give so much of themselves for the people who come to watch that every single spectator is made to feel like a VIP.
On Friday night I was at York Hall for MTK Global’s Seize The City. It was packed, noisy and very, sweaty, just how it should be. Chief support was Siar Ozgul’s first defence of his Southern Area Super Lightweight title and it was a fight the Hackney man was expected to win. Finding an opponent for the 13-0 Ozgul hadn’t been easy but late in the day a call was made to Jason McClory’s Longshots Sports and up stepped Mikey Sakyi. And with a 5-2 record the Romford man, trained at the Sparta 300 gym by Dominic Negus, did indeed look to be a long shot, particularly given that his two defeats had come against the only two fighters he’d faced with winning records.
But a first glance doesn’t tell you everything. You cannot judge a fighter just by looking at Boxrec. Boxing is a “naked eye universe” as I once memorably saw it described, meaning that you can only trust what you actually see with your own eyes, and I’d never seen Sakyi before so I greeted the opening bell with an open mind. I had seen Ozgul though so was pretty sure what I’d get from him and he duly delivered giving a performance of high intensity and immense work rate. Siar is a real handful but Mikey showed from the beginning that he had some quality, producing bursts of eye-catching boxing. But heading into the final round on my card the champion was in control and the challenger in need of a knockout (referee Jeff Hinds said afterwards that it was very close on his card, the one that mattered, going into the last three minutes) with myself and co-commentator Matt McCarthy pre-empting a points defeat for Sakyi and agreeing that his stock would still rise in defeat due to his performance. But the defeat turned out to be Ozgul’s.
In stifling heat, and way deeper into a fight that he’d ever been before, Mikey Sakyi stunned the Southern Area champ with a left hand and then pursued him around the ring, landing clean shots until Mr Hinds rightly jumped in and stopped the contest. It was pure drama, the kind that no other sport can rival, and the celebrations were wild. An Area title means a hell of a lot to a fighter, it’s the first official BBBofC sanctioned belt that you can win and if you manage it then your name goes into the record books forever. Against the odds, Mikey Sakyi is now a champion and there will never be another day in his life when that won’t be true.
Meanwhile over in the German town of Offenburg, a nice place nestled on the edge of Riesling wine country, Rocky Fielding was hoping to get some sleep ahead of the biggest fight of his life. It had been a long road to a title shot and although plenty gave him a chance, most were backing WBA Regular Super Middleweight champion Tyron Zeuge to retain his belt. Fielding had sprung to prominence by winning Prizefighter in 2011 and English and Commonwealth titles had followed but when he was laid low in under a round by Callum Smith in November 2015 in a high-profile Liverpool derby everybody seemed to agree that Rocky from Stocky wasn’t, and never would be, world class. But he picked himself up and got back to work, winning the British title and then the Commonwealth again before relinquishing the Lonsdale belt to pursue world honours. People insisted he wasn’t good enough, although his world rankings said otherwise, but, as a fighter must, Fielding stuck to his guns and Matchroom delivered the chance he craved.
It was a voluntary defence and champions don’t give voluntaries to fighters they think will beat them so Zeuge and his promoters Sauerland were clearly confident. But fight week was odd, to describe it as low-key would have been an understatement, with the usual hoopla that surrounds a title fight notable by its absence. Fielding arrived with trainer Jamie Moore midweek, with Martin Murray flying in on Friday and Nigel Travis somehow making it to ringside in time for the opening bell after travelling from Harare to Offenburg via Nairobi, Amsterdam and Strasbourg (he’d been cornering Marc Leach in Zimbabwe the night before). No great entourage, just a tight inner boxing circle, and a decent smattering of family and friends. There were no mind games or nonsense from Zeuge which made for a peaceful build-up and the atmosphere in the arena on the night was muted which it very often is in Germany; it really is nothing like boxing in the UK, certainly a world away from a Liverpool fight night.
So it was unfamiliar but not intimidating for the British challenger and when the bell went it was Zeuge who pretty rapidly looked the more uncomfortable in his surroundings. The German seemed to be in a hurry and when he failed to put a dent in Rocky in the opening two rounds the tide started to turn. And once it had started to turn there was no turning it back. By the start of the fifth Zeuge was in big trouble and Fielding was on the brink. He knew it, we all did, it was staring us in the face, but it must be a strange feeling when something that you’ve worked so long for, something that not so long ago had seemed so very far away, is so close you can almost reach out and touch it. But he kept his head, closed the show and then immediately ran out of the ring to celebrate with loved ones. It was every bit as dizzying as the night before. Watching someone realise a dream is an absolute privilege. Their joy is utterly infectious and it doesn’t matter who it is or where they’re from or whether you know them or whether you don’t. It could be your best friend or a complete stranger, you’ll still feel like you’re right there with them, sharing that moment.
Life will be different for both Sakyi and Fielding from now on. People will want to know more about them, so here’s a Fielding fact just to get you started, courtesy of my Sky colleague Andy Scott (I didn’t feel I could steal it despite the fact that a lot of people think we’re the same person): The new WBA Regular super-middleweight champion’s favourite TV programme is River Cottage. I don’t know what the new Southern Area super-lightweight champion likes to watch in his spare time but I will find out.