NEW YORK enchants whatever the weather but with a dreamy blue sky smothering the grey landscape this beautiful city displays the purest of grins. This glorious landscape, once steeped in boxing culture, will soon welcome Vasyl Lomachenko and there’s a room in New York’s grandest palace waiting for the Ukrainian prince. The Theater at Madison Square Garden prepares to play host as Lomachenko ascends to super-featherweight, where cheery Puerto Rican, Roman Martinez, is waiting for him.
I look forward to meeting a diverse cast from the weird and wacky boxing community, all of whom have been in regular contact with either myself or fellow writer, John Evans, who joined me on this voyage. Perhaps most engaging is Brooklyn powerhouse, Jarrell Miller. His directions, via several text messages minutes after arriving, take us through the restaurant and bar-laden streets of commercial Astoria, before we arrive at an open door that fits the description, relayed to me in our previous exchanges, of the gym entrance. At the top of the stairs is a reception area that leads into substantial floor space, the majority of which is occupied by a well-elevated ring wherein a couple of beautiful girls converse during stretches. Miller isn’t there but there’s another message on my phone that tells me he’s minutes away.
He may not be the proprietor but this is Miller’s gym. A handshake and warm embrace from one of the sport’s most notorious orators puts me at ease and he performs similar greetings with another gentleman, who had spent the last five minutes assessing the weaknesses of both Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua; according to my new friend, the latter is on borrowed time. A makeshift office with a well-worn couch becomes my base for the next hour or so as Miller lifts the lid on the American heavyweight environment – one that holds no fear as he seems hell-bent on conquering it. Miller is a product of the voracious streets that tried desperately to swallow Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe and, despite his community gnawing at him more than he’d like to remember, Miller refused to be Brooklyn’s breakfast.
“Be a real model not a role model.” I noted that down in block capitals the moment Miller relayed his street wisdom to me and this none-too-subtle dig at the aforementioned Joshua has stayed with me for a long time. Miller stayed ‘real’ in the months following our chat and, after bludgeoning the oft-durable Fred Kassi just a few weeks later, he decided to part ways with manager, Dimitri Salita, and install a new team to guide him to the upper echelons of the heavyweight division. Tyson Fury was his ultimate target but a lot has transpired between then and now. England beckoned Miller in the summer but opportunities could lie closer to home after something akin to normal service hopefully resumes.
The following afternoon, boisterous Boricuans drown out the noise of a cluster of Eastern Europeans who have assembled at MSG to witness the big-fight weigh-in. Lee Samuels, Top Rank’s highly professional press wizard, had mentioned to me in the preceding weeks that he’d try and arrange an interview with Todd DuBoef, a vital cog in the organisation’s success due to his diligent work in a vice president capacity. DuBoef is something of a stranger to boxing audiences on British soil so I considered this an important assignment, as it served to introduce one of the most powerful men in the sport to people who may have believed that Bob Arum was the sole reason behind the Nevada company’s success. Samuels doesn’t disappoint and a plush meeting room somewhere in the Garden hosts a brilliant insight into some of the most remarkable fights and fighters this sport has ever seen.
DuBoef pleasantly gloats about nights dominated by Manny and Oscar. He speaks passionately of the numbers generated by the former when opposing Floyd Mayweather just over a year previously. The signing of Miguel Cotto following a lacklustre 2000 Olympics is touched upon with a knowing smile and there is also a prediction that Top Rank would get it right at this year’s Olympics, which is still a few weeks away at this point. The promotional giant ultimately captured the signature of Michael Conlan. His controversial exit, followed by an astonishing middle-finger-centred display of dissatisfaction, became the shambolic Games’ everlasting image. The gold medal Conlan craved headed to Cuba but his new paymasters have significant form for creating superstars, regardless of possessing medals. Conlan’s Olympic dream died viciously and cruelly in Rio but Top Rank will give him plenty of hopes to hold on to.
Evaded by New York’s past and present in the shape of gritty super-bantam, Junior Jones, and current middleweight belt-holder, Daniel Jacobs, Lomachenko’s coronation is all that remains for me in the Big Apple. Jones’ phone rang out several times without ever connecting whilst Jacobs cancelled our meeting as he took in a gym session while seeking a rematch with old foe, Sergio Mora, but the latter and I eventually spoke upon my return to England. I’ll have to try Jones once more; what a fighter he was.
My plush seat in The Theater provides more-than-adequate compensation, though Chinese import Zou Shiming almost sends me to sleep in it during his ordinary win over Jozef Ajtai. Luckily for me, Puerto Rican pair, Felix Verdejo and Christopher Diaz, provide enough action on the undercard to improve their ledgers whilst their countrymen get giddy in the stands ahead of the following day’s national festivities. It isn’t a clean sweep for the island however, as Lomachenko hands out one of the most vicious beatings of 2016 to become a two-weight world champion in only his seventh fight. Superstars have emerged from this city via a variety of backgrounds. A devastating southpaw from a town close to the Black Sea in Southern Ukraine is the latest.