THE Love Island fans jammed the barrier, the locals howled, Naeem Ali came to lose and off somewhere behind the scenes Daniel Dubois was talking to his sister, Caroline. It was a familiar Saturday night at the modern fights; hairspray, spray tans and very white smiles. And the girls had also dressed up. All the old characters were back: Bogdan Dinu looked like a soon-to-be dead minder in a bad gangster franchise movie. His beard game was impeccable and he was back grooming it ten minutes after leaving his dressing room. He looked like the kind of guy who doesn’t like to be separated from the mirror for very long. He played his role perfectly. All the foreign losers had to walk a corridor of good-natured heckling, men and women in their Saturday clobber were three and four deep on the barrier. The fans dressed for the fights, make no mistake. The boxers arrived from Sofia in Bulgaria, Durango in Mexico and Hamilton in Scotland, the designated losers on a fun night. Dinu made the journey from Bucharest in Romania and looked nervous as he walked to the ring, probably aware that, in the movie version, somebody like Liam Neeson was about to end his role. Dubois did the same job, make no mistake.
Dubois had spoken to his sister an hour before walking to the ring. His joy at her qualification for the Olympics was part of his wild relief at getting rid of Dinu. Last November, on the night when Daniel lost to Joe Joyce at Church House, Caroline was desolate up on the balcony. She seemed to live every single one of the punches that broke her big brother; Saturday was such a simple, joyous celebration.
Credit goes to Iliyan Markov for getting his role as the pantomime villain. He emerged from the backstage area, filled the waiting stage with a bit of prancing and smiled and laughed as the lights picked him up. He was looking out over 600 of Nathan Heaney’s fans from Stoke. They booed and jeered and he laughed.
And then Heaney appeared and the sound of Tom Jones filled the hall. Heaney sings Delilah like his life depends on it, sings it like it is the last song on earth; sings it like perhaps there might just be a different ending for poor Delilah. His travelling choir look up at the ceiling, throw back their heads and join him for every word. It’s genius, trust me, a perfectly mad song about a man killing the love of his life and then apologising. Tom waits for the new lover to leave and then he goes across, knocks on the door and tops his loved one. He just couldn’t take any more.
Heaney has that rare bond with his fans, no fake idolatry. He knows them and they know him, it’s the Hatton paradox. In Stoke at the King’s Hall he can sell the place out. The bond demands nothing more than he wins and they all sing, it’s not an alliance dependent on him winning a world title. In Stoke, once he has fought, his fans fill the boozers. It’s a night out.
“I don’t deserve this, I’m not good enough for this,” he told me in the chaotic interview at the end of the fight. He is wrong, they love him, it is an old-fashioned fighter and fan thing. There is a great clip of him, still in his shorts and boxing boots dashing all over the car park to thank the fans for travelling down the M6 to watch him. It is something all popular fighters have done over the years; thanking the fans as they leave on a coach for a long or short journey home. Barry Jones tells a story of a fight he had somewhere exotic in the Welsh valleys, and when it was over, he went out to thank the fans on the coach; he ended up driving it back to Cardiff because the driver was drunk. I think there is another Jones story, also set at a leisure centre in the valleys when the coach left, he was stranded and he had to hitch-hike back to Cardiff. Heaney sold 600, could have sold 2,000. That is pull, real pull.
But Heaney was not on his own and a couple of other fighters could have also done some real damage at the box-office. George Bance’s off-air crowd of about 250 set the agenda and local fighter, Liam Davies, came to the ring like a returning hero. Even Caoimhin Agyarko moved a hundred tickets and they were loud. Agyarko should do good business in Belfast.
Tommy Fury’s life in Love Island finished on Saturday when he was clumped a few times in the opener by Jordan Grant. It was a fight, phew. At ringside, Fury’s partner and a couple of other Love Island lookalikes watched the action through their long, painted fingers. At the end, Gypsy John was in fine form, an attraction now in his own right. He talks a lot of sense and genuinely doesn’t care about upsetting anybody. Tommy was gracious in victory. The circus is moving slowly to a new level and it would be nice to see some of the country’s other five-and-zero boxers meet a fighter with Grant’s desire – many would, trust me, lose. I demand more Love Islanders at ringside, hiding behind their sunglasses and wearing glittering heels. There were the obligatory references to the Paul brothers, the most fabulous baddies ever in boxing history. Tommy wants Jake, a great fight between two novices.
I have no idea how far Naeem Ali managed to get up the motorway to Blackburn after losing for the 68th time (not one by stoppage) in the show’s opener. He might have been at home, television on, feet up by the time Dinu walked to slaughter. I hope so, that is what a true pro would have done on a night of screaming fans, pints, hugs, kisses, blood, sing-alongs and relief. And, make no mistake, Ali is a true pro.