THERE was a corridor of fame leading to the fighting pit at Church House last Saturday. In the corridor, large photographs of British heavyweights stood in early and eager judgement: Henry Cooper with his vulnerable eyebrows, Lennox Lewis as imperial as ever and the final glance was from Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua. They all held the British heavyweight title. I walked the walk and I swear their eyes followed me – especially Herbie Hide. It was a bit unsettling and so was Herbie. A fight was coming, the men on the walls were waiting, and Daniel Dubois and Joe Joyce were not even there.
Fast-forward five hours and there was a frenzy of confusion inside the old venue when Dubois took that knee: “What happened?” the cameraman nearest me asked.
This is an attempt to tell the story of the venue, the fight, the people and the result until just after the first bell. The ending, I have to warn you, is still shocking.
In early February, the 7th to be precise, there was a press conference to formally announce the fight. It was set for April at the O2, a huge crowd was expected and it was a pay-per-view. It collapsed as Lockdown hit; Dubois trained at home with his brothers and sisters, Joyce managed to tick over in isolation. A minimum of two more dates came and went, the fight looked lost. And then it was found.
The Archbishop of Canterbury was asked permission to use Church House and he agreed. He first sought an assurance that there would be no lions on the night. The scaffolding and BT lighting rigs arrived, careful not to damage the walls of the building, which are made from plaster using horse hair for texture and strength. The photographs of our boxing icons were placed carefully on the walls, a ring was built and the boxers started to arrive. One or two religious items were removed or draped in black cloth. A giant chair used by Winston Churchill was placed at ringside, but the throne was left empty all night.
A synod meeting had finished 48 hours earlier, but the assembly had left with their faith intact long before the boxing dreamers arrived. Errol Johnson was there with Paul Holt, third on and leaving for a return to the Black Country by 7:40pm. Kevin Mitchell was there with Hamzah Sheeraz, standing in my doorway for most of the undercard. “His improvement is amazing,” he told me.
The Board stewards wandered down the corridor with all the champions, the best British heavyweights since 1970, plus Bob Fitzsimmons. They were marvelling at Cooper’s lack of weight, at Joe Bugner’s lack of respect and at Gary Mason’s lack of options. It was all title talk, all positive – all gathered for a rare fight. I realised very soon on the night that a sense of expectation was heavy. Nerves were on edge, a lot was in the fight’s gamble and grown men would cry by midnight, tears of relief.
Upstairs, in a few occupied seats, family and friends filed in as the fights started. The Dubois outfit took their seats, Dave the Dad and sister Caroline instantly identifiable on the ornate landing that surrounded the hall and ring. Caroline never stopped hollering support for her beloved brother. She was shouting right until the end.
Opposite the Dubois family, Joe’s mother with her white stick was helped to a seat. Joe’s girlfriend at her side – the forum was filling and then from about 8pm the main fighters arrived.
Joyce appeared at my door, smiling, calm with his men Sam Jones and Adam Morallee at his side. Morallee paused to explain the deal that led to Florian Marku fighting on Matchroom shows.
Ten minutes later it was Dubois at my door with Martin Bowers at his side. He was equally relaxed, spotting his family upstairs and waving to them.
In the dressing rooms a small group of friends and family came and went in one of boxing’s rituals. Calm prevailed, but the edge was there in the corridors and staircases. This was a heavy night.
Jimmy Tibbs kept his own company in the corner of Joyce’s room, inspecting his tools and taking inventory of the surroundings. Jimmy has known nights like this before, nights that change a fighter forever. “Big Joe is calm, relaxed and ready,” said Tibbs, who was like ice. That is a man you want in your boxing life.
Frank Warren went on a recce at about 9:30pm to see both fighters. “There is nothing to see; they are both relaxed, ready – both believe they will win,” he said. That uneasy calm continued. More and more of the undercard fighters filled the vacant seats after boxing.
By 10:26 the Sheeraz fight was over, I had no time for an interview and the tension suddenly increased. A lot of people were taking deep breaths, the balcony was silent, the cleaning team in their white suits performed one final silent sweep of the ring. It had transformed, the religious venue had been converted in to our latest fighting pit, it was instant, palpable down next to the ring. The smiling and relaxed air vanished – it was nearly fight time, nearly time for judgement. And it was obvious that there would be judgement.
On one side of the black curtain, at the start of the corridor of icons, Joyce hopped between feet and prepared to walk. I saw his face and he was calm. He walked at 10:43. From behind he filled the space, wiping out shadows with his size. Dubois followed him, he seemed faster.
The ring filled, then emptied. Seconds ticked, the noise increased, the boxers returned to their corners for the final words from their men. I could hear Caroline Dubois and Sam Jones shout their last words before the first bell.
The bell sounded at 10:50, the jab that finished the fight connected about six seconds later and then it was darkness, just the emotions and pain and the twists of a remarkable fight.
“What happened?” the cameraman nearest me asked. I have no idea, but I loved every second of it.