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Boxing emerging from lockdown

Tyson Fury boxing
Even lockdown couldn’t stop the mad boxing world from turning

THE memory of Tyson Fury’s savage mauling of a helpless and hopeless Deontay Wilder was still fresh when the boxing world was shut down back in March. That was a high, my friend, and it never lasted long. After the close of boxing at the Olympic qualifier, which was at about 10pm on March 16, a Monday night, the rest of the British boxing business went into forced hibernation. The delay – the future is still uncertain – for the GB boxers at the event is cruel. Before the curtain came down at the last qualifier (the American version had just been cancelled) Galal Yafai and Peter McGrail qualified for Tokyo; eight days later Tokyo was put back a year. That was a brutal start to this hellish break.

The last professional boxing in Britain was 48 hours earlier when six shows took place with a total of 50 fights before the doors slammed shut. Boxing went dark. We had our fears then, but nobody thought it would be July 10 before we – in medical camouflage – would get to watch fights again. I still had hopes that I would join 11,000 at the O2 for Daniel Dubois and Joe Joyce on April 11.

The list of big fights that vanished is vast, millions lost, fans left with nothing, the promoters with television deals were left in turmoil, desperate to scramble something. Fights from April were pushed to June, fights in May pushed to July – the summer was approaching fast, the black hole got bigger. In early May the British Boxing Board of Control issued their “consultation” document for behind-closed-doors show. The men running small-hall shows without the cushion of television funds wept, their business was dead. “We will lose boxers,” warned Eddie Hearn. He was right.

And it has also cost far more than collapsed fights and a few absent boxers. We lost a lot of good people.

Les Stevens died in April. It was Covid, he was 69 and had been involved with changing souls and saving lives at Pinewood Starr for nearly 40 years. He was a rare beast, a top fighter, a nice man and he devoted his life to boxing – most of it under radars, but never neglected. As an amateur he won medals at the Commonwealth Games, the European under-21 and full European championships; as a pro he lost on points after ten rounds to Jimmy Young and just sixty or so days earlier he had dropped a ten round decision to John Conteh. Also, boxing people that survived the illness sound shell shocked from their narrow escape.

There was also the vanishing man, Daniel Kinahan. On June 10 he was praised for making the Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury fight. Fury went vocal, Bob Arum and others patted the Irishman on the back and then, like magic, he was gone. It was announced that he had stepped back from international boxing and there was silence. Billy Joe Saunders then threatened to quit boxing because Kinahan, the only man he could trust, had walked away. There were denials, a lot of extra distancing and confusion. However, if a man is accused of something the accusation is a fact – it doesn’t mean he is guilty, that comes next. Kinahan went from boxing’s greatest modern fixer to the invisible man in less than two weeks.

Mike Tyson was not invisible and turned 54 as he turned his body into something he left behind a long, long time ago. He had the slick assistance of some smart short clips. He was coming back – Evander Holyfield was in a parallel training camp of craziness – and Danny Williams, Gypsy John Fury and a body-builder from Essex were all on his fight list. Well, that was the story for about a month. It was discussed seriously by far too many people. The WBC said they would rank him in their top ten. Just think about that for a second, thanks.

I spoke to other iconic boxers for a new BBC series, sitting in awe as Sugar Ray Leonard threw punches as we watched his first fight with Thomas Hearns. “Thanks, guys,” he said at the end, relieved once again that he had won. His voice was wet with emotion; it was an hour I will never forget. I also was privileged to be part of a show that was eventually dropped when I had Naseem Hamed and Steve Robinson together to talk about their fight. It was magic, beautiful. It made me smile like a child.

There have been good guys and the words from Anthony Yarde on the backlash after George Floyd’s murder were quite brilliant; the work done during the break by enigmatic pro Viddal Riley with the Teenage Cancer Trust was also impressive. They are decent men outside the ring and top fighters. They deserve recognition.

However, there was little joy as I had to watch helpless and scared as dates and fights and nights and titles and work tumbled. Nobody seemed to know where the 1,000 licensed boxers had gone. “It’s bad, real bad – I worry about their mental health,” Steffy Bull told me in late March. It just seems so long ago.

The fear turned very real when both Gary Sykes and Scott Fitzgerald crashed in and out of the boxing news, raving, scrapping, having confrontations with the police, talking to demons and struggling against an invisible opponent. It is hard to invent their despair, their fall, the chaos that shadowed the pair of them for a short time. They wanted help, they needed help – it is never that simple. Sykes, the former British super-feather champion, will get help soon, and Fitzgerald, the current British super-welterweight champion, has to find some help that works. They are not on their own.

And, finally, to prove it might have all been a dream here is the undisputed number one moment of Covid lunacy. In the lost and confusing days of early April there were hundreds of online fantasy features: Greatest Fight, book, film, knockout and then there was the middleweight fantasy fight series. You know the one, yep, that one: the one that had Carlos Monzon knocked out by Winky Wright. Monzon won 87 fights, lost just three and was never stopped. He went 14 years without a loss, made 14 defences of middleweight title. Wright went 12 rounds with Anthony Ivory. Crazy, it made me chuckle and despair in equal measure – boxing can do that to you.

Now, it’s time for a face mask.

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