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British boxers on hostile ground

British boxers
British boxers explain what it’s like to fight in truly hostile territory where almost everyone they encounter is baying for their blood. By Elliot Worsell

DESPITE the intimacy they share with their opponent, a boxer is perhaps never lonelier than they are when gloved up on fight night. It is at that point, after all, the ring empties and their support network dwindles, now confined to one of four corners. It is then the crowd, even if loud enough to be heard, becomes little more than background noise, elevator music. It is then the fight – the real fight – begins.

Boxing is called the loneliest sport in the world and for good reason but it is just as true to say some boxers are lonelier than others. Their isolation, self-imposed, starts during training camp, when a boxer feels like an alien walking among humans, their routine one of constant training, calorie-counting, and simmering resentment, and is promoted as being both necessary and character-building. This then continues for six to 10 weeks and will culminate on fight night, when the likelihood is they will be surrounded in their changing room yet stuck in their own heads and consumed by their own thoughts.

A common feeling for all fighters, regardless of their level of expertise, it is usually exacerbated in cases where a boxer has travelled overseas to box an opponent in their opponent’s home country. That element, naturally, brings about an additional wave of loneliness, which will be intensified further if the foreign soil happens to be hostile.

You hear it all the time: “I’ll even fight him in his own back yard.” But what does that really mean? Not to be taken literally, the back yard in question is typically an opponent’s home country or home city. However, in extreme cases, a back yard represents something far more threatening and produces obstacles every bit as challenging as that of the waiting opponent.

In April 2013, for instance, Martin Murray’s WBC middleweight title shot against Argentina’s Sergio Martinez was a tough fight on paper made significantly tougher by the fact it took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Murray, from St Helens, arrived in Martinez’s homeland 12 days before the fight and calls the reception he received from the locals “lovely”. They put him up in a nice hotel and he was treated like a superstar on account of him fighting one. They even rolled out the red carpet, knowing full well they would, on fight night, conspire to then pull it from under him.

“The only time it got hostile, and it did get hostile, was on the night of the fight,” Murray, 39-6-1 (17), recalled. “When we did the ring walk, they purposely took me the long way and it felt like I did 10 laps of the stadium before I got anywhere near the ring.

“There were thousands of people there spitting at me and coming up trying to push and attack us, but we had security and bodyguards stopping them.

“There was this massive screen in the corner of the stadium and, after getting spat at, I looked towards the screen and could see this big greenie hanging off the peak of my cap.

“It was an experience to say the least. But it was an amazing one, everything about it. I didn’t buckle under the pressure. I just loved it. It was hostile but it was once in a lifetime. I buzzed off it.”

Lesser men would have let outside influences triumph and allowed them to impact their performance. But not Murray. He had experienced his share of hostile environments growing up and had changed his life around to such a degree he was able to remain composed in the face of hatred.

“I was unbelievably calm on the night,” he said. “I remember Ricky Hatton, my promoter at the time, was in the changing room and I said to him, ‘How did you feel before you beat Kostya Tszyu?’ I thought me being calm was a sign. A sign it was my time. I thought this was how you are supposed to feel. He then goes, ‘I was absolutely fking shting myself.’ That surprised me.”

Sheffield’s Ryan Rhodes is another British boxer who knows what it’s like to fight a boxing superstar in their home country. Rhodes, in June 2011, fled to Guadalajara, Mexico to battle the then-unbeaten Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and knew only that Alvarez was a talented 20-year-old tipped for greatness and that he, as the away fighter, would be up against it. It would be Rhodes’ first pro fight outside the UK and Rhodes, like Murray, was destined to be killed with kindness.

“We were in an amazing Hilton hotel, the food was great, and everything was bang-on,” he said. “We were getting stopped in the streets when we were out running and having pictures and things like that. We were on the news every day. We saw fight posters in bus stations. We couldn’t have been treated any better – well, apart from in the fight.

“The only time I got any hostility was on the night [of the fight]. The arena was in the back garden of a house belonging to a Mexican tycoon and one of the richest men in the world. It was on this massive ranch with horses everywhere and we were driving down this lane, which was his driveway, and the arena was to the side of his house.

“We were in the dressing room and I said to Dave [Coldwell, coach], ‘Let’s go out and see what the ring’s like.’ So we walked down this stage, opened the curtains, and the spotlight was all of a sudden on me and the crowd went mad and were booing. Everybody realised it was me and the whole crowd went crazy and did all they could to make us feel unwelcome.

Canelo Alvarez vs British boxers

“Because it was the first time this had happened to me, I was really shocked. It wasn’t like a couple of people on a street corner booing or shouting abuse as I jog by. This was 15,000 people all booing. It was a bit weird. I’d never had anything like that in the three weeks we’d been out there.”
Although the reception came as a surprise, Rhodes, 46-6 (31), admits he went to Mexico fearing the worst. “I expected it to be a lot more hostile,” he said. “When we first got picked up at the airport, there was press everywhere. We jumped in a bus and on our way to the hotel, the translator told us, ‘Don’t be going too far away from your hotel. You’ll be going into areas where it could be hostile and dangerous.’ But we were running for three or four miles around the hotel area and I never got any trouble. I must have been quite lucky.”

Former WBC super-middleweight champion Richie Woodhall was issued with a similar warning when he arrived in Maryland, USA ahead of his first world title shot – at middleweight – against Keith Holmes in October 1996.

Holmes, a native of Washington, was a WBC champion whose southpaw skills were enough of an issue for Woodhall going into the fight. But Holmes’ fans, coupled with the general feeling of unease surrounding the event, made the task an insurmountable one for Woodhall, 26-3 (16), by the time he heard the first bell.

“The trip to America was definitely the big step up,” he said. “I’d had a great amateur career and travelled all around the world, so it wasn’t that odd for me to go to America, but, at the same time, boxing for the world championship against an American in America – a Don King fighter no less – threw up a lot of situations and problems I had never before encountered. You’re well-protected as an amateur, and always in that team environment, but this was different. Now it was just me, my old man, my brother, and Mickey Duff, and we were in a real hostile environment.

“It was like a scene from Rocky. During the one press conference we had they wouldn’t even let me speak. There were guys at the back of the room shouting insults at me throughout and they had to be ushered out at one point. It was probably all staged, and probably a tactic to get under my skin, but it was certainly a shock to me at the time. I hadn’t expected any of it. The aim was to knock me off my guard, get me unsettled, and it worked. They knew I was a major threat to Keith Holmes and they knew it made sense to try to disrupt my preparations.

“We were stuck in a hotel and told not to leave at night through fear of our safety. It was in a predominantly black area and I certainly hadn’t encountered that type of environment before. Right or wrong, it was quite scary and we were told we were in danger due to the colour of our skin.”

Another more recent example of intimidation paying dividends is Bradley Skeete’s unsuccessful European welterweight title challenge against Spain’s Kerman Lejarraga in Bilbao in April 2018. Going into the bout, Skeete, defeated just once in 28 fights, was tipped by some to use his height and reach to outsmart the relatively one-dimensional, if powerful, champion. But then Skeete made the walk to the ring and the magnitude of the mission became immediately apparent.

“Being away from home didn’t faze me one bit before the fight,” he said, “but it was so hostile in the arena it was unbelievable. I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life. That was an experience in itself.

“It wasn’t violent, I wasn’t abused, but it was hostile. They [the Bilbao fans] are so pro their man. The ring walk just proved it. I was almost rushed to the ring. There were no barriers up. I couldn’t see the ring. The crowd were surrounding me. They had masks on their faces and were making these crazy noises. It was so hostile. I’d never seen anything like it before.”

Skeete, now 28-3 (13), was ultimately stopped inside two rounds by Lejarraga [above], much to the delight of the champion’s raucous, bloodthirsty fans. He was, in the end, as shellshocked as he was outclassed. “But I wouldn’t change it,” he said. “To be a world-class fighter and to be a champion you’ve got to go through those kinds of experiences. If I got the opportunity to do it again, and be in that situation again, I’d do it. I want to be at that level.”

Getting through it, living to tell the tale, is half the battle. Even if the result isn’t to their liking, there is plenty a fighter can take from the experience of boxing, and holding it together, in hostile territory.

“After getting beaten by Holmes, and going through that whole experience, I said to my old man, ‘You could now put me on a plane and send me anywhere in the world and I’d be confident of performing.’” said Woodhall. “Because everything was thrown at us on that trip and we came through it, albeit without the belt. I got 10 fights’ worth of experience just from that one fight with Holmes and I realised what professional boxing was all about. This wasn’t the amateurs. This wasn’t even necessarily a sport in the purest sense. This was the boxing business and everybody over there [America] carries a win-at-all-costs mentality. You either have to get on board and share that mentality or settle for second place. It’s a nasty business.

“I had about 30 of my mates come over from Telford and they told me some stories on the way home. They had guns pointed at them in the stadium, knives drawn, the lot. They had a rough time of it. I said to one of my mates afterwards, ‘I didn’t hear you boys once out there.’ He goes, ‘Didn’t hear us? You try making a noise with a gun pointed in your direction!’ It was just as much of a wake-up call for them as it was for me.”

Martin Murray’s experience in Argentina followed a similar pattern. He pushed Martinez close, closer than Martinez and his fans would have liked, and his disappointment at losing a narrow decision was soothed only by the relief of escaping Argentina in one piece.

“Because the football’s so mad over there they have a tiny cage in the away end for away fans,” he said. “That’s where all my family and supporters went and they had armed guards guarding them.

“I gave my dad and brother ringside tickets and, when Martinez went down, they were getting death threats from the locals. They ended up going into the secure bit, the fenced off bit, and although I got beat, when Martinez won and it was announced all his supporters tried climbing the cage and throwing stuff into it. My fans had to be rushed out quickly by security.

“That was what happened when he won. I honestly believe if I had won I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale. I wouldn’t have left Argentina alive. I’m not joking.”

Martin Murray British boxers
Lewis Storey/Getty Images

The fight remains one of the defining moments of Murray’s career and was a performance as good as any he produced. On another day, in another country, he may well have come away with Martinez’s title, but Murray tries not to think too much about that.

Instead, he remembers the fight fondly, despite its dangers, and is proud of the fact he was able to enter hostile territory and unsettle the locals.
“When I knocked him down in the eighth round, it got scarily silent in there,” he said. “Everybody was chanting and then I put him down. I remember getting back to my corner and it was just so eerily quiet. The place now had an uncomfortable feeling about it. They thought, He’s going to get beat here.

“I enjoyed that, though. I wasn’t put off or scared. I think it affected me, yeah, but in a positive way.”

It doesn’t always have to end in defeat, mind. In October 1996, for example, Runcorn’s Robin Reid won his WBC super-middleweight title in Milan, Italy, when dethroning champion Vincenzo Nardiello inside seven rounds in front of Nardiello’s fans, friends, and family. He remembers the occasion not as threatening or scary but certainly lonely and certainly anticlimactic.

“I probably had between 10 and 20 people over there who knew me and that was it,” said Reid, 42-8-1 (29). “I had treated this world title fight as just a normal fight, and it felt like one at the end, too. I remember putting the belt on and, though it was a good feeling, it just didn’t feel right. Even when they said, ‘And the new WBC super-middleweight champion of the world…’ I expected it to feel a bit better than it did. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a bad feeling, and I was far from disappointed, but I just expected more.

“When you dream about it as a kid you imagine it being the greatest feeling in the world. You imagine doing it in your home city with 20,000 fans there screaming you on. You want to feel like you’ve made it and have finally achieved all your goals. In reality, though, when they were putting that belt around my waist, half the arena had cleared off in disappointment and the rest didn’t give a crap.

“I got changed, did my p**s test, and by the time we got away from the venue it was about two in the morning. I remember there was me and three of my mates, sober as you like, walking down the road in Milan, belt over my shoulder, and I was thinking, Bloody hell, even with the belt on my shoulder I can’t get a drink around here. The belt, at the time, just felt like a piece of leather draped over my body. It didn’t do anything for me.
“In the end we just headed back to the hotel, still stone-cold sober, and I remember just chilling with my mum, my old amateur coach, and a couple of mates. We had a laugh and a giggle in the reception area, which was nice, but it wasn’t how I imagined ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard or Mike Tyson felt when winning their world titles.”

Alas, whether in victory or defeat, there can be few situations lonelier than that of a boxer fighting for their life in hostile territory. Lose and they let you know about. Win, on the other hand, and not only does nobody want to know but home will have never seemed so far away.

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