IT CAN be a very personal business, the boxing business.
It is possible to see just about every emotion from the ringside pit, the seats at a venue and watching somewhere on television. It is a very open sport with few places to hide when the cameras are present.
Last Saturday, Kieran Smith was shocked, broken and shaking his head in disbelief as he stepped down, no more than two feet from me, and walked off to his dressing room. That was total despair, on display for everybody; in the ring, Denzel Bentley was still grinning in delight. Same weight, same fight, different emotions. Everybody watching saw that.
However, there is far more that those of us deep in the business get to see, to hear and to witness. It is the personal and private stuff that serves as a very clear reminder of the privilege some of us share when we gain access to the hidden areas. There is also tragedy back there, moments of total and overwhelming sadness and joy.
Last Friday at York Hall, I had to push shut Lisa Whiteside’s dressing room door to block out the sound of Tysie Gallagher and her team celebrating three rooms away. I had already spoken to Gallagher, talked of her dreams, her baby, her happiness at winning the Commonwealth belt.
And then I reached Whiteside, shuffling in and standing in a room full of people making their hands busy to avoid looking too upset. Whiteside was through another door, under the watchful eye of a silent doping officer and then she came out. The side of her face was swollen and turning purple in front of my eyes. She had shrunk, which is something most losers share. Nobody said a word at first.
The raw emotion was in her voice, threatening to surface, when she did speak. She talked of her beloved little boy, her family, her long journey to that tiny room at the back of York Hall. She talked of the fight, praised Gallagher’s tactics: “They were bob on,” she said, her voice dropping, her heart broken by the loss and what that loss means. Boxers are not fools.
Lisa Whiteside reached amateur World and European championship finals, but the last of those two was in 2014. She won the Commonwealth Games gold in 2018. It has been a long, long life of sacrifices for her boxing hopes. She had her son, she had her injuries, she had her setbacks, she had her battles and she kept dreaming. In that room, late on Friday with the hum of Gallagher celebrating and the unmistakable muffled sounds of a fight taking place somewhere close, her journey was at a standstill, stuck like a grief ball in her chest. She continued talking, her words falling off as the pain took over. The pain had nothing to do with the eye injury. That was a hard conversation, she is such a quality boxer and a decent human. She will sit with those that love her and make decisions – one might be the hardest any fighter has to make. The biggest and meanest and ugliest heavyweights in the world cry then, trust me. There will be tears.
That was Friday, on Saturday there was more raw emotion behind closed doors just a mile or so away. And the doors were firmly closed.
Less than an hour earlier, Joyce had been stopped on his feet in round six. His right eye was closed, his unbeaten record gone. There was shock at ringside and in Joyce’s corner. A lot of men were busy doing nothing in those long minutes when a fight ends like this; the wait to leave the ring seems to last forever. And then behind the closed doors in his dressing room, the inquest starts. It is a familiar pattern.
When I got in, Joyce was in a big huddle with the men and women that mean a lot to him. I was asked to wait just outside the main room, wait in the toilet. There was a lot of concern in that packed room. The ambulance was ready to take Joe off to have the eye socket examined.
“He’s got to go to the hospital,” Joyce’s mother told me. It was a simple and urgent message before I talked to him: Be quick.
Joyce walked through, still smiling. Big Joe really is a treasure. He was measured, praised Zhilei Zhang, dismissed the injury, confirmed his desire to fight, talked about going over the fight, apologised to the fans. It was Joe being Joe, honest, brave and impossible to dislike. Joyce, like the rest of the people packed in the various corners of the dressing room, had no idea what had gone wrong. There are never any instant solutions in the dressing room of a surprised loser, just more questions. Joyce and his people will sit down and watch the fight, talk about the fight and plan a route back. “I will beat him the next time,” Joyce promised. And then his mother, with a stern look in my direction, guided him away and out to the ambulance. There was no need for words, the interview was over.
The rest of the room emptied, mostly in silence. A woman without shoes, more concerned family members, the corner team, the management team. Some making small talk, others alone with their thoughts. A tribe of fight people following their beaten boxer through the tunnels backstage to a waiting ambulance. That is a journey that all boxing people dread.
And somewhere else in the building, as Joyce filed away, Zhang’s people were screaming, making loud phone calls of utter joy and celebrating the future they had just stolen from Joyce. That sounds harsh, but that is the strength of it.
Whiteside and Joyce spent a lot of time together as members of the GB team and last weekend, separated by just a mile or so, they were on their own facing some hard truths. They are both 37.
It was a moving and very personal weekend, make no mistake.