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Bunce Diary: How a big fight slowly slipped away after the Queen’s goodbye

Claressa Shields and Savannah Marshall pose in London while filming an episode of The Gloves Are Off (Lawrence Lustig)
On Thursday morning, Claressa Shields and Savannah Marshall were preparing to headline an all-female card on Sky Sports. By the evening, everything was in the balance. Steve Bunce explains all

PICTURE this, please. It happened, it is true.

In the lobby at the hotel by the Thames, the finest female boxers in the world were gathering in corners. Their teams were protecting them, men and women wrapped close to them in red or black or blue tracksuits and shirts. There was the edge I like, the sense of a special night just a few hours away. A bit of hostility in the air.

 It is noon on Thursday. The day the Queen died. But, in that hotel lobby, at that time, there is absolutely no idea what was about to go down. Not a clue. It was a typical gathering of pre-fight boxing people. There was talk of revenge, lost fights, fights made and fights dreamed of.

In the hotel’s ballroom a wall of tripods had been erected. The conference on the Thursday was so big that it was split between three sittings. The O2, by the way, is just across the river. It’s our venue for history. There are so many fighters in such a small space; Sky are going live, the BBC want a quick bonus podcast. This is a real event.

“You seen this?” my producer, Paddy, asks me and hands me his phone. It’s a line about the Queen and her health. It is a disturbing notice; it doesn’t sound like she is ill, it sounds like she is close to death. There is no panic, no fear at that point. The first of the undercard fighters are on the podium stage. There are a lot of them.

It’s 1pm on Thursday and we still have a fight. And a few tickets left at 25 quid.

“These are my Olympic sisters,” said Ginny Fuchs, an undercard attraction. “I grew up with Mikaela and Claressa.” Fuchs was part of the USA’s Rio team alongside Claressa Shields and Mikaela Mayer. Later that day, when innocence still reigned, the three would re-create a photograph from the Olympics. They are all still smiling in the picture; nobody had officially declared the Queen dead at that point. We still had a night of fights.

The first group of women left the stage and Mayer, Alycia Baumgardner, Bob Arum, Al Mitchell, Caroline Dubois, Karriss Artingstall and Lauren Price took their seats. That’s an Olympic table, trust me. Mitchell was in charge of the USA’s 1996 squad and his personal fighter, David Reid, won the home nation’s only gold. Price won gold, Artingstall bronze.

Meanwhile, the rumours of the monarch’s death had started. An editor from the BBC was deep in a quiet conversation by the coffee machine and several of Sky’s team had blank faces. Still, four Olympians and Arum were on the stage. The show rumbled on, the quotes tumbled.

“This is history,” said Arum, once one of the biggest critics of women’s boxing. “In the future, people will talk about this night. It will be history.”

Ben Shalom, the promoter, praised the multiple and rival teams that had come together to make the show happen. “This collaboration would not happen in the men’s sport,” he said. It has become a theme during the build to this night that the men have too many options, too many easy ways to avoid each other.

“Our pool is not that big – we have to fight each other,” said Dubois.

Al Mitchell got the first of several standing ovations when he said: “The women are changing boxing – I just hope I’m not 90 years of age when Crawford and Spence fight.” At that time, that wildly innocent time, we still had a rodeo and we had a very special night.

Baumgardner and Mayer would stand on its own as a great fight, a potential fight of the year. They are two different boxing beasts. “She talked this fight into existence,” said Baumgardner, who eyes Mayer with something close to hate. Mayer, meanwhile, just wants respect. “She has disregarded what I have achieved,” Mayer said before the latest cold face-off. The night was getting better by the second.

It was close to 2pm when the main event took to the stage. The Queen’s death was being predicted. I was getting bad signs from a couple of my BBC colleagues. “Everybody is wearing black on television,” I was told. Looking back, that was more of a warning.

Shields and Savannah Marshall delivered. There was a terrific line or two from Peter Fury. It was edgy, nasty, and serious. Shields was angry. It was an old-fashioned, bad-tempered conference between two fighters with a lot of hate. Marshall is cool under fire.

There is a rematch clause, we were told. “No need for that,” Shields said. “If the public want it, there will be a rematch,” said Mark Taffet, manager of Shields. Then Fury talked about diamonds in a bag. You know the quote. The big crowd loved it. We still had a fight. It was about 3pm.

That first day, I had spoken to Shields, Marshall, Baumgardner and Price. They were ready, Shields tight on the weight, Marshall just about finished with the circus side of the fight. I had also spoken to Arum as he left the stage. He was in great form and told me Tyson Fury would not be fighting Anthony Joshua this year, that he would be fighting in December and that Oleksandr Usyk is the plan for April or May next year. The BBC pod that day was very good. It was never released, obviously.

We still had a fight the next morning, 12 or so hours after the death was made official. The weigh-in was switched from a public event to a closed event – not even open to the media – at the fight hotel, the one next to the O2. I was there by about 10am on the Friday. The guidelines for cancelling sporting events were discretionary. The clock was ticking. The weigh-in was 1pm and then it was switched to 3pm. Some of the boxers were getting edgy, the weight was an issue and the extra two hours would be hell.

The weigh-in was switched back to 1pm and then at 12.43pm it was switched again, back to 3pm and the long wait continued. There was a problem making a final decision, a split between the Board, the promoters and Sky, the main broadcaster. The boxers waited in the lobby, some were agitated, and others were calm. Mayer and Shields were up in their rooms waiting for updates.

At 11.30am on Friday, the Premier League postponed their matches. That was meant to be the sign, but when it was announced it never changed a thing. The boxing was still happening and that is worth noting.

“We wait, there is nothing else that we can do,” said Mikaela Mayer’s manager, George Ruiz. Mayer is tight at the weight and that is why she came to London so early; Mayer needed to monitor her weight through the last days and hours. Suddenly, she had two extra hours to wait and that is a significant figure, a decent percentage of her recovery time.

At about noon, Robert Smith from the Board was still driving down from Cardiff, Sky’s officials were on site, Shalom was floating about, Andre Ward and the full ESPN crew were in the lobby. The tension was mounting; the atmosphere was getting a bit ugly. There were a lot of boxers worried about the weight and the wait for the scales. Nobody was talking about money at that point.

“Buncey, they have got to let us know soon – they have got to make a decision, these fighters need to rehydrate,” said Kerry Kayes, the master of nutrition. The tension and conflict would increase as the minutes slowly ebbed. Ruiz came by with a shrug. Artingstall needed to eat. Dubois was pacing. Steve Gray arrived and checked in. He looked as bemused as anybody and then there was light relief when Conor Benn and his partner, Victoria, arrived at the hotel’s check-in desk. “I’m not here for the fight – I’ve got a couple of days off and I’ve just come for a massage and a couple of days relaxing; a break,” he told me. He booked the wrong hotel for a quiet retreat; it made me smile.

On the first floor at the hotel, the final meeting to discuss the show’s status had started at about noon. At 1.32pm, Smith arrived and was rushed upstairs, flanked by two members of the security detail. The fight was still on at that point.

“We all need to know soon,” said Al Siesta, fight fixer and insider. Siesta had three on the bill and he had also lost a few boxers on the postponed bill on the Friday night at York Hall. The Board had made that decision on Thursday night to scrap Friday night fights.

Not long after Smith went up the stairs, there was an announcement. “All fighters and trainers, please come up to the weigh-in room now,” said Clifton Mitchell.

It was about 1.48pm when the horde traipsed upstairs to get the news. At first, the weigh-in room was packed with boxers, their teams and their lawyers in some cases. There was still no official word. At 2pm the room was emptied and only boxers and one member of each team was allowed to remain. I saw the faces of defeat on the men in control as they filed in to deliver the news. The official word came at about 2.04pm. It was off. It seems the Premier League decision was the vital one.

It is too easy to say that it was inevitable the fights would be scrapped. I truly believe that the show was still being discussed right up until the very end. There are others that insist it was off late on Thursday.

“I’m a big girl and I understand,” said Shields. “The country is mourning.”

The new fight date is October 15 and that could clash with a variety of commitments and problems. Shields has a MMA gig planned for November. There is the Devin Haney and George Kambosos rematch on ESPN that night. There is no time to rig the venue for 20,000 people because Roxy Music are in the O2 the night before the planned date. All problems can be solved in the boxing business if there is the will and there is the will for this night. Mayer and Shields vowed to return.

And then it was really off. It was an odd atmosphere. The full ESPN crew had gone for lunch. There were a lot of resigned faces. A lot of people lost a lot of money. A lot of fighters had spent a lot of money to make it happen, and not just the four women in the two world title fights. Security, trainers, cameramen, freelancers all lost money. Fans lost thousands. Everybody just accepted it.

At the fight hotel late on Friday afternoon, the first boxing teams started to pack and leave. It was quite emotional.

Conor Benn would get his peace, his break.

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