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Mind the gap – When Britons step up

Britons
Action Images/Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
Anthony Yarde is not the first British fighter to make a massive step up and take on a supposedly fading but substantially more accomplished opponent. Matt Christie looks at the lessons of history

SOME opportunities, however risky they might be, cannot be turned down. The unbeaten but largely untried Anthony Yarde stepping up to take on Sergey Kovalev this weekend is the perfect case in point.

The Russian is thought to be fading while Yarde is yet to face anyone remotely close to his rival’s standing. The Englishman has weighed up the potential risks and rewards and deemed it’s a gamble he must take. He will enter alien ground, where champions are often born as they prove they belong. Problem is, of course, such assignments can also go badly wrong…

martin murray
Action Images/Andrew Couldridge

FELIX STURM D PTS 12 MARTIN MURRAY
December 2, 2011

Martin Murray, an excellent amateur, was held in high regard domestically but the jump from winning the vacant British middleweight title against a green Nick Blackwell to WBA champion, Felix Sturm, was gargantuan.

But, at 32, Sturm had a long career behind him. Murray, 23-0, went over to Germany, and Mannheim’s SAP-Arena, full of confidence that he could cause what would have been a sizeable upset – particularly in the champion’s backyard.

Murray was a revelation. Proving more in 36 minutes than he had in four years as a professional, the St Helens man eased into his new surroundings at world class and took the fight to the German. After 12 rounds, CompuBox stats had him out-landing Sturm by 80 punches but the judges couldn’t split them. Murray walked away with a credible draw and his reputation enhanced.

JULIO CESAR CHAVEZ W RTD 5 ANDY HOLLIGAN
December 18, 1993

Though Liverpool’s Andy Holligan had proved himself at British and continental level, taking on the legendary Julio Cesar Chavez, then WBC super-lightweight boss, was not so much a step up but a rocket launch to another galaxy.

Julio Cesar Chavez
Action Images/Sporting Pictures

But there was a smidgen of hope to take with him. Chavez, though only 31, was showing signs that his best days might be behind him. Three months before, the supreme Pernell Whitaker appeared to outbox him, only for the judges to score a draw. Chavez was also the veteran of 89 professional fights. Consequently, despite the fact the Mexican hadn’t lost in any of them, there were some faint murmurings that Holligan, 21-0, could be catching “JC Superstar” at the right time.

He didn’t. Particularly not in Mexico. After losing every round to the brilliant assassin, brave Holligan was hauled out of hell at the end of the fifth.

TYRONE BOOZE W RSF 7 DEREK ANGOL
July 25, 1992

Tyrone Booze, 15-10-2, was far from a fearsome opponent but his experience dwarfed that of his rival. Out of the ring for 17 months and coming off a loss to Magne Havnaa, the 32-year-old American, presumed to be disinterested and in decline, was widely expected to gift the vacant WBO cruiserweight title to unbeaten Derek Angol.

The muscled Brit was unbeaten in 26 bouts. They included plenty of picturesque knockouts, but crucially, he had not yet strayed into world class. Even so, BN editor Harry Mullan later the said the fight looked as “one-sided as a penalty kick” before the opening bell.

Booze, though, knew which way it was going to go. Angol started fast but Booze, wily and with years of experience at the top level, settled in and survived the onslaught. In round seven, an exhausted Angol was knocked out.

RICKY HATTON W RTD 11 KOSTYA TSZYU
June 4, 2005

That Ricky Hatton, 38-0, was the underdog going into his shot at IBF 140lbs supremo, Kostya Tszyu, said far more about the Russian-born Aussie than it did “The Hitman”.

ricky hatton

Hatton was one of the brightest young things in world boxing but his opponent, it was presumed, was on a level that very few can reach. Furthermore, though Hatton had chewed through plenty of fading contenders, he had not encountered anyone close to the class of the brilliant Tszyu.

In a gruelling give-and-take war, Tszyu – 35 years old and recognising the wear and tear of many years in boxing – decided enough was enough after 11 rounds. Hatton collapsed to the canvas in jubilation, trainer Billy Graham quickly joined him, before the whole of Manchester made itself heard to the world. Tszyu did not fight again.

ORLIN NORRIS W RSF 1 PELE REID
June 26, 1999

Orlin Norris, a former world cruiserweight titlist, wasn’t considered one of the planet’s best when he appeared on the undercard of Herbie Hide’s loss to Vitali Klitschko in London. Though still an excellent fighter, Norris’ peak had been and gone.

Pele Reid
Action Images

No matter, this contest highlights how badly it can go when a largely untested boxer, in this case Pele Reid, makes a leap too far.

Fellow heavyweight Scott Welch (also appearing on the Frank Warren bill) had breakfast on the morning of the fight with Reid, who was seemingly unaware of what he’d got himself into, and warned him that Norris was serious business.

The Midlander – coming off a loss to Julius Francis – then saw his career wrecked beyond repair when a wise, canny and downright spiteful Norris bullied him to defeat in 91 seconds.

BOB FOSTER W KO 14 CHRIS FINNEGAN
September 26, 1972

Unlike Anthony Yarde, Chris Finnegan – a sublime British talent – was regarded as one of the best light-heavyweights on the planet when he challenged world champion Bob Foster at Wembley in 1972. But, at 23-2-1, he was not given much of a chance of lifting the crown such was the gulf in experience and accomplishment.

But Finnegan excelled.

During the middle rounds it appeared that he was gaining control as Foster, 34, struggled to get to grips with the southpaw.

Then in the 10th, Foster, an incredible puncher, clouted Finnegan with a right hand that put the Englishman on the canvas for the first time in his career.

The challenger regrouped, stinging Foster in rounds 12 and 13, before the champion showed his class and ability when he suddenly ended the fight with an emphatic one-two in the 14th.

JOE CALZAGHE W PTS 12 CHRIS EUBANK
October 11, 1997

There was a buzz surrounding Joe Calzaghe when he collided with veteran Chris Eubank for the vacant WBO super-middleweight championship at the Sheffield Arena in 1997. Eubank had seen his unbeaten record crumble in two fights with Steve Collins but was many observers’ pick to win. After all, he had been operating at world level longer than Calzaghe had been a professional.

Joe Calzaghe
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The Welshman started quickly, dropping Eubank in the opener and swarming all over the Brightonian in the early exchanges. But Calzaghe’s workrate dropped as the rigours of world championship boxing became clear to the young man for the first time.

Eubank had his moments as the fight raged into the business end but Calzaghe – showing off the guts and skill that would make him a British legend – survived to win a lopsided unanimous decision.

JOHN H STRACEY w rtd 6 JOSE NAPOLES
December 6, 1975

No one could deny that John H Stracey deserved his shot at fearsome Mexico-based Cuban Jose Napoles but, even at 35, the WBC welterweight champion was considered too great a challenge.

Britons
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Stracey had forged a solid career but none of his opponents came close to the stature or skillset of the excellent Napoles, who, according to the BN preview, still hand an ‘invincible aura’.

The Londoner also had to contend with taking on the king in Mexico City.
The script was followed in the opening round as Napoles scored an early knockdown. But Napoles, ageing quickly in front of 60,000 fans, soon forgot his lines.

Stracey roared back into the contest, cutting and bruising the champion, before the title changed hands in the sixth round. It remains one of the greatest wins by a British fighter. The humbled Napoles never again entered a prize ring.

KIRKLAND LAING W PTS 10 ROBERTO DURAN
September 4, 1982

BOXING NEWS’ Harry Mullan questioned the decision of Mickey Duff to put his fighter in with Roberto Duran. Duff, and even some readers, objected to Mullan’s view (that Kirkland Laing’s mission was too dangerous) as they stated that the Panamanian’s form was slipping.

But nobody could claim that Laing had fought anyone approaching the class of Duran and no one was picking him to win. The enigmatic Jamaican-born talent, based in Nottingham, warmed up for the great Roberto by knocking out the little-known Joey Mack in Solihull. For context, Duran – with a long reign as lightweight champion and a famous win over Sugar Ray Leonard behind him – had run Wilfred Benitez close over 15 rounds in his previous bout.

Laing turned in a masterclass to deservedly take the decision after 10 rounds in Detroit.

TYSON FURY W PTS 12 WLADIMIR KLITSCHKO
November 28, 2015

Before Tyson Fury challenged unified world champion Wladimir Klitschko, no one doubted the Englishman was a quality heavyweight. But the thought of him becoming king bordered on the preposterous, particularly against someone who had not lost for over a decade.

tyson fury
Action Images/Lee Smith

Tyson, who had taken a hop and a skip against Dereck Chisora and Christian Hammer, then stunned the world when he jumped towards – and cleared – the mighty mark of Klitschko.

Fury showed no fear as he wound up the champion at press conferences and refused to agree to the Ukranian’s demands about the ring padding immediately before. And once in that ring, the charismatic Traveller – then only 27 years old and 24-0 – made Klitschko look every single one of his 39 years. Elite level suited the “Gypsy King” just fine.

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