BETHNAL GREEN in London is widely viewed as the spiritual home of modern boxing. Daniel Mendoza, the most scientific and accomplished fighter of his time whose championship reign extended from 1792 to 1795, lived there. So did many of his fighting brethren.
In the centuries that followed, there were small fight clubs all over London. Most of them have disappeared. But York Hall in Bethnal Green still exists. For many British fighters, competing there is a rite of passage. Lennox Lewis, Tyson Fury, Anthony Joshua, Joe Calzaghe, Ricky Hatton, Carl Froch, and David Haye all fought in York Hall early in their respective careers. But the venue is better defined by the thousands of anonymous fighters who plied their trade within its walls.
“It’s a place that’s frozen in time,” Tris Dixon said recently. “In summer, it’s hotter than hell. In winter, it’s brutally cold. The changing rooms are a disgrace. And it’s wonderful. If you’re a boxing fan with a bucket list, York Hall has to be on it.”
I’ve been to a lot of fights in my life, but only once before in England and that was twenty years ago. On September 16, I went to the fights at York Hall.
I’d arrived at Gatwick Airport south of London on September 15 and stepped into a world of celebration and mourning. One week earlier, Queen Elizabeth II had died. Very few people work until age 96, but the Queen did. In 1926 (the year she was born), the British empire was the largest in the history of mankind, encompassing twenty-five percent of the earth’s land surface. The British flag flew in India, much of Africa, and two dozen other countries around the globe. Her seventy years on the throne saw massive geopolitical change. It intersected with the terms of sixteen prime ministers and fourteen presidents of the United States. She was a living symbol of unity in a fractured world.
The days that followed the Queen’s death were part tradition, part religious rite, part carefully-calibrated political theater, and part personal mourning. People queued up for hours on end in a line that stretched for miles to file past her coffin in Westminster Hall. The weather played a role in bringing out the crowds. The temperatures were comfortable with no rain and a gentle breeze.
One might ponder the fact that Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837 and reigned for 63 years. Elizabeth II served as Queen for seventy. England has had a woman as its monarch for 133 of the past 185 years. Now, barring unforeseen tragedy, the crown will pass from Charles to William to George. It will be many years before a woman reigns again.
York Hall opened in 1929 in a ceremony presided over by the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and his queen). It originally housed a public Turkish bath that is now an upscale spa. The hall began hosting fights in the 1950s and was renovated in 2005. The surrounding neighborhood is undergoing gentrification but still has one of the highest crime rates in London.
Waiting for the doors at York Hall to open, I thought back to my previous experience at the fights in England. On December 15, 2001, I was at the Wembley Conference Centre in London. The undercard included a 19-year-old welterweight named Matthew Macklin in the second pro fight of his career and 21-year-old Enzo Maccarinelli. But the fans had come to see a man from Australia named Justin Rowsell fed to a young lion named Ricky Hatton. The lion devoured its prey in two rounds and everyone went home happy (with the exception of Team Rowsell). Decades later, I remember the energy in the arena that night as though it were yesterday. The frenzy that accompanied Hatton’s “Blue Moon” entrance was enthralling.
The doors to York Hall opened at six o’clock and I went inside. The arena offers a more intimate setting than one might expect from a facility that accommodates 1,200 fans for boxing. A low-hanging balcony looms over the ring – two rows of seats on opposite sides of the room with four rows of seats at the back end.
York Hall is where ring announcer David Diamante called his first fight in the United Kingdom. “It’s a special place,” Diamante says. “I love it. Walking into York Hall like walking back in time. It’s an old building, grit and grime, bare bones, no amenities. It’s not glamorous but it has soul. There’s not a bad seat in the house. The ghosts are there. And the fans make it even more special. These are real fans. They don’t get all dressed up. They’re not there to be seen. They’re there for the fights. They’re rabid and knowledgeable. They support their fighters. And let me tell you something; when you’re in the ring and your neighbors are sitting a few feet away, screaming and yelling for you, it motivates you.”
“On fight nights,” Gareth A Davies told me, “the hall is an absolute bear pit, a cauldron of fire with magic dust in the air.”
BoxRec.com has records for 690 fight cards that were contested at York Hall dating back to 1967. This would be the twenty-first card held there in 2022. In a nod to fate, Frank Warren (who promoted Ricky Hatton vs. Justin Rowsell) was the promoter on September 16.
Warren, whose blue eyes rival those of Frank Sinatra, has been promoting fights since 1981. “In the old days at York Hall,” he recalls, “if it was a good fight, people would throw money into the ring. But health and safety stopped the practice because they were afraid the coins would hit someone in the eye or something like that.”
“The old days” are referred to a lot in boxing. When boxing was boxing – as the saying goes – ticket sellers were matched against each other in neighborhood fight clubs. Now, as Matt Christie recently wrote, “We’re left with too few contests that actually pit a developing fighter against a developing fighter. In the home corner, you have the ticket seller, the point of interest, the all but preordained winner, versus the away fighter who is not supposed to have his or her arm raised. The script is written long before the opening bell and, consequently, it’s very rare that the away corner gets a single victory.”
“Going all out and trying to win is rarely encouraged,” Christie noted with regard to the “away” fighter. “If they do win, they might find that they won’t be invited back to the away corner for a while so their earnings are at risk. Furthermore, anyone who has spent time in and around the small hall scene in Britain will have heard journeymen being told to go easy on certain fighters in the name of education for the up and comer, teach him a few things but don’t embarrass them. The problem with this is that professional boxing has become a glorified popularity contest.”
Warren takes issue with Christie’s appraisal – at least as far as his own shows are concerned. “A lot of these fighters are young,” the promoter says. “They’re learning their trade. They don’t have man-strength yet. Too many hard fights early would be bad for them physically and in terms of their development as fighters.”
Regardless of how one views the issue, the fans at York Hall on September 16 got their money’s worth.
The first four fights went as expected. The red corner was the designated “winners” corner. Blue was for the presumptive losers. The fighters’ records told the tale.
Pro debut vs. 1-2 . . . 6-0 vs. 3-17 . . . 5-0 vs. 3-37-2 . . . 1-0 vs. 3-18-1.
Some of the opponents waited for the opening bell with a look that said “this will be painful.” And they fought like their objective was to avoid confrontations, last the distance, pick up a paycheck, and go home. Others came to win.
In the fifth fight of the evening, there was a surprise. A big one.
Frank Arnold (a popular super-featherweight with a 9-0-1 record) stepped into the ring to face Brayan Mairena (a Nicaraguan citizen living in Spain who had lost 30 of his last 31 fights).
Now it’s 30 of 32.
Mairena landed repeatedly up top in round one.
“Keep your composure, Frank,” Warren shouted from ringside. “Keep your hands up.”
As the bout progressed, Mairena kept pressuring his foe. He wasn’t there to serve as a learning experience. In round three, he knocked Arnold down and pummeled him around the ring. Only the bell saved the favorite from destruction.
That would have been a good time to stop the fight. But Arnold’s corner and the referee allowed the bout to continue. Bad choice. Just past the two-minute mark of round four, an overhand right sent Arnold plummeting to the canvas where he landed face-first, unconscious, with a sickening thud. He lay there for a frighteningly long time with an oxygen mask over his face before rising on unsteady legs and being helped from the ring.
It was a reminder to the sold-out crowd that anything can happen in boxing and, also, just how dangerous boxing is.
Order was restored in fight number six when 3-0 decisioned 1-19.
That was followed by a spectacular fight. Cruiserweight Ellis Zorro (14-0, 6 KOs) swept the first four rounds against Dec Spelman (18-5, 9 KOs), punctuated by a brutal body shot in round four that put Spelman on the canvas and appeared to end the bout. But Spelman survived and started putting hurt on Zorro in the next stanza. In rounds six and seven (the seventh being one of the best back-and-forth rounds I’ve ever seen), he had Zorro in trouble. Zorro’s face was a bloody mess. He appeared to be out on his feet. There was doubt as to whether he’d be able to answer the bell for round eight, let alone survive it. But Spelman was too tired to make anything more happen. Zorro prevailed by a 77-74 margin.
Next up – Royston Barney-Smith (2-0) vs. Paul Holt (8-14, 2 KOs), 6 rounds, junior lightweights.
Barney-Smith is an 18-year old southpaw with a good amateur pedigree and charisma. His first two fights as a pro had been wins by decision over fighters who, as of this writing, have zero wins in 23 fights. Holt was expected to provide more of a challenge. He didn’t. A crushing overhand left that landed flush in the jaw ended matters at the 36-second mark of round one.
“This is a building step,” Barney-Smith said afterward. “Like for a lego. I want to build a castle.”
He’s the sort of fighter that Frank Warren can build well.
At that point, the crowd stood for a minute of silence in honor of the Queen.
Elizabeth II wasn’t a boxing fan. But she did something that no other British monarch ever did. She bestowed knighthood on a professional boxer. When Henry Cooper retired from the ring, he was the most beloved fighter in the history of British boxing. Later, he was instrumental in raising millions of pounds for charity and served as a spokesperson for the National Health Service in a campaign that encouraged people age 65 and older to get flu shots. In recognition of his contributions to society, Queen Elizabeth conferred knighthood upon him in 2000.
The crowd stood respectfully for the tribute. There was no singing of “God Save the King”.
Then came the main event. Denzel Bentley (14-1-1, 13 KOs) vs. Marcus Morrison, (25-5, 16 KOs). Twelve scheduled rounds for Bentley’s British middleweight title. Rounds one and two were a slugfest with lots of give and lots of take. By round three, Bentley had established his dominance. In round four, the referee appropriately called a halt to what was becoming a harrowing destruction.
The best performances of the evening were turned in by Bentley and Barney-Smith. But the two fights that stand out most in my mind are Arnold-Mairena and Zorro-Spelman.
Arnold was hurt. But no one stopped the fight. Again and again, he was blasted with punishing blows to the head before he succumbed. On some primitive level, it was less troubling to me that it was Arnold who was knocked unconscious rather than Mairena. Attribute that, if you will, to some misguided notion of fairness on my part. But the beating that Arnold took on September 16 might change his brain forever.
Zorro vs. Spelman was a “great” fight. Each man was on the brink of oblivion at different times during the bout. And each man came back to turn the tide. That leaves me to reflect on what it means when a fight is “great” – two fighters mercilessly pounding each other, inflicting lasting damage on one another.
Mairena, Arnold, Zorro, and Spelman asked questions of each other in the ring and also questions about boxing. If someone cares about fighters, these questions have to be asked.
Thomas Hauser’s email address is email@example.com. His most recent book – In the Inner Sanctum: Behind the Scenes at Big Fights – was just published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.