Life, they say, is all about balance, with every action having an equal and opposite reaction. If this is true, it must means there is good stuff to balance the following:
Death and serious injury in boxing; bad decisions and bad stoppages; bad judges and bad referees; fights between inebriated spectators breaking out in the stands; fake hate and death threats; struggling to buy face value tickets for popular boxing events; ticket-resellers; empty small hall shows; Tyson Fury and UKAD; Fury getting fatter and not fighting; Billy Joe Saunders’ son punching Willie Monroe Jr. in the balls; David Higgins gatecrashing his own press conference; the Frampton and McGuigan divorce; broken orbital bones; a ruptured Achilles; a torn ear; missing teeth; missing weight; failed drug tests; drug cheats fighting again; Let’s Go, Champ; ill-advised comebacks; pay-per-view, everywhere you look (even on YouTube).
In search of balance, then, here is a list of 17 things that represent all that was good about British boxing in 2017.
Six-round fights between prospects and journeymen typically act as the cue for a parched punter to leave their seat and seek entertainment elsewhere. They are predictable. They are painful (for them, for us). They are, for the most part, pointless.
Gone, however, was the temptation to head to the toilet or bar the night Conor Benn, son of Nigel, and Cedrick Peynaud, son of Mr. Peynaud, let it all hang out at York Hall in December. Perhaps the best small hall fight of the year (at least that people know about), together they shared four knockdowns, two apiece, with Peynaud, an experienced kickboxer, dominating the opening rounds and Benn, an inexperienced boxer, rallying bravely towards the end. Both fighters were a credit to their sport. Both wanted to win (rare in matchups such as these). Both deserved to win.
In the end, the fight was sullied only by referee Bob Williams’ ludicrous 57-54 scorecard in favour of the home fighter, which did a disservice both to Peynaud’s threat level and also Benn’s admirable comeback.
- ‘Pretty Boy’ Kelly
I hate to single out a prospect, especially one still mastering the art of trapping journeymen in corners and pummelling them into submission, but Josh Kelly seems a bit different to the others. He’s unique, to these untrained eyes, because he makes the uncomfortable experience of watching precocious Olympians bully unqualified journeymen an almost enjoyable one. He throws every shot in the book. He takes risks. He wants to excite. He performs with a composure that belies his years (23, by the way). He’s 5-0 but you’d assume (and wish he was) 25-0.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this time next year Josh Kelly and his cool, laidback, hands-down style will have been trumped by an unheralded Eastern European with a hard head and a day job. But, for now, ‘Pretty Boy’ looks special and has made this cynical, tough-to-please judge giddy with optimism.
- The Yarde and Dubois double act
It has been a good year for east London’s Peacock gym. Still a revolving door for journeymen, and anybody else who wants to skip rope and throw punches, the gym has recently become synonymous with two standout young fighters heavily promoted by Frank Warren and heavily profiled on BT Sport: heavyweight Daniel Dubois and light-heavyweight Anthony Yarde.
It’s clear to see the potential in both. They hit hard, they look the part, their performances have so far been faultless, and their personable demeanours, combined with a Peacock affiliation, make it easy to root for the pair.
- In memory of Mike Towell
Sometimes a boxing match is about more than winning and losing. On July 8, Dale Evans fell short in a British welterweight title fight against Bradley Skeete – a contest few tipped him to win – but did so while paying tribute to and carrying the memory of Mike Towell, his former opponent, who died following the pair’s encounter in 2016.
Evans’ plan was to win the title for Towell, dedicate the victory to him, and then take the Lonsdale belt to Dundee to share it with Towell’s family and friends, some of whom made the trip to the Copper Box Arena to support him. This plan was ultimately curtailed – Skeete was just too good – but Evans captured the hearts of many.
- Jorge Linares, the adopted Brit
The least Jorge Linares could do, having crushed the dreams of a number of our favourite British lightweights, was spend a bit more time over here. And, thanks to the relocation of his trainer, Ismael Salas, that’s precisely what he did in 2017, setting up home in London and allowing fanboys up and down the country the chance to ogle videos of him shadowboxing and hitting pads on a daily basis.
For lovers of boxing technique, and lovers of the admittedly loveable Linares, it was bliss. For Anthony Crolla, Kevin Mitchell and Luke Campbell, meanwhile, it was probably a reminder they could have done without.
- US stars in the UK
In addition to Jorge Linares calling London home, one of the upsides of Britain bossing the boxing landscape in recent years is that a lot of the top American talents now think nothing of jumping on a plane and coming over here to perform. Whereas in the past they might have balked at the idea and demanded our guys visit them, it seems the lure of boxing in Britain is strong – sold-out events, numerous world champions, multiple TV platforms – and that can only be a positive thing.
This year was the turn of rising stars Errol Spence and Gervonta Davis, who fought and beat Kell Brook and Liam Walsh respectively. They’re not household names yet, but, on the evidence we witnessed up close, it won’t be long before they are.
- Taylor humbles Davies
This fight worked on two fronts. It worked, first of all, because it was that rare thing: a main event on Channel 5 that actually captured the imagination of the (boxing) public. It featured two prospects battling at a relatively early stage in their respective careers. It was a fight fuelled by hatred. It was Groves-DeGale lite (and that was just fine).
Secondly, because of the way Ohara Davies had gone about his business – goading Josh Taylor and others, trying to create this peculiar bad guy USP – there was a kind of poetic justice to the finish in round seven, as Taylor, the unassuming and humble Scotsman, turned on the style, dropped Davies and served up the first defeat of the Londoner’s pro career.
- ‘The Bomber’ delivers
The non-title heavyweight fight between Tony Bellew and David Haye was supposed to be one thing but turned out, on the night, to be something completely different. It was, they said, a cynical pay-per-view mismatch between a big man and a much smaller man, one likely to end early. But Bellew passionately disagreed, pointing to Haye’s age (36), inactivity and worn out body as three reasons why he would prevail. Haye, meanwhile, perhaps desperate to sell the pay-per-view, or perhaps meaning every word of it, guaranteed Bellew he would not only be defeated on March 4 but would end up in hospital. It was unsavoury, unnecessary stuff, and served only to shine a light on the fact many of us had no interest in seeing the thing in the first place.
Still, shortly after they began throwing punches, and we quickly realised Bellew wasn’t out of his depth and Haye wasn’t anywhere near his best, the fight, as ridiculous as it seemed beforehand, started to appeal. There were some wild exchanges, plenty of drama, and then an injury to Haye changed the flow of it all in round six. Achilles snapped, he hobbled hopelessly through the remaining rounds, displaying guts and bravery he’d once attributed to lesser talented boxers, all the while Bellew, prophecy realised, stood in the pocket, swung for the fences, and eventually knocked him out the ring in the eleventh.
- DeGale and Jack are inseparable
Easy to forget because it happened back in January, the WBC and IBF world super-middleweight title clash between Badou Jack and James DeGale was a unification fight that truly delivered.
It worked, I guess, because the pair, ordinarily crafty and considered boxers, threw away preconceptions and decided to stand and trade from the get-go, the result of which was a war of attrition that saw Jack hit the floor in round one and then DeGale, having tired down the stretch, crash on the seat of his pants in the twelfth. There were momentum swings throughout, breathtaking exchanges, and even some missing teeth. It had it all. In fact, the only thing it lacked was a clear winner, as both men begrudgingly settled for the draw.
- Tete makes KO history
The last thing you want to do if you’re Zolani Tete, one of the most avoided fighters on the planet, is terrify the opposition. But that’s exactly what the WBO world bantamweight champion managed to do in Belfast in November when he viciously knocked out Siboniso Gonya in just 11 seconds. As well as terrifying, it was officially the quickest knockout in the history of world title fights, and will, unfortunately, have those prone to forgetting the South African’s name running for the hills (if they weren’t already there).
- Katie Taylor and the rise of girl power
Ireland’s Katie Taylor isn’t the only female to make her mark on British boxing this year, but she’s certainly at the forefront of the movement, having fought an admirable six times and, in October, won the WBA world title. Well-schooled in the ring and a role model away from it, Taylor appears the ideal poster girl to elevate the sport in the coming years. There will be others, too, the likes of Nicola Adams, Chantelle Cameron and Natasha Jonas, all of whom started making waves in 2017.
- Burnett wins title, unifies immediately
World titles mean more to some boxers than they do to others. Ryan Burnett, for example, a young Irishman who once slept in the back of a van with his father, surviving on snacks from Tesco, is someone for whom a world title victory truly means the world.
What’s more, rather than resting on his laurels, Burnett, having beaten Lee Haskins to lift the IBF bantamweight belt in June, then boldly unified the belt with Zhanat Zhakiyanov’s WBA version in his very next fight. Four months between winning and unifying, it’s unlikely a fighter has ever collected titles so quickly.
- Groves gets it right at the fourth attempt
Try, try and try again, Georges Groves’ WBA world super-middleweight title win over Fedor Chudinov was a 2017 remake of the old Frank Bruno story of perseverance. (Defeats to Carl Froch and Badou Jack were enough to convince some that Groves would be a nearly man of British boxing, but the Londoner was having none of it.)
On May 27, ‘Saint’ George survived an early Chudinov onslaught, took his licks, and then abruptly finished the fight in round six with a relentless barrage of head and body shots, an attack all the more impressive given it arrived just six months after Eduard Gutknecht, Groves’ previous opponent, had ended up in a coma following similar punches.
Speaking of which, Groves’ post-fight interview was arguably the most moving single moment of the year. Heartfelt and poignant, if the performance alone wasn’t enough to produce a lump in the throat, the words said afterwards would have done the trick.
- Billy Joe’s Christmas boxing lesson
Thirty-six minutes was all it took WBO world middleweight champion Billy Joe Saunders to decorate the face and body of David Lemieux with lefts and rights, in Canada no less, and become a viable contender to the likes of Gennady Golovkin and Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez.
The fear of late was that Saunders, though undoubtedly gifted, would be a fighter whose ill-discipline might one day prove his undoing. Yet Billy Joe, in hooking up with Dominic Ingle and relocating to Sheffield’s Wincobank gym, seems to have not only recognised this possibility but done something about it, and December 16, the night he schooled Lemieux, was a testament to this renewed motivation and focus. It also went some way to suggesting Saunders, on his day, may very well be Britain’s best boxer.
- World Boxing Super Series cuts to the chase
Shrouded in mystery and uncertainty when it was first announced, the World Boxing Super Series has turned out to be a breath of fresh air, cutting through the bulls**t and making a convoluted sport easier to understand. It has kept talented fighters busy. It has tried to be different. It has, up to this point, worked in a way not many tournaments do.
Best of all, though, the WBSS, brainchild of Sauerland Promotions and Richard Schaefer, has managed to get every one of the world’s best cruiserweights involved – giving that tournament a real sense of purpose and authenticity – and brought together British super-middleweights George Groves, Chris Eubank Jr. and Callum Smith, all of whom line up in next year’s semi-finals.
- BT Sport get involved
Competition will make a weight class worth monitoring and a fight worth watching. Competition between television broadcasters, meanwhile, is normally a surefire sign the sport is healthy and perceived to be valuable. (Better yet, it suggests risks will be taken in order for a broadcaster to establish themselves as number one, which, in turn, means the overall product delivered to boxing fans will improve.)
For as long as it was just Sky Sports and a few on the periphery, ruthlessly dipping in and out, the future of British boxing appeared a little lopsided and streamlined. Perhaps even uncertain. But throw BT Sport, a significant and powerful player, into the mix and the market all of a sudden opens up; opportunities for fighters open up; complacency among rivals no longer exists. British boxing, it would seem, is going to be firing on all cylinders in 2018.
- Joshua, Klitschko and 90,000 people at Wembley
On April 29, 2017, some 90,000 people descended on the national football stadium to watch a world heavyweight title fight. NINETY THOUSAND PEOPLE. When put like that, how could British boxing in 2017 get much better?
Well, half an hour later, it kind of did. Because not only did Wembley Stadium host an occasion like no other, with multiple world heavyweight titles on the line, but the eventual humdinger between Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko was so good it wriggled its way into the upper echelons of the greatest heavyweight fights of all-time list (if such a thing actually exists).
Momentum chopping and changing throughout, Joshua, on his supposed coronation night, came up against a former champion hellbent on rolling back the years and regaining the title he had once held for the best part of a decade. It made for quite the war. Both men hit the deck and appeared on the brink of disaster, only for Joshua to eventually prevail and stop Klitschko in round eleven.
As the dust settled, the money was counted, and reputations were enhanced, we realised Joshua vs. Klitschko was the palate cleanser the sport probably needed, and that, crucially, in a year of juvenile trash talk and unnecessary animosity used to flog pay-per-views, the most amicable build-up in the history of heavyweight boxing produced one of the division’s most savage fights. (There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere.)