Spitting blood; the forgotten victims of cancelled fights

At a time when Vitali Klitschko is trying to lash his crumbling ligaments together for one last hurrah, Jamie Moore’s is frustrated in his wait for a European shot and Nicky Cook, twice jilted by a troubled Scott Harrison, finally wins a version of the world-title Andrew Mullinder delves into topical subject of fight pull-outs. Away from the spotlight, the personal, emotional and financial costs can be far-reaching.

Spitting blood; the forgotten victims of cancelled fights

By Andrew Mullinder 

There are no leagues or fixed tournaments in boxing. Boxers are brought together by promoters and matchmakers rather than a fixtures list, seeding system or draw. Without the kind of structure that organises almost every other sport, the ostensibly simple process of bringing two men together for a fist fight often reminds me of classic Russian novels – complex and arduous.

But even when the fight is signed, there is no guarantee the boxers will actually step through the ropes and start exchanging blows. Frank Warren’s card last weekend was plagued by pull-outs, while this autumn we can look forward to – it has to be said, in hope rather than expectation – the return of serial fight card murderers Joe Calzaghe and Vitali Klitschko.

There are often genuine reasons for the no-shows and abortions, but, like a teacher faced with a child whose dog apparently has a voracious appetite for homework, the volume of spurious excuses makes frustrated cynics of most boxing fans. However, if I find cancelled fights as infuriating as the England midfield, at least they do not take food from my table, which, as I discovered during several calls to former Commonwealth lightweight champion Kevin Bennett, it can to those boxers jilted at the weigh-in.

I first spoke to Bennett in March 2005 as part of an interview for doghouseboxing.com. We were inevitably drawn to the punishing encounter with Kenyan Michael Muya in which he had won his Commonwealth title. Young Mutley had broken Bennett’s nose in sparring, and it started bleeding almost as soon as Muya began pounding it. Between rounds Bennett’s trainer would stuff adrenalin soaked q-tips up his nostrils to stop the bleeding. But it did not just coagulate in Bennett’s nose: it also blocked his throat, curtailing his air intake, stopping him taking on liquids and slowly poisoning his blood system. Bennett dominated the fight, but by the final rounds, his body was repelling against the oxygen deprivation, dehydration and poisoned blood, leading to a terrifying loss of energy which left him hanging on to Maya’s shorts for the win in the 12th. In the ambulance on the way to hospital immediately after the fight, Bennett, in delirium, vomited five kidney bowls of blood.

Bennett felt, though, that the gruesome toil had been worthwhile. As Commonwealth champion, he looked well placed in an exciting domestic lightweight scene that included Jason Cook, Steve Murray, David Burke, Lee Meager, Danny Hunt, Dave Stewart, and British champion Graham Earl. It was even rumoured that popular fighters Michael Gomez and Kevin Lear would make the step up from super featherweight.

The British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC) had mandated a domestic unification match between Bennett and Earl, as well as a tournament that was to pitch Meager against Burke and Hunt against Stewart in the semi-finals. Earl was a popular figure in East London, and his shows at the Elephant and Castle and York Hall were often sell outs, promising a good payday for Bennett. Further, a win against Earl would see him sitting pretty in a division that might produce a series of attractive fights in coming years.

But Earl seemed to have other plans. First, he had petitioned the BBBofC for a delay in the purse bids for Bennett, and, without even waiting for a reply, arranged a non-title ‘warm up’ match with super featherweight prospect Ricky Burns. Then, with a horrified Bennett looking on from the crowd, Earl lost his eight-rounder against Burns, opening the possibility that his British belt would be declared vacant.

Much to Bennett’s relief, the stewards of the BBBofC deigned that Earl should keep his belt and a contest with Bennett was scheduled for May 12.

It seemed Kevin could now concentrate on training for what would be the biggest fight of his career. Victory would mean guaranteed paydays against a string of eye-catching domestic opponents, and perhaps a shot at a European title. Defeat could mean the effective end of his career. But whichever way it went, Bennett would get his payday and his TV exposure in a big domestic clash.

Then, shockingly, Earl pulled out with seven days to go. Apparently he had a “mild wrist sprain” which would force him to delay training for two weeks. Bennett might have wondered whether Earl kept his appointments based on the folk law advice for avoiding unwanted pregnancy: at the point of climax, withdraw.

When I reached Bennett on his mobile phone after the delay had been announced he was furious, and his normally mild, Teeside accented voice was quivering to hold back his emotions. He had toiled without any income to work himself into shape for the fight, and he was approaching his physical peak. Worse, he was also approaching the target weight, which, for a man who had fought at welterweight, was a process that could have found its way into a Dante novel. Now he would have to somehow slow his work rate and gain weight, before training back up to his peak and back down to 135.

For Bennett, though, the truly crushing blow was that he would have to tell his wife that the summer holiday they had booked for June would have to be cancelled and that they were going to have to wait another month without decent money.

I suddenly realized I had caught him outside his house, plucking up the courage to go inside and break the news.

Boxing is a living for the men brave enough to step through the ropes, but it is commission-only employment that doesn’t pay unless the other guy turns up.

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