We have no time to stand and stare. And stare as long as sheep or cows. No time to see, when woods we pass, Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
W.H. Davies, ‘Leisure’ c1911
Parking had been difficult, as was finding the venue itself, and I was late for the show. It was long since dark and the city still intimidated me a little despite my projection of belonging. I broke into a jog between the pools of street light on my way to the Elephant and Castle Leisure Centre, London. It was late March, 2002.
I found my way to the press section where, despite my late arrival, choice remained, as it often did for fights in this blighted era. Nodding to a friendly face or two, I tried to gather my thoughts from my second row perch alongside ‘the print’ boys to whom promoters usually still deferred 15 years ago.
A laptop or two were on view for the most earnest of the new breed of internet reporters wrestling to capture the action as ‘live’ as technology permitted. Although there for the now defunct boxing-central.com, I held firmer to the traditions of pencil and paper than my newly acquired colleagues.
The London boxing crowd had descended in scores, perhaps hundreds, but not thousands, to create an atmosphere for, among others, Colin Lynes to extend his unbeaten record against Pontefract’s Peter Dunn. Dunn was half way through an 11-year career in which he would go on to lose over a 100 fights. He stuck in my mind for his Desperate Dan stubble and rhubarb red and black striped shorts. I made the rhubarb bit up. But he is from Pontefract, one corner of the Rhubarb Triangle, so I like to think they were deliberately so.
Topping the bill was a neat, technical southpaw from West Ham, Steve Roberts. He was defending his ‘world’ title, the World Boxing Federation Light Middleweight version, versus a rugged Mexican, Kirino (Quirino) Garcia. I remember the promoter of the show, John Shep commenting after his arrival that Garcia ‘looked as tough as nails’. Roberts was a cautious fighter and ever more so after the unheralded Ron Weaver bounced him off the canvas, twice (it may have been three times), the preceding November. In another story Weaver was still only given one round by two judges, and none by the third, Terry O’Connor, who was clearly hard to please that night.
Garcia’s journey to that cool March evening was more remarkable than mine of course, as Pat Putnam would beautifully document some three years later. As with most things Putnam wrote, his account was based on time with the subject and depicts a starved, scavenger beginning for Garcia who was 0-18 before he began to train and care. On his debut, having crossed the Rio Grande in an inflated tyre inner tube shortly before, he was stopped by a youthful Bobby Gunn. He fought 14 unbeaten fighters in those first 18 contests. Happily, Garcia was 32-21-1, and decidedly better fed than he had been for his debut in 1990, when I saw him at the Elephant and Castle.
At the time of this ‘World Title’ clash, the other belt holders and consensus leaders in the division were Oscar De La Hoya, Shane Mosley, Harry Simon, Felix Trinidad and Daniel Santos. An impressive chorus line for any division in any era. It was a curious time to be a fight fan in the UK. The WBF, alongside equally spurious bodies the World Boxing Union (WBU), International Boxing Association (IBA) and the International Boxing Union (IBU) were all widely employed in televised shows.
Scribbling my notes on the twelve rounds of repetitive ‘Roberts jab, circle, Garcia rush. SR 10-9‘ in a half populated Leisure Centre barely anyone who was there would recall, it is hard to contemplate the reality fight fans, and writers, now enjoy.
Back then it would’ve been hard to find a conversation in a pub that stretched beyond Lennox Lewis and whether Tyson would beat him. General interest was marginalised by the lack of mainstream television coverage and the parallel world the use of spurious sanctioning bodies pushed British Boxing in to.
I was struck by the contrast most starkly in the cooling off period after the Mayweather v McGregor bout last month, the momentum building behind the Cruiser and Super Middleweight tournaments in the past week and the prospect of a second packed Stadium for Anthony Joshua in October.
Boxing is now omnipresent. It is a topic. A conversation starter.
Now available across platforms and broadcasters, between free to air, subscription and pay per view services. And increasingly, with the exception of Adonis Stevenson, everyone is learning the benefits of working together to make the important fights happen.
The sport has crossed back from the margins in to mainstream and those of us old enough to remember the absurdity of the preceding era would wonder what type of career Steve Roberts may have had now.
He may never have topped the bill, or more optimistically he would have a resume including his British contemporaries Wayne Alexander, Anthony Farnell, Gary Lockett, Richard Williams, Takaloo and Jamie Moore – all of whom held ‘titles’.
He would have won some, and lost some, which may have been better or worse for him personally, but infinitely more meaningful for the fans who were buying tickets back then. And more would have been inclined too and likely remembered where they were in the dark days of 2002.
I encourage you to pause, and take the time to enjoy the current golden age because it wasn’t always this way.