There are people who know far more about boxing than me, there always has been and there always will be. For some this precludes me from forming an opinion of merit and as such, that opinion should be kept private. After all, I’ve never climbed between the ropes. Which isn’t quite true, but my fistic career never progressed beyond some tame sparring at my local ABC in my mid-thirties, I was dropped twice by body shots in the process too, and my street fighting record is, as far as memory serves, 0-1-1.
I’ve have watched a lot of boxing mind you; from Audley to Zolani, Oscar to Choi and most of what lays in between. I’ve seen knockouts that made my stomach flip, one sided beat downs which made we want to turn away or turn off and I’ve seen cornermen cajole and, in the cases of mess’s Francis and Calzaghe, slap their subjects to extract a response.
The exchange I witnessed between Billy Nelson and the Congolese heavyweight Martin Bakole, now fighting out of Scotland, last Saturday night was something I’ve never seen before. And, while there are more forgiving opinions available, from voices many would prefer to listen to, I hope I never do again.
For background, Bakole is a big, powerful man who had beaten everyone he has faced in a short career that had gathered a little belated momentum in the preceding twelve months, not least because of the PR campaign of trainer Billy Nelson. A respected man, Nelson enjoys national and international recognition for his exceptional guidance of the brilliant Scot, Ricky Burns.
Over that past year, Nelson’s often frothy proclamations that Bakole had become an avoided prospect and impossible to match were often met with scepticism and no little cynicism. However, it was in Bakole’s service as an Anthony Joshua sparring partner that a degree of validity was begrudgingly granted. And to this landscape, finally, an important bout, a ‘qualifier’ of sorts, with Michael Hunter Jnr., guided by Hasim Rahman, materialised for the Barry McGuigan promoted heavyweight.
The fight itself was enjoyable, in that way lower tier heavyweight fights often are, and screened for free to a significant Channel 5 audience here in the UK. Hunter, Bakole’s supposed ‘sacrificial lamb’ for this would be ‘coming out party’, lurched from the astute and precise to the desperate and disorganised despite the evident superiority in skill and mobility he had. Fending off an opponent with a 43 pound weight advantage is tiring both physically and psychologically one could presume. As Hunter punched, ducked, moved and clinched his way through round after round there was still reason to suspect he would run out of steam and Bakole would prevail.
Bakole held significant reach and height advantages after all and whilst there were occasions when Hunter’s heaviest shots simply bounced off, to illuminate the protection afforded his prospects by the disparity in size, Bakole didn’t employ them offensively to any great effect. Frequently, the 10-fight novice stood too square, allowing Hunter to seize centre ring and dictate the pace of the fight. As the contest entered the second half, Bakole grew increasingly passive and inert.
In the closing minute of the eighth of ten scheduled rounds, Bakole threw a lethargic right which landed over a left lead from his opponent. The interlocking arms jarred Bakole’s right shoulder and the taller man immediately leaned in to a clinch with his eyes widening in pain and distress. His left hand, wrapped around the crouching Hunter, Bakole pointed to his right shoulder in an attempt to forewarn his corner of the injury he’d accrued. A marked protuberance was visible, although following some tentative rotations he would perform in the 9th, this visual clue would disappear.
Which leads the story of the fight to the exchange that occurred between the apparently stricken fighter and Billy Nelson, as heard by the television audience, in the one minute respite between the eighth and ninth rounds. It is with gratitude to the producers of the Channel 5 broadcast, and their editorial instinct to show the corner work as fully as possible, that the following transcription of Martin Bakole and his Chief Second Billy Nelson is made possible:
Nelson: “carry on.”
Nelson: “No. Hey! Hey. No. Two rounds to go. You must continue.”
Bakole: “Quit. Quit! Put something on it.”
Nelson: “Martin, you need to listen. You need to listen.”
Bakole: (Muffled) “How am I supposed to win when I only have one arm!?”
Nelson: “Just work on the jab, we’ll jab his head off. Please. You need to work. Martin. [Whisper] You’ve no fucking quit in you. Martin, Martin.”
Bakole: [Looking beyond Nelson] “Please, will you help me?”
Bakole, a now crestfallen figure, rose from his stool and walked three strides forward, turned back to his corner where another inaudible exchange occurred and some apparent manipulation of his right arm was performed, he was then, one can only surmise, asked by Phil Edwards if he was ready to continue and Bakole nodded. Battle resumed and Bakole managed to throw a series of left jabs. The round ended, Hunter adding another 10 points to his score, and Bakole returned to the sanctuary of his corner having taken many more solid blows. He was no happier. The fight was lost by my scorecard, but not, it would prove, the scoring judges, and in my opinion it was hard to fathom the benefit of Bakole continuing.
This was, after all, a contest for a minor version of a minor title.
In the break before the final round, Nelson, once the commentary preamble was complete, could be heard clearly instructing Bakole to throw the same right hand his fighter had reported to be injured.
Nelson: (Muffled) “You must throw your right…”
Nelson: “We can repair it, we can repair it, we can repair it… after the fight okay?. You must let it go. If you don’t let it go…[pause]….you can’t be champion. Come on.”
Bakole now wore a beaten expression, it afforded him the look of a victim in a two man play in which he had arrived expecting to play the heroic lead. Hunter capitalised and landed a flurry of heavy shots to force back the larger frame of the vulnerable giant and draw the intervention of the referee.
The unbeaten record was lost and his Chief Second, who British Boxing Board of Control rules dictate, ‘shall alone have the responsibility of retiring a Boxer in a Contest’, lost the respect of those of us privy to the final act.
And, having watched it back more than twenty times since, the word on which the whole narrative hangs, on which I felt the greatest insight could be derived, was ‘please’.
One revealed how desperate Bakole felt; injured, losing and without the fighting wit to overcome his opponents mobility and looping right hand, and the other, expressed by Nelson, which spoke to his needs, rather than the fighter in his care.
But then I’ve never climbed between the ropes.