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, poet, ‘Leisure’
Parking had been difficult, as was finding the venue itself, and as a result, I was late for the show. It was long since dark and the city still intimidated me despite my tailored attempt to project self-assurance and 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. A cool night, I missed the entrance. Twice. No fluorescent signs, no limousines. Just a door, in the shadows, almost turning away from the glare of potential passers by negotiating crossings, blurting horns and the choke of car fumes.
Boxing inhabited a different world twenty years ago. One of Leisure Centres and bootlegged world titles. Smaller. Seedier. And virtually unrecognisable from the gigantic events we now enjoy.
I found my way to the press section where, despite my late arrival, choice remained, as it often did for fights in this blighted and forgotten era. Nodding to a familiar face or two, I tried to gather my thoughts, resist the imposter syndrome welling inside and settled in to my second row perch. The ‘print’ boys, to whom promoters usually still allocated the front row 15 years ago, prepared their opening and close or turned to each other, talked about the game at Loftus Road they’d covered that afternoon. In the privacy of their thoughts, each scored the card girl out of ten and yawned. No need to follow the action above.
For print, only the headline mattered. And that, barely.
A laptop or two were on view for the most earnest of the new breed of internet reporters, wrestling to capture the action as ‘instantaneously’ as dial up and technology permitted. Although present at the Elephant and Castle for the now defunct boxing-central.com, I held firmer to the traditions of pencil and paper than my newly acquired colleagues. As much because I didn’t want baggage when flirting with a gallop back to the car and, to those who asked, I simply preferred to soak up the event. A screen inserts distraction. One of the joys of a night at the boxing, is the study of those around you. The tanked up lads, the couples, him in jeans, her in less than the fighters, the formers pugs, the sweating judges, oversized blazers with logos of affiliation.
Undercard opponents shared walk in music, and probably shorts too. Mike Goodhall, in the bow tie hours of his 20 hour Saturday, bawling out the record of perpetual defeat that was a passport to work for those from Poland, Belarussia and Lithuanian twenty years ago.
A smattering of London’s boxing crowd had descended, perhaps hundreds, but not the thousands of today. They created an atmosphere of sorts for, among others, Colin Lynes. An East End Welter with promise and poise, Lynes’ skin was milky white and pulled tort over his prominent brow. Lynes was fighting to extend his unbeaten record, one he would preserve until the following March when he had the misfortune of being matched with an African threshing machine called Samuel Malinga at York Hall. On this night his opponent was much more accommodating though no less redoubtable.
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 liquorice black striped shorts. I made the rhubarb bit up, or maybe I didn’t, I never asked, but as a son of Pontefract, a jewel in the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’ of West Yorkshire, and one of the few places where liquorice, and fighters like Peter Dunn, can be grown, those were the words I scribbled as he touched gloves with the chiselled prospect.
Topping the bill was a neat, technical southpaw from West Ham called 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 that Garcia ‘looked as tough as nails’ having seen the heavily tattooed Mexican weigh in. Roberts was a cautious fighter, a nature exaggerated by the memory of the unheralded Ron Weaver bouncing him off the canvas twice (it may have been three times) the preceding November. That night was another window into the pit in to which much of British boxing lay at the turn of the century, Weaver was still only awarded one round by two judges that night, and none by the third, a certain Mr. Terry O’Connor. Fighters on the left of the bill frequently find Big Terry hard to please. His often unique perspective is still widely employed in British and international rings despite this apparent myopia.
Much has changed, but much remains the same.
Garcia’s journey to that March evening in Southwark was more remarkable than mine of course, as Pat Putnam would beautifully document some three years later. As with all things Putnam wrote, his account was based on time with the subject and depicts a starved, scavenged beginning for Garcia who was 0-18 before he began to train and care. On his debut, having crossed the Rio Grande in an tyre inner tube shortly before, a journey he repeated before each of his first 18 assignments, he was stopped by a youthful Bobby Gunn.
He fought 14 unbeaten fighters in those first 18 contests and a fight or two more beneath the anonymity of a pseudonym. Happily, Garcia was a more positive 32-21-1, or 32-3-1 if you discount the fights in which he’d swum a river on an empty stomach before the opening bell. As he stepped forward to answer the call at the Elephant and Castle, his hard life screamed from beneath the solemnity of his glare. Tough as nails.
At the time of their ‘World Title’ clash, the other belt holders and leading actors 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 peculiar time to be a fight fan in the UK. The WBF, so good they named it twice, alongside equally spurious bodies the World Boxing Union (WBU), International Boxing Association (IBA) and the International Boxing Union (IBU), were widely employed in televised shows.
None of their champions would’ve troubled a consensus top 10 at the time.
Scribbling my notes on the twelve rounds of repetitive, ‘Roberts jab, circle, Garcia rush. SR 10-9‘, in a half populated Leisure Centre on a night barely anyone who was there would recall, it is hard to contemplate the vibrant 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 could beat him. General interest was marginalised by the lack of mainstream television coverage and the parallel world that sanctioning bodies were allowed to create on British shores.
I was struck by this contrast, the then and the now, most keenly in the period after the Mayweather v McGregor orgy of opportunism, the brilliant WBSS tournaments and the prospect of football Stadium events returning for Anthony Joshua in 2021.
Boxing has become en vogue once more and is now omnipresent in a manner few preceding eras have managed to reach. It is a topic. A conversation starter. No longer the after thought of the late 90s and early 2000s in to which I lurched as a would be writer. Now available across platforms and broadcasters, between free to air, subscription and pay per view services. And, increasingly, fighters and promoters are understanding the benefits of working together to make the important fights happen. A pattern sure to wilt once noticed.
The sport has crossed back from the margins in to the mainstream and those of us old enough to remember the absurdity of the preceding era would wonder what type of career Steve Roberts would have had were he active today.
Being top of the bill would have eluded him. Roberts’ contemporaries were more exciting and a greater draw. More optimistically Roberts may have pushed to compile a resume including his British contemporaries Wayne Alexander, Anthony Farnell, Gary Lockett, Richard Williams, Takaloo and Jamie Moore – all of whom held equivalent marginal ‘titles’ back in the doldrums of the time.
He would have won some, and lost some, had those match ups been made for British or Commonwealth titles, which may have been better or worse for him personally, but infinitely more meaningful for the fans who were buying tickets back then. Of greater certainty would have been the larger numbers who would have bought tickets to see Roberts versus Williams or Alexander and Lockett. Those dark days of 2002 would have been much brighter for the illumination those bouts would have offered. Alas, silo thinking won out and precious few of the mouth-watering permutations ever came to light.
Boxing has never been the competitive utopia we crave or associate with the past, but the dark days after Prince Naseem and before Audley, Ricky and Amir, from 1999-2001, the comparison underlines just how rude the health of boxing is as we turn our gaze forward.
Enjoy it while it lasts.
This article was first published here in September 2017