The 13th Round: Belfast Beckons for Burnett

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Ryan Burnett [15(9)-0] took a step-up into the big leagues on Saturday night.

While he was already British bantamweight champion, the Belfast man faced the toughest opponent of his career in Liverpool’s Ryan Farrag. Fighting in Farrag’s home town of Liverpool, Burnett put on a show in an exciting win. The former elite amateur perhaps could have made it easier for himself, but instead turned in a crowd-pleasing display, going toe-to-toe with the Scouser and overpowering him across much of the twelve rounds.

While the knockout didn’t come, it was the type of performance that promoter Eddie Hearn had been looking for. Now the question is ‘what’s next’ for the Burnett, and the time may be now for Matchroom to finally return to Belfast.

The English promotional giant’s last visit to the Titanic City came in February 2013, for a certain Carl Frampton, and the parallel’s are there to see. Carl Frampton’s ‘coming out’ performance so to speak also came in his fifteenth fight, a destructive win against Steve Molitor which saw him headline the Odyssey in his following contest. ‘The Jackal’ was 25 and a half years young when he stopped the Canadian in six, a year older than Burnett currently is.

Both Belfast small men entered the pros following decorated amateur careers, Frampton having won Commonwealth Youth bronze and EU silver while Burnett claimed World Youth silver and Youth Olympic gold. Both entered the pros with onlookers predicting World titles, more so even for Burnett. And both shared an amateur club in Holy Family and there was at one stage a friendship/big brother-little brother relationship between the pair.

The main worry regarding a Belfast return is whether Burnett is ‘big’ enough to warrant headlining in his home city. At this minute Frampton is a sporting superstar and one of the most well-supported Irish boxers in history. The Jackal would be guaranteed to sell-out the Odyssey for a sparring session, but it wasn’t always that way. Frampton was built in Belfast, featuring in small hall shows before developing in England with Matchroom and eventually returning to Belfast as a chief support to the World title-chasing Paul McCloskey.

Therefore it was less of a jump for the Tigers Bay puncher when he finally did headline the Odyssey against Kiko Martinez in February 2013. Burnett has been somewhat ‘hidden’ across in England with Adam Booth and add to this he is a naturally shyer individual than Frampton. It would be unfair to expect him to pull the same sort of numbers as Frampton at the same stage in his career

However, things have changed, even in the short period of time since Frampton’s Sky Sports days. Boxing in Ireland and Britain has become much bigger. In Belfast the exploits of Frampton, and even Mick Conlan and Paddy Barnes, has built a fanbase which has subsequently been starved due to Frampton’s recent fights in England and America.

Burnett’s place on the Frampton-Quigg undercard was massive exposure to Irish fans and, especially after this weekend, the Adam Booth-trained fighter would sell a healthy amount for a homecoming display. That said, if Sky were to return to Belfast for Burnett he would still need assistance to pack out the arena. Frampton’s debut headline appearance saw undercard support from Martin Lindsay, Eamonn O’Kane, Andy Lee, and Martin Rogan among others. Hearn is slightly hamstrung in terms of Irish fighters, particularly Belfast. Indeed Belfast is one area where Frank Warren holds dominance. Undercard support in the capital of Irish boxing could come from the likes of Pat Magee duo Anto Cacace and Tommy McCarthy, hopefully in British title bouts v Martin J Ward (Matchroom) and Craig Kennedy respectively. Crowd-pleasing ticket-seller Paul Hyland Jr could also be given the chance to impress, and Luke Keeler would bring some support from Dublin, but the list of local draws is quite thin.

This may not be as big a problem as it sounds though. While it may pain some to admit, Eddie Hearn and Matchroom have also grown much bigger in the past few years on the Sky Sports platform. Indeed Matchroom Boxing is the closest thing boxing has to the UFC in terms of casual/general interest from fans. Fans of the brand, rather than individual fighters. For example, earlier this month Dillian Whyte fought Ian Lewison for the British heavyweight title. Two big men from Brixton, the fight took place nearly 700km north of London in Glasgow and still put bums on seats. Mix this formula with hungry Belfast fight fans and you could be on to a winner.

In terms of an opponent for Burnett, European champion Karim Guerfi has already thrown his name into the mix. Having knocked out Ryan Farrag and outpointed former Frampton foe Alejandro Gonzalez Jr, the Frenchman would be easily sold, especially with his propensity for trash talk. Another option would be to keep in-house against Darlington slugger Stuart Hall who is coming off a failed World title challenge against IBF beltholder Lee Haskins.

Regardless of opponent, Burnett needs to be brought to Belfast sooner rather than later. His talent deserves stardom and local admiration.

Photo Credit: Ricardo Guglielminotti – The Fighting Irish (@ThefIrish)

Joe O'Neill

Reporting on Irish boxing the past five years. Work has appeared on irish-boxing.com, Boxing News, the42.ie, and local and national media. Provide live ringside updates, occasional interviews, and special features on the future of Irish boxing. email: joneill6@tcd.ie