The 13th Round: BoxNation back with a bump – but Irish fighters put on a show

The biggest card of the year so far took place on Friday night in Belfast, and Irish boxing fans were treated to some memorable moments.

Belfast Boys Are Back‘ saw Queensberry Promotions and the BoxNation cameras return to the Titanic City for a bumper show at the Waterfront Hall featuring twelve fights and fifteen Irish fighters.

A great show, however one with plenty to learn from,. Nevertheless it delivered on the most fundamental aspect of professional boxing – entertaining fights.

THE FIGHTERS
Headlining the show was Commonwealth super flyweight champion Jamie Conlan [19(11)-0]. The Falls Road scrapper is the man who pretty much single-handedly brought boxing back to the city, so it was great to see him top the bill. As for the fight itself, it was another Jamie Conlan special, with the world title hopeful being involved in a dramatic twelve rounder with Nicaraguan former light flyweight world title challenger Yader Cardoza. Conlan showed spurts of class to edge the early nip-and-tuck rounds, but a discombobulating knockdown in the eighth swung the bout back into familiar territory. The 30 year old proved, like he needed to, his grit once again to grind out the win yet again.

A close split decision, plenty felt that Cardoza did enough to sneak it with the knockdown, however it was a bout that really could have gone either way and certainly not a robbery by any means. The win sees Conlan move into the Top 15 of the WBC and the war-lover is now ranked by three of the four major bodies. A world title fight is now within touching distance, and there is a definite sense that Conlan could produce a performance of a lifetime should the stars align . However, worryingly, Conlan noted his low punch resistance afterwards, and a move to bantamweight could be on the cards. Whatever is next, one thing is for sure – it certainly will be exciting.

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Paddy Barnes [2(0)-0] had something of a second debut in the chief support bout, taking a points win. Facing Adrian Dimas Garzon in a bantamweight contest. it was definitely a much improved fight from the infamous Slavchev suplex, but the Argentine was still perhaps too heavy and too much of your typical ‘journeyman’ for the Cliftonville fighter’s liking.

Barnes is best when he is able to bully his opponents, using his physical advantages and work-rate to dominate. Six rounds didn’t seem to be an issue for Barnes, who had Danny Vaughan in his corner for the first time. While there may be one more learning bout in the next few months, hopefully Barnes will have a big flyweight fight when the BoxNation cameras return to Belfast.

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In one of two all-Irish bouts on the bill, southpaw Tyrone McKenna [13(5)-0-1] defended his BUI Celtic light welterweight title against Jake Hanney [5(4)-1(1)], stopping the Dubliner in the sixth of an exciting fight. The first three rounds of the fight were something special, with the pair trading blows throughout. McKenna’s superior fitness and sharpness told however, and he wrestled his way on top before the bout was waved off. ‘The Wizard’ Hanney disagreed with the stoppage, however by that time his power and snap had been sapped, and a knockout blow seemed highly unlikely. It did not make sense to prolong the fight any further.

McKenna again looked great again , with another all-Irish scrap allowing him to show his class. An accurate puncher, ‘The Mighty Celt has an uncanny knack of anticipating where his opponent’s chin will be. Speaking of chins, Hanney’s is made of iron, taking numerous clean shots with little effect. Defence is obviously a big issue for the Dubliner, however he has plenty of attacking flair and is a huge raw talent should he be given the support.

With Phil Sutcliffe having a fight in May lined up, and Matt Wilton perhaps being unable to make light welter, an Irish title fight seems sadly unlikely for McKenna. With Cyclone fighters Josh Taylor and Josh Easton holding the Commonwealth and BBBoC Celtic titles respectively, perhaps a regular British title eliminator could be the next move for the Belfast man or maybe even a pop at EU champion Franck Petitjean.

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In the Irish super featherweight title clash, James Tennyson [18(14)-2(2)] scored a sixth round stoppage win over Declan Geraghty [14(4)-2(1)]. A phenomenal see-saw bout, it looked at times that it could be a break-out win for Dubliner Geraghty, whose skills were simply stunning. However, Tennyson at 130lbs is a different animal, and the Lisburn puncher’s power is awe-inspiring, with two mammoth knockdowns which Geraghty showed huge heart to get up from, as well as a destructive uppercut on the inside that will prove a very potent weapon over his career.

While he was being outboxed, ‘The Assassin’ stayed calm throughout and continued to work away until the second knockdown and subsequent stoppage came. The standing finish was slightly contentious, with many disagreeing, although Geraghty was badly hurt. The fact there were seven second in the round is irrelevant, however perhaps the pair should have been allowed engage once more to see if Geraghty could clinch or pop off a jab.

Considering the dramatic nature of the bout, a rematch would be brilliant, and would further enhance the Irish title which both did proud on Friday. Tennyson has also previously mentioned a Commonwealth title fight, and South African champ Phila Mpontshana could work.

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Going down the card, there were good warm-up wins for Marco McCullough [17(10)-3(2)] and Phil Sutcliffe Jr [13(8)-1(0)] against Leonel Hernandez and Miguel Aguilar respectively. McCullough looked a lot sharper than he has in a long time in the eight round win, and the Belfast featherweight goes into his May British title fight with Ryan Walsh in London with some good momentum – although he is posed with a massive mountain to climb in the Norfolk boxer.

Dublin light welter Sutcliffe was destructive against a much bigger opponent, bludgeoning him into a fourth round retirement. A sloppy start aside, the Crumlin puncher looked powerful and will be hugely confident going into his IBF Inter-Continental title fight with unbeaten English prospect Josh Leather in Leeds in May. Sutcliffe was strong, sharp, and angry, and will hopefully finally kick on this year following his great win over Jenkins in November. A European title by the end of the year should be a conservative goal.

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Con Sheehan [5(1)-0] put another eight rounds into the tank against frustrating journeyman Ferenc Zsalek. Sheehan has wonderful skills and fluidity for a heavyweight, however his opponent was one who looked to survive rather than engage. While he is still working on adapting to the pro game, it seems as though the Tipperary big man it a heavyweight without notable power. Obviously there is nothing wrong with this, with Tyson Fury being the prime example. However, it means that it may not be until he starts to face more ambitious opponents that we will be provided with more fan-friendly fights.

‘Con The Bomb’s’ Irish title rival, Sean Turner [10(7)-0], showed he certainly does have explosive power, sending Igor Mihaljevic down for the count in the second. It was a composed display from Big Sexy and one which provided him with Irish title eligibility. Indeed they should strike while the iron is hot, and now is the time for the pair to fight for the Irish title. Geraghty and Tennyson showed how good a fight for the belt between two rising talents can be. With a somewhat similar mesh of styles here, the fight could be a heavyweight classic and is probably the most-wanted realistic Irish title fight at the present time.

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‘The Quiet Man’ Steven Ward [3(0)-0] looked composed beyond his pro experience levels against journeyman Curtis Gargano. A durable joker of an opponent who, to his credit, didn’t spoil, Ward was given plenty of opportunity to polish his attacking tools against the Manchester crowd-pleaser. While his six rounder was demoted to a four, there is a definite sense that the Newtownabbey light heavy, with his textbook style, can be fast-tracked .

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Lewis Crocker [1(1)-0] had to deal with a lot of pressure ahead of his pro debut, with the young welter already attracting a huge following from the Irish boxing hardcore. The Belfast 20 year old is probably tired of people talking about his power, but it is hard not to fixate on his furious fists. His 67-second destruction of Ferenc Janko was pure unadulterated destruction, with the Hungarian being left trembling following the first clipping blow. ‘The Croc’ has plenty of spite and looks to be a special talent and one to watch over the coming years.

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Finally there were two bouts for Ulster journeymen Casey Blair and Jamesy Gorman. While both ended up with stoppage defeats, it was nice to see them brought in for local fights and hopefully this can become a trend. Blair’s size disadvantage to Troy Williamson was just to much and he succumbed in the third round. Gorman put up a spirited fight against Gary Corcoran, being stopped in the fifth of eight – although one thinks that, if it was a scheduled six rounder, the bout would have been allowed continue. A potential fight for the near future could be Crocker against Gorman – could ‘The Chin’ provide the youngster with rounds? London-Connacht fighter Corcoran looks strong at welterweight, and it seems to be the perfect place for his relentless style. ‘Hellraiser’ will definitely do damage here at domestic level, and Warren must already be planning a Bradley Skeete v Corcoran match-up.

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THE SHOW
While the raw materials – the fights – were very, very good, the show itself did have issues which that, if tweaked, could result in a better all-round experience

The top of the card was brilliant, with three of the four main fights being absolute corkers. Indeed, most of the bouts and opponents, perhaps excluding Sheehan’s, fit in well for their respective fighter in terms of where they were in their career paths. However, from an entertainment for the fans point of view, especially TV viewers, the card started off quite sluggishly, with warm-up bouts for Sutcliffe and McCullough and an overly one-sided win for Sheehan. The antics of Curtis Gargano got a bit of buzz going, then the atmosphere exploded with McKenna v Hanney. Indeed one or two all-Irish fights should be a staple on future BoxNation cards such was the excitement and entertainment generated by McKenna v Hanney and Tennyson v Geraghty. For just over an hour we were in dreamland, and hopefully match-ups like this can be continued to be made.

It seemed odd that Crocker’s fight was not included in the live broadcast. Most predicted, correctly, that it would be a first round knockout – and it would have worked nicely to place the debut in between the extended gap between the Barnes and Conlan fights (due to their shared trainer). Whatever about his second, third, or fourth fight, a high profile debut fight, prominent on a big card, is almost a given nowadays for boxers with Matchroom or Queensberry. While it’s a missed opportunity, thankfully it should not pose much harm to someone with the popularity and talent of Crocker.

Atmosphere also could have been improved. Make no mistake, there were pockets of electricity – indeed the ending to round two of McKenna v Hanney would raise the hairs on the back of a corpse’s neck. However, with a bit more management, the place could have been bouncing.

– The ringwalks were bizarre, with no entrances for opponents, and songs chosen at random for most fighters, interspersed with announcements from MC Mark Burdis.
In between rounds there were problems too, with white noise or weird sound effects that seemed to come from Father Dougal McGuire’s record collection being played rather than music to pump up the fans.
– This eerie quietness hit its peak in the twenty or so minutes of silence between the chief support and headline fights. While Matchroom may have their detractors, on their shows this time period sees perhaps the loudest atmosphere of the night, with Sweet Caroline and all the rest being played. Instead Jamie Conlan had to walk into a somewhat flat atmosphere which, understandably, did not rouse itself until well into the fight.
Time probably affected the atmosphere too, with the final bout not starting until well after 11pm, and plenty of fans there for ‘their fighter’ heading off to pubs and afterparties.

The most pressing issue was the attendance. Sadly, the show was far from a sell-out and, to the naked eye, the Waterfront Hall looked less than half-full. While it wasn’t expected to reach the heights of the show at the Titanic Exhibition Centre, the first BoxNation show in the city, the numbers were still disappointing. The fights deserved more people to witness them live.

The collected media at ringside had plenty of theories. One of which was the venue. The Waterfront Hall has massive potential to be an atmospheric cauldron – and indeed it did sound like that at times despite the relatively low numbers. However, one suggestion was that the theater, which is more accustomed to hosting opera rather than fighting, was somewhat out of touch with the regular boxing fan and that the Titanic Centre had more of a ‘fun’ feel, and was an almost musical festival-like occassion. Another theory was the absence of publicity around the city and the lack of an advanced press conference in the weeks beforehand, as well as the fact that the postponed bill took place on a Friday rather than a Saturday, while others pointed to the lack of a recognisable opponent and/or title in the headline fight.

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All in all though, it was a strong card where it mattered, and hopefully this can be built upon for the next big show in the city.

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