The 13th Round: Red Corner Raise the Bar

They may not be everyone’s cup of tea but, from a fans’ and an entertainment point of view, Red Corner Promotions have set the bar in terms of what can be described as medium hall boxing.

Away from the big arenas and the hotel function rooms, the fledgling Dublin outfit put on one heck of a show on Saturday evening at the National Stadium

A near sell-out at the 2,000 capacity venue, punters were treated to ‘Unfinished Business‘ – one of the most competitive cards and entertaining cards in recent memory.

It was Lynn Harvey [3(2)-1(0)] who ‘kicked off’ the show on the South Circular Road in what at times felt like a familiar fight. The Kilbarrack light fly had been bludgeoned to a points loss by the vastly larger Mary Romero back in November and she had to deal with a size difference here again. While she somewhat downplayed the emotional enormity of her rapid return to the venue, the Dubliner’s delight at victory showed what it meant. Initially set to fight Spanish beanpole Maribel De Sousa, she instead fought the distinctly Romero-esque Romanian Sara Regina Coca, a pressure fighter with a weight advantage.

In what was a competitive fight where both landed heavy blows, Harvey gained the upper hand with some nice counter-punching before a disorientated Coca was chucked out in the third for launching a Muay Thai-style teep. It might be frustrating for boxing purists to see the bizarre ending of the fight being the aspect of the contest which media outlets have picked up on, rather than the impressive performance from ‘The Hunter.’ Harvey herself, knowing she was on course for a redemptive win, could not care less, and the extra bit of attention and exposure to potential new fans can’t be a bad thing.

Second up was Thomas Finnegan [1(0)-0] who was dropped right in at the deep end against Alejandro Mostazo. The Jobstown super middleweight had not fought competitively in eight years, had only five weeks of training under his belt for the bout, and was given a real scare in the final round. Here the exhausted Dub had to use all his boxing skill and plenty of grit to keep the relentless Spaniard off and seal the win in what was one of the most difficult debut fights for an Irish boxer in recent years.

The fatigued finish should not take away from a dominant first three rounds where Finnegan, who showed hints of real talent, dominated and almost stopped Mostazo in the third. With the win in the bag, and a reputation already carved out as a crowd-pleaser, the 28 year old can now focus on getting into fighting shape ahead of a mooted move to middleweight, where he would be huge at the weight.

Allan Phelan [7(4)-2(1)-1] returned from 27 months out on the bill and was given a live opponent in Johnson Tellez. With all his previous pro experience having come in America, and his new Irish base being the Celtic Warriors Gym, it seemed that the Newbridge super feather would fancy a bit of a tear-up. Instead, the lilywhite showed some silky skills to easily outpoint Tellez from the outside.

Phelan looked sharp and in shape, and if he gets a run of fights he could become a force on the Irish scene. If this is to happen, a potential all-Kildare Celtic or Irish title clash down the line with Eric Donovan certainly sounds appealing.

You would have to have sympathy for Chris Blaney [5(3)-0], with two pull-outs forcing him to fight an overmatched, overweight 46 year old. The Navan fighter still gave Adrian Parlogea his respect, boxing calmly in the first before sending the Romanian down and out in the second with a cuffing hook.

It was the poorest fight of the night, but late withdrawals are a fixture of boxing, and such contests happen through no fault of any Irish party. That said, the one-sided affair could have taken place to open the show or indeed after the headline bout. For Blaney it was a final four rounder, and the Ginja Ninja looked calm and confident as he approaches a step up to six rounds and a step down to middleweight.

Jay Byrne [4(1)-0] was given a hard fight by Irish-Boxing.com favourite Sergio Abad in what was his first six rounder. The busy Spaniard had given Gerard Whitehouse a tough test in November, and ‘The Surgeon’ gave Byrne an even tougher examination here, forcing the Loughlinstown fighter to work hard for his win. Byrne rose to the challenge well though, and a strong showing from the outside in the middle rounds swung the entertaining fight in the Dubliner’s favour. The aftermath of the bout has seen a range of scores [official scorecard 58:57 Byrne] being suggested, and for the record this writer had it 58:56 to Byrne, with Abad outworking him a the start and the end.

His fourth fight in eight months done and dusted, Byrne is being kept active and being progressed pretty perfectly, with his last two contests being against game Europeans who have come to win. A consummate professional, ‘The Negotiator’ looks fit and strong at welterweight and the ambitious 30 year old is improving rapidly.

Derry light middleweight Connor Coyle [3(1)-0] oozed class in his fight with experienced Nicaraguan Miguel Aguilar. While his appearance on the last Red Corner show was a scrappy affair, Coyle dominated here with some lovely shot selection and a calmness that suggested it was his thirteenth fight rather than his third.

A performance that grabbed the attention of the collected Irish boxing media, Coyle has really marked himself out as one of the top, top prospects on the island. The Florida-based fighter will be huge at light middle and, should he continue improving and developing under Jim McLoughlin, he could make a real impact in the sport

Eric Donovan [3(2)-0] was another who fell victim to the dreaded late change of opponent. The Kildare feather had been due to fight strong Nicaraguan Rafael Castillo in his first six rounder, but visa issues would scupper this scrap. A late, late replacement was found in Romanian Stefan Nicolae who actually wasn’t a bad opponent, just a woefully underprepared one, especially to face a former elite amateur.

It was an easy and frustrating win for Donovan for whom, at 31, every fight counts. The talk beforehand was that a decent run-out against Castillo would set Lilywhite Lightning up for a headline slot in Kildare during the Summer. He did not get that on Saturday, so the question is: will the risk be taken and a big fight in Kildare be made? He certainly has the talent for a jump up.

Inner-city fan-favourite Craig O’Brien [4(0)-0] had been out for 17 months, but the light middleweight still made a step up, in terms of rounds and opposition, to face Jorge Vallejo. ‘The Iron’ showed effortless brilliance in the first three rounds before tiring in a scrappy second half to the fight. The likeable Dub was still well worth the win, although his game Spanish opponent probably deserved a round.

If O’Brien can get a run of fights he has the natural talent to bamboozle most domestic middleweights. A real hero to his fans, the local lad certainly deserves a bit of luck.

With just a few years of boxing in the bank, Stevie Collins [10(4)-0-1] surprised a lot of people with an utterly dominant win over Pablo Sosa, an opponent who should be sponsored by Fyffes he is that much of a banana skin. Collins allowed the dangerous Argentine to pour forward, countering him off the ropes at every turn and proving that he has the talent to compete at domestic level at the very, very least. It would have been reasonable if Collins was to implement a rigid, formulaic style based on his physical gifts, but instead he showed some real skill against the game South American.

With Luke Keeler not a definite to headline the next Red Corner show, this writer would love to see a call made to Assassin Boxing with the intentions of making an Irish light heavyweight title fight with Paddy McDonagh – as well providing amateur star Ray Moylette [who is promoted by Assassin and trains alongside Collins at Celtic Warriors Gym] the chance to make his Irish debut.

Chief support, and most supported, on the night was Noely Murphy [9(2)-0] and the Cork welter’s fans created a huge atmosphere for their man’s fight, one of the best in recent years. Around 400 made the trip up from Cork and the Macroom boxer may be the man to bring the next pro show to the Rebel County. In terms of his BUI Celtic title fight with Avelino Vazquez, 22 year old Murphy put in a controlled and efficient performance, consciously not feeding into the energy of the crowd, and taking what seemed like an easy points win against a game but limited foe (although the scorecard of 78:75 suggested different).

Still to develop his ‘man strength,’ Murphy has rock solid fundamentals and big backing with promoter Lou DiBella that suggests he will go far in the sport. A fight with Irish champion Peter McDonagh has been mooted and, given a few more development fights in America, it could be a possibility for the end of the year, either in Ireland or New York.

Luke Keeler [12(5)-2(1)] topped the bill yet again, this time against Lewis Taylor. On paper, the bout with the former English champion was a well-matched one, and one of the highest-quality headline bouts of recent times for a card of this type in Ireland. The fight itself was a cracker, a back and forth affair, with both having their moments. Keeler took a deserved points win, with his uppercut on the inside being a particularly potent weapon and his right hand in general seeming to hit home at will. The Dubliner will admit himself that he still needs to work on his defence, with Taylor’s jab landing far too often. All in all though, it was a good night’s work for the Ballyfermot man who claimed a career-best win.

In terms of the judging, the final scorecard was a real cause for concern, with the 80:72 tally in favour of Keeler being far, far too wide (Irish-Boxing.com scorecard: 77:75). Scorelines like this provide overseas fighters with a reason not to make the journey to Ireland, fearing home cooking. Judging needs to be fair, we don’t want to be viewed like Germany was in the 1990s and 2000s.

Going forward now, there are a number of potential routes for Keeler. A fight on the mooted Matchroom Belfast card is one, while a fight on the next Red Corner card is another. Indeed both could be a possibility should dates align. The Dubliner will now move into the European rankings, however an Irish title fight with Darren Cruise still appeals. Again, should dates align, a fight with the winner of the March 25th bout between Brian Rose and Jack Arnfield (both European ranked) on a Matchroom card seems to make sense.

The matchmaking for the card was particularly notable, leading to a number of entertaining fights helped by Spanish (or Spanish-based) opponents who came fit, ready, and looking to win. Indeed the card was strong enough as a whole to be able to withstand the particularly disappointing opponent pull-outs for Blaney and Donovan. Purely from an entertainment point of view, and without going into politics and financials, Red Corner raised the bar at the weekend with competitive fights, game opponents, and a stand-out headline bout.

Watch: Unfinished Business – All fights

The card is not without criticism, however light it may be. Spanning almost six hours, it was a marathon of boxing, and the universal consensus seemed to be that the bill ran too late. Starting at 7:00pm (30 minutes later than planned), the show ran in to the AM. The long wait was cited by some fighters in the aftermath as a problem. An earlier start would have been desirable. Less fights was another suggestion, but the bigger the better, especially for Irish fighters who are trying to earn a living and need every opportunity they can get.

With Keeler v Taylor not commencing until after midnight, the atmosphere was hindered, with some fans who would have otherwise stayed for the main event leaving to attend after-parties for their respective boxers.

It’s only a small issue and Red Corner are still tweaking to find their perfect formula. Indeed it is hard to believe that ‘Unfinished Business’ was just their second show.

They’re only new, but Saturday’s offering will be hard to beat this year in terms of entertainment.

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