By Terence Dooley
Liverpool’s Tony “Bomber” Bellew (174lbs) failed to fire on Saturday night when meeting Malawi’s Isaac “Golden Boy” Chilemba (173lbs) at Liverpool’s Echo Arena in an eliminator for Chad Dawson’s WBC light-heavyweight title. Bellew was made to miss on a regular basis by Chilemba en route to a split draw — scores of 112-116, 114-114 and 116-115 from Christophe Fernandez, Fabian Guggenheim and Eddie Pappoe respectively.
Bellew, now 19-1-1 (12), disagreed vehemently with the verdict, but Chilemba, 20-1-2 (9), made an equally compelling case for victory. It leaves both men in a state of limbo. Bellew has a British title fight with Bob Ajisafe pencilled in for May 25th, on the undercard of Carl Froch versus Mikkel Kessler, but their September 2010 meeting was a stinker and the rematch has about as much allure as a night with Marilyn Monroe’s remains.
Still, the close nature of the Chilemba fight could help sell an immediate rematch, and it was a hard fight to score, especially for the .com writers in attendance, who were seated in Row V, approximately 22 rows away from the ring, due to seating problems, and spent most of the night watching the action on the big screen.
Rumours over the split press rows ranged from Matchroom overdoing VIP ticket sales, and the second press row having to be scrapped as a result of this, to claims that the venue had forced Matchroom’s hand in order to ensure that the path to the fire exits was clear. My personal favourite was that the limited number of ringside press row seats, 12 in total, was a further sign that Eddie Hearn is indeed the Messiah.
However, Hearn confirmed that the location of the second row of press seats — the worst I have ever seen, which includes the time I applied for Wladimir Klitschko versus Ruslan Chagaev at 24-hours notice — was a result of the venue’s concerns over the fire exits. “Late Friday, the venue measured the exits and we were just too tight — we had a big demand for both press applications and VIPs,” said Hearn.
It may seem a minor gripe yet if you can’t see the ring properly, as was the case in this instance, and have to contend with the people in front of you standing up every time a Liverpudlian landed a punch, which was quite often, then it becomes impossible to work. Throw in a lack of writing space, restricted view, an inability to secure interviews, and the added danger of someone jumping up in front of you and causing you to accidently stick your pen up your nose.
One poor .com reporter was put in Row Z, or thereabouts, and spent the night roving from empty to seat to empty seat in a bid to find a decent spot — he’s probably still wandering around the venue like our very own Josef K.
However, this writer is an “adapt, overcome and survive” type. I swapped my floor seat for a balcony one and saw it as an opportunity to walk among the people. This seemed a good idea until Anthony Crolla and Derry Mathews made their way to the ring for the rematch of their April 2012 classic, which Mathews won courtesy of a sixth-round stoppage.
Both fighters did their jobs on the night, producing another exciting battle and the latest in a long line of wars for the 29-year-old Mathews, but a small minority of their fans completely embarrassed themselves, detracting from the in-ring action in the process and underlining the fact that the relaxation on alcohol in U.K. venues is a mistake. The English in general, and English sports fans in particular, cannot handle their beer, so the conduct of a few groups was a recipe for constant distraction.
After a few rounds, pockets of both sets of supporters took to goading each other. Grown men, some in their 40s, were looking away from the action and glaring at their counterparts for minutes at a time. A few fights broke out, but the major flashpoint came when punters in the higher tiers started chucking beer at their counterparts and the security and police had to step in. Hopefully the Board and venues will revert back to heavy-handed paternalism over the issue of alcohol in British venues.
Ironically, as some fans were showing their masculinity by throwing plastic cups about, rather than handling their own liquor intake, Mathews and Crolla, 26, were putting it all on the line in the ring. Both men suffered injuries, Crolla had to contend with a cut eye and Mathews’s nose went, but they kept coming forward, kept nicking rounds from each other and it was hard to split them going into the 10th.
Marcus McDonnell had it for by 115-113, Ian John-Lewis scored it 113-115 for Crolla and Steve Gray had it 114-114. On the night itself, the visitor took the last two rounds to take a tight 115-113 win on BoxingScene’s card; when reviewing the fight again at home, I scored it 114-114.
Mathews, 32-8-2 (17), had fired up both himself and the crowd by coming out to the Deacon Blue anthem “Dignity”. “Dirty” Derry now stands alongside Carl Froch as the country’s most entertaining fighter. A rubbermatch with his Mancunian rival would be well received, but, as Mathews said himself, they deserve a bit of a rest and a stack of dough before going at it again.
Crolla, 25-4-1 (9), earned himself a slice of redemption. “Million Dollar” may have lost his British lightweight title to Mathews last April, but he proved that he can mix it with the heavier hitter and, at times, he implemented his game plan to perfection. Derry, though, is a handful and will always have enough heavy artillery to hurt Crolla and drag him back into a fight. They are a match made in heaven, when they fight they take each other to hell and back, and the hard-core fans benefit.
As for the fans, once the final bell sounded on the derby match most of the casuals left. It had been silly playground stuff. Although boxing needs casual fans to bump up ticket sales and fill big venues — around 7000 fans attended the fight — you have to wonder why people would splash out money to support their fighter only to spend most of the fight itself staring each other out and engaging in an impromptu wet t-shirt contest.
On the other hand, there was a huge amount of Liverpudlians sat directly in front of me. They were on the beer all night yet were impeccably behaved. Sure, there were a few anti-Mancunian jibes, but it was genuine banter and presented the flipside of the decision to allow alcohol consumption in the venue itself. The major problems arise when fans overdo substances or decide that being at a boxing match requires mindless machismo behaviour.
In truth, we’ve all been there. I vividly recall watching Bruce Lee films and thinking I could do Kung Fu. It stands to reason that some people go to fights and immediately get a bit carried away with it all. Malcolm X warned us about this in his autobiography when he observed that people lose all sense of control at boxing matches.
Thankfully, the strains of Tony Bellew’s ring entrance music came along just in time to remind the fans in attendance — Scouse, Manc’ and the rest — that they were there to support the 6’ 2½’’ WBC Silver champion, who is hugely popular with boxing fans in the North West, and beyond.
Still, Bellew looked troubled from the start. His range was off, due in large part to Chilemba’s movement, and his jab was tentative rather than authoritative. The pre-fight dressing room footage had shown Bellew working the pads, he looked uncomfortable in that short clip, and he brought this lack of accuracy into the fight. A flare-up at the end of round one in which Bellew pushed Chilemba after they eyeballed each other seemed born of Bellew’s frustration rather than any real provocation from his opponent.
By round four, the action was too sporadic for some, plus the fight had started way too late, and a number of fans started to make their way from the tiers to the exits. Their reasoning? “All the single girls have already been taken if you get into the clubs after midnight”. It was sound logic as well; the main event is everything — bringing Bellew out so late, in a fight that was nailed on to go the distance, was an error.
As Bellew, the WBC’s #2 ranked fighter, grew increasingly frustrated, he missed more and more, presenting Chilemba, rated at number four, with the chance to score points. Throw in what appeared to be a chaotic corner for Bellew — his assistant cornerman spent the minute between rounds either parroting chief second Mick McCallister or issuing banalities — and it spelled a tough final few stanzas for the home fighter.
On the night itself, I scored it 115-113 for Bellew. When watching it back on TV, the draw seemed the fair result. “I won it — I won nine out of the 12 rounds,” said Bellew. “Even [Chilemba's trainer] Buddy McGirt, one of the most respected men in boxing, told me he thought I won.”
“I've got a lot of time for Chilemba he's a good fighter and a tough man but I won the fight. I hurt him a few times, but he doesn't really show much. He's canny and he's clever but I just believe I'm a better fighter — I could have shown a lot more to my game.”
The 25-year-old Chilemba is likely to wait for the rematch to go to purse bids. “I don’t want it in Liverpool,” said Chilemba when discussing the possibility of a return. “I don’t care where — Japan or anywhere — just not in the U.K.”
In the meantime, Bellew, 30, needs to keep busy. That brings us back to the unattractive option of a British title defence against Ajisafe. One thing is certain — Bellew comes back strong after poor performances. He struggled against Ajisafe (W12) and Ovill McKenzie (TKO 8) in 2010 then produced his best performances to date in 2011 — a decision win over McKenzie followed by a narrow majority decision defeat to Nathan Cleverly for the WBO belt. Don’t write him off just yet, there are more twists and turns to come in the career of the man who excites and frustrates in equal measure, but who remains one of the most compelling characters in the domestic game.
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