By John Evans
Is there another sport in which a participant can go from hero to zero as quickly as boxing? In modern boxing, a fighter doesn’t even need to lose to be subjected to a barrage of condemnation; a tougher than expected victory over a harder than expected opponent can be enough to turn the latest incarnation of Sugar Ray Robinson into the next Brian Sutherland in some observers eyes (if you haven’t heard of Mr Sutherland, google him). Suffer an actual defeat and, well, it’s probably time to retire. “A world champion? Pah! He’ll struggle to win an area title.”
The criticism isn’t exclusively reserved for stumbling prospects either, as some of boxing’s most famous names — step forward David Haye and Lucien Bute — have found out over the past eighteen months.
Manchester based trainer Joe Gallagher understands why defeats are judged so harshly nowadays but that doesn’t mean that he either agrees with, or understands, that reasoning.
“Nowadays it’s all about the ‘0’,” he told Boxingscene recently. “People complain about fighters facing easy opposition but when they take a 50:50 fight and lose, the same people moan. Wait a minute, what exactly do you want?
“It’s a good job they don’t think like us in America. Over here, a good fighter can lose one fight and their career is over. In America and Mexico, they value a fighters style and don’t write a fighter off should they suffer an early loss or two. Look at Randall Bailey and Devon Alexander recently. They’ve both suffered losses but have come back to fight for the world title. Good fighters come back.”
The reaction which has really raised Gallagher’s ire is the one encountered by his fighter Anthony Crolla following a thrilling knockout defeat to Derry Mathews in a British lightweight title fight in May.
Having stepped in as a late notice substitute to win the belt, Crolla was inundated with praise. At one point, he was apparently on the verge of facing legendary Mexican Erik Morales on a Las Vegas undercard. One exciting defeat to a good fighter later, Crolla was being written off as too small, too easy to hit and lacking the power to trouble the country’s top 135lbers. Following an unsuccessful Prizefighter campaign, Crolla returns in an untelevised bout with local rival Kieran Farrell for the English title in December and Gallagher is certain that ‘Million Dollar’ will revisit past glories.
“I’ll say one thing about Anthony Crolla; he can fight,” says Gallagher. “He’ll come back and keep on fighting. Kieran Farrell is next in line so he’ll fight him and if Derry Mathews is there again further down the line, so be it. Lee Purdy is the perfect example. He has three losses on his record — to Peter McDonagh, Denton Vassell and Colin Lynes — but look at him now [Purdy has a fight scheduled with tough American Carson Jones]. Do you know why he’s come back? Because he can fight. Brian Rose is another one. He got knocked out by Max Maxwell but has come back, won the British title and beaten Maxwell in a rematch. Ricky Burns. Carl Johanneson. There are lots.
“We’re talking about a sport where fractions of a seconds count. The margins between success and failure are at championship level are so fine. Crolla lost to Derry Mathews in a fight that has been nominated for ‘Fight of the Year’ by the board and has been written off. For people to do that to a 25-year-old kid is absolutely ridiculous.
“People are now saying that the Farrell fight is a close one and, as he’s a Hatton Promotions fighter, wondering why he hasn’t taken a fight on the Ricky Hatton undercard. If he had, he’d be boxing a six rounder and who’d be talking about him? Instead he fought in Prizefighter and now has the fight in December. This is a job. He isn’t working at RBS and taking a regular wage. Since Prizefighter, Anthony Crolla’s profile has gone through the roof.”
The disappointment of seeing an opponent get their hand raised often causes a fighter to obsess on righting the wrong. In some cases, however, that obsession becomes focused in the wrong direction. Rather than concentrating on correcting the technical errors behind the defeat they become hell-bent on gaining revenge. Gallagher has witnessed both reactions.
Of course, Crolla wants revenge on Mathews and — even if he doesn’t mention it — he has probably spent countless hours laying out the plan in his mind. Entering Prizefighter and taking on Farrell suggests that he has decided to take a different, possibly longer road to a rematch. On the other hand, former British super featherweight champion Stephen Smith has been extremely vocal in his desire to settle the score with Lee Selby. The man who knocked him out and took his British and Commonwealth belts 13 months ago.
“Matthew Macklin began [his career] like a house on fire and then came up short against Jamie Moore. He knew what went wrong and how to address it went away and is now world ranked. He didn’t obsess over Jamie Moore,” explains Gallagher.
“Everything was going well for James DeGale until he lost to George Groves. He’d like to beat him again but he’s come back, is European champion and is now taking a different route. Stephen Smith badly wants to settle the score with Lee Selby but I’ve told Stephen that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Since their fight, Stephen’s had a couple of wins and some time away and is ranked number three by the WBO. His time will come.”
Nowadays, the repercussions of a defeat don’t fall squarely with the fighter. As highlighted by the recent fall out between Amir Khan and Freddie Roach, fingers are also pointed at the trainer. Gallagher himself has found out exactly how fickle the boxing public can be.
Prior to Matthew Macklin’s disputed defeat to Felix Sturm, Gallagher’s fighters had strung together an impressive run of 49 straight victories and drawn admiration for their exciting, energetic way of going about their business. Over the last couple of years, the opposition has been tougher, results have been a bit more up and down and, consequentially, praise has turned into criticism.
“Look at Stephen Smith. The Vaughan’s [Liverpool’s famous fighting family] looked after him early on in his career and did a great job,” he said. “He came to me and we beat John Simpson for the British title. Then, when things went badly wrong against Lee Selby, people began saying ‘Joe Gallagher’s ruined him’. Lee Selby then knocks out John Simpson and people say ‘Lee Selby’s a good kid’. I told everybody that before he fought Stephen! I was over the moon that Scott Quigg won ‘Young Boxer of the Year’ recently but Selby has been superb too.
“Since Anthony came to me on the back of the Gary Sykes defeat, he’s been the English and British champion. After the Sykes fight, people were saying: ‘He can’t punch and he’s lost twice. He’s finished’. He came back, stopped Michael Brodie, stopped Andy Morris, stopped John Watson at short notice to become British champion and boxed superbly against Willie Limond. All of a sudden people were saying that he was the next big thing. Then he loses the Mathews fight and the same people are saying he’s done. Some people will be saying Joe Gallagher has got the most that he could from him and some people will be saying that Joe Gallagher has ruined him.
“There are hundreds of pros that live the life correctly and do things right but even doing all of those things doesn’t guarantee success. What it does do is give you a better chance of achieving your dreams but there’s a fine line and a fraction of a second between a punch being landed and missed. Everybody needs a spot of Lady Luck.”
The next time an inexperienced fighter gets caught up in the moment and stopped after choosing to trade with a known banger or an exciting puncher gets ‘old manned’ by a knowledgeable survivor, don’t immediately cast him aside. An early defeat doesn’t necessarily mean the end, just ask Juan Manuel Marquez, Bernard Hopkins, Nonito Donaire, Wladimir Klitschko…
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