By Terence Dooley
Manchester's John Murray did not have it all his own way when moving to 31-0 (18) courtesy of a bruising EBU lightweight title defense against Spain's Karim El Ouazghari, now 11-2-2 (4), at York Hall, Bethnal Green on Saturday night. Murray posted scores of 116-110, 117-111 and 115-112. Both men lost points for niggling fouls – Karim for rubbing heads in the eleventh and Murray for a rabbit punch in the twelfth.
Our journey to York Hall involved a torturous drive through London's many townships; the center of Britain's capital city is a glorious place, York Hall itself a fantastic venue, but you can take the outlying areas and give them back to the Indians. Murray's own title journey looked to be mapped out ahead of the fight, an impressive KO result would have resulted in claims that the 26-year-old has moved beyond this level.
Murray, though, may now have to take a detour and meet British rival Kevin Mitchell as he bids to put in the type of punctuation performance that will justify heavy world title fight investment. Sure, John showed the usual grit and determination to out-point the visitor yet it was not the machine-like performance that the fighter usually produces.
Although tough in their own right, recent wins over Gary Buckland and Andriy Kudriatsev saw Murray crank his way through the gears as the rounds progressed. Both Buckland and Andriy started to fade late in individual rounds before being taken out on their feet by the marauding Murray. Karim never came close to getting stopped on Saturday night, the sole knockdown came in the eleventh round and was a case of the visitor being shoved over after taking some solid shots.
Referee Guido Cavalleri compounded Karim's misery by deducting a point in the same session after Ouazghari had attempted to rub heads with Murray; the Spanish champion complained about Murray's use of the head throughout the fight, trying to take matters into his own hands increased his points deficit.
Murray, though, showed signs of frustration himself, attempting to belt his determined challenger with a right hand after Karim had spun away in the final round – a move that saw Murray lose a point from his overall total. Murray's left hook to the body was a key punch. Although the blow strayed low a few times, a sign that Murray's radar was off, it landed often enough to discourage Karim at key points.
Although Murray was never in danger of losing the argument, he did take some solid blows, particularly in the seventh when Karim landed a left uppercut and left hook. Ouazghari had landed a solid right hand in the fourth – his erratic punching was a constant danger to Murray.
Certainly, a tougher night than expected for the European ruler. It became clear early on that Karim was going to take some stopping. Murray, perhaps, needed to work out a way of piling up the points without putting himself in harm's way. Ricky Hatton, a fellow pressure fighter, knew when to take a break and when to pour it on, adapting to fighters such as Ben Tackie when making his way through the ranks.
“I just felt it was a bad day at the office, really,” said Murray when speaking to me over the phone. “I struggled all the way through the training camp. In sparring, I didn’t really find the sharpness. I was just glad to get it out the way and get the win. I’m sure I’ll be better next time out.”
Murray loves to fight, his recent staccato schedule has frustrated him, he could put the long lay-offs to one side in past years but will find it harder and harder to shake off the rust as he grows older. Indeed, having to dredge up his best form time after time took its toll on Salford's Jamie Moore; Murray has always maintained that Moore was world title class, citing Moore's own problems with injuries and inactivity as the main reason why Jamie never won a world title. The former British champion believes that a May 21st O2 outing would be just the tonic after Saturday's excursions.
“Yeah, all that time out, seven months or so, doesn’t do me any favors with my style,” says Murray. “I think it had an effect for this fight. I want to get back in the gym, get out again in May and carry those twelve rounds over to another fight. I will be much better for the next one.
“Karim boxed well but wasn’t anything special or anything I hadn’t seen before. The performance was down to me. I found it hard to get my shots off. I got caught with some stupid punches and that is down to myself. It was a tough night but I just had to grit my teeth and find a way to win, that is what good fighters do. I was up for this fight, there was nothing wrong with the camp itself but I couldn’t get firing in training. I wasn’t at my best but ground it out.”
“It is still another box ticked because I’ve done the twelve rounds. As the fight went on I think I started to show people a bit of what I am about, even though it was a bit too late in the fight. I struggled with the rust so will put it down to that and not dwell on it.”
Mitchell was at ringside, the Londoner signed on for a contest with Murray earlier this year only to withdraw due to issues over his purse. Kevin has since revealed that these quibbles have been put to bed, he says he is ready and able to take on Murray, who is equally keen to settle the domestic rivalry.
“He is easy to hit,” said Mitchell when analysing Murray's performance on the night. “It is a fight I've wanted. I've been watching him for years so let's get it on. It would sell out anywhere in London.”
“Yeah, definitely. I want that. I will get back in the gym in the hope of doing that,” answered Murray when asked if he will look to a May return, he also revealed that he is ready to meet Mitchell if terms can be agreed.
He said, “If I have to fight Kevin Mitchell on my way to a world title shot then I’ll do it. It is a fight that everyone wants to see, it would be a massive North against South fight so why not. I think it would get my juices going. I was watching a video of Kevin the other day and he is open to shots that I can land. I fancy that fight.”
Trainer Joe Gallagher feels that his charge may have been too eager ahead of Saturday's contest. “I think he may have over-trained if anything and I take responsibility for that,” declared Gallagher.
“Karim is a man, a tough guy and it was his big opportunity to get a title and a ranking so we expected him to be tough, he gave as good as he got. People might look at John differently now and want to fight him. That wasn't John Murray at his best the other night. Joe Calzaghe had his off nights on the way through and so did Ricky Hatton, it was a flat night for John.
“John was excited. We had the poster campaign and the great publicity so maybe we tried too hard to impress and that carried over into the fight. It is that bit harder when you’re trying to force things to happen. We want him out in May. We will all sit down and come to a decision about his next fight. People will talk about Kevin Mitchell but we'll wait and see.”
Fans in attendance at York Hall left the venue with Murray-Mitchell at the forefront of their minds. One or two told me that Murray's style would be meat and drink for 'The Hammer'. Others claimed that Mitchell would be drawn into a fight against his rival and suffer as a consequence. It is an intriguing match, the winner would learn a thing or two and would be better prepared for the rigors of world class. Joe, though, believes that it is not a viable option.
“No,” he insisted when asked if Mitchell could be next. “We want our world title opportunity just like Kevin got one last year so why offer Kevin a route back? Hopefully we'll move on now. This reminds me of when John fought Youssef Al Hamidi, people slated him but he went onto score six stoppages on the bounce in title fights. I think John had to stop the kid growing into the fight but John was forcing it and getting himself worked up more and more instead of boxing a little bit.
“An active fighter is a better fighter, especially when you're a pressure fighter. John has got the rounds, now he needs to be out again soon to put in his best performance. We didn't slip up, that is the main thing, and in twelve months it will just say on Boxrec that John won on points, not that he won on points and didn't look at his best.”
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