By Nick Halling
While Darren Barker is defending his IBF world middleweight title in Germany this weekend, and Matthew Macklin is in action in Atlantic City on Saturday, life is also busy for the two other elite-level British-based middles, Martin Murray and Andy Lee.
Lee was last seen in action on the Froch/Groves undercard, and while it lasted, it was obvious that the Irishman is clearly heading in the right direction. Murray was supposed to be on that show, only to lose a points decision to a vicious virus. Instead, he will be back in the ring next weekend in London. Both have their sights trained on exciting opportunities in 2014. And both are also hoping for a Darren Barker victory in Stuttgart too.
Things have been going smoothly for Lee since his relocation to London last year following the sad death of his trainer, Emanuel Steward. Now 18 months on from a brave but ultimately unsuccessful WBC title fight against Julio Cesar Chavez, Lee has had three outings, won them all, and is right back in contention for big things in what promises to be a busy year on the international middleweight scene in 2014.
“Coming back to London wasn’t really much of an adjustment,” he said. “My girlfriend – who is now my wife (they were married in June) - was living in London, so it made sense to be here. It was very much a natural progression.”
The switch to Adam Booth and the Hayemaker camp was also made without much soul searching. “Adam had always impressed me down the years, and when I came back, there was never anyone else I wanted to train with.
“I knew Paddy Fitzpatrick through my brother, he helped fix up an introduction, I had a session, we got along really well, and that was it. I think he liked me as much as a person as much as a boxer and it all just fell into place.”
Not that Booth has been giving Lee an easy ride. The Limerick man himself admits that he is pushed hard in training as his new boss makes some significant changes to his style. “It’s been a steep learning curve, and I’ve had to change a lot of things,” he admitted. “In some ways it would have been a lot easier if I was a raw novice. It’s a different way of training now.”
One of the major adjustments has been to make Lee more comfortable with being forced back and put under pressure on the ropes. “I was always a tall, classic, upright southpaw, and the blueprint to beat me was to try and get inside, get me up against the ropes and push me back.
“Adam has taught me how to react to that, and also to nullify what my opponents are trying to do and maybe even make things hard for them too. I’m much more comfortable with that side of my game now.”
That was obvious in his first fight under Booth back in February, when he went the full 10 rounds with fellow Irishman Anthony Fitzgerald in Belfast. Lee was in control throughout, and there was no dispute about the outcome, but to an outside eye, it seemed strange that Lee was allowing the tough, aggressive Fitzgerald to apply such pressure and effectively set the pace. Looking back at the fight now, it is clear Lee was working to a pre-arranged plan.
“The other big thing with Adam is more of an emphasis on conditioning, which wasn’t always the case under Manny,” he said. “There was a lot more sparring in the past, but now I am in great shape too. I feel I’m boxing better than ever right now, and am much more an all-round fighter.”
The evidence of his last two appearances would certainly confirm that assessment. In May, he obliterated a highly-motivated Darryl Cunningham inside a round in New York, and was similarly swift earlier this month when he came in at short notice to dispose of Ferenc Hafner in two. The only disappointment since he returned to this side of the Atlantic was the cancellation of a WBC Silver title fight against Domenico Spada, which fell foul of the David Haye Tyson Fury cancellation in October.
That might just be a pause on the road back to championship fights, however. There is talk of a potential matchup with Matthew Macklin in New York on St Patrick’s Day. Should that come off, and Lee emerges victorious, a second shot at a world title would surely be inevitable. Possibly even against someone he knows and respects – IBF champion Darren Barker.
Barker defends in Germany against Felix Sturm on Saturday with Lee giving him an edge in what promises to be a close encounter. “Darren has the ability to outbox him but it will be very competitive,” he said. “Felix will be very motivated for this one, and he doesn’t waste his punches.
“But if Darren can bring the same level of intensity we saw in his fight against (Daniel) Geale, if he can keep it long and stay mobile, then I’d give him a 60/40 edge.”
Meanwhile, Murray is climbing off the medical canvas after being floored by a virus which took him off the Froch/Groves undercard two weeks ago.
“I’ve never had anything like that before, it just completely wiped me out,” he said. “When I first got it, I did a full week with it, but by the second week I was a complete mess. I knew I had to pull out and it was definitely the right decision.”
Murray’s proposed fight with Russian hardnut Sergey Khomitsky will now take place at London’s ExCel Arena next Saturday, and while Murray has already beaten Khomitsky, he isn’t taking him lightly. “We’ve had him over for sparring, and I believe he’s been sparring with (Felix) Sturm too, so he is definitely coming to win, not just to survive.”
There’s a lot riding on this one, with Murray positioning himself for a third shot at a world title in 2014 – a position that would be severely undermined should he slip up against Khomitsky. Two years ago, Murray was a massive underdog when taking on Sturm for the WBA title. Never beyond British championship level before, the St Helen’s powerhouse proved himself an elite contender with a superb performance which earned a controversial draw.
While most observers didn’t argue greatly with that verdict, there was certainly plenty to complain about when Murray went to Argentina in April and put the great Sergio Martinez on his backside. Unsurprisingly, all three judges saw it in favour of Martinez to raised eyebrows all round.
Unless something silly happens against Khomitsky, Murray hopes to be in line for a third assault on the summit in the new year. There are rumours of machinations within the WBA that Gennady Golovkin could be bumped up to “super” or “unified” champion status, leaving their “regular” belt up for grabs. Should that happen, Murray’s name would almost certainly be on a shortlist of potential candidates. He is currently their number one contender and interim champion.”
Not that Murray himself would object to taking on the fearsome Golovkin either. Reports last month suggested that Murray had been offered that fight, but passed on it, with Golovkin’s representative, Oleg Hermann, saying: “Murray does not want Golovkin.” This, says the Brit, is not true.
“I don’t avoid anyone, I’m not in this game to avoid other fighters,” he said. “The only time I was ever offered a fight with Golovkin was last year. But they wouldn’t tell me what the offer was. That was their exact words – ‘we cant tell you what the offer is’. Now, I’m one of the best middleweights in the world, I’m established at the top level, and that has value. You can’t come in and expect to pay me monkey money.
“The fact is I’d love to fight Golovkin. I genuinely believe I would be his toughest test. And he would be my toughest test too. Make me the right offer and I’ll fight anytime, anywhere, wherever.”
Murray would also relish the prospect of a domestic encounter with Lee, Macklin or, of course Barker, who he favours to retain his IBF belt on Saturday. “It is going to be close, and Sturm definitely has a chance, but I think in the last six rounds, Barker will take over.
“Sturm isn’t the fighter he was. Look at the way he faded dramatically against (Sam) Soliman. He’s aged a lot. I hope Darren goes over there and does it. He’s English, he’s a good lad, and I’ll definitely be rooting for him.
“Who knows, maybe if he comes through, he can fight me next over here. What a night that could be.” Whatever happens over the next few weeks, Murray looks certain to be involved in something special in 2014, and after two failed attempts at the world title, he’d have every chance of making it third time lucky.
Nick Halling is a commentator for Sky Sports.