Bellew, Gavin, Burns endure mixed fortunes in Liverpool

By Terence Dooley

Frankie Gavin, Tony Bellew and Ricky Burns all emerged victorious from Frank Warren’s ECHO Arena show on Saturday night yet the trio of fighters received mixed reviews after wins over Curtis Woodhouse, Ovill McKenzie and Nicky Cook respectively. 

Gavin in particular has received a huge amount of criticism after promising a master class performance over former Premiership footballer Curtis Woodhouse only to have to dig in late to produce a split decision win.  Gavin is a former World Amateur Champion, the achievement sets him apart from other British amateurs yet it may be time to forget his escapades in the unpaid ranks and ask him to justify his lofty billing as a pro.

Frankie (147lb) had been dismissive of Woodhouse (145lb) during the bitter build up, deriding his opponent’s relative lack of skill and pedigree.  It was strange, then, to see Curtis out-jab the prospect a few times during their WBO Inter-Continental welterweight title clash.  Stranger still that it was Frankie who started to mark up in the second stanza despite only taking one or two blows during the opening round.

Gavin cut a frustrated figure during the pressers for this meeting, this air of frustration spilled over on the night itself.  The 25-year-old looked lethargic, slow and easy to hit by his usual standards.  The man who had barely given up a round in his career thus far was slow in getting up from his stool ahead of the third, promoting referee Richie Davies to hold Woodhouse back as the Sheffield slugger practically hurled himself from his own stool in a bid to get to Frankie.

Sure, there was nice work from Gavin throughout.  A few counters tempered Woodhouse’s jab, jab and right hand assaults and there was hesitancy about the 31-year-old by round five, a round in which Gavin produced a nice right uppercut lead.  However, his activity rate had set him a massive hurdle on the cards, the work was beautiful when it came, but it came too infrequently and his defensive timing was way off.

“Who would have thought that Curtis would out-jab Frankie,” asked Dave Coldwell, manager of Woodhouse, when nipping over to press row to check our scoring of the contest.  Woodhouse, Glyn Rhodes, his trainer, and Coldwell had drilled the Driffield man to perfection; it was paying dividends on the night.

With things going against him, question marks over the cards and Woodhouse still slinging shots, Gavin roared into the fight when the pace dropped over the final third, landing right uppercuts, left hooks to the body set up by sweet feints and a perfect one-two from the southpaw stance late in round nine.

A jab-right hand from Woodhouse in the tenth split open Gavin’s reddened nose in the tenth, the Birmingham boy’s skin has looked paper thin at times in his pro career – a sign of bad living between fights and a real danger to his prospect of reaching the top level. 

Despite the blood, Gavin carried the final two sessions, although a left to the chin sent his gumshield flying in the tenth, to win the fight by scores of 117-112, 116-113 and 114-115 from Terry O’Connor, Phil Edwards and Dave Parris respectively.  I scored it 115-113, those final two rounds digging Gavin out of a hole.

In many ways the poor welterweight form of Gavin has obscured the fine work of Woodhouse.  Curtis is no longer a ‘former footballer turned boxer’, he is a proper fighter, his jab was excellent – he obviously indentified his own strengths and used them on the night.  Curtis is now 15-3 (10) and will have taken a lot of heart from this narrow defeat.

Gavin, however, is in a bit of a mess, the contest itself was reminiscent of Muhammad Ali’s struggles with Kenny Norton, especially their first fight, which saw Ali’s greater skill set negated by Norton’s desire.  All said and done, Gavin should not struggle this badly at this level, the general consensus is that he works hard in the gym, and I have borne witness to this, but does clearly not live the life when on his downtime.

Similar to Joan Guzman, Gavin’s dietary habits and lifestyle could prove to be his toughest opponents.  Indeed, the likeable Brummie’s boxing trajectory is currently unfolding like Orson Welles’s film career, a fine start petering out on a fight-by-fight basis.  This is a shame for Frankie, Anthony Farnell, his trainer, and promoter Frank Warren, they have all invested a lot of time and energy into a career that, as of Saturday night, looks like it may promise more than it delivers unless Gavin, 11-0 (8), takes the bull by the horns.

“Who is responsible for this farce?” asked Sky TV’s Edwin Robinson when cornering BBBoC Genera Secretary Robert Smith after Ricky Burns successfully defended his WBO super-featherweight title with a first round TKO win over Nicky Cook.  Smith fought his corner well, arguing that the first round ending was due to a freak injury caused by a vicious right hook to the back of Cook early in the contest, the shot itself brought about by Nicky turning his back into the blow in a bid to shield his ribs.

Cook had talked about his spine problems when speaking to me in February 2010, claiming that, “My back joints are wearing thin so they’ve given me steroid injections in my back and they are working wonderfully,” when discussing his plans for a comeback. 

Nicky has since admitted that the condition almost ended his career but was given the go-ahead to contest the WBO title by Paul Cook, his father and trainer, the BBBoC, the doctors and Sky themselves, who did not pull the plug on this bout and carried it as part of the live broadcast. 

Indeed, doubt has been cast on his physical ability to get through the early going due to a flurry of bets on a third round stoppage defeat, prompting rumors that he was never going to survive the first nine minutes dues to widespread knowledge that his back was not up to the job.

However, if his problems were so severe and widely known prior to the fight, and his back so badly damaged that it gave in under the first assault, then it begs the question of why anyone would go for the third round and not lump everything on the opening session. 

A blow to the ribs impacts on the back, a shot to the head on the spine, both problem areas for Nicky going in, making fears over a conspiracy seem disjointed and those who lumped on the third are possibly the most stupid gambling ‘insiders’ of all time if they felt it would take three rounds of contact to trigger the back issue.

More likely, Cook (130lb at the second attempt) came through a training camp, probably ditched sparring to avoid aggravating his problems, and came into the fight believing that his body could get him through the mill one last time only to have to reappraise things once that hook sank into his flank.  ‘Cookie’ is a proud fighter, he went over three times, once without taking a shot, and indicated that his back was in a lot of pain when referee Phil Edwards accepted the white towel from Cook’s corner, with hospital reports suggesting that he has slipped a disc.

It was a freak moment, reminiscent of Odlanier Solis’s knee going versus Vitali Klitschko and difficult to legislate for.  There was nothing posed about Cook’s struggles, no way that the former WBO world title boss would have wanted his career to end like this and little to indicate that his father, who eventually threw in the towel to protect his son, would have been privy to the fight had he not felt his flesh and blood could come through it safely to claim the W.

In short: a tragicomedy of errors from the camp, the promotional team, the broadcaster and the board rather than an out-and-out farce.

Burns (130lb) certainly did not expect a quick night’s work, claiming that he was prepared for a tougher encounter.  “I trained for a hard twelve rounds.  I wanted to put the body shots in.  I seem to be getting better and better every fight night,” revealed the reigning titlist.

“I caught him to the body and head, it was a clean shot, a shot we’ve been working on constantly on the pads.  Once he felt that he didn’t want to know.  That Ring belt is the one I’ve always wanted.  I’ve got my fingers crossed that I can fight for that belt.  I grew up watching the Rocky films so I want that Rocky belt.  I treat every fight the same, all my defences, I give one hundred and ten percent.  It is about driving through things when you get hurt in that ring.

“I am hitting harder all the time, getting more aggressive going forward and once he felt the power he didn’t want to know.  If you hit someone you can tell it is a good shot and that body shot was a good one.  I was going in to set a pace from the start.  I am disappointed for all the fans who came down.  Nicky is having his back checked so I hope he’s alright. 

Billy Nelson, who trains Burns, feels that Ricky is reaching his peak, that the powder puff puncher of old has been erased.  “This man is prepared for twelve hard rounds against any super-featherweight in the world,” argued Nelson.

“He is still fresh for the next fight.  Frank Warren is the best promoter in the world, the man who can get the fights.  Any fighter who goes in with this man and is not hundred percent will get beat.  His punches are becoming thunderous.  The Ricky Burns of old is gone.”

Alex Arthur once held this same title, the Edinburgh boxer lost it to Cook, now 30-3 (16), back in September 2008.  There were whispers that Arthur had ditched patriotic concerns and had plumped for London’s unfortunate ‘Cookie’ pre-fight.  This news prompted a rebuke from Nelson.

He said, “Alex never won the [WBO super-featherweight] title in the ring, never defended it, that is a wee trivia question for you – who picked up a vacant world title and never defended it?”

The answer – Alex Arthur and Ken Norton.  Scotland’s finest, now 32-2 (9), has defended his belt three times against modest opposition, the 28-year-old titleholder is chomping at the bit and will now canvas for a meeting with IBF holder Mzonke Fana.  Fana is the consensus king in a weak division, the fight in eminently doable and winnable, Burns will hope that come the new season he can add the IBF strap to his title haul.

Tony Bellew was heavily criticized after his December brawl with Ovill McKenzie in the very same arena; the 28-year-old excited and frustrated his home fans that night with a thrilling performance only to be pelted with censure once the dust had settled on the shootout. 

Roll on seven months and Bellew barely puts a foot wrong in negating and decisioning the man who had almost ripped away his ‘0’, shows the jab and boxing ability that many had doubted he possessed and preserved himself en route to a near shutout win and guess what?  He gets pelted post-fight, this time for failing to leave his chin exposed, his heart on his sleeve and ensuring that he did not clock up any more mileage. 

‘Bomber’ (174½lb) served notice of his boxing intent early in the encounter, moving more than he usually does and producing feints than a Victorian melodrama in the early going to confuse Derby’s McKenzie (174lb) before boxing his way to an arid 118-111, twice from Richie Davies and Phil Edwards, 119-110 decision win; Boxingscene had it 118-112.

It was safety-first, borderline boring stuff, reminiscent of David Haye’s technical, read dry, decision win over Ismail Abdoul in July 2006, a controlled performance that led Haye into the best form of his cruiserweight career.  We could see the same improvement from Bellew in future fights; he has shown that he can keep his head and box to a strategy.

Although a prolonged reconnaissance mission, the bout itself allowed Bellew, 16-0 (10), to test his mental discipline as well as his ability to economize his shots over the twelve-threes championship distance.  His decision to keep the loading doors on the bombing bay closed for the night a sign that he can now assess a fight mid-flow without resorting to the homicidal histrionics that have reared their head in one or two contests.  McKenzie drops to 18-11 (7), his record is deceiving, the man is a brute at the weight.

“For the first time I’ve gone into a fight and decided to use my brain.  I was drilled on it for ten weeks.  They [new trainers Mark Quinn and Mick McAllister] stopped sparring whenever I loaded up, which made me mad but it worked.  I was scared of going to the corner and getting bollocked so I stuck to the plan.  Boxing is about hitting and not getting hit,” stressed Tony as he analyzed the British and Commonwealth 175lb title victory.

“Listen, you go in there and try not to get hit and that is what I did.  Tonight was all about Ovill McKenzie.  People go on about how exciting I am but I don’t want to be known as Mr. Excitement and I’ve saved myself three fights in my career by doing that tonight.”

A fan of Eastenders, Tony may have recognized elements of himself in one of the soap’s former characters.  Frank Butcher may not be around anymore but whenever he was, and whenever he was in trouble, the character would shed a tear and say, “It’s me heart!”.  Tony may have found himself in a similar position had he continued in the same vein as last year’s belter with McKenzie. 

No, in electing to prove this point, Bellew has added to his danger level, we knew he could bomb, there were signs that he could box during his first ABA title win, which he took on point’s, he has now brought this ability into the pros and should benefit from it.

“I know that being in wars catches up with you.  I got dropped twice last time, heavily the second time.  I don’t want boxing to finish me – I want to finish boxing.  I’ve got to work, keep learning and keep winning.  It is down to the powers that be if the [Nathan Cleverly] fight gets made.  I showed people a different side to me tonight.  I am happy,” glowered the intense yet friendly Liverpudlian.

“I keep apologizing to people for not providing excitement but people keep telling me not to.  I will tell you right now, I won’t move backwards against Cleverly so that clash will be exciting.  If he fights me he will come at me and I won’t go anywhere.”

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