Leon Willings recovered from a first-round knockdown to take the exciting Ben Whittaker the eight-round distance at London’s O2 Arena.

On the occasion of the 26-year-old Whittaker’s seventh professional contest, Willings, 23, showed admirable resilience to perhaps even give him his toughest fight. 

That Whittaker, fighting for the first time since his separation from the respected SugarHill Steward and therefore being guided by Joby Clayton, started with a sense of urgency suggested he was on course to win inside the distance and with ease. He was letting his hands go towards the ropes when a right hand dropped Willings, and though he returned to his feet Willings was under pressure until the round’s conclusion and already in a struggle to survive.

Further big right hands and lefts to the body followed in the second – when Willings fought back more convincingly. That Whittaker cut a more relaxed figure from the third perhaps even owed to not only a belief the ending was imminent but Willings’ response. 

After taking further punishment on the ropes in the fourth and starting to bleed from by his right eye, in the fifth he continued to appear capable of resisting Whittaker’s power and succeeded with both uppercuts and left hooks. 

Whittaker seeking the stoppage in the sixth may even prove to enhance Willings’ reputation, because even while again trapped by the ropes Willings rarely looked hurt. If he lacked ambition he refused to be bullied, and he didn’t again appear at risk of being stopped until the final bell, when he was awarded a score of 78-73 by the referee Sean McAvoy.

Viddal Riley, 26, had by then made the first defence of his English cruiserweight title when he was awarded scores of 98-92, 99-91 and 99-91 at the conclusion of 10 disappointingly uncompetitive rounds with Mikael Lawal. Lawal, 28, lost to Isaac Chamberlain in October, and therefore recorded a second successive defeat.

Riley and Chamberlain, the British champion, immediately had a heated exchange. Chamberlain’s mandatory challenger Cheavon Clarke then arrived, and after even angrier scenes they had to be kept apart.

There was also a stoppage victory for Callum Simpson, in the fourth round of his super-middleweight fight with Dulla Mbabe. Simpson, 27, had almost forced a knockdown in the third with a powerful right hand and ended the fight 70 seconds into the fourth when a concussive right hand heavily dropped the 30-year-old Mbabe and he was counted out. His promoter, Boxxer’s Ben Shalom, then revealed plans to next match him with the British champion Zak Chelli.

“We’ve promised him a trip to Barnsley,” Shalom said, referencing his fighter’s hometown. “It’s a great British title fight.”

Fifty-four seconds into six largely one-sided rounds at heavyweight, Alen Babic, 33, was declared the winner over Steve Robinson when McAvoy intervened to rescue him. Robinson, also 33, was offering too little against Babic’s clean punching; McAvoy rightly spared him from further unnecessary punishment, likely aware that allowing Robinson to continue would only have delayed the inevitable.