THERE are a lot of hard, hard miles between the main ring at Cannock’s Excelsior Club and the glittering ring at the O2.
Sam Eggington and I were the only ones in both rings at this point. Sam is obviously struggling and I ask a few questions. Last week I managed to score a double within 48 hours. I spent a night at York Hall in the middle, a night that started with eggs and chips in a cafe across the road and ended with a taxi around the streets of east London. Did you know that there’s a Michelin star restaurant at the back of York Hall and that their own distilled gin will set you back around £25 a pop?
The three days of fights – 24 in total – ended in a lively ring at the O2 with a tame winner in the ring; it started on Thursday night with two undefeated boxers battling it out over four rounds. Anthony Joshua’s robe was probably worth more than Lewis Howells and Mitchell Woolard split in the opening fight to launch Scott Murray’s new Excelsior Sporting Club. The upstairs of the club was transformed with lights and people came out in their velvet dinner suits and slacks. It was an impressive start and GB regular Niall Farrell’s debut deserves a mention.
When I asked Woolard how many he had, he replied: “What, in a bar?” When I asked Joshua about his victory, he replied: “No knockout, no good.” Two men parted forever 137 miles between Bar Sport and North Greenwich. One man with nobody around and another at the mercy of about 18,000 fans. It’s not the same business, and at the same time, it’s the very heart of the British boxing business right there, I guess.
At Cannock, which was sold out, I overheard Kerry Keyes and John Pegg having one of those weird boxing conversations. Carrie worked with Sam, protecting him in case he got cut and Peggy was cornered. They spoke without looking at each other, focusing on Sam, but still managing to have a full conversation. “You there on Saturday?” Peg asked. “Yes, took Campbell.” Caius answered. “Campbell. He’s with one of us.” “He is”: “Yes, she’s with Louis Fielding. He can fight.” “Can he?” Fast forward about 46 hours and they reunited in the O2 ring, but only just. Carey missed out on the ringside after being stuck in the Blackwall Tunnel traffic hell for hours. “I got there at the end for the pictures,” he joked. He did, by the way. Hutton won the first round. The O2 lockout lasted until dawn.
Ray Boom Boom Mancini was a guest of the Excelsior, and the next night he appeared ringside at York Hall. Boom Boom looked at home in both locations. “I’ve had fights in places like this,” he said at Bethnal Green. “It reminds me of Blue Horizon.” It happens, and watching fights at both venues is another rare club. Mancini spent the afternoon at Repton, a short walk from York Hall. He was talking to actor Ray Winstone when he noticed Winston’s picture on the wall. Winston won the London Boys’ Federation Club title at the Cafe Royal in the seventies. I think I was there at night and have the program somewhere. Another rare club. “Ray told me that being a member of Repton made him,” Mancini said.
There was a mystical look in Mancini’s eyes at York Hall. That happens a lot when boxers sit in York Hall for the first time. I told him that Johnny Tapia and Big John Tate, two truly tragic fighters, fought there. He just shook his head and smiled. It still makes me laugh that one of the York Hall rings that served for so many years now has a permanent place in the Royal Palace of Saudi Arabia. It was a move made possible by Ring King, Mike Goodhall. At the weekend, all three rings were part of Goodhall’s empire, by the way.
Over the course of the three nights there was talk of the role that sports clubs once played in the British boxing business that Murray started with Eggington and Farrell, which is good. In 1973, St Andrews launched a British title challenge with Ken Buchanan and Jim Watt. It’s the fight and the location that still puzzles me. Buchanan had topped the bill at capacity from the park just seven weeks earlier. It is probably the biggest and strangest change in back-to-back fights in British history. Many other obscure fights took place behind closed doors in sports clubs. Alan Minter won a bronze medal at the Munich Olympics and was watched by millions on the BBC. A few months later, he was having his fourth and fifth fights behind closed doors in private clubs where shouting was not tolerated; polite applause was allowed between puffs on fat cigars.
However, the sports club’s craziest story dates back to 1968. Chris Finnegan won gold at the Mexico City Olympics and nine weeks later he made his debut at Hilton Park Lane. It’s really amazing. Two boom booms, by the way. Now, a few years later it would be a night out if they met at the bar door.
It was another big match at the O2, unscheduled but important. In the tunnels away from the ring I was standing with Conor Benn when Councilor Robert Smith suddenly appeared. They shook hands, no words, just a look. There are no cameras. It was all part of a long, long week of boxing. From Cannock to glory, boom boom, a dream or two and an uncertain future as a national idol. It was a triple whammy.