I’ve been a fan of boxing all my life. Perhaps it’s admiration for those who do what I cannot– I can’t fight for peanuts, and had the snot beaten out of me regularly throughout my schooling career by a succession of anencephalic bullies. Perhaps it’s a function of my cultural background– I was the poor son of poor parents from a poor City in a poor part of England, where the fight game was a genuine option for clambering out of poverty and into some sort of money and independence. Perhaps there’s just a part of me that remains brutish and primal, no matter the veneer of civilization I drape around me.
Whatever it is, I love boxing. It stirs my blood, pumps my heart, and gets me bouncing with energy when I’m getting ready to roar into a situation and tie one on. I genuinely watch a bout or two before a performance or an appearance, and often use bouts as a form of reward or regular intervention when faced with a long, boring task. I grew up with Jeff Fenech, and the bloated over-hyping of Mike Tyson, the saga of the Waters’ boys, the rise and fall of Lester Ellis and Jeff Harding. From there, like fans of any pursuit do, I discovered history: the greats, the not so greats, the classic moments, the controversies, the gods, the villains. The story. And I discovered my own favourites, many of them from the land of my birth, perhaps because they represent a story that I sidestepped, or maybe because they’re just, somehow, better. More exciting. Greater.
That is, perhaps, an argument and a list for another day. For now, here are five bouts that never fail to get me going.
5 for Friday: Ready to Rummmmmmmmmmmble
1. David Haye vs Enzo Maccarinelli
Some fights, and some fighters, resonate because of history, or the fighters’ personal narratives, or from a narrative of redemption, vengeance, or what-have you. And some are just good, old-fashioned, tear-ups. This is the latter.
Before he became boxing’s prime circus in the early years of the 2010s, David Haye was one hell of a good cruiserweight. He had everything: speed, power, a distinctive style, good looks, a physique to make gods envious. In short, the lot. And he could fight. Boy, could he fight. If he hadn’t gone up to heavyweight, he might have become the greatest cruiserweight of all time– and in a division that once contained Evander Holyfield, that’s saying something.
Until this bout, Enzo Maccarinelli was pretty special, too. Until this bout.
There’s no great story, here. No great narrative. Just two damn good fighters going at it like crazy business. One went on to a form of greatness, and the other on a long, slow slide. Haye breaks Maccarinelli. Breaks him hard. It’s as simple as that, and thrilling to watch.
2. Lennox Lewis vs Hasim Rahman II
Lennox Lewis might just be my favourite fighter. Tall, athletic, beautiful to watch in the ring, and when the occasion demanded, utterly ruthless. A knockout artist of the highest calibre. I could have picked any number of matches here: his early career knockouts of Michael Grant or Razor Ruddock, his through-the-ropes destruction of Franz Botha, his clinical deconstruction of MIke Tyson– I’ve watched them all multiple times.
But when I need to lift myself, to bring myself to a level of energy and drive, this is the one I turn to. This isn’t just an exhibition of Lewis’ unmatched boxing skills — he might not be quite the best heavyweight of all time, but allowing for the fact that my viewing career has included late Ali; all of Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfields’ careers; and the Klitschko era; I’ll put my hand on my heart and say he is the best heavyweight of my lifetime — this one has story. The beaten champion, humbled by a nowhere out of nowhere; subject to the derision and taunting of his vanquisher; forced to rebuild everything– his style, his approach, his support. Coming back to avenge his loss. And avenging it in what is, arguably, the most perfect performance of his career.
Redemption and legacy are two subject very close to my heart. As brilliant a boxing match as this is, and it is, it’s the story woven underneath it that gives it the extra shot to my adrenaline. It’s why I come back to it, again and again.
3. Joe Calzaghe vs Jeff Lacy
And now for something slightly different. There’s no knockout, here. No defining pyrotechnic moment. But this one is, for me, all about respect, and a man fighting to disprove an overwhelming weight of public opinion.
Joe Calzaghe is one of my favourite fighters, and in my opinion, one of the greatest boxers Britain has ever produced: an all-action workhorse with a hundred punch angles and a will to win so singular it could cut diamond. He never received the respect he was due, not even after going through a 46 fight career undefeated and winning belts in 2 divisions. This was his watershed: written off by the press and the public as a faded force, facing a fighter who was being widely touted as the future of the division, roundly mocked and ridiculed by an American press who installed Lacy as an overwhelming favourite… if Calzaghe lost this bout, to a man younger, taller, heavier, and supposedly quicker and more powerful, it was career over.
Calzaghe doesn’t just beat Lacy. Over 12 brutal, clinical, perfect rounds, he destroys him. Physically, psychologically, emotionally. Not only was Lacy never the same fighter again, he was never really a fighter again. Calzaghe is a white-hot demon. It is, arguably, the best performance I have seen by any fighter, ever. If ever you could describe the domination and utter destruction of another human being as joyous, this is it. You can watch Calzaghe kill everything that it means to be Jeff Lacy over 12 unrelenting rounds. You can see the individual moments where Lacy loses parts of himself.
Boxing is a brutal, unforgiving sport. This is the most brutal, unforgiving performance I’ve ever watched, and I watch it again, and again.
It is glorious.
4. Marvin Hagler vs Thomas Hearns
Hold your hats. Make sure you already have your cup of tea made. Try not to blink. This is the most furious three rounds of boxing you will ever see. Hagler and Hearns are, deservedly, both amongst the greatest legends the sport has ever had. This may be only 3 rounds long, but there is more action here than some fighters accrue in their entire careers. This might just be the most exciting boxing match ever staged. Every time I watch it, and I’ve watched it plenty, I want to run from the room, take on everyone in town, run a marathon and climb a mountain. This is the boxing equivalent of injecting liquified adrenaline straight into your eyeballs.
Remember to breathe.
5. Carl Froch vs Lucian Bute
This one is all about self-image, really. Carl Froch, the Nottingham Cobra, embodies rather a lot of how I see myself and the way people have responded to me in life. Undervalued; written off; his record and legacy downplayed by those with more politics, those closer to the powerbrokers, those more adept at the game of schmooze and remember than fight and punch. Rebuilding after a bad loss; in the ring with an unbeaten champion touted as one of the future-men of the division; given long, insulting odds to win.
Yeah, you can guess how it ends. Froch slowly builds for the first two rounds, rocking Bute with a succession of withering, debilitating, single blows. And then, partway through round three, he simply explodes. By the time he wins it in the 5th, he has destroyed Bute, to the point where the Romanian will never be the same again. It’s brutal, unforgiving stuff from a man who inspires me because I see a dark mirror in him (the shared birthplace, the similar family upbringing, the love of our local football team) and because I see elements of the man I would have loved to have been: hard as aged leather, driven, obsessively successful.
When I need to screw my courage to the sticking place, when I need to rebuild myself again, I watch Carl Froch. And this is the one I finish with, as we have finished with it here. Enjoy. Nottingham forever.