Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Ten from Sheffield

One of the indelible highlights from my recent vacation to England was the welterweight title fight in Sheffield between Kell Brook and Errol Spence. The match turned out to be excellent with Spence asserting himself in the fight's second half, eventually forcing Brook to yield in the 11th round. Unfortunately, my travel schedule didn't allow for me to write an immediate post-fight column. However, I wanted to share with you my thoughts and impressions from a memorable night in Sheffield.

What follows are some notes and observations about the event – everything from the arena, to the crowd, to the promotion and most importantly, the combatants. 

Even though I had been to a number of big fights across America, that night in Sheffield was a singular experience. I marveled at the intensity, the emotion and the euphoria that swept through the crowd during the evening's festivities. I'd compare it to the intensity right before the opening bell of a Pacquiao fight or maybe the exultation in the San Antonio crowd after Marcos Maidana defeated Adrien Broner. However, this Sheffield crowd engaged in revelry for hours, not for an instant here or there. 

Experiencing a big-fight atmosphere in the U.K. had ranked towards the top of my boxing bucket list for some time, and Brook-Spence certainly delivered the goods. It was an unforgettable evening and I felt lucky to have witnessed it. Here are some items that I took away from the night. 

1. The drinking.

Except in particular places in the U.S., drinking outside on street corners is usually frowned upon. Yet, walking around Sheffield, huge crowds assembled outside of the pubs and everyone was drinking. And there seemed to be a pub every block-and-a-half. Also, it wasn't let's have a drink or two before the fight; there was serious consumption going on. 

And the imbibing wasn't reserved for just pre-game festivities. Picture this scene: Between fights, everyone rushes out to the concourse. That part is fairly universal. However, what I saw in Sheffield is a real difference between U.S. and English fight fans. Trying to find a restroom, I saw a huge line of about 200 people and said to myself, aw fuck. Momentarily disappointed, I soon realized that the line was actually for beer. The bathrooms were to the side. I walked right in and came right out, no line for the ladies room either. This might seem like a rather small point. However, it was a noticeable difference. 

Perhaps more tellingly, everyone in the beer line seemed affable. The Brits waited in an endless line, but they did so patiently. It was all so respectable. They probably were going to miss the beginning of the Groves-Chudinov co-feature, but they didn't seem to care. Those two watered-down pints were the priorities and if fans had to spend a considerable part of their night in line, they weren't particularly bothered by that fact. 

While drinking with some friends after the fight, what struck me was not that a few in my group had 10-12 beers throughout the night. No, I had certainly seen that before. What was unique is that they had 10-12 beers and were perfectly fine. They seemed unfazed by that amount of liquor. Now I can usually hold my own when drinking but I realized that I was completely out of my league here. To them, their consumption may have just been called "Saturday" – nothing seemed particularly out-of-the-ordinary. If I had 12 drinks (granted, I usually drink whiskey), I'd be out of commission for quite some time. 

2. The singing.

British boxing fans sure love to sing. Whether it's "Sweet Caroline," the riff to "Seven Nation Army," "God Save the Queen," football chants or various other cheers that emanated at points throughout the crowd, this was one full-throated collection of boxing fans. I've watched dozens of Matchroom Sport's promotions before and I had always noted the fervor in the crowd, but to experience it live was something altogether different. The stadium was rocking. At certain points, you couldn't even hear Michael Buffer on stage, and his mic was working perfectly fine. 

3. The clothes.  

It had been almost unseasonably warm in the days leading up to Brook-Spence. In London, it was in the mid-80s (feel free to do your own Celsius conversion). By nightfall in Sheffield, the temperature was probably in the high 50s and dropping. Yet, groups of English lads walked around in tee shirts and shorts. More stylish men adorned their blue blazers, skinny jeans and sneakers (a trend that hasn't fully caught on in the U.S).  

I've seen a number of fights in Las Vegas and Atlantic City and I've seen my fair share of fight-night slutware, but let me say, a number of English women didn't disappoint on this front. They held their own. There were onesies and butt cheeks galore. Seemingly every third woman had an upper thigh tattoo. In general, I'd say that the average number of tattoos per person in my section was 16. Body art seems to be quite the rage among English boxing fans. 

4. The Saturday Night Boxing fans meet. 

It's a strange phenomenon of social media that you develop relationships with people that you don't actually ever meet. Boxing, a niche sport in many parts of the world, is a perfect representation of this reality, in that for many of us, we often don't get an opportunity to talk about the sport in our "real" lives. Thus, we've migrated to Twitter and corners of the web to get our boxing fix. 

I've had a Facebook boxing group since 2011. At its peak before it was hacked, it numbered over 75,000 people. In 2015, I reconstituted the group and SN Boxing remains a place where many of my favorite boxing people go to opine on the sport. Many people in the current group have been there since the beginning. Over the years, several have become good friends. As I stated earlier, it's a strange phenomenon, but if you're taking time to read a boxing blog entry such as this, you probably understand it. 

So it was quite a thrill to finally meet Ian (from Sheffield), Danny (from Birmingham, U.K.) and Brad (from Canada) and sit next to Nic (from Bristol, U.K.) and Arvin (from New York by way of London). When Ian, Danny and Brad had told me that they had spent most of the day drinking together, I felt like a proud parent. They had never met before and yet were ripping on each other like old friends. And in many ways, they were.   

5. Football.

Football is inescapable in England. It's the national currency as much as the pound is. I've caught the fever over the last few years and try to watch as many Arsenal games as I can. As an aside, later in the week in England, walking down a treacherous peak in the Lake District, we (my girlfriend and I) met an experienced hiker from Preston who was a big Everton supporter. I spent 30 minutes with him commiserating about our disappointing Premier League seasons (yes, Everton improved its status this campaign but the hiker was a long-time Evertonian who remembered when they were a legitimate threat to be a top-four team in the league). Football created an immediate bond.

Sheffield is a fascinating English football battleground. The city of 550,000 has two major teams, Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday, and each team's supporters loathe those who root for the other one. Ian, who is a die-hard Wednesday supporter and travels the country supporting them, couldn't even utter the name of the grounds on Saturday where the fight was being staged. When writing about the arena (Bramall Lane), he referred to it as $*@^(&&  &*@%. He was also not alone in using this designation. 

To provide further perspective, these teams aren't even in the top division in British football. Wednesday is a second-division club and United was in the third division last season. Yet, these demarcations are real and fierce. I also found out that everyone in Sheffield seems to hate Leeds and its football team, Leeds United. Walking into the arena, we saw an older, drunken gentleman with an enormous gash of blood oozing down his forehead. He kept yelling Leeds! Obviously, he had been picking a fight, and got his wish. 

6. The moment of silence.

England had been rocked by the Manchester bombing in the week leading up to Brook-Spence. The devastating attack targeted children and their parents and that explosion seemed to touch a piece of everyone in the Sheffield crowd. As Michael Buffer tried to initiate a moment of silence, impromptu Manchester United cheers broke out in several sections. Once the crowd had finally quieted, the silence was serene and poignant. The atmosphere, which had been rocking all night, embraced solidarity with those who had been killed and the families personally affected by the terrorist attack. When the silence finally ended, the crowd let out a deafening roar. Manchester, only 30 or so miles away, was very much in the hearts and prayers of all of those in attendance. 

7. Groves finally a champion.

I was surprised by the rapt reception for George Groves from the Sheffield crowd. In 2013-14, Groves waged two epic battles with Carl Froch. The first one ended controversially as Groves was ahead in the fight upon it being stopped by Howard Foster. In the rematch, in front of 80,000 fans at Wembley Stadium, Groves fought Froch on even terms before being obliterated by a three-punch combination in the eighth round. After that fight, Groves came up short in another title bout against Badou Jack and had a handful of lower-profile wins.

Groves, a Londoner, wasn't a native son by any stretch in Sheffield, but his ring wars had certainly made their impact among English boxing fans. Facing Fedor Chudinov from Russia, Groves was fighting for a title shot for perhaps the final time; the crowd was behind him 100%.

Groves started off with a risky strategy. Planting himself along the ropes, he let Chudinov tee off on him at close range. Although Groves countered here and there, he was getting the worst of the action in the early rounds. By the fifth, his counter right hands started to land with more frequency. In the sixth, he landed a series of hard rights that hurt Chudinov. Although Chudinov never went down, the succession of Groves' huge punches forced referee Steve Gray to stop the fight. Perhaps the stoppage was a little early, but Groves had done real damage. 

Immediately following the victory, there was elation throughout the grounds. Groves was practically speechless in the first part of his post-fight interview. The crowd was raucous with its approval, providing Groves with a fitting coronation. Even though Groves' best days may be behind him, he will always have a championship belt. He's a blue-collar fighter, one whom nothing was given to. He's had to overcome self-doubt and criticism about his emotional fragility in the ring to get to the mountaintop, and finally, he had made it. The moment was his. 

8. Brook's hand speed. 

I had seen numerous Kell Brook fights before, including one in person against Luis Galarza in 2011 in Atlantic City. At that point, Brook was still very much a one-handed fighter, with his left dominating the proceedings. As Brook has developed into a top welterweight, he has worked to make his straight right hand a weapon in its own right. 

In my mind, I had always attributed Brook's success to his accuracy and punch placement rather than speed. However, his performance against Errol Spence made me rethink my internal calculus. 

Spence had good hand speed, but Brook's hands seemed to move like lightning in the early rounds of the fight. Landing quick one-twos, he successfully flurried at many points in the first half of the fight, especially in the sixth round. Although many of the rounds were close, when Brook let his hands go, good things happened. After the fight, Spence admitted that he had lacked sharpness. Sure, his inactivity had played a role in that, but Brook's superior hand speed was also a significant factor in Spence's cautious start. Brook's hand speed was a real advantage. 

9. Spence's body punching. 

Spence's body work has always been his calling card. When he threw his left uppercut to the body, you could immediately see Brook's discomfort. Spence's shots were like thudding bricks. In the rounds where he went to the body consistently, he won them. After a few frames of headhunting in the middle portion of the bout, Spence returned to a committed body attack in the ninth, and in many ways, the punishment that he dished out in that round, foreshadowed the end of the fight. 

10. A round befitting of two champions. 

By the 10th round, Brook's left eye started to become a real hindrance. Spence was landing more cleanly than he had earlier in the fight and with more frequency. In the beginning of the 10th, Spence trapped Brook along the ropes and landed a devastating three-punch combination that sent Brook to the canvas. There was still a lot of time left in the round and in that moment Spence had completely seized control of what had been a very competitive fight. Yet, upon rising, Brook made a heroic last stand. Emptying his arsenal with big right hands and left hooks, Brook tried his best to end the fight. Spence countered with straight lefts to the head and body shots. As the round concluded, the two fighters engaged in a vicious war of attrition. Brook flurried with everything that he had and Spence attempt to keep pace. The crowd rose to its feet in appreciation of the spectacle. 

After the round, I watched both go to their respective corners. Spence had taken some good shots in the 10th, but he took them well. Brook, well, he seemed defeated. I said to the people I was sitting with that Brook won't make it out of 11th; he just couldn't absorb much more punishment. And sure enough, as Spence approached Brook in the beginning stages of the round, Brook took a knee and let Howard Foster count him out. 

In the aftermath of the fight, Brook received criticism from some corners of boxing fandom for "quitting." Brook wound up suffering another broken orbital bone (he had received a similar injury to his other eye in his previous fight) and had gone to war in hopes of achieving victory. Yes, his last move was a protective measure, one for the rest of his career, and quite honestly for the rest of his life. I applaud his effort in the fight. He acquitted himself to the best of his ability; however on this night, Spence had too much firepower. Brook, physically and emotionally, had been defeated. 

The majority of the crowd streamed out of the arena as soon as the fight ended; they didn't even stick around for the post-fight interviews. Spence had successfully established the beginning of his era in professional boxing while Brook was unable to give his hometown fans the victory that they had so craved. And if some of Brook's fans were angered by the final moments of the fight, they realized that Spence had earned the victory. The fight was conclusive. 

Although there had been momentary sadness in the crowd, within a half hour from the final ten-count, the pubs were packed again. Spirits, both literally and figuratively, were being raised. Back at my hotel, I had a few drinks and talked boxing with my friends until three in the morning. I went to bed a satisfied customer. What a night!

Adam Abramowitz is the founder/head writer of saturdaynightboxing.com
He's a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
Email: saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com
@snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook.  

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