Considering it’s status as England’s second city, it’s remarkable that Birmingham has waited over a hundred years to claim a “world” champion. At the tail end of 2016 Kal Yafai did so in unconventional circumstances when beating the overweight and unpredictable former champ Luis Concepcion for a super-flyweight belt.
The first bell at the Barclaycard arena – nestled around the corner from Broad Street where a stream of hen and stag groups traipse up and down a string of bars – was at 5pm. Paul Smith and Sky Sports’ Head of Boxing Adam Smith greeted each other warmly. Paul had had a title shot for the WB* regular championship (isn’t regular champ an oxymoron?) at super middleweight against Tyron Zeuge confirmed and Adam would later offer Paul some peanut M&M’s. The fighter declined, perhaps conscious of the 12 stone limit and how he famously missed (catch) weight by more than four pounds against the great Andre Ward.
Young super-welterweight Jordan Clayton from nearby Solihull moved to 6-0 with a hard fought four round decision over Nottinghamshire-based Latvian Nick Golubs. Golubs, who has now lost all three of his bouts put up a decent fight with the referee scoring 39-38.
Twenty one year-old Northampton middleweight Kieron Conway moved to 3-0 with a straightforward four round win over Czech southpaw Jan Balog. Balog snapped a losing streak when he knocked out a member of his family – believed to be his brother – inside a round at a music hall in Prague back in February. Conway towered over the visitor and floored Balog in the first before the tubby southpaw recovered to last the distance. The referee posted a 40-35 scorecard.
A small group of promotion girls were selling tickets to an Anthony Joshua meet and greet dinner to be held in Birmingham next month. The champ wouldn’t dream of serving tasteless food up at this event and punters are promised an “exotic meal”. Tickets range from £79 to £299 each depending on how much signed tat you’d like.
Local super-lightweight Aaron Lovell looked sharp to post his second win in as many bouts against the limited Liam Richards. The flashy Lovell moves well, occasionally switching stances but doesn’t have much pop on his punches. The referee scored it 40-36.
Unbeaten Tamworth lightweight Charlie Williams (now 6-0-1) was floored by a hard counter left en route to a four round draw with Josh Thorne (now 1-9-2). Williams will want to focus on defence when he returns to the gym. The referee scored 38-38.
Cori Gibbs and Ahmed Ibrahim contested a cracking super-lightweight battle of unbeatens. Both hurt each other in the first before Gibbs established control with sharper, more accurate bursts in the second. Switch-hitting Gibbs hurt Ibrahim with a series of lefts in the third before Ibrahim found his range with a series of straight rights towards the end of the round. Gibbs moved nicely in the fourth and final round and let go with a lovely selection of shots to underline the win. Gibbs won 40-36 and moves to 11-0.
As part of the broadcasting team, Sky Sports have a make-up artist. It always looks a little odd watching her primp and preen boxers and ex-boxers along with presenters. “It’s important,” she says. “We can’t have them sweating on live telly!”
A terrific battle of unbeaten light-middleweights saw popular Ryan Kelly and Adam Harper wage a ten round war for the Midlands area title. Kelly uses the moniker “Ruthless” and dug in a fearsome selection of body shots from the outset. Harper wears the claret and blue of Aston Villa football club and makes up for with industry what he lacks in finesse. Harper would stand between rounds and press much of the action while Kelly peppered him on the outside. By the fifth Kelly started to look tired as the crowd cheered loudly for him, with Harper pressing on relentlessly, pushing out jabs and right uppercuts. Harper was warned for punching after the bell to end the sixth and turned the fight turned into a real battle of attrition through the second half of the bout. Harper (now 8-0) was jubilant when announced the deserved winner, shouting “the impossible dream” to the crowd and calling on promoter Eddie Hearn to sign him to a deal. Harper looks facially like Denis Lebedev. To the amusement of the crowd, Kelly swore repeatedly in his interview and the obvious next step is a rematch.
In his second professional fight former amateur star Josh Kelly (now 2-0) beat another fighter with a winning record in Spaniard Jony Vina, now 6-2. Kelly’s trainer Adam Booth is looking to move his charge quickly and – quite apart from his “Pretty Boy Kelly” alias, Kelly looks the part. The Sunderland welterweight is flamboyant and clearly enjoying his apprenticeship, trying out little offensive and defensive moves. Kelly’s stinging jab set up hurtful right hands. A right hook in the fourth dropped the Spaniard heavily and a series of follow ups had Vina lurching around the ring before the referee call it off and not a moment too soon.
Former amateur world champion Frankie Gavin (now 24-3) won a scrappy eight rounder against Frenchman Renald “Le Lion” Garrido. Garrido wore a lion costume to the ring and “crawled” underneath the ropes. After stating his intent to campaign at super-lightweight, Gavin couldn’t even make welter here and Garrido (18-15-1) jumped straight on him from the first bell, hurting Gavin with a right hand and launching several unconventional attacks. If Gavin – marked up as early as the second – had an air of entitlement about him then Garrido sought to beat it out of him. The Birmingham fans are loyal and with the fight of the year contender with Sam Eggington still fresh in their memory, the southpaw remains a popular figure here, but how long can their patience last? Gavin advertises CNP nutritional products on his shorts but with his battles to get in shape one wonders if the sponsorship is arranged by a competitor. It was scrappy stuff with Gavin building just enough momentum after a shaky start to be declared the 77-75 winner.
Gamal Yafai (now 12-0) dropped his commonwealth title to challenge Sean Davis (12-1) for a minor WBC strap in a local super-bantamweight derby. Davis personally sold 400 tickets and he can see the arena from his mothers back garden. The class, smooth boxing Yafai dropped a determined Davis in the third and a follow up left hook nearly floored him a second time. To his credit the game Davis fought back bravely before a nasty left hook at the start of the fifth had Davis in the floor again. The brave champion shrugged off a second knockdown in the round to again finish the session strongly. Inevitably, two more body shot knockdowns in the seventh saw the bout stopped and Yafai really looks to be going places.
Sam Eggington (21-3) continued his terrific run of form since his 2016 defeat to Bradley Skeete with a tenth round knockout of European champion Ceferino Rodriguez. Eggington doesn’t watch any footage of his opponents and former foe Paulie Malignaggi – having once studied Rodriguez as a potential opponent – phoned to pass on some advice. Once the rangy Eggington found his range, he couldn’t miss with the straight right and as Rodriguez’s nose bloodied he began to look anxious and more timid offensively. The champion had regrouped by the middle rounds, starting to slip punches more readily until Eggington landed a terrific left hook in the seventh while pressed against the ropes. Rodriguez wilted and looked on the verge of a stoppage defeat as punches came in from all angles. The stoppage finally came in the tenth as a right uppercut followed by a left hook had the champion out with the ropes holding him up. With the referee slow to react and more sickening punch landed and Rodriguez slumped motionless through the ropes. The crowd fell silent until the Spaniard recovered and Eggington could celebrate an excellent win as new European champ.
Birmingham’s Kal Yafai (22-0) successfully defended his WB* super-flyweight title for the first time with a relatively low-key performance against Japanese flyweight champion Suguru Muranaka (25-3-1). Yafai started boxing neatly, with a left hook, right hand combination making the Japanese touch down in the second. The champion controlled parts of the bout, circling to his left and landing notably with spiteful left hooks, but Muranaka was no pushover and demonstrated a thudding left hook to the body of his own. The bout became scrappy, with Yafai’s work less impressive than his title winning display in December vs Luis Concepcion. A point was taken from Yafai at the closing stages of the eighth for a series of low blows.
As the championship rounds started it was clear Muranaka was too tough to be stopped and Yafai bounded around the ring as the crowd – here to cheer on their champion on a show billed as ‘The homecoming’ – sat largely subdued as the challenger continued to press forward. After the final bell all three scores favoured the champion widely. Still, it’s a tremendously deep division and Yafai – who complained of a sore hand afterwards – will have to improve on this form if he is to trouble his outstanding peers.