It seemed like one of those mad questions that only arises after a few many drinks or one too many comments on the internet.
And yet here I was, watching the pair stand in opposite corners of the ring, eyeballing each other and preparing to touch gloves.
I hadn’t eaten too much cheese, I hadn’t been given a suspicious brownie, this was really happening.
The two came out to touch gloves as the referee gave his final instructions. The pair couldn’t have looked more different. SBW, as he is “affectionately” known, looked like he had been chiselled from stone, 6’4” and 236lbs of twisted steel and sex appeal with a body even the gods would be jealous of, a large tribal tattoo sleeve covering his right arm, “Williams” in large, flowing script across his broad shoulder blades.
Botha in contrast was listed 6’2” (although the difference in height looked greater) and 254lbs. Rather than being hewed from stone his body looked for more like it had been stuck together from lard. At a distance it was remarkable how similar the 44 year old looked to when he was at his best (especially if you squinted) but a closer view revealed some telling differences. When once he would be described as “thick, stocky and muscular” now a less kind person would describe him as “chubby, round and fat”. With his shock of bleached blonde hair still atop his head he had the appearance of a candle that had been left alight for too long, all saggy and melted, what was once strong and rigid stolen away by the passage of time and with his skinny legs below a rotund belly perhaps the best way to describe his body shape would be a capital P.
It truly was a strange sight.
And things would only get stranger.
The entire night had something of the circus about it. Despite the best efforts of Australian prospect Jarrod Fletcher (last seen on these shores being splattered by Billy Joe Saunders) and Thai journeyman Kiatchai Singwancha to put on a standard boxing bout, theirs was a losing battle.
Earlier in the night Quade Cooper, a fellow outspoken rugby union player, had made his boxing début, looking exactly like the rookie he is in dispatching the chosen punching bag within a round. Think Flintoff’s farcical match with the exception that Cooper actually threw at least one straight punch.
The real fun and games however came when Australia’s great heavyweight hope, Alex Leapai, a 26-4 slugger who had seen his title aspirations falter when he was stopped by recent Tyson Fury victim Kevin Johnson, was in the rebuilding phrase taking on the frankly awful Matt Hicks. Hick’s 13-8 record hides the fact that he had never beaten an opponent with more wins than losses and he had lost his last six bouts, being stopped in five of them. Put simply he was fodder for Leapai, a mere target for the Samoan import to blast away at. And so it proved. Hicks would flick out one of the worst jabs I’ve seen in years (and it’s somewhat generous to call it a jab), Leapai would simply close in and throw hurtful uppercuts and overhand rights. Hicks would feel these and, perhaps taking a hint from the other boxers on the card and his own part in American football, immediately dive for a rugby tackle, an action that normally resulted in him lying on the floor while the referee, who’s name I couldn’t catch and does not appear to be recorded anywhere easily accessible, would wave him back to his feet and ask, in the manner of a concerned but disappointed school master “Are you OK?” and “You’ve got to perform better”. The final act came when late in the first round Leapai hit Hicks with a big uppercut, Hicks once more grabbed then tumbled to the floor with all the grace of a hippo on ice. The referee appeared to think about ruling it a slip, but instead ended up waving the fight off, likely in exasperation.
In boxing a referee has a wide range of powers when it comes to stopping a fight and an even wider discretion as to when to do so. Especially in bouts such as these, where an experienced contender is taking on someone who simply appears to have no chance, referees regularly stop bouts where in a more high profile, competitive contest it would have been allowed to continue. As a long-time watcher of domestic British boxing most cards will feature a so called “soft” stoppage where the referee has simply seen enough and waved his hands in the air without the need to administer a 10 count. Such acts are frequent in boxing and rarely controversial.
But the referee didn’t wave his hands in the air and stop the fight. He counted to 10.
Quicker than I’ve ever seen it done.
The 10 count is meant to be sacred in boxing. It is in many ways the ultimate test; can you get back to your feet within 10 seconds. It is a remnant of the days of ancient Greek boxing where the only way to win was by knockout or the other boxer surrendering. It goes back to the early days of what we would now call modern boxing when there was no round limit, no judges, no referee decision and the only way to win was to make your opponent stay down for 10 seconds. The 10 seconds should be exactly that… 10 seconds. Seconds that seem too quick for a boxer on the floor, trying to find his bearings and yet too slow for a boxer trying to survive the last 10 seconds of the round after being hurt but they are 10 seconds regardless.
This wasn’t. This was, at best, a six second count, done in the manner of a child reciting his numbers as swiftly as possible before being allowed out to play.
Let us be clear: Matt Hicks had little to no chance of winning the bout when it was announced. He had even less chance once the first exchanges were thrown. Even if he had made it back to his feet he was almost certainly not going to see the final bell. If the referee had simply not bothered with the count and waved the bout off then there would be no controversy and no argument. But the referee didn’t. He administered a fast count.
In the great scheme of things this will mean little. Hicks is a jouneyman who will spend the rest of his boxing career travelling to face prospects and contenders in need for a soft fight and likely end those bouts lying on his back looking at the ceiling. Leapai will likely remain a somewhat limited slugger who has little recognition outside Australia and will not trouble the world scene. This was not a match of high importance or great interest. But none of that is an excuse for a fast count.
So the night has already had one fairly legitimate boxing bout (Fletcher), one publicity act-cum-boxing bout (Cooper) and one bout with a whiff of controversy (Leapai).
And it was about to have a main event that combined all three.
Just to add a little perspective here, the thought of Sonny Bill Williams taking on Botha isn’t quite as outlandish as it at first many seem. Williams has been boxing infrequently since 2009, compiling a 5-0 record. At 27 he is still in his athletic prime (and there is no doubt he is a supreme athlete) and has had three or so years of on and off training. Botha may be a relatively well known name but his prime was a long time ago… it was in the late 90′s that he gave Tyson a real scare and only between about 1995 and 2002 was he ever seen as being world class. He had lost four of his previous five bouts and, as appearances showed, wasn’t in peak athletic condition.
The bout was made not as a legitimate boxing contest to see how talented Sonny Bill Williams is, but as an event, an occasion, a spectacle. Despite his long-faded greatness Botha was a name opponent and he was happy to play the role, giving sound-bites at a whim, talking up his experience with Tyson, Lewis and Wladamir Klitschko. The crowd was full of rugby players, the broadcasters more than happy to cut to them for their opinions (and as a Brit I have to say I love the frequent used of “bloke” and “mate” in the interviews, even if it is somewhat stereotypical). Botha played the usual mind games, forcing Williams to come out first and then dancing his way to the ring to the sounds of Buffalo Soldier, his jumping steps from his frame bringing to mind the old joke about kangaroos and elephants, although in this case it would perhaps be more appropriate to say “Buffalo”.
(What do you get if you cross a kangaroo and an elephant? Holes all over Australia)
That’s the “publicity act-cum-boxing bout part
And then the bell rung and the bout began.
And here’s where the actual boxing contest started.
Anyone who has seen Flintoff’s boxing match or Quade Cooper earlier in the evening know quite how bad a rookie boxer with no previous experience can look despite months of training. Horrid footwork, wild punches, no balance, no timing, no defence. They simply look like they don’t belong in there.
Sonny Bill Williams looked none of those things. He had a good jab, a solid defence and solid understanding of range and distance. He put combinations together with a decent amount of skill, targeting the head and body, walking Botha onto hooks and generally belying his lack of amateur background and short pro-career.
The bout quickly took on a pattern. Williams would sit on the outside firing a fast jab with the occasional right to follow it. The White Buffalo would put pressure on, taking the centre of the ring and lumbering forward slowly, an occasional awful jab of his own coming through but his main weapon being a clubbing overhand right which he either tried to time Williams onto or which he would throw as he flurried forward, stampeding like his namesake, trying to trap Williams against the ropes so he could crush him. Williams would hold on, wrapping his hands around Botha, waiting for the referee to separate them and then they would begin again. And all that time Williams was racking up the punches and winning rounds.
As the fight went on it started to get a little dirty. Williams would hold at every opportunity while Botha would pull out of the tricks he knew out of his veteran’s bag. Putting his weight on Williams, rubbing with the head, hitting on the break, trash-talking, hitting behind the head. The referee was struggling to control it, even after deducting a point from Botha for a particularly obvious punch after the referee had told them to separate.
Williams was ahead on points… but there was one thing that looked to trouble him.
Williams is obviously incredibly fit. He can do 80 minutes on the rugby field with no difficulty and one does not get a body like he does without putting in serious time in the gym. His is not the body of a powerlifter or covered in show-muscles simply there to attract the ladies… his is a body honed for athletic performance.
But he’d never gone more than six rounds in the boxing ring.
And there is a difference between being fit and being “ring fit”.
Botha has had 60 bouts. He’s regularly seen the 10th and 12th round of his contests. Williams may be able to run rings round him on a field, may be able to run harder for longer, may be able to lift more, may be able to jump higher. But he wasn’t on a field. He was in a ring and that was Botha’s domain.
Botha was being conservative. He was not throwing a lot of punches, not leaping around. He saved his energy, conserved it. He fought in bursts but all the time, with his creeping footwork he put the pressure on Williams. Williams had to constantly move, constantly throw the jab, constantly hold on. He had no time to relax, no time to catch his breath, no time to let his shoulders drop and take big deep breaths. Being pressured drains a man, both mentally and physically, and it was clear Williams was feeling the pressure. In the latter half of the bout, rounds eight and nine in particular, his own output dropped while Williams surged on. His defences started to fail him, those clubbing right hands now landing with frequency and his own offence consisted of little more than grabbing hold and surviving. As the 10th round started we thought we’d be in for a classic finish in boxing… can the front-running fighter survive those last three rounds and pick up the win or has pressure told and the opponent timed his surge perfectly? It is a story we see in many sports… in endurance events when one runner/rower/cycler makes an early break, when a team scores an early goal in football and looked to defend, when a rugby team has a lead but has lost the initiative (seen perfectly in the opening Six Nations fixture between Ireland and Wales). Boxing is perhaps the most pure and visceral of these. Can a man stay on his feet or will he fall?It looked well balanced, it looked poised.
And then it was announced that the 10th was the final round and then it was over (with Williams having a point deduction for holding on after Botha battered him). Williams wins a comfortable decision on the back of his early work despite fading late and we will never know if the last two rounds would have changed anything.
Let us be clear. This bout was always advertised as being 12 rounds. The adverts had it at 12 rounds, press releases had it at 12 rounds, the bookies had it listed as 12 rounds, at the weigh in it was announced as 12 rounds (the title of the video is clearly biased but it does show what happened), the judges thought it was a 12 round contest. The crowd and commentators thought it was 12 rounds. It was for the WBA International Heavyweight title (more on that later) and while that title means little the term “Championship Rounds” to describe the 11th and 12th is used because bouts contested for an international title are normally 12 rounds. The commentators were confused, the crowd boo’d, some bookies have refunded bets and Botha has proclaimed loudly that he was told it was 12 rounds, trained for that and came up with a gameplan on that basis.
The undeniable whiff in the immediate aftermath was that seeing Sonny Bill Williams in trouble in the later rounds someone had told the referee, time keeper and eventually announcer to cut the bout short to protect Sonny Bill from taking any more punishment and the chance of a knockout loss. A similar event occurred in one of Williams’ previous bouts where it was announced for eight rounds and instead lasted six.
That’s the controversy.
It didn’t end there. Botha’s manager said he had been informed as the boxers walked out that it was now a 10 round contest but didn’t tell Botha at any stage. Sonny Bill Williams and his camp allege that it had been agreed that the contest was only to be 10 rounds and that Botha knew this. Botha is of course still trumpeting that he was robbed and it was all corruption.
Things took an even more absurd term when reports came out that Botha had failed a drugs test (something he has previous on), obviously a hot topic in Australian sport (and sport world wide) at the moment… but then other reports came out rubbishing it.
And then there was controversy about the WBA International Title Williams won, what with neither fighter being ranked and there being no WBA representatives in attendence
So where does that leave us?
In a pretty ugly place actually.
This was meant to be the sort of boxing bout that purists roll their eyes at but everyone just takes for a bit of fun. Sonny Bill Williams is never going to give up rugby to be a boxer and Botha is never going to be a genuine title contender again.
Instead we have confusion, controversy and general pandemonium.
Sport in general has had a bad few weeks, what with Europol’s investigations and the recent reports into Australian match fixing and doping. Boxing has never had the best of reputations, a hang over from the days when the Mob ran the sport. An Australian heavyweight has crawled to detail the misdemeanour’s he saw across his career and high profile boxers have been dogged with failed tests or accusations (see Marquez and his connections to Angel Herrida, Peterson for his rematch with Khan, Berto for his rematch with Ortiz or Gamboa’s recent implication).
I don’t know what happened and no-one does. Did Botha agree to 10 rounds and then decided to try his luck by arguing he didn’t? Was the bout changed midway through or at the end? Why was it shortened on such late notice? Did Botha fail a drugs test? Did the WBA sanction it?
I doubt there will be a rematch. Williams has said he is done with boxing and in many ways I don’t blame him. Boxing is a hard sport, a tough sport, a sport with great rewards but even greater pitfalls. He’s had six bouts and whatever the controversy he held his own with an experienced veteran like Botha. He never really had anything to prove and I can see why a return to the day job is preferable. Botha will continue to lumber around the world, a gatekeeper to the stars, taking on prospects and contenders in need of a name on his record.
And the likely result is that this ends up disappearing off the front pages, yet another tawdry incident in a sport that has far too many tawdry incidents.
But decry boxing, the sport that gives us this.