It’s been an interesting week for British boxing, albeit mainly outside the ring. In the confusion and smoke the biggest victor appears to be Eddie Hearn and Matchroom Sport, who signed the talented 168lbs prospect/contender George Groves. But at the end of the day, much like trash talk before a big bout, it doesn’t really matter who wins outside the ring… it’s what happens inside that matters. And with three of Matchoom’s stars in action… including Groves… the week could have ended on a sour note if any of them lost.
The Main Event saw Darren Barker continue his return from injury against veteran Italian contender Simone Rotolo. Barker’s career has been blighted by injury, fighting only once in 2010, then having virtually a year off and then having another year out following his loss to Sergio Martinez. He came back with a crushing performance over former European champ Kerry Hope (although you can see what I thought of his European title win here). This bout, so swiftly on the heels of the last, was a chance for Barker to get the sort of consistency that only regular ring work can get you in addition to putting him against a solid European level operator. Rotolo has never been world class and at 37 is clearly coming to the end but he’s had nearly 40 bouts and hadn’t lost in over five years.
The bout was virtually all Barker. He quickly established his jab and used it as a base to land a variety of hurtful blows. Rotolo never had a chance to settle, dropped early on with a combination and spending the rest of the bout trapped on the ropes eating jabs, straights, hooks and uppercuts. Immediately before the finish Barker hurt him badly with a straight right and all the strength and will seemed to disappear from the Italian. He stumbled around the ring, fell to the ground and eventually quit on his stool, citing a hand injury.
Barker looked excellent. For much of his career there was the distinct whiff of an amateur about his approach; he was a stylish boxer working behind the jab and the straight (although with little venom), best at distance and generally relying on his class to show through, waiting till he had opponents backed to the ropes before throwing multi-punch combinations (often of six or seven punches) and uppercuts from all angles, waiting for a British style soft-touch stoppages. That approach saw him move through the ranks and even led to a successful half-dozen rounds against Martinez. The issue was that it often left him a little one-paced; he struggled to react when an opponent went through the gears themselves. This was obviously apparent in the Martinez bout, where Martinez simply beat him up by the last few rounds but it could also be seen against Domenico Spada, where after a near perfect first six rounds he struggled when Spada went hell for leather towards the end.
Aspects of that style of course remain; he still has an excellent jab and straight right, an almost casual arrogance in the way he defends and picks off opponents punches and he still likes the uppercut (although he has thankfully stopped throwing wild ones from the outside). But during his comeback there’ been a more viscous edge to him. He’s no longer willing to sit back, let the opponent to bring the bout to him and rely on his class. He pushes the bout, pushes the opponent back, puts more snap into his punches and generally has a ruthless streak he once lacked. Both this bout and his bout with Hope witnessed him ruthless streak he lacked previously, taking out clearly over-matched opponents with a minimum of fuss. There are still flaws; he was a bit lackadaisical with his defence, at times he went inside with the sole intention of landing uppercuts and left himself a bit vulnerable and we have to see if he can box in this style against a better class of opposition, but it was certainly a good show. 160lbs is arguably the best domestic division in the UK, with four world level boxers with ties with Britain and Ireland; Barker, Martin Murray, Matthew Macklin and Andy Lee. Bouts between any of them would be excellent and would likel do big business in the UK.
George Groves’ bout was little more than a showcase for him against an opponent who realistically shouldn’t have been in the ring with him. Groves dominated from the opening bell and rarely looked to even have to break a sweat. He worked behind the jab, set up straights and good shots to the body and when Balmaceda did throw punches back Groves avoided them with ease.
Winning a bout like this means little for Groves in and of itself. What it represents is a new start after a disappointing time under Warren. As mentioned in a previous article Groves has seen most of the momentum he had after his win over DeGale slip away but with Matchroom putting on regular cards and featuring him in high profile bouts if he can avoid the injury bug he should hopefully get much of that back. He’s currently ranked number 1 by the WBO which means assuming no calamities he should be in line for a shot against the winner of the Abraham/Stieglitz rematch. That would clearly be a step up in competition for Groves but he’s dealt with everything he’s faced so far fairly comfortably.
In terms of dramatic physical changes, Lee Purdy took the cake. Since his last bout he looks to been watching Pumping Iron on repeat and was a true hulking presence in his bout with Mexican journeyman Cosme Rivera, to the extent that it was no surprise he ended up missing weight. The massive change he went through may have been specific, an attempt to neutralise his original opponent Carson Jones who has a rough-and-tumble physical come-forward style or it may have been a deliberate long term move, perhaps with one eye on moving up a division.
Purdy has never been the most naturally talented of boxers or the one with the sharpest of skills. He’s a brawler, using power, combinations and aggressiveness to bully opponents. The effect of the extra bulk gave more weight to his clubbing shots but they were slow and predictable. Rivera’s old and far from his best (and his best was never that great) but he had some success picking Purdy off and wobbled him once with a stiff punch as Purdy came forward recklessly. That said it was somewhat of a lone moment of success for Rivera who spent the rest of the bout on the back foot getting out of the way of Purdy who stalked him down. Purdy was cruising to a decision win without getting out of second-gear and while the eventual stoppage was very soft it didn’t really do anything to change the outcome. If Purdy keeps the bulk it will be interesting to see how his stamina holds up if forced to box at a higher pace.
This was a good win for Purdy. Rivera’s ancient and faded but still is a crafty veteran who has been able to score some upsets in his time and Purdy dealt with him fairly comfortably. At 25 he can still improve as a boxer although I doubt he goes too far; he’s still too crude and despite hitting fairly hard it’s not the sort of shattering power that can make up for such limited skills. He probably finds his level as a domestic champion but, on a positive note, he’ll be fun while he lasts. If put in the ring with anyone willing to engage him in a firefight I struggle to see how the bout wouldn’t be exciting.
The opening bout of the evening was a rematch of a Southern Areas title match between champion Danny Connor and Chris Evangelou. In the first bout the underdog Connor had outworked the well regarded prospect Evangelou to take a contentious decision. In the first two rounds it appeared Evangelou was going to right what he saw as a wrong, his class and athleticism showing through. Connor changed his strategy from the second onwards, tempering his aggression with with a little bit of nous, sometimes making Evangelou come to him, being clever with his aggression, tightening his defence and twice dropping Evangelou with shots to the body. Evangelou probably landed the prettier shots but he lacked the power to deter Connor and apart from the last minute of the bout he never really showed a sense of urgency.
I’m not sure where either boxer goes. This is a bad pair of losses for him to have, not just in the result, but also in the manner. He looks to be a flat-track bully, his natural talent and athleticism allowing him to beat poor boxers and those with no real intention of winning but struggling when someone pressures him. Despite these wins Connor is not the best of boxers and while he improved at 26 the question is where he goes or how long he continues until he faces an opponent who has more to him than Evangelou. What he does show is the danger of underestimating a boxer with a seemingly poor record, at least at domestic level. British boxing produces a number of these… Chris Edwards and Mike Robinson have both made a habit of beating far better regarded boxers.
The walkout bout was an entertaining scrap between two rookie 200lbs boxers Wadi Camacho and China Clarke. Camacho was the more well known of the pair, a big hitting, wild swinging boxer while Clarke was more unknown. Early on Camacho tried to blitz Clarke but Clarke did a good job establishing his jab and holding on the inside the neutralise Camacho. For one round Camacho battered Clarke but it appeared he drained himself in doing so (combined with winding up with every shot). Clarke calmly went about his business, keeping up his jab, adding in some straights and avoiding the worst of Camacho’s offence. By the end the big hitter was out of his feet, a combination of exhaustion and Clarke’s tighter punching leading to his corner pulling him out. Both boxers are young in the sport and both can take lessons from this.