Terry Dooley recalls his run-ins with favourite heavyweight contender Dereck Chisora and a memorable encounter with Emanuel Steward in his latest musings on boxing and the price of being a fan.
The lack of fans at fights these days really clarifies just how much a good, boisterous crowd brings to the table, especially for the TV networks. A fired-up, knowledgeable crowd adds plenty of colour to a broadcast and if you happen to be at a show with a good atmosphere the whole thing becomes that much more memorable.
One of the best crowd experiences I ever had was in August 2007. I’d headed over to Ireland to watch Bernard Dunne’s European super-bantamweight title defence against Kiko Martinez. The fans were all in high spirits. Dunne’s ring walk lifted them even more. Then the fight started, and you could feel that the place was going to erupt the moment he got into his groove.
One hundred and thirty-four seconds later the place was as flat as a pancake as Dunne was dropped twice en route to a first-round loss. People ambled out of the venue, some of them grumbling about Dunne: “I always knew he was overrated…I told you he couldn’t hold a punch…I won’t pay to watch him again.” Fans can be fickle, they can turn on a dime and leave you wondering what happened. However, others were looking forward to him hopefully righting the wrong and reversing the hearse in a rematch.
Later that night (and I’ll admit I took the rest of the evening off and had a few drinks) Dunne came into the hotel bar. A half-arsed version of “For he’s a very good fellow” went up then died out. You could see the realisation setting in on Dunne’s face that some of the people who had sang his praises in the past were now heading in the opposite direction. He didn’t stick around for long.
Andy Lee was on the undercard. The young prospect beat Ciaran Healy in four and brought a sizeable team along with him. By far the most crucial member was Emanuel Steward, his trainer and mentor. As the night went on, Steward ended up standing around in the lobby just outside the main bar. I’d never had the opportunity to meet him before and although I was a bit drunk I’m also a steady drunk who can return to sobriety quite quickly, if required. I really wanted to talk to Steward so gave it a go.
The legendary trainer was softly-spoken and smaller than I’d anticipated. After saying “Hello”, I realised I could ask about Tommy Hearns, Lennox Lewis, one of my all-time favourite fighters, and many, many others. Instead, I leaned over and started babbling on about former WBA welterweight titlist and star amateur Mark Breland. Steward worked with Breland during his amateur and then professional career and seemed enthused about the conversation at first. Then I leaned over even further and said: “Believe you me, right, if he’d had a strength and conditioning coach to focus on strengthening his legs, he’d have gone even further!”
Steward look at me then said: “I need to go to my room.” That was it. A prime chance to talk to one of the most knowledgeable men in boxing had passed me by. There was only one thing for it, I went and got myself another drink. About 10 minutes later, Steward reappeared holding a large piece of paper. He held it out to me and told it was a poster with all the world champions and notable fighters he had trained on it. Steward asked my name, signed it and then we picked up where we left off and talked about Breland. We also got around to discussing Andy Lee.
As mentioned above, fandom can be fickle, it can also run so deep it teeters into obsession. Often there is no real rhyme or reason to it. Take Breland, please. I take Breland everywhere because my mind turns to him quite often. Granted, I’ve always had a thing for tall, gangly fighters with thin pins. I was once convinced that the 6’ 4’’ Kingsley Ikeke would clear out the middleweight division, so that explained part of my fixation with Breland.
Another factor is that I’m one of those fans who likes cult characters, the “What could have beens” in boxing. They always have one or two factors missing that prevents or prevented them from reaching their true potential. This fuels the fire of fandom as you can say: “If it wasn’t for those pesky legs Breland would have done much, much more.”
Maybe Steward recognised that in me. We were two boxing fans talking about what could have been and that is all most of us have a lot of the time. I woke up in Dublin airport the next morning nursing a hangover, clutching the signed laminated poster and trying to figure out why a member of staff was shouting at me. It turned out that I’d rearranged some furniture to help me sleep. I’d also somehow managed to do a lucid interview with Brian Magee the previous night. I only discovered that when I got back home and checked my recordings.
Watching Breland fights again after that was a great experience. Although I didn’t recall what Steward had said verbatim, I had retained the essence of what we had talked about. You rarely get a perfect fighter, he had said, so you work hard with what you have got, as he did with Lewis and others.
Indeed, perfect fighters with perfect records such as Floyd Mayweather and Joe Louis don’t seem to attract the same level as fanaticism as flawed fighters do, and you do not get any more flawed than Dereck “War” Chisora (32-9, 23 KOs), who meets former cruiserweight Champion Oleksandr Usyk (17-0, 13 stoppages) at Wembley Arena on Saturday night. It is being shown live and in glorious High Definition on Sky Sports Box Office.
I love Chisora even more than I love Breland because I’ve watched the opponent biting, kissing, slapping, water spitting and table hurling madness unfold live throughout his career. There is also a sense that there was a lot more to tap into if he had remained steady outside the ring. They say “Never meet your heroes” yet Chisora has always been very Chisora-esque when we’ve met.
One time, I asked if I could interview him, he stopped, thought about it for a few seconds then said “Maybe” and walked away. Then he ambled back, sauntered right past me and went on his way. I managed to get lucky the next time. Paul Smith made an unsuccessful British super-middleweight title defence against James DeGale and guess who was in the Echo Arena that night?
Chisora’s fight against Wladimir Klitschko had just fallen through. I chanced my arm again by asking him for a few quotes. I got the by-now standard “No” and off he went to the other side of the ring. The hulking heavyweight sat there staring at me for a few minutes. Then he came over to where I was sat and said: “You are one of those patient people, aren’t you?”
It was great as he was open, honest and talkative, which netted me an exclusive, and we watched a few rounds of boxing after it was over. It felt like I was in. I was about to ask for his phone number only for him to abruptly, and wordlessly, get up and head back to his seat.
Luckily, I obtained a number for Chisora from Richard Maynard, who handled Frank Warren’s PR at the time as well as sometimes being asked to look after Chisora’s Pomeranian, Chewy, on the occasions when the heavyweight turned up to press conferences with the dog nestled in his arms. Cue almost an entire day of trying to get him over the phone. I got through, reminded him who I was, and he said he already knew who I was and then hung up on me.
As non-interviews go, it was up there with the time when I got through to Carl Froch, who spent some time talking about DIY, said, “I know you, I can picture your face”, and answered, “No”, then hung up when I asked if we could start the interview.
I only got to meet Chisora on two more occasions. At one fight I said, “It’s me, Mr. Patience,” and put in an interview request. He told me that he recognised my face. Then he turned the request down. The last time will always remain etched in my memory as it was the moment at the O2 Arena when Tyson Fury threw his shirt on the ground and challenged a clearly rattled Chisora to a bare-knuckle fight.
Chisora had finally met his mental match and started to storm away. I gave it one last bash, he barked, “Did you see what just happened, man, ask me later,” and disappeared from view for the last time while Jane Couch shouted, “Come back and do an interview, dickhead!”, at him. Despite all of this, my fandom remained undimmed. It is similar to watching fights, you get through the uninspiring ones to get to the ones that really underline your love of boxing.
Most of my encounters with Chisora were equivalent to Lennox Lewis-Henry Akinwande, a messy let down. That magical one at the Echo Arena was my Frazier-Ali 1 of Chisora encounters. Because boxing is an individual sport you grow attached to a fighter once you’ve hitched your wagon to their star. You sometimes end up making what you know are ridiculous arguments to justify picking them to win a fight that you know they are likely to lose.
There is also that natural divide between attending a fight in a working capacity and watching one at home. Obviously, if you are working at a show you don’t root for anyone no matter how well you might know them. At home you can let yourself go with the flow. From the couch it is a subjective experience, at a show it is all about objectivity so that you can read the fight better.
That is why I rarely make predictions. That and the fact I’m useless at them because I fall into the trap of saying what I want to see rather than what I know deep down will transpire. This is why I’m going for Chisora on points on Saturday night. Yes, Usyk is likely to give him an absolute panning. Yes, the Ukrainian is a massive favourite. Yes, my only justification for predicting Chisora is that he can be utterly unpredictable. Then again, so can the scorecards.
All things being equal, it is going to be a rough night for me, even rougher for Chisora, and despite having cancelled Sky Sports I’m going to shell out for this PPV simply because it is “Del Boy” — and I’m also a hypocrite.
That is the nature of fandom. It is a pain. It is expensive at the best of times, extortionate during this the worst of times, but you simply can’t shrug it off. That is the boxing fan’s lot in sport and in life so if this is to be Chisora’s last stand I will be wearing both my fanboy hat and a War hat. I’ll be unashamedly with him every slow step of the way.