Highly-touted duo Josh Kelly and Sean McComb lost their unbeaten records last week, fading quickly after a promising start. IBHOF inductee Graham Houston recalls the career of the talented Vernon Sollas, who regularly unravelled as a favourite, and ponders the future for both Kelly and McComb as they rebuild their reputations.

There are two similarities in the fights featuring Josh Kelly and Sean McComb last week. In each fight we had an unbeaten boxer getting stopped in a bout he was favoured to win. And Kelly and McComb each started fast but quickly wilted. That was the other similarity.

It wasn’t shocking that Gavin Gwynne stopped McComb or that David Avanesyan halted Kelly. What was so surprising was the speed with which McComb and Kelly fell apart. 

In the classic contests where a fighter comes from behind to win, there is usually a wearing-down process, or a big punch is landed in one of the later rounds to change the complexion of the contest dramatically and suddenly.

But McComb and Kelly were struggling from early in the proceedings. They didn’t respond well to the sort of pressure they had never before had to face.

So, you might ask: “Why were McComb and Kelly the betting favourites?” Well, the thing with an unbeaten boxer is that you can’t be sure of the level the fighter can reach. You could even say you don’t know how good an undefeated boxer is until he loses. 

McComb was supposed to take another step forward in his career. And the Avanesyan fight was supposed to be the night Kelly put it all together.

But, of course, what is “supposed” to happen in boxing doesn’t always go as expected. And something else comes to mind. The McComb and Kelly defeats were reminders that experience should never be discounted. 

Gwynne’s only two losses had been at the top level, against British Olympic representative Joe Cordina and heavy-handed James Tennyson. 

Avanesyan had fought world-class opponents in Lamont Peterson, Shane Mosley and Egidijus Kavaliauskas. He’d upset the odds against Kerman Lejarraga in Spain. Gwynne and Avanesyan had been through the fire in a way that neither McComb nor Kelly had experienced.

The battle-tested Avanesyan (right) proved too much of a handful for Kelly in his big step up.
Photo: Dave Thompson/Matchroom Boxing.

We’ve seen this sort of thing so many times before. But especially so in the career of Vernon Sollas, the Scottish featherweight who was considered a likely world champion in the 1970s. But, while undoubtedly a classy boxer, Sollas just didn’t have the wherewithal to handle sustained pressure.

It all started to go wrong when Sollas crumpled after boxing beautifully in the early rounds of his bout with fellow-Scot Evan Armstrong, the British champion at the time, in a non-title fight at the Royal Albert Hall, London, in June 1974. Armstrong stood up to Sollas’ best punches and broke him down to win on an eighth-round KO. 

Sollas was only 19 when he faced Armstrong. He made what the BBC’s Harry Carpenter called a “bright and breezy start”. By the fourth round Sollas was boxing so skilfully that Carpenter noted: “It’s the sort of dazzling jab-and-move performance that wouldn’t disgrace Muhammad Ali.” 

Armstrong’s dogged pursuit eventually paid off, however. He was starting to hurt Sollas by the sixth, dropped him in the seventh and finished the fight with two more knockdowns in the eighth.

It wasn’t to be the only time that Sollas ran out of gas in a big London fight. Having won the vacant British title with an impressive knockout over southpaw Londoner Jimmy Revie (Evan Armstrong having vacated the championship), Sollas was being lined up to meet David Kotei, of Ghana, for the WBC title. First, though, came a European title challenge against the Italian, Elio Cotena, at London’s York Hall in February 1976.

Although experienced, Cotena was considered beatable. He had stopped only seven opponents in 37 fights. And, as was the case in the bout with Armstrong, Sollas looked dominant in the early rounds. I was ringside that night and remember that Sollas was almost outclassing Cotena at points in the fight. It even seemed possible that he might stop Cotena when he had the Italian fighter holding on in the sixth.

However, Cotena was tough and pesky, and by the 10th of the scheduled 15-rounder he was looking much the stronger man.

Sollas was looking extremely weary in the 13th, as if all the strength had drained out of him. Cotena dropped him twice in the 14th round. Sollas beat the count each time but was counted out on his feet by the Belgian referee — he simply had nothing left.

There was some showboating from Sollas in the Cotena fight, which didn’t go down well with the British reporters. “It was alarming to see him, in the eighth round, hurt Cotena with a cracking right to the head and then stupidly indulge in a piece of theatre by imitating the shuffle of Muhammad Ali when he should have been following up more seriously,” Neil Allen reported in The Times.

The way Sollas came apart at the seams once again was cause for concern. “My grandfather, a professional fight tutor, would have logged Sollas as a looking-glass fighter — pretty to watch but unreliable when the going gets tough,” Reg Gutteridge reported in the London Evening News.

Sollas was only 21 at the time of the Cotena fight. He won his next five bouts but then, perhaps inevitably, there was another late fade when the gritty Welsh boxer Leslie Pickett stopped Sollas in the 10th and final round at the Royal Albert Hall in February 1977.

The Pickett fight was essentially the final nail in the coffin for Sollas’ boxing career. Once again, he started brilliantly, knocking down Pickett in the first round and basically hitting him at will for the first three rounds. Then Pickett, tough and tenacious, began to come back, letting his hands go when Sollas sought to rest.

Pickett won the fight on guts and determination as much as anything. He stayed on top of Sollas and, as they say in the trade, didn’t give him room to breathe. By the time the 10th rolled around Sollas was running on empty and he was taking punishment on the ropes when referee Harry Gibbs intervened. Sollas had just two more bouts, and was stopped each time. His career was over at the age of just 23.

Sollas was talented, but lack of staying power — mental and physical —was his undoing.

Now similar doubts hover over Kelly and McComb. 

One severe setback needn’t mean the end of the road, however. David Haye, for example, suffered a demoralising fast-start, quick-fade defeat against Carl Thompson but regrouped to become a world champ at cruiser and heavyweight. 

So all is not necessarily lost for McComb, who is 28, or Kelly, who is 26. But it’s undeniable that they have some serious rebuilding to do.

McComb (right) was drawn into a war with the tough Gwynne and came out second best.
Photo: MTK Global.

Main image: Dave Thompson/Matchroom Boxing.