While Mourinho, Guardiola and their band of merry men served up an eyesore of a match in Madrid brimming with histrionics, petulance and deceit, hundreds of miles away in a less glamorous setting in the North West of England, Stephen Smith and John Simpson, the two best featherweights in Britain, combined to produce a contest far more deserving of the column inches and the ink set aside for the latest instalment in a series of El Classicos.
As millionaires rolled around atop grass, complaining theatrically about erroneous tackles which had failed to connect — whining to officials like brattish children harping at the grown-ups over a game of “passy the parcel” — Smith and Simpson fought each other to a standstill. And, despite knocking seven bells out of each other from sessions 1 through 11, the pair began the final round with an affectionate hug, as though they were long-lost kinfolk reunited by Cilla Black. At the finish it was Smith who prevailed via scores of 115-114, 118-112 and 114-114 after yet another thrilling episode in what is shaping up to be an annus mirabilis for British boxing.
Before an adoring hometown crowd at the Olympia in Liverpool, Smith started as nimbly as a cat walking on hot baked stone. Showing incredible hand speed, “Swifty” set about Simpson from the bell, hurling pineapples with abandon. He’d flash a speedy one-two before dipping his head, charging forward and swinging for the fences, loading up on his right and throwing his entire body behind follow-up hooks – a clear indication that somewhere on Merseyside there is a “Sugar” Shane Mosley back catalogue stacked up next to a DVD player someplace. Simpson, unconcerned with his opponent’s frenetic opening gambit, elected to stand firm and time Smith’s speedy surges with counter left hooks.
Smith, though, was intent on storming the barricades. After launching a searing right which caught Simpson in mid-swing and instantly discombobulated him, Smith crawled all over the champion — who looked more discomfited than dazed, to be fair — and appeared on the verge of a sensational win. The Greenock man is far too game for that type of capitulation, though, and after returning to his corner after a torrid opener, he said as much to trainer Billy Nelson, who in turn suggested that Smith may well have shot his bolt.
In the opposite corner, Joe Gallagher was instructing Smith to “detonate” his right hand, which described the action of the punch perfectly. It would slam repeatedly into Simpson’s face as though the glove were attached to his cheek with elastic, resembling film of the old timers which had been crudely spliced together where the punches appear to land without first passing through the air. Smith carried rounds 2 and 3 with his more urgent approach, yet Simpson began to slowly unfurl his battle plan as the 3rd session wound down, countering Smith’s one-twos as he moved in and out of range with stiff uppercuts and thudding shots downstairs.
Slowly but surely, Simpson began to haul Smith inside, clubbing, scuffling and swiping whenever the pair came together. Perhaps keen to show that he, too, could be a terror in the trenches, Smith accepted Simpson’s invitation to join him in his phone booth and the pair had themselves a dandy, yet the local man’s exertions were beginning to take their toll. Simpson, now in his element, began edging rounds with his bruising brand of infighting, and at the end of the 7th, he had probably thumped his way into a lead.
Smith looked ready to be hooked offstage in the 8th as Simpson rattled him with an overhand right which flung his head into the strands. As Simpson methodically picked at the younger man’s wings, Smith was reduced to pushing his punches in a bid to stay afloat and, as he returned to his corner, Simpson smiled knowingly, licking his lips like a cat that has noticed the lid being peeled from a carton of cream.
Smith, though, was unwilling to yield and he changed tack in the 9th, slipping into an ugly but effective method of scoring before stifling Simpson up against the ropes. For a fighter to find such wherewithal in this, only his 12th professional outing, speaks volumes — improvisation of this ilk is a rare commodity. It was enough to clinch rounds 9 to 11 and with the final session proving impossible to split, TQBR scored for Smith by 115-114.
Terry O’Connor, who in 2009 incensed promoter Frank Maloney to the point of cardiac arrest with his scoring of Tyson Fury versus John McDermott, must have been looking to finish the little guy off in returning a card of 118-112 in Smith’s favour. It was the only blemish on an otherwise exemplary evening. Simpson, for his part, felt that he had done enough to win, a familiar tale for the man who might as well be termed “The Scottish Glen Johnson.” Smith, showing real class, empathised before telling Simpson he was a brilliant fighter. It was sportsmanship to make even the most scurrilous of pig-skin hoofers blush brightly amid their shimmering penthouse.
The main support featured 6’8” Olympic medallist, David Price, laying waste to yet another disinterested opponent in the shape of an American, Raphael Butler. Clearly intimidated by the local man’s physique, Butler, standing square on with his hands dangling by his sides, copped a hard right hand which sounded like he’d been hit in the face with a carrier bag full of custard. Down he went and, after reluctantly clambering to his feet, he looked more than a little let down at the referee’s decision to allow him to box on.
As Price stroked him with a cuffing left, he took his chance to hit the canvas once more and the bout was quickly called to a halt at the 1:47 mark. Heavyweight prospect Price has hardly taken a punch in moving to 10-0 (8), and now moves onto a match with the portly John McDermott, who will almost certainly look to rectify that.