Head past a scrubby little park named Paradise Gardens, past a couple of railway arches reinvented as voguish bars, past a ropey East End boozer still defying gentrification. Then, amidst the grey of a grim winter night, you see those bright red art deco letters shining out: YORK HALL. With the grand entrance, elegant staircases and ornamental ceiling, it is more theatre than sports venue. It’s a setting that encourages spectators to seek out boxing’s artistry.
I wonder if any boxer can compete here without sensing the ghosts of fighters past. Even as a spectator, you sit down in your wooden seat and feel you’re aware that, more than just having an evening’s entertainment, you’re playing your own small part in a tradition. The view from the balcony is perfect, high enough to get a clear perspective of the entire ring while still close enough to see individual droplets of sweat on a fighter’s brow and to hear the thud of every big shot. There isn’t the roar of a stadium but there’s the special intimacy of anyone in this crowd being able to, with a loud enough shout, be heard by everyone else. You can always make out the desperate exhortations of a fighter’s family members.
I’m here for the World Series Boxing match between the British Lionhearts and the Mexico Guerreros. Founded in 2010, WSB is a competition run by the AIBA in which international teams compete against each other in a league format. Each match consists of five fights of five rounds without headguards and with a 10-point scorecard. Most of the boxers on show are hoping to make it to the Olympics in a few months time.
Whether you’ll enjoy World Series Boxing depends on how you feel about watching prospects. These are upcoming fighters you’ve never heard of in contests that don’t have a huge amount riding on them. Yet there is plenty here for those content to forget the world of big names and dubious belts and simply watch some good boxing. The night saw one ridiculous mismatch, two respectable contests and two tight clashes. That’s a far better entertainment ratio than the majority of professional cards that I watch. There are no canny promoters here building up their precious fighters’ records through carefully picked cannon fodder opponents.The morning after this match, Anthony Joshua’s fight against Charles Martin sold out the O2 Arena in 83 seconds; most fans just want to watch the big names. But there is something to be said for watching young guns learning their craft up close rather than squinting at a big fight from a far off corner of a huge arena.
World Series of Boxing’s dual identity as both a high-profile tournament and also a development programme slightly undermine the competition. While the Lionhearts have made a superb start to this season, it’s clear from their squad rotation approach that the competition is seen primarily as a way of developing boxers for the Olympics. It’s difficult to expect fans to be fully invested in a team’s success when the team itself is not. The squad rotation also makes it harder for fans to build a sense of attachment.
After a lively start, the first fight ends early in the second round with Joselito Velazquez having to retire with a shoulder injury and hand victory to Galal Yafai. The second fight showcases the night’s most exciting fighter. Qais Ashfaq’s skills soon bring gasps of admiration from the crowd. He has named Amir Khan as his role model but the casual arrogance of his dropped hands brings back memories of Prince Naseem. His wicked hand speed and flashy footwork are too much for the game but limited Sergio Chirino and he wins every round on all the scorecards. He ends the fight with Chirino’s blood spattered across his back but his boy band quiff unmoved.
The junior welterweight bout between Pat McCormack and Raul Curiel is the fight of the night, competitive throughout and with plenty of action. McCormack does the better work early on but Curiel counter-punches effectively. When the Mexican lands a big straight right early in the 3rd, it feels like a turning point. McCormack, however, retains his composure and manages to stay busier down the stretch to get the win.
The middleweight contest is a good fight that never quite ignites into a really good one. Anthony Fowler is technically sound while slightly plodding. In contrast, Misael Rodriquez has a technique that looks all wrong and yet manages to land power shots with enough regularity to deserve a couple of rounds. Fowler scrapes the decision.
The evening’s heavyweight contest provides a knockout but no grand finale. I refuse to believe that the stocky and slightly podgy Jared Barraza should be boxing in the same weight category as Lawrence Okolie, a man mountain. The contest is a predictable farce, ending with the first serious exchange. Barraza has the embarrassed look of a proud man whose come halfway across the world for a minute’s boxing.