PLEASE EXCUSE A spot of place-dropping, but over the years I have covered fights from Atlanta to Zaire, Madison Square Garden to Manila and Las Vegas to Kuala Lumpur, but nowhere quite matches the stomach-knotting atmosphere of York Hall. Once you step inside the small but hallowed arena in east London you sniff the air and sense that this is what boxing is all about.
No doubt Anthony Yarde, Daniel Dubois, Zelfa Barrett and the other prodigies and prospects who climb through the ropes there in this Saturday night’s talent-packed show will know that gut feeling as the first bell clangs.
York Hall is literally where champions-to-be learn the ropes. Many reputations have been built – and one or two lost – in a ring which throbs with history and tradition.
Virtually anyone who is anyone is British boxing has forged their career at York Hall, from John Conteh to Joe Calzaghe, either as schoolboy hopefuls, amateurs or professionals.
To name but a few others who became world champions or contenders: Chris Eubank, Nigel Benn, Lennox Lewis, John H Stracey, James DeGale Carl Frampton, Ricky Hatton and Joe Bugner.
Built in 1929 as a Turkish Baths – take a deep breath and you may still smell the sweat – York Hall (so named because it was opened by the Duke of York) nearly closed 14 years ago when Tower Hamlets Council planned to demolish it because it claimed could not maintain the £600,000 annual upkeep.
But the protests from within the game and those who support it were loud and long and happily it now lives to fight another day.
It was recently voted one of the six best places in the world to watch live boxing and the finest in Europe. Great punch-ups seem assured in such an iconic atmosphere.
Legends from overseas have also graced the Hall. In 1985, world champions Edwin Rosario and Frankie Randall fought a fabulous ten rounder while Tim Witherspoon and Johnny Tapia have also made cameo appearances
James DeGale outpointed another future world champion Shawn Porter in an England v USA meet and an apprentice David Haye was put on the canvas by one Jim Twite of Coventry before he shed his amateur vest.
It also now serves as the main home venue to the British Lionhearts WSB franchise.
BoxNation was born there on September 30, 2011 with its televising of a Commonwealth super-featherweight title contest between Liam Walsh and Paul Appleby that was to become Fight of the Year.
Those at ringside can hear – and almost feel – the thud of the punches and even up in the overhanging gods you are close enough to the action to wince as they land.
And invariably the 1,200 capacity fistic theatre of dreams is packed to the rafters.
It may be a far cry from the O2, Wembley Stadium or Manchester Arena –and even further from Madison Square Garden – but many a boxing ballad of Bethnal Green has been composed on its canvas and I anticipate that Saturday night’s bill-topping trio of Messrs Yarde, Dubois and Barrett will all eventually follow in some famous footsteps to world championship status.
(Coverage from York Hall begins at 8.30pm on both BT Sport and BoxNation)
NASEEM HAMED PULLED no punches as a pugilist and neither did he as a pundit judging from his advice to Chris Eubank jnr after the weekend’s tutorial at the hands of George Groves.
With almost disturbing forthrightness the now portly Prince looked into the camera and told him: “You should retire now. You are going nowhere because you are not good enough!”
So outspoken was Naz that had he been employed to give his assessment on Sky rather than ITV you can bet the satellite channel chiefs would have spluttered into their Horlicks and ordered the producer to pull the plug.
Such frankness would have had no place amid what I have dubbed the Skyperbole of the network’s incorrigible cheerleaders at ringside.
But is Naz right? Alongside him the more reasoned and rational Duke McKenzie demurred. What a scrap that would have made in their heyday if their punch-up had been real and not verbal.
And as I recall Naz himself was not too receptive to criticism when practicing the Noble Art. He certainly reacted haughtily when anyone suggested he was less than perfect.
When The Sun’s Colin Hart wrote that there might have been better featherweight world champions he publicly called him ‘Mr Fart.’
The ever-Nasty Naz was correct to decry Eubank’s alarming lack of a fight plan (blame junior’s characteristically chastened dad for that) but as a fellow pro he is quite wrong to write him off altogether.
I HOPE THOSE po-faced protesters who so vehemently decried boxing’s ring card girls recently have been watching the Winter Olympics. One wonders what they think of the eye-popping skimpily-clad female contestants in the figure skating, notably in the aptly-named short programme.
They make the girls who carry the cards seem over-dressed – but not a peep from the women’s groups.
CONGRATULATIONS TO Hall of Fame promoter Frank Warren on receiving another accolade. Last weekend LEBA (the London Ex-Boxers Association) of which he is a vice-president, presented him with an award in recognition of his services to the sport and contribution to the organisation which was described as ‘immense.’
It came in the form of a rare replica of the statue of Sir Henry Cooper that is to be unveiled in the late ‘Enry’s birthplace of Bellingham, Kent, later this year.
“It is a fabulous memento of the great man and an especially great honour for me,” says Frank, a long-standing friend and supporter of the LEBA lads.