By Alan Hubbard
I never cease to be amazed, and uplifted, when two fighters who have been doing their best to knock seven bells out of each other embrace like long lost brothers – or sisters – when the punching is over. There may have been a war of words as well as fists but when the last bell sounds – as well as in the years to come – those who have been unfriendly foes in the ring more often than not become great pals.
This was exemplified recently on BT Sport when two of the game’s most illustrious combatants, Welshman Joe Calzaghe, arguably Britain’s best ever post-war boxer, and the great Dane Mikel Kessler appeared in a video link to exchange pleasantries and personal reminiscences about their fabulous fight at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium 13 years ago.
This was as fine an exhibition of hand- to hand- combat as you would wish to see.
It was a classically brutal fight of unremitting aggression on both sides. But now they are pals, talk with each other regularly on the phone and have promised to buy each other a few Carlsbergs in Copenhagen once this wretched lockdown is lifted.
Such post-fight friendships are one of the beauties of boxing and maybe one reason why it is still called the noble art.
Even those fighters who may have belittled each other before the contest, as well as belabouring each other during it, kiss and make up, often literally so ,once the decision is announced.
A virtual camaraderie of clout, and one that seen that has seen many emotional scenes at the annual Boxing Writers Club dinner when rheumy-eyed old-timers with broad smiles and bent noses rush across the room to greet those they have fought wars with many years ago clasping them in a tear-jerking hugfest with backslapping all round.
There have been darker days. Remember that ugly scene in Munich back in 2012 after Dereck Chisora had fought intelligently but vainly for the WBC world heavyweight title against Vitali Klitschko. David Haye turned up at the post fight press conference obviously intent on trying to obtain a world title shot for himself against Klitschko exchanging shouted insults with Chisora who moved down from the podium and walked menacingly towards him. The ensuing ruckus saw a bottle and chairs thrown, blood drawn and punches exchanged before order was restored.
Both Haye and Chisora were sanctioned by the British Boxing Board of Control but such was the outrage and subsequent publicity it had created there had to be a “grudge fight” by popular demand. When it happened the enmity seemed real enough for promoter Frank Warren to have a steel barrier erected between them with phalanx of security guards helping to keep them apart as they glared balefully at each other before the introductions.
We all know the outcome of course. The Haymaker won in the fifth, after twice flooring Chisora, but guess what? No sooner had to referee called a halt then they were locked together in mid-ring. Haye whispering his condolences into Chisora’s ear as they clasped each other. All pals together again. Even more remarkably, eight years later, Haye is even promoting and managing Del Boy, guiding him nearer towards another crack at the world title.
Noting in this game nothing should surprise you which is why even though a blow has yet to be exchanged when a triple D (Dynamite Daniel Dubois) finally meets triple J (Juggernaut Joe Joyce) the one thing of which we can be certain in what will be a humdinger of a heavyweight showdown is that both will be locked in each other’s arms at the end like bosom buddies, and probably friends for ever more.
Other grievances now settled amicably include that between Carl Froch and George Groves, whose two engagements were enveloped in bitter differences. The bad feeling lingered on for a while after their flights but Froch has now revealed that he and St George are on friendly terms. “Yep we are mates now” says Carl. “We’ve shaken hands and any nastiness is now forgotten”.
It was ever thus in boxing. Even the long-standing verbals between Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler appears to ended in harmony after Marvelous Marvin felt, with some justification I think, that he had been robbed when they fought, and denied a rematch. Handshakes have now been exchanged.
Back in the 60s there was a great example of friendship forged between former foes when the Welsh featherweight Howard Winstone, three times loser in savage world title fights to the Mexican Vicente Saldivar, went to see him in Mexico City soon after he had retired. Saldivar, who could not speak a word of English, let alone Welsh, called at his hotel and insisted on taking him to just about every bar in the city, a real bender. In the early hours Saldivar could be seen carrying a happy, tequila-fuelled Winstone back home, both of them singing merrily.
You would’ve thought that Muhammad Ali would’ve made quite a few enemies the way he teased, taunted and even terrorised some opponents, not least Ernie Terrell and George Foreman. But they remained on good terms as did Ali and Henry Cooper. “Say hello to my good friend Henry” he would always ask us whenever we met him in America.
However one opponent who refused Ali’s olive branches of friendship, Joe Frazier, never forgot nor forgave him for calling him an Uncle Tom, refusing to accept it was merely ticket selling on Al’s part. He took his smouldering hate to the grave.
Ali always spoke warmly of him after the last epic enactment of their trilogy, in Manila. I was in the dressing room when Ali came in to console Frazier’s sobbing teenage son Marvin, admonishing him: “You stop your cryin’ boy. Your father ain’t lost nuthin’ tonight. There was no winner here. Just remember he’s a great man.”
That the biggest, and perhaps only other unresolved feud in the fight game did not involve any fighters – but rival promoters. Jack Solomons and Harry Levene. But actually it had nothing to do with boxing. Before they became big time impresarios Solomons had a fishmonger business and Levene ran a nightclub in London’s West End. Levene had ordered some fish from Solomons which he considered of poor quality. They argued, literally over the price of fish, and never spoke again.
There have been many great feuds in boxing, but few have ended without even a handshake.
Even Evander Holyfield’s bust-up with Mike Tyson when Iron Mike chewed off part of his ear lobe and was disqualified. You would think having a friendly chat with someone who tried to cannibalise him would it be the last thing Holyfield would want to do. But here they are not only still on speaking terms but even talking up a possible third fight after 23 years aged 54 and 58 respectively. Heaven forbid!