An irrepressible burns fights on, but 2017 showed that scottish boxing no longer relies on one man
Scottish boxing has been, at least to casual fans, synonymous with Ricky Burns in recent years. The scene has relied heavily on The Rickster’s now infamous nights in Glasgow. Young fighters hoped to get a spot on his cards to gain vital experience and exposure. And Scottish fans, known around the world for their passion for the sport, were treated to several nights of world class boxing. Michael Buffer once compared the pandemonium in Scottish arenas to 1950s America after a particularly raucous evening.
Our celebration of – and reliance on- Burns reached climatic heights in 2016 as Burns defeated Michele De Rocco to capture the vacant WBA Super Lightweight belt. Scotland could – for the first time in its long fighting history – boast of a champion who won titles in three weight divisions. The nation stood proudly.
However, as old clichés go, everything must come to an end. There was always a risk that our scene could quickly crumble if – or more likely when – Burns declined. And this threatened to become reality as Ricky was comfortably beaten in a unification clash with Namibia’s Julius Indongo, losing his belt at the age of 34.
Yet, to the surprise of some, Scottish boxing enjoyed a thriving 2017. There were fewer grand occasions, granted, but the scene displayed more depth and variety than it had for some time.
Burns is confident that he has many fights ahead of him. And, despite a close loss to Anthony Crolla, he may be correct. His fitness and desire are still firmly in place, and his team – including experienced coaches and pros – say that he continues to possess the skill to compete at the top level. The Scottish boxing fraternity hopes that is correct, and will continue to hold Burns in the highest regard, but it is no longer reliant on Ricky for its future. That’s a much healthier environment for all of us, including Burns who can focus on his future plans without the heavy expectations of a nation.
There were in fact many exciting events and developments up here in 2017. Here are a few that stood out:
Kash Farooq and Scott Allan double header.
The game needs people like Scott Allan to generate interest and he undoubtedly has talent. A former world kickboxing champion, he quickly captured a Scottish title after switching disciplines to boxing. But he is probably just as known for his colourful appearance and behaviour as he is fighting. The cocky Allan went into his fight with Glasgow’s Kash Farooq as favourite back in January. He entered the weigh-in proudly displaying his chiselled-physique and tattoos before trying to intimidate his seemingly meek opponent in the head-to-head. But the fight showed that Farooq was anything but weak. The Pakistan-born Glaswegian displayed exceptional boxing skills to comprehensively outpoint Allan. It looked like more than his ego was damaged.
To his credit, Allan demanded a rematch despite Farooq continuing to impress in successive bouts. However, inevitably, it returned an even more convincing result: Farooq dominated in every department with superior accuracy, speed and power. There is no shame in defeat for Allan, and we hope he bounces back quickly. He is a character and can fight. But Farooq looks to be a real prospect who should go on to, at least, British level. He is current Scottish champion and is now placed highly in the British rankings.
The development of MTK Scotland
There was much bemusement in December 2016 when WBO middleweight king Billy-Joe Saunders fought in a Paisley leisure centre. In fact, British pundits were so unaware of the domestic scene in Scotland, and indeed our geography, that it failed to recognise it was in the once famous industrial town, and insisted on saying the fight was in Glasgow. In any case, a lacklustre performance from Saunders in front of the Boxnation cameras brought further ridicule to the event. But, as many local hardcore fans were aware, MTK Scotland were showing signs of becoming a real force in Scottish boxing. They had signed a number of talented prospects, arranged real fifty-fifty clashes, and put on exciting shows at competitive prices.
2017 saw the outfit mature, put on a number of genuinely thrilling events, and develop not only its own roster but Scottish boxing as a whole. The highlight of the calendar was MTK Scotland’s televised show in Edinburgh in which Stephen Simmons claimed the IBF European cruiserweight title against Simon Barclay. The show also included Gary Cornish unsuccessfully vying for the British heavyweight strap, and Ireland’s Olympic hero Paddy Barnes.
The fight of the night was unexpectedly between Tommy Philbin and Rhys Pagan. Philbin gained the nod in a close slugfest against his fellow Scot, and fans are looking forward to a rematch. It’s this type of fight – competitive, meaningful, exciting – that has defined MTK Scotland’s recent success, and long may it continue.
McGurk overcomes strong Kazakh opponent to secure WBC Youth title
Michael McGurk of Viewpark Boxing Club in Lanarkshire was involved in a hell of a toe-to- toe scrap back in May 2017. He faced a brutish Kazakh super welterweight who used his strong jab – as well as his elbow and head – liberally throughout the fight. But McGurk persevered, showing tremendous grit and superior boxing ability to claim victory – and the WBC Youth title. The fight was streamed live in local pubs in Lanarkshire and the young fighter returned to a heroes welcome. This mix of skill and popularity may be the start of an exciting career for McGurk who is keen to progress through the domestic rankings in 2018.
Cyclone switch focus from Ireland to Scotland
July 2017 was meant to be Carl Frampton’s homecoming fight in Belfast. The Northern Irish fans had waited some time for their hero to return to home soil after having a number of contests stateside. His traveling support were legendary, and now was the time for the home fans to enjoy their moment. But there was something clearly wrong when Frampton failed to make weight. A dejected looking fighter was berated by his disappointed promoter. We know the rest: the following day his opponent suffered injury after a freak accident and the whole event was cancelled. In the coming months, Frampton – along with other Irish fighters – departed from the McGuigan’s Cyclone Promotions. And, in all honesty, some feared for the organisation’s future.
But – and here is another cliché – one man’s loss is another’s gain, and in this case the man happened to be Scotland. The tension in Ireland prompted McGuigan to focus on his rising star, Josh Taylor, and look across the Irish sea for other opportunities. Cyclone quickly signed Jason Easton, an exciting Edinburgh fighter, Lee McGregor, an outstanding young amateur, and Martin Bakole, a ferocious heavyweight trained by Billy Nelson, towards the end of year. They also work closely with Stephen Simmons, an established cruiserweight chasing the British title. Crisis averted, it seems, as Cyclone put on two successful shows in Scotland, and more are scheduled for 2018.
Taylor and Cyclone have all the potential to deliver what Burns and Warren/Matchroom did in Scotland. But, even more promisingly, there is also a commitment to developing and showcasing more Scottish talent. Taylor is the star but there is a number of rising prospects who will be given resources, opportunities and television exposure to progress.
East coast boasts a successful year and a number of prospects
I like to think I’m a multi-faceted being, but I have two clear characteristics: I’m a petty Glaswegian. National pride is all fine and well, but there’s that little bit of extra joy when I see a local fighter do well. However, 2017 seemed to be the year of east coast talent. The world now knows of Josh Taylor, of course; an incredible boxer who can also fight and is destined for world honours. Stephen Simmons is preparing to add to his IBF European belt as he faces Matty Askin for British title in 2018. And the list of lesser known Edinburgh fighters and prospects breaking through seemed never ending last year.
Jason Easton, the recent signing to Cyclone Promotions, will likely become a fan favourite. He’s fearless, relentless, and has – at least for the time being – enough deficiencies in his defence to make any contest a fight of the year contender. He captured an IBO title against an similarly gritty Belgian earlier in the year in a brilliant back-and-forth. Keep an eye out for Easton on all Taylor cards live on Spike and Channel 5. He is too talented to be just a ‘scrapper’: Easton will be a genuine challenger for British titles as he gains experiences on the big stage.
Lee McGregor, another Cyclone signing, was the standout from the Scottish amateur ranks. Some feared he may be turning professional too early when he made the decision back in the summer. However, Barry McGuigan is confident that McGregor, who has only had two professional contests, would defeat any British fighter in his division. Expect the young bantamweight to be fast-tracked and compete for domestic honours in the next 12-to-18 months.
Tommy Philbin is known as one of the sport’s good-guys, but gained another reputation this year after a number of successful and, at times, bruising contests. Philbin may not have the world potential as a Taylor or McGregor, but is a skilled, courageous fighter who will always be involved in exciting matches. He is undefeated and hunting for domestic glory in 2018.
As Alex Arthur opens his gym in the capital, and a number of fighters come through the city’s clubs, the state of Edinburgh boxing looks healthy. We Glaswegians look forward to a busy year ahead for the highly promising Joe Ham, a resurgent Charlie Flynn returning from injury, and we’re claiming Willy Hutchinson too. Bring it on.
Brophy rips Commonwealth strap from Dunn down under
David Brophy boarded his flight to Australia back in spring 2017 with very little fanfare. I imagine he was largely anonymous: no television cameras or interviews, he checked in alongside tourists and tried to get some kip during the hellish journey. And, when he landed and prepared to fight for the commonwealth super middleweight title, there was still little interest. He was an underdog, unfancied, considered a straight forward defence for the champion, Zac Dunn. The Aussie was going to defeat Brophy, pundits claimed, send him home and move on to bigger things. But that script was thoroughly ripped up and binned.
Brophy is an underrated boxer and entered the fight with absolutely no pressure on him. That is an empowering position to be in – and a dangerous one for any cocky opponent to face. This quiet confidence developed into an unstoppable force as the Scotsman continued to batter Dunn’s ribs throughout the contest. The referee halted proceedings in the seventh to stop further punishment. Brophy and his trainer had successfully masterminded an excellent game-plan, and the Caldercruix man returned home as Commonwealth champ.
It was a victory that deserved far greater praise than it received from both boxing and national media. But its one we will remember. Brophy has now dropped down to the middleweight, and we look forward to seeing him making a serious assault on the division in 2018.
Taylor obliterates Davies on way to world stage
Laurence Okolie and Isaac Chamberlain look set to sell out the O2 Arena when the two clash in February. There is something about a domestic grudge match between two genuine prospects that the British public love to watch. And 2017 had an absolute cracker between Josh Taylor and Ohara Davies at the Braehead Arena.
The young Scot, Taylor, brought real amateur pedigree, a wide skillset, and an impressive start to his professional career. Davies brought a reputation as a fiercesome puncher, trash talker and habitual social media idiot. He was also backed by, arguably, the biggest promoter in world boxing.
There was genuine tension in the build up and on the night. I was lucky enough to cover the event, and remember feeling pre fight nerves as Ohara walked confidently into the ring, his Undertaker theme tune just about audible behind the spiteful booing from the crowd. But, as every match report subsequently confirmed, that feeling that the fight was going to be a real fifty-fifty contest quickly evaporated. Taylor’s boxing intelligence and ability brutally exposed Davies’ limitations.
The Hackney boxer could previously compensate by walking through domestic level opponents. But he found in Taylor someone sharper, stronger and more intelligent; the real prospect for future world honours. As the fight became increasingly one sided, Davies dropped to his knee and asked mercifully for the fight to be halted. He revealed physical limitations and mental vulnerability – in humiliating contrast to Taylor’s strength.
Scotland had a new boxing star, and one who looks to have the mental attributes to fulfil his real physical potential. We, and more importantly boxing pundits across both sides of the Atlantic, are backing Taylor for world titles soon. There are lessons for Okolie and Chamberlain from the Taylor-Davies clash. Both young men will be commended for taking the fight at such an early stage of their career. Both will have a future in boxing. But, regardless of the outcome, and even if limitations are exposed, they must display the courage that the contest deserves. Any embarrassing capitulation will severely affect their credibility. It will take some time for Davies to shake the embarrassing memes and chants of quitter.
So we begin 2018 in better shape than we did the previous year – even without a world champion. We have a truly world class boxer in Taylor, immense talent rising through the amateur and domestic ranks, and new gyms, promoters and organisations with a real commitment to developing the sport. We look forward to seeing what the year brings for Ricky Burns and we’re sure he’ll be in some exciting fights, but for what feels like the first time in years it won’t define Scottish boxing.
We also recognise the tremendous bravery of Gary Murray. The Coatbridge fighter was hospitalised for several weeks after a hard fought contest with Ireland’s Paddy Gallagher. Murray battled courageously and through on-going rehabilitation has made real progress in his recovery. So much so, in fact, Murray is preparing to start afresh as a coach with MTK Scotland. We wish him all the best in his new career.