Bunce Diaries: An alternative review of the year

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Bunce on Babic

Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing

It was a boxing year of extremes, excitement and deliverance, writes Steve Bunce

IT seems that all the Savage wanted was a loss before Christmas and in one of the very last fights of the year he very nearly got his wish. Welcome to an alternative review of the boxing year.

This is what Alen “The Savage” Babić said and he meant every word: “I have no fear of losing my zero. I beg you take my zero; I just want somebody to beat me? Is that too much ask?”

In Manchester, an hour before the Joseph Parker fight, Babic was a second away from losing for the first time at the end of round two. He had been wild, slow, sluggish, bad and then a roly-poly Frenchman called David Spilmont, caught him, staggered him and was denied by the bell.

The third round is a contender for round of the year. Babić finally clubbed and slugged Spilmont to defeat a few rounds later. That was the Savage at his best. Was he hurt? He laughed at suggestions he was hurt, but he was gone. Great moment from a fun fighter.

Jake Paul’s interview in his swimming goggles just days before his one-punch finish of Tyrone Woodley. That’s it; the one where he talked about his role in boxing, his fight with Canelo Álvarez and his rivalry with Tommy Fury. The man had just climbed from a swimming pool and was still wearing his swimming googles; many in the boxing business lost their mind over Paul in 2021. Why? Come on, he’s pulling your leg. Meanwhile, he’s preparing like the hungriest fighter in the land and that is what his critics are missing.

It reminds of something that Ben Davison told me at the conference to officially announce the Josh Taylor and Jack Catterall fight. A lot of people have doubted Davison’s credentials, especially a few years ago, so I asked him what he did, what made him different and why was he getting so many good fighters? Two days later, by the way, he did a deal with Luke and Pat McCormack.

He told me: “I put the hours in, every day, all day. I work harder than the other people. I listen, I learn and I keep working hard.” That’s a simple rule for success on both sides of the ropes.

Big Kamil Sokolowski finished the year with some justice and had his hand raised against George Fox. A few months earlier, behind closed doors at the York Hall, Kamil lost to David Adeleye. It was tight, very tight; Sokolowski was dressed and leaving York Hall about six minutes after the fight finished. He was not bothered about the verdict, just about the long journey home. “It happens,” he told me with a shrug. It certainly does. Adeleye is now unbeaten in eight, Fox lost for the first time in four fights; Sokolowski finished the year with 11 wins from 37 fights and the man billed from Barnstaple and Poland will be back in 2022.

An early morning start at a gym near Stoke to talk to Nathan Heaney was one of the year’s hidden pleasures. Honest, refreshing and full of fighting desire, Heaney is a model professional. A few months earlier I had watched Heaney run from coach-to-coach in a car park, close to midnight, in Telford after he had won. He was in his shorts and boots. He was thanking his loyal fans; he finished the year unbeaten in 14 and personally sold 1,400 tickets for his last fight. A lot of good fighters, men with fans that could share one taxi, have been critical of him. “Jealousy is a bad thing,” said Heaney.

One of the most ruthless performances I saw all year was at York Hall when Denzel Bentley lost his British middleweight title to Felix Cash in 84 seconds of the third round. It was always going to be a good fight, but I never expected Cash to dismantle Bentley like he did. And neither did Bentley. Cash is now unbeaten in 14 but has not fought since, Bentley lost for the first time in 16 and has eased back with a win; he told me in early December that the loss will make him. That can happen, I told him.

One morning at the London Olympics in 2012, I was making my way to the boxing when a mum and her teenage daughter said hello. The girl was a Katie Taylor fan. With the mum’s permission, the girl was on my old BoxNation show a couple of weeks later. She got a mention on Five Live in 2016 when she boxed for England in Ireland and won. Emma Dolan was just a dreamer and desperate to fight in 2012. Well, this year, she turned professional in September and won three times. Dolan is now 23. That’s a nice story.

And then there was this quote from Bob Arum, heard on a night when he held court at the Virgin property in Las Vegas. In the ring, Mikaela Mayer had just beaten Maïva Hamadouche in one of the fights of the year. Bob turned 90 a few weeks later. Here’s Bob on fierce rivalries and a man we lost in 2021, Marvin Hagler. “You know how fighters, two, three years after they fight become friends – not Marvin, believe me, Marvin Hagler still hates every one of his opponents.”

I know, he has said it before, but so what? It was a Friday night at the fights in Las Vegas and Arum was talking about legends. And, Ellis Island, the lost casino, is just five minutes from Virgin and they have a brewery with ice-cold Bavarian lager for three bucks.

And finally, how about this. I think it perfectly captures what this boxing business is all about. It’s White Hart Lane in September, and the night Anthony Joshua lost to Oleksandr Usyk. There are 70,000 and the undercard is moving fast. Callum Smith had knocked out Lenin Castillo. It was serious and Castillo was taken to hospital. There were some fairly dark rumours until, at exactly 7.34pm, somebody from the Board told me that Castillo was conscious and responsive. A great relief and then at 7.35pm Joshua arrived and was shown on the big screens getting out of his car. The crowd roared at the images. Sixty seconds of boxing extremes in a year that truly delivered.

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