Steve Bunce spent eight days and eight nights in Saudi Arabia covering the heavyweight fight between Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua. It was, in so many ways, quite the event.
“Take the exit.” That is how eight days and nights at a fight in Jeddah should start. And end, by the way.
I was driving near midnight on my way from the airport. I could see where the boxers had their names in lights, their giant faces were wrapped on covers and draped over buildings. Elsewhere the skyline twinkled, it really did. Directions, not so glittery.
The boxing functions started: intimate, open, grand and serious. There was also a dozen or more undercard dreamers; men and women from many obscure fighting countries, but all part of the same boxing tribe for one week. Behind the curtain for the weigh-in on the Friday, they were brutally segregated: losers on the left, winners on the right. It was part of the game.
The undercard had storylines, twists, turns, a few hopeless contenders and wonderful fighters. Also, a couple of nuisances. There was a Popeye character, the towering statue from China, the Saudi kid; it was like a circus behind that tent curtain of a wall. Entourages, dads in corners, girlfriends, husbands, old-school Las Vegas hangers-on. I heard several versions of, “That’s right, champ” that I started to believe that Shannon Briggs was there. It was, in many ways, a classic Briggs carnival.
There was a tale or two just about every single day. Some must remain in Jeddah – the endless lies about purses and fights refused has now become ridiculous. If you listened to every instant expert, it would be easy to imagine that we are in a business of cowards. And it is a miracle that fights like Savannah Marshall and Claressa Shields ever get across the line. I have never yet met a coward with gloves.
At the main press conference, Michael Buffer, who walks through crowded rooms like a visiting dignitary, shared a Kirk Douglas story. The story also had Mike Tyson, Larry Holmes and Donald Trump (“Some guy with a hotel.”). It was pure Buffer.
It was a story of humility, fame and recognition; it sounds like a new WBC belt. Anyway, Michael is trying to think of a way to go over and introduce himself to Douglas after the weigh-in for the Tyson and Holmes fight. He knows he has to be cool, but he also knows that he has to do it before Douglas is ushered away. Buffer is planning what to say when he looks up and there is Kirk Douglas, right there. The chin, the eyes, the man. Bloody Spartacus, for gawd’s sake!
“‘Hi Mike, Kirk Douglas, I’ve watched you many times.’ I couldn’t even speak,” Buffer told me. Five minutes later, he was talking about Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey and Muhammad Ali as he introduced the boxers. Buffer understands where we all belong and what part of history we are in and what type of history we are making. I saw Buffer one more time, getting on the plane home and before he turned left, he told me he was working at the YouTube boxing this week. As I said, he knows where our boxing history currently sits. “Hey, next time it will be a Cary Grant story,” he added as he vanished to his bed. I’ve heard it, it is worth the wait.
I guess, during all big fight weeks there is a slick mix of humility, fame and recognition; the knack is not to try too hard at any of them. Evander Holyfield and Roberto Duran know exactly how to behave. They graced the fight, gave it a blessing from our gods. They are genuine boxing statesmen. Holyfield was brilliant on how Joshua had to be “big”. He took time, showed me how, threw the shots, moved. It was class and he was right. He was demonstrating in Badou Jack’s changing room; the Badou team looked on. They knew a master was at work (obviously, Evander was the master at work).
It was good to see Ashley Theophane with Jack, both survivors of many years inside the Floyd Mayweather bubble. We had been together at a funeral near Brixton two weeks ago. We spoke in Jeddah. He is working on a great project at the moment. I’m sure I saw him box once on an All Stars show at the old church on Harrow Road in north London. That’s two horizons broadened.
On the night, the arena filled slowly, but it did fill. Amir Khan, fresh from a visit to Mecca, found a safe seat to watch and enjoy. He kept his head down; humility, recognition and fame. On the other side of the ring, a giant wrestler in a sequinned jacket barely bothered his chair.
Minutes before the first bell and at a chaotic and jumpy ringside, Vasyl Lomachenko was ushered in. It was gone midnight on Saturday and Loma had been very busy in the previous five days; he had started the week in Ukraine, armed and on border patrol and then he had arrived in Los Angeles. He had one more travel magic trick left and then he appeared in Jeddah. He looks like he might just have one more magic trick left in the ring.
“I’m getting worried about Loma,” John Hornewer had told me on Monday afternoon at the Shangri-La. “He’s been on the border for a long time.” Hornewer is, without doubt, boxing’s greatest insider. A veteran at the evil, fake, violent and comical table of boxing negotiations, a man with the sport’s greatest client list. I saw John again, a few days later, outside the room for the rules meeting. He was shaking hands with an AJ representative and I knew that any last-minute glitches had been sorted. Hornewer sorts things.
Naseem Hamed floated in during the open workouts, majestic in his local thobe, smiling, greeting everybody. He was always surrounded by people, it was like they just wanted to touch the hem of his garment. It was the same when he ruled boxing. He told me he was just eleven when he won his first Schoolboy title. He beat Michael Wright, I wrote the Boxing News report. “I know,” he told me. He also had his three sons with him. I don’t think I saw the quartet when they were not roaring with laughter.
When Hamed recognised Richie Woodhall behind the scenes – in a corridor of fleeing sheiks – at the King Abdullah Sports City Arena after the fight, he just grinned. And kept grinning.
“You are starting to look just like your dad,” Naz said as they embraced. They had shared bills on big nights, on nights when British boxing was changing forever and leaving behind the sport’s black and white past. In Jeddah they met again, two men from a distant time. Richie’s dad, Len, left the sort of impression so few modern trainers will ever manage. Hamed and Woodhall together at the fight was just one of the great moments during the week.
Incidentally, this is probably the only fight that Richie and I have ever disagreed on. We have worked together through thick and thin, over 20 years ringside with the BBC, Setanta, BT and Channel 5. Hey, I’m allowed to get one wrong. Saying that, I still sensibly avoided Barry Jones at the end for fear of a kicking.
During rounds and breaks, people came and went with each fight, leaning over and offering advice, suggestions and ideas. A fight of twelve rounds can be like a full hour of bloody theatre. Men in corners, others ducking under ropes and working on cuts, bruises, grazes and minds. The main cornerman desperately looking for signs. The others speaking and always patting the fighter on the shoulder at the end of the break. A last touch. I try – when I can – to stand during that minute and edge a bit closer.
At the final bell or when the third man waves it off, it always ends in a mess of legs and arms and hugs and raised fists. Men like Russ Anber, in Usyk’s corner, have to still work on the fighter’s face when the fight is over. The repairs continue in victory and defeat.
Russ was weaving his hands and the tools of his trade as people celebrated, that is his job. He is not bothered about being ignored on the outside; on the inside he is adored, held in rare and total respect. Fighter’s love him.
From ringside, sitting a few feet from the apron, the fight was a relentless drama with so many moving parts. Usyk’s people spoke in whispers at the bottom of the ring steps, Joshua’s team were more animated. They both repeated words: “Rhythm” was the holler from Joshua’s people. I have no idea what word Usyk’s men used. Calm? Sure both corners had a calm man or two. It was tense in that bear-pit space by the ring.
In a country where wealth and family are intimately entwined, it was fitting at the end in the post-fight ugliness that Joshua’s father went to his son. This was nothing to do with sport. I watched from six-feet away, could feel the rage in Joshua’s eyes as he jumped from the ring. “If you know my journey, you will know this passion,” he explained a bit later. There is so often crazy theatre in fights of this size.
That was fight night.
And, at about 4.30am, I did take the exit. Woodhall was in a departure lounge, I had snatched two-minutes with Joshua. He was close to exhausted, his eyes red, his voice heavy with emotion. I took the exit then.