I mention this at the outset because to fight as hard and as bravely as Birmingham's 28 year old Frankie Gavin (now 19-1, 12 early) and, after giving so much, to find yourself in both of these positions must leave one's mouth tasting of ashes and rue.
Having failed to wrest the European welterweight title from Leonard Bundu (now 31-0-2, 11 KOs) at Wolverhampton Civic Hall last night, Gavin's reach has exceeded his grasp, and now his brains-trust must devise a new route if he is to scale further heights and match his amateur successes.
The champion, from Lazio, Italy by way of Sierra Leone, proved too strong, too dogged and ultimately too good for the only British fighter ever to achieve a gold medal at a World Championships, delineating once more the gulf that exists between the paid and unpaid codes.
That a British fighter with amateur pedigree and powerful promotional ties should share the ring with a fighter of Bundu's calibre for anything less than a world belt speaks volumes about the high regard Gavin is held in the sport, and going down on a split decision (two tallies of 114-113 for Bundu and a rather charitable 115-112 score for Gavin) to such a man should do nothing but enhance his stature amongst the cognoscenti, if not amongst the various world sanctioning bodies.
Roared on by a partisan though sporting crowd, Gavin attempted from the outset to utilise the fluent footwork and precise timing allied with flashy hand-speed that are his trademarks and have taken him to British and Commonwealth honours. Unfortunately for him, in taking the next step on the traditional path toward world level he found himself up against a foe not only capable of closing the distances on which he thrives but who also possessed the technical ability to score heavily and—most importantly—the firing power to seriously hurt him.
An aside: I mentioned to a colleague earlier in the week that there was something almost deliciously retro about this match, featuring as it did a genuine UK prospect and an accomplished European champion with an unbeaten record, a man who had yet to show the obvious signs of decline that interest cautious matchmakers bent on protecting an investment. This fight gave the impression of to being made out of nothing more than a desire to make a competitive fight that justified its billing and the spoils for which it was fought, something so rare these days I half expected to catch a glimpse from ringside of the luxuriant moustache and coiffure of Dickie Davies. A more cynical cove than I might even venture that there was another facet to this bout that cast it as an anomaly, rendered it all the more like some mythical version of the good old days that probably never existed: the bout was scored fairly and the right man won.
Even though Gavin's southpaw elusiveness and sharp punching was evident from the outset, so too was Bundu's ability to cut off the ring, and the Italian combined this with fast bursts of chopping, heavy-handed hooks and uppercuts delivered equally to head and body from either the orthodox or southpaw stances. Time and again Gavin gave up his three and a half inch advantage in height, letting Bundu back him to the ropes where the champion's own hand-speed and timing proved more than adequate to score heavily on the Midlands fighter. Though the first three rounds were tense rather than thrilling, a pattern had emerged, and ominously for Gavin it involved Bundu pressuring, walking through the odd counter and getting home with bunches of his own punches.
After a brighter fourth, when he utilised his jab adequately for the first time in the bout and created the space to defuse the shorter-armed Bundu, I made the note that Gavin was too willing to back up to the ropes. In the fifth the Brummie boxed well, but again was unable to prevent the older man (a sprightly and fearsomely conditioned 39) from cutting off his escape routes. In the sixth, Bundu came off his stool with fearsome urgency, determined to exploit the holes he had seen in his opponent's strategy and defence. Late in the round, a burst of shots finished by a cruelly-exact left to the body sent Gavin sprawling, in obvious pain. Though he made it to his feet in the latter stages of the ten count and voluntarily dropped his gumshield to gain further respite, the look on his face told volumes. The situation had gone from challenging to desperate, and we were about to find out something fundamental about one of our brightest domestic prospects.
We found out in the next few rounds that no matter how exploitable his defence might be to a pressure fighter with good enough wheels to corner him and fast enough hands to score before he can jink away, there is nothing wrong with Gavin's heart and his resolve. Bundu drove him repeatedly to the ropes in those long middle rounds and did not miss an opportunity, once his quarry was in position, to beleaguer him to body and head with sharp two-handed salvoes. Several times referee Daniel Van De Wiele seemed poised to intervene as the Italian hammered him along the ropes, and the resumption of his tidy boxing over the last three rounds—as Bundu finally lost some of the fiendish edge from his attacking—proved the proverbial too little, too late.
The victor, a late starter making the sixth defence of the EBU title, deserves a chance at higher glories off a performance of such magnitude, delivered far from home. Boxrec News scored the contest 115-113 for the visitor, slightly wider than I reported to the anxious hometown fans around me at the venue when quizzed. This was less an attempt to guarantee safe passage back to my car than a mathematical error induced by adrenaline, however.
Another fighter on the bill who has found out more about his relative place in the sport is Sydney, Australia's Lucas “Big Daddy” Browne, the unbeaten heavyweight. He extended his run to 21, 18 by the short route, as he secured a unanimous decision over the Ukraine's Andriy Rudenko, now 24-1 (with sixteen knockouts and one no-decision). But the torrid if ungainly affair did little to enhance the image of the 35-year-old Browne, who was left looking even more scary than he normally does after thirty six minutes in the draining company of Rudenko.
The K2-promoted resident of Dnipropetrovsk scored often enough with a sharp jab, a sharper left hook and an occasional if ungainly overhand right in the early going to swell Browne's eyes and have blood streaming from cuts to his right eyebrow and bottom lip. As the blood and spray fountained from the shaven head of the giant, barrel-shaped Aussie (six feet four inches and an announced eighteen stone eleven pounds and change) in the opening four rounds it appeared an upset was looming. In fairness, in those opening rounds I did wonder just what might have occurred had the chubby Rudenko (just under 16 stone 11 lbs and barely over six feet) shared a ring with Dereck Chisora when that fight was mooted earlier this year, but soon it became apparent that it was Browne's lack of speed and boxing nous rather than Rudenko's overt talents that made the early part of the fight such rough going.
Browne is a fella who makes up in determination and application what he might lack in other departments, and once Rudenko started to come down off his, er, to stand even more flat-footed, the Australian's persistent if less-than-classical jabbing and some clubbing right-handers that probably were felt back in Eurasia began to erode Rudenko's ambition. Browne chugged away, swatting heavily at his man, increasingly finding a home for a thumping if rudimentary right uppercut down the stretch, and was duly rewarded for his industry. Ian John Lewis's score of 115-113 seemed closest to the bout I'd watched, with Terry O'Connor's 116-112 and Daniel Van De Wiele's 117-112 more and more removed from what had apparently transpired. I think I enjoyed watching it, but more on the level of a grinding struggle of two leviathans locked in a sweaty death-grip than anything approaching a superior boxing match.
With the win, Browne collected two shiny plastic baubles of esoteric description to go with his Commonwealth title, but imagining him in with someone of higher calibre or even superior punching power than the fairly limited Rudenko induces nothing but worry for the health of the most affable, gentlemanly man in boxing who could impersonate a roadkill-eating Hell's Angel. I rather hope he can become the next Randall “Tex” Cobb, except I hope he doesn't have to absorb many more shellackings before he becomes a regular mainstay in the films o