Cricket and karaoke with world champions. It was a week like no other.
From the splendour and tackiness of Las Vegas to the Titanic Slipways in Belfast, from the frenzy of Wembley Stadium to the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, the experience of Fight Camp in Essex demands a separate place in the memoirs.
And as for the uppercut landed by Alexander Povetkin on the chin of Dillian Whyte, only a few have licence to claim: “I was there.”
The Matchroom ‘bubble’ was created in a hotel just off junction 28 of the M25, less than a mile from the fight-night venue, and the peril of Covid-19 positives which have blighted bills in the US was parried away. News breaking from California on Thursday evening of an adverse test result returned by the classy Venezuelan Jorge Linares, who has beaten Anthony Crolla (twice) and Luke Campbell in successive fights, served as a timely reminder of the game of jeopardy being played by all promoters.
Security personnel engaged in heavy policing with a light touch, efficient from the start. The journey from closing the car boot and on through to my hotel room, with a Covid-19 test in between, took about three minutes. Laughing while the swab stick was lodged against the tonsils, so they assured me, was a sure-fire way to avoid gagging and the atmosphere in the medical tent set the tone for the week.
Tony Bellew was my next-door neighbour, Spencer Oliver across the corridor. Darren Barker showed more than a fragment of aptitude for cricket as he led our Rest of the World team to a final-over victory against Matchroom staff on Thursday evening. The drama unfolded on a slope of grass not much bigger than a football penalty area and where Povetkin and his team would wander around on a daily basis as a means of fending off stir-craziness.
Gauging the approach of the four fighters in the build-up to their respective main events was fascinating. Povetkin stayed in a room a few doors along from mine and would nod in passing, looking somehow less menacing when wearing a mask and all the time exuding an attitude of “So what?” It was as if he had lived his entire life in such a bubble.
Whyte chose to stay in one of two trailers used by his camp on the edge of the restricted zone and the MasterChef 2019 fourth-placer made do with pots and pans so minuscule they might have been better placed in a doll’s house. Katie Taylor was rarely spotted anytime outside her media commitments, while Delfine Persoon’s philosophy in treating boxing as a hobby was illustrated by the clear sense of enjoyment – maybe even bafflement – she got from watching the cricket along with her travelling troupe.
Between the hotel and the lumpy turf was a patio area housing a few tables and chairs and Terri Harper told BBC Radio 5 Live this month how she had spent awkward evenings there avoiding eye contact with her opponent Natasha Jonas. For respite and fresh air, there was no other option within the bubble.
Barker told me how he had engaged in conversations with boxing ‘faces’ he had only ever nodded at or briefly acknowledged in fight hotels in the past. “The best part of the whole experience” was the view of the former world middleweight champion and a veteran of all four Fight Camps in his role as a pundit for Matchroom TV.
Montell Griffin, once a winner over Roy Jones Jr via disqualification, was in town with the American heavyweight Shawndell Winters and showed me a text from Jones Jr in relation to Griffin’s claim that he was the victim of sharp practice ahead of their rematch, when the ring-walk time was changed without Griffin’s knowledge. Taylor’s manager Brian Peters talked of the old days with the late Mickey Duff, one of Britain’s most successful manager/promoters, and the general secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control, Robert Smith, tried to recall who was alongside him on the bill at the national schoolboys’ championships in the late 1970s.
After I had interviewed Whyte in his trailer, he was gracious in committing to a second chat with a reporter who had forgotten to press ‘record’ on his camera when filming the previous day. “We all make mistakes,” said Whyte, without hesitation.
On Friday, Matchroom staff delayed the start of Fight Camp karaoke by half an hour so 5 Live could broadcast a preview show from the designated Media Zone. Eventually, the warbling started with Barker and a rendition of Elton John’s ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues’ – and we could only assume that Darren’s career, however illustrious, must have left him with cauliflower vocal chords.
Temperature checks were administered at the entrance to the Matchroom Garden on fight night and the atmosphere was strangely familiar – until the boxing started. The eerie symphony of grunts, groans and snorts which usually accompanies the early undercard fights on a major promotion was this time the soundtrack to the main events.
The ring sat in a huge sterile area labelled the Red Zone, with a few handfuls of seats for officials, camp members and TV camera operators and technicians. And it was there that Povetkin’s uppercut landed in near silence – but then even the wildest crowd would have been struck dumb by such a turnaround.
Anthony Joshua joined us in our commentary booth for post-fight analysis and insisted he was prepared to fight in similar circumstances, ready to add a behind-closed-doors experience to his heady nights at Wembley, Cardiff and beyond.
In his office gone midnight, Eddie Hearn was as shell shocked as he was defiant. Whyte will come again, he vowed, and so will Matchroom. Hearn, Frank Warren and other promoters are striving to emphasise boxing’s relevance in a volatile sporting marketplace.
And in a time like no other.
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