Armour's night of shiners

Andrew Baker finds that the earthy tradition of boxing is alive in east London
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The Independent Online
This was boxing as it used to be: a weekday night at York Hall in Bethnal Green in the east end of London, a fug of smoke and hot-dog fumes and a local favourite with a real fighter's name: Johnny Armour.

There's more to Johnny than an old-fashioned monicker, though. The Chatham bantamweight also has the traditional scrapper's predilection for occasionally whacking the wrong person, which is one reason why he is still down the queue for a world championship bout and still fighting in the York, rather than the Albert Hall. An unscheduled bout with a member of Her Majesty's constabulary put Johnny in stir for a few months last year, and while long hours in the gaol gym did his sharpness no harm, he inevitably fell behind a little on the road work.

"I was an idiot," he gamely admitted before last Wednesday's WBC International "Interim" Championship bout with the Romanian Petrica Paraschiv. "But I've learned my lesson. If there is a positive side, I now feel much stronger mentally."

Whether or not his physical condition had suffered from what ring folk euphemistically refer to as "enforced inactivity" the crowd would discover later. But first there was the undercard, which featured the local light- middleweight prospect, Adrian Dodson, a New Yorker now based in Islington with a magnificent physique and a reputation for hurting opponents.

Dodson was up against a French fighter, Rachid Serdjane, whom he hurt - although not in the conventional manner. Serdjane, who looked to be carrying a fair bit of mileage, was already out of puff in the third round when Dodson gave him an excuse for a rest with a wallop below the belt that drew breath from the hall. Cue a couple of minutes writhing on the canvas before the Frenchman resumed, to sympathetic applause and a less- than-sympathetic Cockney cry of "Whack him in the bollocks again!"

Dodson held off for another round, but in the fifth he did just that. Down again went Serdjane, wailing and walloping the canvas in agony while his manager leapt up to the ropes and hurled Gallic imprecations at Dodson and the referee, who was meanwhile preoccupied with keeping an importunate doctor out of the ring.

When it became clear that the only way the Frenchman was going to leave the ring was on a stretcher, the referee disqualified him for "ungentlemanly conduct". Clearly, the way to get on in society down Bethnal Green way is not to have a care for your genital well-being. There was later some talk of Serdjane's fee being withheld, but it would have been harsh to sequester his purse when he had already taken a couple of hits in the Crown Jewels.

As Serdjane was borne away - he did not, it was reported, require hospital treatment - Armour and Paraschiv entered the ring. And since this was not a Sky promotion, they did so without the assistance of a crane and a ton of dry ice.

The show they put on had no need of such window- dressing. Armour, a straight-faced southpaw whose musculature lacked a little definition, looked like obtaining a quick finish when he cut Paraschiv above the left eye in the first round.

But the Romanian, facially a dead ringer for Frankie Dettori but with a powerful, weights-worker's physique, had skilful cornermen and a big heart. He also had stamina and cunning, and while Armour landed the more telling blows, Paraschiv managed to avoid the most damaging and skip away to a corner, or waltz his man around the ring to get his breath back.

As the rounds ticked by, announced with a board by a refreshingly fully dressed young lady, so the passionately partisan crowd came to realise that their man was not going to have it easy. "Come on, Johnny," they yelled. "Move your head! Have an early night!"

The messages didn't get through: blood bubbled from Armour's nose, and ran from a nasty cut above his right eye, to the consternation of his cuts man. But Armour wasn't giving up: he surrendered European and Commonwealth titles while behind bars and he wants to get them back. With the desperation of the wounded, he chased Paraschiv, flailing at any target that presented itself.

Before the final round, a gesture from the Romanian, not just a touch of the gloves but a peck on each cheek for the disarmed Armour. Respect? Gamesmanship? There was no time to tell, as the two instantly tore into each other again, exchanging ferocious blows toe to toe with no thought of defence.

Armour got the verdict - this was Bethnal Green, not Bucharest - but Paraschiv got a standing ovation. "My timing was still a little bit off," Armour said afterwards, "but I dug deep against a tough man and with another couple of fights I should be heading back to where I was." With the stars, he meant, not behind bars.