Boxing: Another body blow for the noble art

The `Shamrock Express' is nearly derailed on a night of pantomime in Liverpool.
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The Independent Online
PERHAPS SOMEONE forgot to touch wood prior to the weekend's championship boxing promotion in Liverpool. Someone might have neglected to secure a plank or two, also, but that's a matter for conjecture. Beyond doubt, the projected six million viewers who tuned in to watch ITV's return to Saturday night boxing after an absence of close to four years saw the sport do what many headline writers have long been convinced it does best - shoot itself in the foot.

Shea Neary's fourth successful defence of the World Boxing Union light- welterweight title proved to be the catalyst for one of those Carno-esque evenings that boxing more than other sports seems to engender. The purist form of theatre turned into ungainly pantomime. Unfortunately, the timing of this latest slapstick outbreak sets it apart from the farcically under- rehearsed ring entrances and occasional paragliders that one has come to accept as part and parcel of the sport.

Did the armchair millions marginalised by Sky's dominance of the sport since the mid-90s really need to see the first title challenger of the new era struggle to remain upright, not because of the champion's punches but because his boots were so old that they had no tread with which to grip the bright blue ring canvas? Was it really necessary for those who chose to vary their Saturday night's sports viewing ritual, and for once forgo Match of the Day, to witness a boxing ring that behaved more like a child's Bouncy Castle? Seemingly it was. Big-time boxing was back, looking unmistakably small time.

The supposed night of celebration turned into something of an embarrassment. The first instalment of ITV's eight-fight deal with the Liverpool promotional independents, Munro-Hyland Brothers, will not have delighted the network suits. Nor will it have helped encourage further interest in Neary from the American subscription TV giant Home Box Office, which stood poised to pounce with the manner of contract that can make a fighter a multi- millionaire after only a handful of contests.

But while the Scouse semi might remain familiar territory to the blue- collar champ for a little longer than might have been hoped, Neary at least can hold his head high. Aside from the world title success of his stablemate, Peter Culshaw, in the chief supporting contest, and the obligatory sell-out crowd for a Neary fight in his home town, it was the WBU champion's surprisingly mature performance that will provide a source of solace for his backers old and new.

It has long been speculated that the strength in Munro-Hyland's astonishingly rapid rise to prominence might transpire to be its weakness also; while Neary's hell-for-leather attacking style has attracted TV interest world- wide, fighters with his reckless though undeniably exciting approach generally do not have overly extended shelf-lives. At 30, many wondered whether Neary would be an undefeated champion for too much longer.

After striding to the ring through an avalanche of green confetti, to the strains of a particularly aggressive-sounding version of "Irish Rover", one might have expected Neary to purvey his own customary brand of rabble- rousing once more. But no. Before long it became obvious that Neary has added a little belated circumspection to his already formidable armoury. Nuance replaced negligence in his defence. The block featured as often as the offensive barrage. Unbelievably, Neary was boxing, and doing a pretty good job of it, too.

Also before long, it became plain that the challenger, Argentina's Juan Carlos Villarreal, was making life easy for Neary. The 28-year-old visitor appeared to be fighting as though on skates, his feet slipping from beneath him as his boots' lack of traction became painfully apparent. Villarreal could neither move away from Neary nor set himself to turn his frequent overhand rights into anything more than placebo power punches.

Between rounds, his corner tried a variety of tricks to retread his tired soles. Tape was attached, scissors tried to score them. But to no avail. The "Shamrock Express" versus Christopher Dean it was.

Events within the ornate grandeur of St George's Hall, the Coliseum-like structure opposite Lime Street Station went further off the rails as the evening progressed. There was an over-long break before the start of the 11th round, the ring surface having become uncertain in nature.

Repairs were made from beneath it, but during the round Villarreal sunk ankle deep into the canvas at a point where, in an undercard bout, the huge Czech opponent of heavyweight Matt Ellis had fallen heavily inside the opening two minutes of their bout.

The main event was stopped for yet more running repairs to be made to the ring and, mercifully, the final three minutes passed without repeat problems. But much of the gloss had already been removed from the evening and Neary's 21st successive victory, by a wide, unanimous decision - 119- 107, 120-107 and 120-106. It had all become rather silly.

The word "unprofessional" will forever come to mind, then, when recalling ITV's long-awaited return to the boxing mainstream.