Fight fans keep their powder dry

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The Independent Online
TWO middle-aged off-duty stewards stood supping their pints in the upstairs bar at the Aston Villa Leisure Centre on Friday evening, watching the fans assemble for Robert McCracken's British light-middleweight title fight with Paul Wesley. "I used to love coming to the boxing," one steward said to the other. "But then they started all this fighting."

At any other than a Robert McCracken promotion such a sentiment would be nonsense. But Robert McCracken's fans have acquired an extremely unpleasant reputation: when McCracken defended his title against Steve Foster last year, they trashed the National Exhibition Centre. Given the events at Stamford Bridge last week, the organisers were taking no chances on Friday night.

There were additional reasons for feeling nervous. We called Boxing News to get a little background on the fight. "You're not going to that, are you?" our informant asked. "There'll be trouble again." Oh dear. Why? "McCracken's a Birmingham City fan, and Wesley's an Aston Villa supporter. You'd better get ready to duck under the ring when the chairs start flying, because if there's no trouble at that fight then I'm a leprechaun."

So we were a little nervous as the crowd filed into the leisure centre. Their bags were inspected, and anyone whose clothing appeared unusually lumpy was thoroughly frisked. Then they proceeded upstairs to the two bars.

An amiable enough bunch, overwhelmingly young and male, with a smattering of wives and girlfriends and a few flat-nosed, gnomic old men. One of the lads was called James: you could tell because each letter of his name was tattooed on to a digit of his right hand. He was clearly an Alan Bleasdale fan: tattooed on to the back of his hand were the letters "GBH".

James and his chums were fuelling up for the fight on high-octane lagers and chasers, discussing the prospects for the evening's entertainment. The general opinion seemed to be that McCracken would dispose of his opponent in pretty short order. At 8.30pm, about 90 minutes before the scheduled start, the bars shut and the fans marched down into the hall.

The promoters had done their work with care. There would be no tearing up and throwing of temporary seats, because there were no temporary seats: the fans would sit on padded benches. The ringside seats were protected by two rows of fencing. Security guards stood at every entrance and at every corner of the fence. More of them, miked up like pop stars, loomed in the corridors. The police presence was fairly discreet: 10 or so luminous- coated officers. But it was common knowledge that plenty more lurked outside.

The roar of McCracken's fans quite obscured the pre-fight introductions, and as the first round began they yelled advice and exhortations: "C'mon Robert, snap out the jab." "C'mon Rob, he's only a loser."

Wesley looked an unlikely loser. Smaller than McCracken but chunkier, he looked more natural at the weight. He bustled in low, punishing the champion's body and giving him no room to hook or cross, much to the displeasure of McCracken's supporters.

It was a gripping fight: McCracken was shaken by two blows to the head in the fourth, but his fans howled him back into it, and Wesley was forced to defend. Both men tired visibly before the end, and although McCracken had Wesley cornered in the ninth he seemed to lack the energy to finish his man off. Some of the keenest yellers turned from advice to abuse: their man was in danger of letting them down.

Aware that his fighter needed all the help he could get, Mickey Duff, McCracken's cornerman, gestured for the fans to yell louder. This was a pretty daft move, and he was quickly told to desist.

McCracken got the decision by half a point, and his supporters raced up to the fences around the ring, yelling and screaming and shaking their fists in triumph. But although the noise was deafening and the mood was aggressive, there was no violence. Robert McCracken may not be all he's cracked up to be as a fighter. Nor, thank goodness, are his fans. Meanwhile, a search is under way at the premises of Boxing News for a small green Irishman.