Fright night survived

Down and out: Ross Hale comes to terms with the abrupt end of his reign as British and Commonwealth champion Photograph: Adam Scott
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The Independent Online

Thirty security guards formed a barrier of flesh on the edge of the ropes allowing only Paul Ryan to cavort freely inside the blood-stained ring after his punches left Bristol's Ross Hale dazed and cut in the first round at York Hall on Saturday night.

Ryan's prancing helped ease the tension of what, because of the passionate support each fighter engenders, threatened to be a fraught night and by the time Hale's British and Commonwealth light-welterweight belts had been strapped around Ryan's thin waist, a far less sinister mood had descended. There were looks of relief on the faces of the security men; the night was over and the only violence had been the regulated kind.

The tension built up throughout the evening and finally at 10pm the lights dimmed and Ryan, the local boy and challenger, was led to the ring, his familiar costermonger's cap at its usual rakish angle. The boxer's theme tune, Any Old Iron - Ryan is a scrap dealer - led to cheers of recognition.

On both sides of the balcony Hale supporters displayed respect but a dozen Ryan fans had somehow ended up deep in their midst. At the ringside one of the security firm's main men, complete with walkie-talkie headset, urgently sanctioned extra manpower to monitor the potential troublespot.

Ryan was surrounded by 10 security guards plus friends and trainers as he stepped through the ropes. Since Gerald McClellan's collapse after Nigel Benn beat him in February all British rings are kept as empty as possible because it is the bogus hangers-on who complicate procedures. Hale was greeted by an aggravated but not brutal chorus of disapproval. His minders were wide-eyed, their eagerness to get inside the safe zone of the ring was all too apparent as they jogged. Ryan greeted Hale with a wink and applauded the champion.

There was an uneasy calm as the referee, John Coyle, pulled both boxers together for his silent final instructions. The fight started and it was slow at first. There was an accidental butt, all hell broke loose and finally Hale was counted out after just two minutes 12 seconds of the opening round.

Ryan, the felon and self-declared Pie and Mash king of Hackney, was the new British and Commonwealth light-welterweight champion. He went berserk, but the crowd's reaction was odd. Hale's devoted fans, about 400, were stunned and Ryan's followers, about 900, were initially silent before their infectious abandon led to merry hell breaking out.

In the balcony Ryan's 12 wayward fans shook hands with Hale's fans. "Nah, we can do it all again, son," one said. In the ring Hale, the ex- champion, was mute, his right eye, which later required four stitches, was still trickling blood.

Ryan was expected to lose but displayed a tactical astuteness missing from most of his previous 21 fights and fought as a southpaw. Hale seemed confused by the ruse and was hesitant. However, after the clash of heads he panicked and was sent down for the first time in his career. He managed to regain his feet after the first count of nine but was unable to rise from the second concussive knockdown.

By midnight the hall was silent. In one corner Big Kev, the owner of the security firm, and Archie, a trained bodyguard, were switching to civilian clothes. Their sodden shirts emphasised their relief. "Sweet as," Big Kev said. He was right, it had been a memorable night.