Boxing: Viva Las Vegas for Freddie
Next stop the Strip, says Flintoff after a points win on his debut. Fight? Or insult to the game?
Vegas is on. Prepare yourselves for the Freddie Flintoff armada setting sail for the boxing capital of the world. In his youth Flintoff excelled at karaoke Elvis, never imagining that he might one day flood the Strip with his own sequins and lights. That, for the anti-Freddie tendency, was the disturbing possibility drifting out of the Manchester Arena in the early hours yesterday. After four two-minute rounds of unremitting valour, if not technique, it emerged that we may not have seen the last of Flintoff the boxer.
Let us be clear, Flintoff will never make a pugilist in the conventional sense. For the purist his "victory"' against the lightly regarded American Richard Dawson was an insult to the game, an abomination. Frank Maloney, whose heavyweight contender David Price put Matt Skelton away inside two rounds 30 miles to the west in Liverpool, was incandescent on the airwaves. He took a shot at everybody, from promoter Barry McGuigan to the British Boxing Board of Control, for legitimising Flintoff with a licence. And this from a man who once used topless ring-card girls in Hull.
Relax Frank. This episode was not too far removed from prize-fighting's roots: two blokes, stripped to the waste, fighting for money. Those at ringside lapped it up. The house was rammed. Flintoff's entrance to the ring was Hatton-esque in the response it received from the Freddinistas. Oasis sang him in with "You've gotta roll with it". And roll he did in the second round, when he walked on to a counter. Freddie never saw it because he didn't know where to look. What technique he acquired in his four-and-a-half-month immersion at camp McGuigan burned away in a frenzied opening.
He was all arms and legs in his haste and enthusiasm to batter Dawson into submission, like school confrontations play out in the middle of molten circles with the kids shouting "scrap, scrap, scrap". Flintoff loved every minute of it. Validated by the screaming hordes, led by his wife Rachael and sundry mates from cricket and screen, including Rob Key, Darren Gough and Steve Harmison plus comedians John Bishop and Jack Whitehall, he flailed his way to a one-point victory. We can only assume the knockdown was not scored a 10-eight round to his opponent.
The mistake is to read too much into this. If Flintoff had any designs on a prolonged career in boxing his brief exposure to it has knocked that idea out of him, if not the notion of one more adventure across the Atlantic. Through participation he has learned respect for the demands it makes of body and soul. Ronnie Heffron, a prospect from nearby Oldham, put his unbeaten record on the line against Manchester's Commonwealth welterweight champion Denton Vassel. It was a bloody lesson in the brutal arts of the game, ending with a sickening blow to the nose that sent a dull thud echoing around the ring.
Peter McDonough stayed on his feet for eight punishing rounds against Olympian Bradley Saunders in a classic tale of journeyman versus rising star. This was boxing in all its visceral intensity. What Freddie served up was entertainment, but no less honest for that. Afterwards, bathed in euphoria, he smiled and smiled.
"It was everything and more than I expected," he said. "Not one for the purist, I'll admit that. Walking out with all the crowd behind me was a completely different feeling from all the hard work in training and sparring. It was amazing. I got the full experience, I got the canvas, the black eye, the win.
"It was like an out-of-body experience. After the first 30 seconds it was all a bit ragged but I just didn't want to leave anything in that ring. I got knocked down with a half-decent shot. I was off balance and when I got up the ref said: 'What's your name?' I said: 'What? It's Fred, innit?' I just didn't want it to end like that. It made me more determined."
Flintoff talked of taking a few weeks off, enjoying Christmas, not rushing into the next step. McGuigan was more forthcoming. "He wants to box in Vegas. He really does. Obviously we will sit down when the dust settles to see how he feels and if he wants to progress to that stage, I would be happy to stand at his side.
"He's a novice. You could see that tonight. But the next time, if there is one, you will see a little more of the technique he learned. He's got a big heart and he's honest. That's all you can ask."
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