Ten years ago on Christmas Day Stuart Hall was living a nomad’s life as another exile desperate for a few quick quid in Ibiza’s twilight zone.
He arrived on the Balearic island for a two-week holiday and stayed for just over five years, boozing, fighting and wiping his memory clean most nights. “I knew from the first day that I was not going back,” claims Hall, who embraced the island’s seedy side with ease.
“A lot of what happened is a blur, to be honest,” admits Hall. “I took the break from boxing but I never took a break from fighting – when it was all over I had to turn pro back home. What else could I do?” Hall lost three stone and had his first professional fight when he was 28.
On Saturday in Leeds he won a version of the world bantamweight title in the best fight to take place in a British ring this year. It was not easy viewing – he was marched through boxing’s severest depths by South African Vusi Malinga – but nobody in the crowd of nearly 5,000 will ever forget what the pair did.
In an age when too many fighters make outrageous comments and insult each other to the point of comic ridicule, it was an honour to watch Malinga and Hall avoid all the tawdry theatrics until the first bell sounded; a bell that was the beginning of the end of a tough year for British boxers in world-title fights.
Darren Barker, Lee Purdy, Tony Bellew, Matt Macklin, Nathan Cleverly, George Groves and Gavin Rees were all stopped or knocked out in world-title contests. It was unpleasant being a witness to the beatings as each man suffered and placed their failure on a showreel of some of Britain’s best squirming in pain, dumped over the ropes defenceless and hollowed-eyed in despair at the end of gruesome fights.
Hall, now 33, had to find something special against Malinga to avoid adding his name to the list. He located it somewhere to defy expectations and finished the last four rounds without any sight in his left eye, which meant that the blood from the cut above the eye could not further hinder his vision. “I guess it was instinct once the eye closed and I could tell that he was targeting the eye – it hurt every time he hit me there,” said Hall.
Malinga threatened to take control of the fight in the middle rounds as Hall’s fading vision started to make him an easy target for the South African’s desperate punches. There was real drama as it looked like the sweetest of victories would be ruined by the cruellest of defeats at the death. However, in rounds 11 and 12 Hall moved, picked his punches and pulled clear as Malinga, the favourite, was left slicing at air in a ring that was splattered with Hall’s blood.
There was the same collective desire for Hall to win, stay upright and pull off a shock in Leeds on Saturday night that I experienced when Frank Bruno finally won a world title in 1995 at Wembley Stadium. On that night Bruno could barely walk during the last three minutes and Oliver McCall was just one half-decent punch away from breaking Bruno’s heart yet again.
It has been a sudden transition for Hall, moving from full-time roofer and solid professional boxer to world champion. His chance at the vacant IBF title was fortuitous but in boxing negotiations are everything; Hall was ranked, the title was vacant and his promoter, Dennis Hobson, is an expert at lobbying.
“Just a few weeks ago I was back on the tools [roofing], knocked it off in a week and I made a few quid,” added Hall. “It all helps and there have been weeks when I’ve had just £100 in the bank and I need 25 quid each day to get to the gym in Leeds and back. There have been a lot of weeks like that this year, don’t worry. Weeks when we have had to survive on 25 quid. It’s Christmas now in every single way.”
The belt will change his life but Hall knows that it will bring a few extra problems, tiny jealousies will increase as more people will view his passage from Darlington council estate, through the drug mayhem of Ibiza, to a bright future. “There were haters before I won the title, people claiming: ‘Look at him, he thinks he is better than us.’ I live with it now; all I want to do is give my wife and kids a better life. They deserve better than I had,” added Hall, who is just hopeful his left eye will be open on Christmas morning. It’s not much to ask.