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Steve Bunce on Boxing: Spare the outrage over Sonny Bill's carnival fight


Sonny Bill Williams looks like he was made somewhere but I can assure you that the former New Zealand rugby league and union player was not put together in a boxing gym.

Last Friday in Brisbane Williams moved to six wins from six fights courtesy of a bizarre last-minute change in the duration of his fight against the once half-decent Frans Botha. A gem-heavy bauble of some description was on offer in the 12-round championship fight but Williams, who is carved from rock, suddenly started to look stiff and vulnerable after nine rounds.

"I had taken his best punches and now it was time for the 'White Buffalo' to take over," insisted Botha, who briefly held the IBF heavyweight title in 1995 before a chemist found nandrolone in his system and he was stripped. Botha, by the way, is a South African and has always been known as the "White Buffalo". As Don King, his old promoter, was fond of saying: "They're both rare: White buffaloes and good white heavyweights."

At the end of round nine somebody at ringside went to both corners to inform them that it was the last round. Williams was knackered, his bulk seizing up and he was freezing in front of the fans' eyes. However, Botha, fat, bored and listless for most of the fight, was just getting started. Well, that's his claim.

"I trained for 12 rounds, not 10," insisted Botha, who is now 44 and was having his 61st fight. It looked more like 12 minutes considering the shape that he was in. Anyway, it was also reported that he had failed a drug test before the fight when a powerful stimulant was found. There are, it has to be said, doubts about the drug claim.

In round 10 Williams proved why he is an attraction by showing his guts and heart and raw desire. He was, as they say in the boxing business, "out on his feet". He managed to survive the round but would not have lasted two more, and the fight's abrupt change of distance saved him from defeat and a full-time return to rugby.

There was a lot of mock and shock outrage at the crazy ending, which is ridiculous because the fight featured a muscle-mad rugby player with zero natural talent against a fat geezer with a steroid blot on his record and a highlight reel of brave efforts that end with him on the canvas. It was a glorious freak fight and should be applauded and embraced as such – a gentle move up from Ricky Gervais poncing about in the Sport Relief ring a few years ago.

So Williams got the nod, Botha got stitched up in the latest in a long and distinguished line of heavyweight carnival fights.

One memorable ride with Rendall

The fight ended just a few days after confirmation that Jonathan Rendall, a boxing writer colleague of mine from the Nineties, had been found dead and alone in his home.

In 1993 Rendall and I travelled to New Orleans to watch the People's Choice heavyweight tournament at a casino built in a swamp at Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, which was about an hour away from our hotel in the French Quarter. It was a drive back in time, trust me, and Jon was never much of a driver.

The tournament enticed us because of the $1m prize and the lunatic list of 16 heavyweights. It took place in the evening of just one day – my birthday, as it happens – and lasted four hours. The line-up included two fallen world champions, recovering drug addicts, a Romanian cop, an Olympic champion, the King of Peckham and a teenager from Canada who had never boxed. The bare-knuckle champion of Britain, Joe Savage, never showed.

The event was squalid and sensational in equal measure; nothing since has come close to the drama and mayhem of the 15 fights that ended with former world champion Tony Tubbs beating the Romanian cop, Dan Dancuta. Tubbs had beaten Olympic champion Tyrell Biggs in the semis, the early Cuban exile Jose Ribalta in the quarters and had an easy win in the first round against a prisoner! Just before the fights started the $10,000 knock-out bonus vanished and when it was over $830,000 from the $1m bounty had also been slashed. In the aftermath, back at the tiny and seedy motel, where the fighters were staying, blood was in the air when news of the reductions started to circulate.

Nobody died that night, but a few legends were born and I think we laughed all the way back to New Orleans – a journey made essential when, with fears of an impromptu lynching of the promoter, the bar closed. It was a good trip, a fabulous event and I had a quality lunatic as a travelling partner.