Liverpool comes out fighting

Boxing: Merseyside is staging the biggest amateur boxing tournament in Britain since 1948. James Reed reports
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The Independent Online
After the ring apron had been cleaned and the enormous windows had been covered, the first boxers of the second Liverpool Festival of Boxing entered the ring at the start of what is the largest amateur boxing tournament to take place in Britain since the 1948 Olympics.

It is fitting that the first loser was English, but Lee Eedle's departure failed to dampen the expectations of a surprisingly large afternoon crowd who formed a noisy chorus ringside at the St George's Hall in Liverpool city centre yesterday afternoon for the first of six days of boxing.

Last year's inaugural event featured 97 boxers. This year the number has grown to 118 and includes fighters from Thailand, Australia and an amazingly skilful group from Nigeria. England, as hosts of the tournament, are allowed two entries at each weight but will still do well to win more than two gold medals in Saturday's finals.

The event, which costs pounds 65,000 to stage, is paid for by Liverpool City Council and various offerings from sponsors. The foreign boxers pay their own travel but once they arrive at Manchester airport they are the responsibility of the organisers and their transport, food and accommodation is taken care of.

Every member of a travelling team receives the international boxing allowance of $10, which most seem to spend on shopping.

When the Nigerian coach, John Martins, led out his first boxer there were private mutterings at ringside: Williams Emoni is almost 6ft tall and is a featherweight. "He is a freak," one of the afternoon's fans noted. The reason for concern is that last year's winner, David Burke, a home town boy, is also entered at featherweight.

The worst fears of the gathered fans and Burke's family were confirmed when the 20-year-old Emoni performed brilliantly to outpoint the Canadian favourite, Dwayne Williams. Emoni and the rest of his Nigerian colleagues are full-time boxers back home, where the Nigerian government supports them financially.

In the next fight Burke was far too busy for the disappointing Hungarian, Zsolt Bartha, and after three tidy rounds was a comfortable 8-1 winner on the computer scoring. "He was a bit awkward but I found him with enough punches to sway the judges," said Burke, who was eager to discuss with his coaches Emoni's abilities.

In one bout a Hungarian beat a Nigerian, in another an Australian stopped an Irish boxer and in an intriguing clash at lightweight Israel's former Ukrainian international, Yuri Kurlyandsky, looked set for defeat and an early return to Tel Aviv when he found one chilling punch to send Denmark's gently-spoken Eik Jensen down for the full count. The afternoon punters were getting their money's worth.

At ringside the ABA's elite sat impassively at tables. Their lack of emotion contrasted vividly with the high spirits of the Liverpool organisers who, led by Paul King, were constantly rushing between the changing rooms and the ring, making sure that every one of the foreign boxers knew exactly where they should be.

In the audience Thailand's seemingly invincible Somluck Kamsing sat with his team-mates watching the early fights. Kamsing is rated No 1 in the world at featherweight and he seemed unimpressed with Burke and Emoni. "They are very keen, but I have met the very best," Kamsing said through a translator.

During the next five days there will be more knock-outs until there are just 24 boxers left to contest the finals on Saturday night, when the hall will be packed and the relaxed atmosphere of yesterday afternoon will be forgotten.

"It seems easy today, but anything can happen between now and then," said England's light-middleweight, Wayne Alexander, who last year knocked out two men before losing by a knock-out in the semi-final.