Brian Viner: Punch-ups at football stadiums have a hard-hitting history

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

At a famous London football stadium later today there will, I can confidently predict, be a serious outbreak of fisticuffs.

That doesn't mean I expect aggro between the Chelsea and Portsmouth players in the Cup final; heaven forbid with 500 million people in 200 countries and on six other planets watching, or whatever fanciful stat they'll give us this year. No, I'm talking about Upton Park, or the Boleyn Ground if we must, where this evening West Ham fan Kevin Mitchell fights Michael Katsidis for the WBO lightweight title.

It is the first time West Ham's venerable ground has staged a big fight, or at least one involving gloves and a referee rather than the Inter-City Firm and Millwall fans. Yet there is a long tradition of boxing in Britain's great football arenas, dating at least as far back as 1945 when Jack London fought Bruce Woodcock at White Hart Lane, and including some of the most celebrated bouts of all, such as Henry Cooper's non-title encounter with Cassius Clay in June 1963, in which Clay was felled by Cooper's famed left hook, 'Enry's so-called 'ammer. That Clay's trainer, Angelo Dundee, then surreptitiously ripped open a small tear in his man's gloves to gain several extra minutes of precious recovery time is part of boxing folklore – although apparently untrue not that the truth has ever had much to do with folklore. Whatever, it was at Wembley Stadium that it either happened or didn't happen, and three years later when Cooper got another go at Clay, by then world-famous as Muhammad Ali – a packed Highbury hosted the show.

Loftus Road got in on the act in June 1985, when Barry McGuigan brilliantly out-boxed Eusebio Pedroza to become WBA world featherweight champion, and at Wembley dear old Frank Bruno had mixed fortunes, losing to Tim Witherspoon in 1986 and beating Oliver McCall almost a decade later. The thing about football grounds is not just that they can accommodate big crowds; they also help to deliver them. If devotees of rugby union will forgive me for calling the Millennium Stadium a football ground (which they won't), it's worth remembering that fully 50,000 people turned out to watch Joe Calzaghe defeat Mikkel Kessler there in November 2007.

The promoter of that show was Frank Warren, who is also behind this evening's production at Upton Park. Meanwhile, his former protégé Amir Khan is fighting tonight at Madison Square Garden, still the most evocative name of all in boxing, although Khan v Malignaggi is taking place not in the main arena at the Garden, but in the adjacent, much smaller Wamu Theatre, where, last I heard, the 5,000 seats had yet to be filled.

It's already clear that Khan should never have left Warren, and if going to the United States means fighting in front of fewer than 5,000 people, he should never have left Greater Manchester, either. Heck, if he's satisfied with those kinds of numbers he might as well save himself the air fare and fight at Gigg Lane, home of Bury FC.

LeBron can expect a feeding frenzy if he joins the Knicks

On Wednesday, a cab driver called Gurdeep Singh drove me from downtown Manhattan to Kennedy airport. We chatted about sport all the way which, given the ever-present traffic jam on the ill-named Van Wyck Expressway, amounted to a long conversation. Gurdeep left New Delhi 14 years ago in search of a better life, but it took him some years to realise that life in a land without cricket was not, by definition, worse. Gradually, however, basketball began to fill the void left by cricket, and now he is almost as rabid a fan of the currently somewhat underpowered New York Knicks as he was of the Indian cricket team, which is true assimilation.

Anyway, like all Knicks fans, Gurdeep is agog at the growing speculation that the mighty LeBron James will leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for New York this summer. Remember how incontinent was the media excitement generated by Cristiano Ronaldo's transfer from Manchester United to Real Madrid, ages before it finally happened last summer? That looks like yawning apathy compared with the will-he, won't-he frenzy over LeBron, in fact there is an open letter to him in the latest issue of New York magazine, taking up no fewer than 12 pages, and featuring bribes from the likes of Tommy Hilfiger, who promises him free clothes if only he'll join the Knicks, to the restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who offers "free dinners as long as he wants". As for the rapper Ice-T (and what man wouldn't call himself Ice-T if his real name was Tracy Marrow?), he suggests starting a LeBron James Fund, and inviting every New Yorker to pitch in a dollar. Gurdeep told me he'd cheerfully give $100. Maybe that's the way for United to get Ronaldo back.

News just in, and it's no laughing matter

There is a striking lack of wit and whimsy in American newspapers, compared with our own. On Tuesday the New York Times reported that the Los Angeles Angels baseball team "had promoted the right-hander Trevor Bell, grandson of Bob Bell, who played Bozo the Clown on TV for 25 years". And that was it. No jokes, nothing. Not even a silly headline. Imagine the fun the British press could have had.

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