At the O2 on Saturday night each round of desire was won by the tiniest of fine margins, lost by the same fine lines of pain and as blood dripped from wounds, the crowd stood, the sacrifice was clear as Regis Prograis and Josh Taylor kept fighting.
They fought to a long forgotten standstill, each stiff and exhausted and bruised at the last echoing bell, but there was no brotherly embrace. At the very end they glared at each other, not quite done yet and had to be separated before their weary bodies were hoisted high by sweaty handlers to receive their praise. The fight was over, but not finished – the first judge had it even, 114-114 after such suffering and then the final two went 115-113 and 117-112, the last score was too wide, and then as Michael Buffer, the ancient saint of the microphone, adjusted his regal chops, he delivered the sweetest sound to Taylor’s ears and broke the fighting heart of Prograis.
They embraced, respect at last. “The best man won tonight, it was a helluva fight,” said Prograis. It was his first loss in 25 fights; Taylor is now unbeaten in 16.
In the glory any trophy, belt and title calculations are a distraction when a fight like this has taken over, when two previously unbeaten current world champions have made a silent decision to simply not back down, to fight each other for every bitter second of the 36 minutes; the bauble count at the O2 late on Saturday night is not a figure that will linger, but for the record Taylor left the ring as the World Boxing Super Series winner, its Muhammad Ali trophy in hand, the Ring belt, the WBA, the IBF and the WBC diamond belts. He also had, he joked, a fake Lacoste belt he once bought in Tenerife.
There was no set pattern to this brilliance, no simple adjustment that turned the classic in one boxer’s favour. All rounds were 180-second epics, full stories in three breathless minutes and at each bell the men stirred from their breaks and went back to work like the devoted artists they are. It was exhausting to watch from my seat deep in the utter-delight section, just six feet from the ring canvas.
Prograis took an early lead, his speed exceptional and after three rounds he looked like he was enjoying himself, perhaps he could hear the endless praise in his ears. However, Taylor won the fourth but seemed flat-out, at full pace and that looked ominous so early – luckily it was a tiny deception. After six rounds I had the fight 3-3, the 50-50 fight was sweetly on track. At the end of the sixth there was just a bit of raw panic in the Prograis corner: “You can’t give up the rounds,” urged Bobby Benton, his friend and coach. They shared a round each, entered the ninth with my card fixed at 4-4; it was relentless, both fierce and masterful, far more than a slugfest.
Taylor’s right eye had started to swell and close by the 11th round, but I had him edging in front, refusing to obey any established form guides. Prograis had blood smeared from his nose, mouth and a nick over his right eye across his swollen face. In round 11 the damaged right eye – Taylor had not been able to see clearly out of the right eye for two rounds – split, an ugly two-inch gash that filled his cheek with dark, dark blood. There was no panic at this late crisis and in his corner the veteran’s veteran, Jimmy Tibbs, silently went to work to contain the wound with his magic.
A dozen sets of eyes could never fully capture the drama of fights like this at that moment when the hope, despair, dreams, tears and fears of all involve combine; it is one of sport’s most unforgettable passages. They rose, blood sticking to their bodies, on weary legs for the last and then it was back to work, the final words of their corners deaf to their ears as the howls of 18,000 witnesses lifted them.
Prograis just won the last, just finished on top, but the fight had narrowly slipped from his fists before the round started. They had nothing left at the end but their defiance, they stood and even in the uneasy calm of a finished fight they refused to back down, refused to look away. It was unforgettable stuff, an end that plays over in mind now with a Rocky anthem booming.
The O2’s position as the home of boxing was enhanced by the delights of this sensational match, a fight so pure in its conception and deliverance that nobody witness to the brutal craft of both will ever forget where they were when the first and last bells sounded.
We all had our privilege card stamped on Saturday night, in the guiltiest of pleasures my old trade can deliver: two unbeaten men fighting with every ounce of their souls to avoid the unknown, to win at all cost.
If they ever fought a rematch – fights like this have to be measured long beyond the financial gains and any persuasive deceptions of ring honour – they will each need to calculate simply the short and long-term health risks; fights like this can shorten more than careers. They made sacrifices for their pride and respect on Saturday night and our pleasure. Thank you.
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