There were highs and serious lows for the sport and the fighters but 2020 is a year full of memories I’ll cherish, writes Steve Bunce
SACRIFICES and glory, shocks and blood, fights behind closed doors, Covid tests, rumours, lies, threats, tricky tributes, broken hearts, dead heroes, bad losers and smiling winners and a heavyweight fight for the ages – that was my 2020, here are the bits you might have missed or you will never forget.
In Las Vegas in February there was a man at ringside, throwing punches with his shoulders and remembering the nights he ruled the world. That man was Lennox Lewis, it was the night before Tyson Fury humiliated Deontay Wilder. Lewis was just relaxing, thinking and looking in front of men wearing hard hats and building the ring. He was big, big for Fury when he stopped to talk to me.
There was a sad ending under the stars to the hopes of a man waiting 1,000 nights for a dream to come true. That was Dillian Whyte in Eddie Hearn’s garden in August when Alexander Povetkin landed clean. Whyte was out before he hit the canvas and his WBC fight was gone. A rematch was a Covid victim, but Whyte is still cool: “It’s the heavyweight business – you get hit, you get knocked out. It’s that simple,” he told me.
There was a night of lockdown fights when a man won a British title he could not have even dreamed about at the start of the year. That was Denzel Bentley in November when he stopped Mark Heffron in their rematch for the vacant British middleweight title. Bentley started to box with a pair of six-quid gloves from a market stall, fighting kids on his estate in Battersea. They make movies about boys like that, call them fairy tales.
There was a moment of real satisfaction when one heavyweight realised that he had broken another heavyweight in a fight of pain and tiny fractions. That man was Joe Joyce in his delayed and delayed old-fashioned showdown with Daniel Dubois. They met in November; Dubois went down on a knee with a damaged eye in round 10 – Joyce knew it was over several rounds earlier. Fights like that with so, so much at stake are increasingly becoming rare in our business. Dubois is still under medical orders; Joyce is waiting for news.
There was a moment of brutal quality in the final punches in the vacant WBO women’s middleweight title fight in a hall of echoes at the old Empire Pool, Wembley. That woman was Savannah Marshall, a woman transformed under Peter Fury, and her punches stopped and hurt Hannah Rankin that night. It was the best performance, the most complete, in a professional ring ever by a British woman. Marshall has set a standard.
There was a look of utter despair on the face of the veteran when the fight was over early and he had to ask what had happened? That fighter was Kell Brook at the end of his short fight with Terence Crawford inside Bob Arum’s Las Vegas bubble in November. Brook was caught before much had happened, never recovered and it was stopped. His face at the end was the face of a man trying to avoid what is looking back at him from the boxing mirror of truth. He saw pity and regret – satisfaction at a great career will come one day.
There was great confidence in the big man at ringside as he juggled phones, lifted his thumb in glory and believed a big, big fight had been agreed. That man was Tyson Fury with me at the BT studio in August when a third fight with Deontay Wilder was back on. Then it was off, then Wilder lost his mind with the claims of a mad man and then a third fight drifted into the land of lawyers, arbitration and chaos. Fury went silent, mostly after that and talks continue. Fury needs a fight and he needs it soon.
There was pure boxing love in the air when the two rivals, once bitter, started talking like old friends during a broadcast that was stopped and never transmitted. Those men were Naseem Hamed and Steve Robinson in June and I sat in silence with the pair, reliving the night Hamed beat Robinson – a privilege live in 1995 and an equal pleasure in my house in 2020. They had total recall of a fight that helped shape British boxing. Hamed was brilliant that night and so was Robinson, which is always overlooked. Little Naz remembered, he praised Steve during that show before the deathless intricacies of a Covid-spaced live show finished it off. One day those two should be filmed, arm in arm walking over their sacred earth, talking about their fight like a couple of pleasure machines. They both deserve it.
There was relief and recognition in a fight where the finish was as sweet as ever and as final as it should be. That fighter with the finish was Anthony Joshua with the calculated right hand that sent Kubrat Pulev down and out in December. Pulev might have been walking wounded at that point, but the punch was exceptional, skilled and perfect. It was also a fraction of a second closer to recovery from last year’s fight in New York. It takes a lot more than a punch like that to cure a man of his old wounds – but it helps, it really helps.
There was so much lost and missing in the familiar movements of a one-time contender as he tried every single thing he ever knew in a fight he had no chance of winning. That man was Ashley Theophane in December and he deserves a moment in the sunshine after his ring career. I have no idea when Ash realised that it was gone during his scrap with Sam Eggington. I hope it was early, I hope the last-dream notion was quick to fade. Theophane fought 59 times, he is 40 now, he held the British title, he fought for a real world title and he is Floyd Mayweather’s friend – a real friend, by the way. Take care, Ash.
That was my year, a year in partial exile, but a year of so many unforgettable memories. I swear, I would do every single ringside again and smile even more. And, yes, even that bloody tribute!