IT WAS like an old-fashioned slugfest between two men trying to deny the inevitable clock. That was, in my opinion, the story of British boxing in 2022, a year of constant struggles.
They fought for giant prizes and the old lines of decency were blurred repeatedly by scares, injustices, grand finishes, pointless fights, beautiful nights, history and pomp. Some made riches that the old boys could only dream of, and others spent the entire year on the sidelines, waiting for that call, that bit of luck. They got older without trying.
A lot of 2022 was vulgar. It was not pleasant to watch or to witness. There was very little dignity in the old game. A lot of souls were sold and that is nothing new. That tiny patch of grass on boxing’s highest piece of moral ground went largely untrampled during the year.
There were, obviously, heroes and villains on both sides of the ropes. I took phone calls of such lunacy and deception that I often wondered if I was living in some type of twilight zone. And still, we just keep on finding great fight after great fight.
Fights collapsed and insults replaced punches. It happened far too often and then men vanished – the women never did, that’s the truth.
And then there were others, fighters like Natasha Jonas. She changed the history of the female game this year. She was helped, sure, by the pack, but Jonas and that devotion, that dream, that ability to believe and forget the wall. It was a wall, not a hurdle. A year ago, she would have been the craziest of bets, a bet like Elvis returning. Yep, that type of bet. Amazing.
The gym in Bolton, the old Amir Khan outpost, has enough fairy tales, horror stories and redemption tales to break a camel’s cold heart. Jonas is just one, join the queue. Joe Gallagher lives there; it’s the place he listens, learns, teaches, offers a shoulder and tells the harsh truth at times. He’s an emotional man, a real boxing man and 2022 tested him.
In the gym there was the final heartbreak for Callum Johnson. His January world title fight vanished before the Christmas lights had been dismantled. He tumbled, no use being kind, and fell. It was dark. It sounds like he will now be good, safe. He left the game, his heart broken. That journey is the hardest a boxer can make.
The planned January fight with Joe Smith was winnable, make no mistake. It would have been a fight with repercussions; Smith fought Artur Beterbiev. Johnson might have fought Anthony Yarde. Instead, Johnson got Covid over Christmas and it was off. His life, he felt, was finished. Gallagher was there.
The frozen January in that gym must have been grim; Mark Heffron, Jonas and Paul Butler were going through the motions, staying warm, hoping for something. It could have been a paddock of lost hope, trust me. There is a lot of waiting and hope in the boxing game – there are also a lot of promises.
Jonas was out first and won a world title in February. That was all she wanted; then she won two more. Butler won the interim bantam title in April; Heffron moved to super-middle and won the British title in July. The huddle by the end of the summer was happy. Callum Johnson was still missing and then he officially retired. It was a sad end.
The gym slugged its way back to glory. There is no denying that; other gyms packed with talent had the same mixed set of rolling emotions.
If there is a prize for extremes in a gym, then Adam Booth takes it for two fighters: Michael Conlan and Josh Kelly. One, so close to glory and the other so close to walking out the door.
If there is a prize for transforming fighters in a gym, then Shane McGuigan gets it. The work on the Dubois team has been remarkable, but perhaps his greatest work in 2022 was the making of Chris Billam-Smith. There is also Adam Azim.
If there is a prize for salvaging a lost cause, then Ben Davison gets it. He got Josh Taylor over the murkiest of lines and then Leigh Wood won a fight and night in the final seconds. Davison was there for both.
It is a long list of prizes for saving, using, losing, getting revenge, getting obscene money, not getting obscene money.
There are other men and women in dressing rooms who get very little credit; trainers, managers, fixers and promoters that just get on with getting fighters ready for the weekend. They are not all angels, they are not all good guys, but they are all in our business. All slugging it out with something.
So, as we drift slowly to the first fights and nights of boxing in 2023, it is inevitable that the stories will once again be about Luke Fury, the name Oleksandr Usyk has given Tyson Fury, fighting the middleweight, the name Fury has given Usyk. About Deontay Wilder fighting Anthony Joshua. And Conor Benn and those damn YouTubers.
Gallagher will get the doors open, pull up the gate and turn the lights on and get back to business. Booth, Davison and McGuigan will all do the same. It will be business as usual; the highs and lows of 2022 will mean less and less the closer we get to Spring and the endless promises of vast outdoor fights.
The shouts of shame and fame will be back by about the second week in January. They always are and that is a relief.