A day with Joe Gallagher and co. in Amir Khan’s gym brought to mind a hectic evening from eight years ago, writes Steve Bunce
IN Bolton last week Joe Gallagher had his scrapbooks from when he was a boy, a battered bundle of clippings and pictures and faded photographs of too many long-forgotten men. He handled the pages and pictures like a child with a new puppy.
I was in Bolton at Amir Khan’s gym for a few hours to interview Callum Johnson for BT Sport and it was a glorious reminder of just how crazy a busy gym can be; Scott Quigg was there with his new six-foot Slovenian welter, Ant Crolla was there with his new hope from Wigan, Paul Butler was hitting Joe’s flashing lights, Tasha Jonas was going over moves, Gallagher was wandering like a General through the maze.
There was noise, there was sweat and the sparring partners came and went after their work. Normal life. I heard a dozen whispers, a dozen tales; a real day in the life and times of a proper boxing gym. You know: “He said, she said, they said”. I love it, some of it was even true.
Gallagher’s scrapbook is a thing of beauty, a perfect testimony to what our business means to people who really love it and live it. Anybody with a picture of Roberto Duran, cut from a magazine and sellotaped to a scrapbook page will be a friend of mine for life – that is a simple rule. Do “scrapbooks” even still exist? I was reminded of Sam Jones, adviser to Joe Joyce, dressing up in a cardboard pair of Naseem Hamed shorts for fights in the Nineties. That is fan devotion.
Talking to Butler made me think of a night in April, 2013 when the BoxNation cameras came to town. It was a chaotic live hour even by our standards – we did nearly 400 live shows, had over 700 guests between 2011 and 2018. In Bolton on Monday 22 April, 2013, we pushed our limits.
As I watched and listened last week, I started to scramble a few names together in my head from that broadcast. A couple of other people added to the list and we eventually named 13 live guests, all on site and all in just 60-minutes of television. Those numbers are incredible for live television.
In no particular order they filed in and out, nine sitting with me on the ring apron and four standing in the demolished second room – the gym is just one big room now – and talking to Steve Lillis. It was the Monday night before Khan fought at the Sheffield Arena against Julio Diaz.
Khan sat with Virgil Hunter and the pair talked wisely about what Amir had to do at that stage in his career. Hunter always made sense. On the Saturday, Khan beat Diaz on points, surviving a knockdown; Khan would beat Luis Collazo, Devon Alexander and Chris Algieri in his next three fights, then lose to Canelo Alvarez. I’m not sure Khan ever became the fighter Hunter wanted him to be.
Big Audley slipped in next. It was his 38th and final fight and he was, as usual, brilliantly persuasive in his reasoning. He would beat Deontay Wilder that Saturday, make no mistake. Jim Bentley, the producer who made the whole thing work, told me in my ear that he believed in Big Aud. We all believed in Big Aud, that’s the truth. That was the old magic.
Wilder, however, did not believe in Big Aud. He sat down and talked about winning early; the fight lasted 70 seconds and Wilder hit Harrison as he was going down and when he was down. It was still nearly two years before Wilder won the WBC title and went on and made 10 defences.
Butler and Arnie Farnell sat with me; Lillis grabbed a quick word with Jack Catterall, who was having his fourth fight, and Jon Kays, who lost an English title fight to Gary Sykes on the night. Catterall is now unbeaten in 26. Butler had won the Commonwealth super-flyweight title two nights earlier at Wembley and would win the bantamweight world title a year later.
Then Lillis got Terry Flanagan and former world champion Nate Campbell together. It was not vintage, it has to be said and the fight was not a lot better. Flanagan made Campbell quit on the night and then Flanagan won the WBO lightweight title two years later and made five defences. Campbell had just one more.
Amir’s father, Shah, joined me to talk about Amir’s role in the community. The gym is still at the heart of the community, by the way. Then it was Haroon, little brother and Commonwealth Games bronze medal winner. Haroon made his debut on the Saturday night with a win over Brett Fidoe. Haroon has fought just six times since, Brett has fought 79 times.
The live hour was made by Bentley, Lillis played his role, but perhaps the star on the night, the man bringing guests from every part of the gym and defying all logic, was Asif Vali. There was a time in London’s East End and New York in the Fifties, when duckers and divers like Vali were common in our boxing business; they were fixers, grafters, men that knew and men that could find out. They had the news, good or bad.
Vali was with Khan for a long, long time, an early travelling partner for Shah when Khan was a kid and fighting on foreign soil. Khan was made for glory during a year of sustained tournaments all over the world and he was still only 17 at the Olympics. Vali was everywhere in Athens in the great, hot summer of 2004.
In Düsseldorf in 2015, it was Vali who discovered Wladimir Klitschko’s foam mattress under the canvas before the Tyson Fury fight. Vali is a busy man.
I pulled Vali in at the end – my ninth interview – and then the pair of us walked off, talking and reminiscing. That was the final shot of the live hour; my arm on Vali’s shoulder. It was a fresh memory when I stood and watched Johnson sparring, Jonas moving and heard Gallagher calling out instructions. That was some night.