The World Boxing Super Series hit Glasgow for a show widely regarded as the best to take place on Scottish soil in years. Home favourite Josh Taylor, a gold medallist at the city’s Commonwealth Games four years ago, topped the bill against fellow unbeaten junior welterweight Ryan Martin, while Northern Irishman Ryan Burnett defended his WBA (Super) bantamweight title against modern great Nonito Donaire.
Three unbeaten hot-shots and one future Hall of Famer: the notoriously raucous Glasgow crowd seemed in for a treat at the Hydro, the glowing spaceship-like arena on the banks of the River Clyde. The city of Benny Lynch, “Little King of the Gorbals,” was predictably rain-streaked, but inside the futuristic hippodrome the air was suffused with excitement and expectation. Would Taylor deliver a performance to rival that of number one seed Regis Prograis, who last weekend routed Terry Flanagan? Would Burnett’s youth and pace send veteran Donaire spinning into retirement? With so much on the line, the tournament quarterfinals promised action and drama in equal measure.
Burnett vs Donaire was first up, and though many in the trade thought “The Filipino Flash” suicidal for boiling down to 118 lbs for the first time in seven years, his chiselled physique at the weigh-in was enough to give punters pause. Still, how many times had a 35-year-old veteran of 17 years’ combat turned back the clock to dethrone a younger, fresher foe?
A quick aside: seeing a four-weight champion like Donaire walk to the ring, every footstep punctuated by the deafening beat of a bass drum, was pretty special. We don’t often get to see this calibre of fighter in Scotland, albeit we had the honour of wincingly admiring Terence Crawford when he captured his maiden title against Ricky Burns four years ago. Anyway, Burnett and Donaire looked calm and composed as they ducked through the ropes after bathing in the signature WBSS lights and it was time for the shooting match to begin.
The pair started off fencing from range with jabs, Burnett hanging his lead left low and shooting it upward, Donaire wearing a look of intense concentration as he seized centre-ring. Some good combinations were exchanged in this lively opener, including short powerful hooks from both.
Burnett dictated the action in the second, Donaire falling into a sharp counter right early, then a flashy left hook a short time later. The champion’s electric speed and mobility were paying dividends, although Donaire trapped him on the ropes in the final minute and unloaded a few solid body shots. Burnett responded by marching forward and landing several eye-catching blows to make Donaire give ground.
Burnett has exceptional head and upper body movement, and he used it to admirable effect in the third when Nonito had him against the ropes. Most of the Filipino’s spring-loaded haymakers hit thin air as Burnett juked and jived. The Northern Irishman’s missiles – while less forceful – were more accurate, particularly a stiff right that nudged Donaire onto the ropes and drew a cheer from the crowd. As in the Frampton fight, Donaire seemed flat-footed and, instead of setting up attacks, he was relying purely on power, a lousy tactic against such an energetic foe. Near the end of the round he managed to corral Burnett into a corner but struggled to land anything meaningful, the champ remaining elusive.
Burnett chose to circle and probe in the fourth, changing direction often and forcing Donaire to pursue. Then, all of a sudden, he fell to one knee clutching his back after a wayward right hand. When he rose uncertainly at nine, Donaire piled on the pressure, driving him to the ropes and throwing bombs. The stanza ended with Burnett again clutching his back, and next thing we knew the match was called off as a paramedic attended to the distressed fighter. A disappointing end to the contest, and the now-former champ will have to nurse a slipped disc on the sidelines while Donaire contemplates a unification with WBO ruler Zolani Tete.
The unexpectedly abrupt end caused a slight delay in proceedings, but eventually Flower of Scotland was booming from the PA and rousing the faithful as images of Taylor striking the pads appeared on a pair of large screens. Ryan Martin, undefeated but something of an unknown quantity, betrayed no nerves during the ring announcer’s spiel, nor did Taylor, and soon it was go-time.
Maybe we should commend Martin’s poker face, because in his boxing he seemed completely overawed in the first, barely throwing a punch as Taylor probed with southpaw jabs, landed some nice right hooks to the body, and circled while the American followed in straight lines. Martin remained tentative in the second too, advancing behind a high guard but mostly allowing Taylor to hit him with jabs, hooks and counters.
Taylor is athletic, inventive and rangy, fast and precise and expert at changing the angle of his attacks; but there was a sense in the third that he didn’t require everything at his disposal for the American was not offering any sustained offence. A bemused Taylor won the round at a canter, putting together some stylish combinations and lashing his stationary opponent with hurtful body shots. The fourth was more of the same, all the clever stuff coming from Taylor while Martin ineffectively pressed, showing neither the speed, power or guile to make an impression on the confident home fighter.
The fifth was a marginal improvement for Martin as he landed a few right hands, but it was still an obvious Taylor round due to activity level and ring generalship. Few operators are better in the pocket than the Scotsman, which is quite something when you consider that he’s essentially a rangy boxer with quick feet. Yet he is comfortable periodically sharing a phone box with his opponent, tucking his head between his gloves earmuff-style and delivering blistering three- and four-punch combinations, often punctuated with an uppercut or crunching blow to the ribs. Taylor spent much of the sixth in this familiar pocket, as if unsatisfied to cruise to a landslide victory boxing from distance. Martin didn’t look any more comfortable up close than he had at range, though.
The American showed greater ambition in the seventh, trading with Taylor albeit coming off worse, and in the last of these exchanges Taylor landed a hook which appeared to land round the side of Martin’s head. The American spun disoriented into the ropes, turning his back and Taylor obligingly smashed him with a crippling body shot. With a lack of enthusiasm evident on Martin’s face as he rose, referee Victor Loughlin called a halt to the bout and awarded Taylor the victory. Martin protested briefly, but you got the impression his heart really wasn’t in the fight.
At 26, Burnett is young and fresh enough to bounce back, but the nature of the WBSS tournament means there’s a shortage of attractive options as the competition unfolds. Indeed, he may become an alternate in case any of the semifinalists suffer an injury. As for Donaire, he looks to me like a fading fighter who nonetheless retains a heavy wallop, particularly at bantamweight. He’ll be a live dog against technician Tete.
For Taylor, the future is bright: he’ll meet fourth seed and newly-crowned IBF champion Ivan Baranchyk in the semifinal, probably back here in Glasgow (perhaps Tete-Donaire will co-feature) and with any luck, we’ll see a more absorbing contest than the one we witnessed tonight. Taylor needs a challenge to properly demonstrate all his artistic flourishes and manoeuvres, the perpetual movement married with crisp, damaging counters and flurries, and hopefully the Belarusian represents such a challenge. Me, I’m already anticipating a dream final with Prograis. What a showdown that would be! — Ronnie McCluskey