Promoter Eddie Hearn has not always saw fit to book Glasgow’s premier events venue, the SSE Hydro, for Ricky Burns and last night was only the second time the WBA light-welterweight champ had the pleasure of trading blows under those eye-watering megawatt lights in a capacious arena which, just the other week, housed 13,000 reverential fans of demigod Italian soprano Andrea Bocelli. There, in one of the newest and busiest arenas in Europe, Ricky Burns retained his title against tough Kiryl Relikh in a battle that, if not operatic, still offered its share of drama and excitement.
First on the bill was Scott Cardle, the British lightweight boss whose Glaswegian origins, and fanatical support of Celtic FC, pretty much assured him a berth on the televised portion of the card. Cardle entered the ring to the strains of “I Just Can’t Get Enough” (for the uninitiated, this is a kind of unofficial Celtic anthem), accompanied by club mascot Wee Jay Beatty and with a green four-leaf clover printed on his black shorts. You almost expected Brendan Rodgers to stick the gumshield in his mouth before the opening bell.
His opponent was Kevin Hooper, a solid boxer with a wiry physique and a tight guard. Cardle, who generally fights on the front foot and looks for the knockout blow, worked to establish centre-ring in the early rounds as Hooper boxed long. Cardle showed no fear of Hooper despite being speared with a number of jabs in the early going and his heavier shots began to take their toll through the fourth. In the fifth he shook Hooper with a well-delivered body blow, and in the sixth buzzed the Grimsby man with a vicious right hook, following up with an impressive salvo that occasioned the intervention of the ref. Not a bad performance, though Cardle still looks a level below Britain’s formidable lightweight brigade, which includes the likes of Luke Campbell and Derry Matthews, who square off next week, as well as Liam Walsh, Terry Flanagan and Anthony Crolla.
As is his wont, Hearn mentioned that Team Cardle will be watching with interest the Campbell vs Matthews fight, though tellingly he did not specify whether Scotty would target the winner or the loser. Since he has not yet mixed in that kind of class, facing the loser – likely to be Matthews, whose style will pose fewer problems than Olympian Campbell’s – seems the logical course of action. Personally, I’d like Cardle to throw down with a bull-terrier like Tommy Coyle. That would be one to watch.
Next, it was time for squabbling London enemies Dillian Whyte and Ian Lewison to settle their so-called beef. My reaction to this bout’s announcement was one of puzzlement. Puzzled that Whyte was bothering to face an opponent as undistinguished as Lewison; puzzled that a scrap between two South Londoners was taking place north of the border.
Nonetheless, take place it did, and with the vacant Lonsdale title on the line. Whyte, who was characteristically dismissive of his opponent in the build up, showed Lewison more respect than could be expected in round one, boxing from range while the stubby Lewison, playing to the gallery by wearing a kilt, advanced with all the finesse of a boar approaching the feed-trough. His favoured shot was a clubbing right hook, which did give Whyte pause, though it was hard to tell whether ‘The Bodysnatcher’ was simply waiting for Lewison to tire.
Whyte continued to back-peddle in the second, but it seemed like an attempt to create room for his own counterpunches. He jabbed with the left and, with his wide back pinioned to the ropes, probed Lewison’s guard with smart right uppercuts. As he trudged to his corner at the conclusion of the stanza, Lewison’s mouth hung open, an indication either that he was knackered or that one of Whyte’s right-hand body shots had found its mark.
Whyte is a solidly-built heavyweight, with disproportionately long arms and legs, and despite being a noted body puncher, he fights tall, favouring an upright stance. He always appears relaxed in the ring, as if the sport were an untroubling pastime that entailed no sense of danger, and he maintained this perspective through the third, smiling as Lewison shuffled forward in hopes of landing one of his telegraphed bombs. Whyte made a more concerted effort to slow his man with body shots while pecking away with rhythmic jabs aplenty.
Lewison started pumping his own jab in the fourth, and in fairness, it looked a decent shot, snapping Whyte’s head back once or twice. Perhaps realizing that the home-run rights were expending too much energy, Lewison continued to favour the left from this point on, tossing it out from the waist, occasionally turning it into a snappy hook. Whyte seemed a little bored at times, perhaps wondering why he wasn’t eliding more clearly the perceived gulf in class. Still, the Brixton man picked up the pace in the sixth, and using his forearms as a barge, he started to push an exhausted Lewison around. In the eighth, Whyte planted his feet and tried to blast his foe off his feet, but in the process left himself vulnerable to some hurtful slugs.
Round ten and a right uppercut appeared to damage Lewison’s nose; he dabbed repeatedly at it, then turned his head away like a footballer firing a wad of phlegm from his nostril. Hot in pursuit, Whyte backed him into the corner and stuck jabs in his opponent’s bloodied face. Near the end of the round, Whyte bombarded a depleted Lewison, and though he failed to administer the coup de grâce, trainer Don Charles sensibly waved the white towel.
Sky Sports’ Adam Smith called it ‘terrific, competitive action,’ but in truth, it wasn’t much of a spectacle. On the contrary, it was the second so-so performance on the spin for Whyte, whose reputation was largely founded on a valiant losing effort to Anthony Joshua last winter. Perhaps he’s one of those fighters who needs a legit opponent to fire his furnace. If Joseph Parker doesn’t land the AJ date, Whyte should paint a bull’s eye on his back. Sadly, we can consign that idea to fantasy land. Instead, we are led to believe he will clash with perennial nearly man Dereck Chisora. On recent evidence, hopes are not high for an entertaining fight.
To the main event, then. Not much was known about Kiryl Relikh beforehand, but the 26-year-old Belarusian brought a record of 21 wins with 19 KOs and Ricky Hatton, his trainer, assured us he was the real deal.
The challenger, unfazed by the tinderbox atmosphere, started confidently, chasing champion Ricky Burns around the ring. There wasn’t a lot of nous in what he was doing, but his hands were quick and he pestered Burns much in the way Dejan Zlaticanin did a few years back. Relikh swaggeringly turned southpaw halfway through the opener, which he won comfortably, and continued to switch stance in the second as the champ circled, jabbed and tried to solve the puzzle in front of him. Toward the end of the round, the Scotsman sought to drive his impudent upstart back, but in doing so received a hammer-like left hook which buckled his knees. Luckily, the bell sounded soon after.
Burns found his feet in the third, establishing his jab and finding the range for his straight right. He even seemed to hurt Relikh with a hook to the ribs near the end. The fourth was untidy, with many missed punches from both, though Burns seemed the cooler, landing the occasional jarring right. Was Relikh’s lack of guile and big-fight experience portending his downfall? Or was Burns growing into the contest, as he has done so often in the past?
An uppercut while Relikh was on the ropes, and a clean late right hook, sealed a close fifth for the title-holder, who was starting to seize control. Relikh was dogged and determined even as his zinging shots started to find their target less frequently, with Burns showcasing underrated footwork, maintaining a high defensive guard and slinging long, loping jabs at his stalker.
It soon became clear: Relikh’s unguarded style was not working against Burns’ pace and strength. In the eighth, the champ tagged his man with several right-hand counters, to which Relikh could only respond with a frustrated grin and a few overambitious haymakers. With the crowd chanting his name, Burns absorbed Relikh’s fleeting storms on the gloves and injected a touch of spite into his own fending-off attacks. The challenger was still boring forward but Burns looked comfortable while Relikh appeared to be losing his way. The impression was of the Scot having removed the sting from his antagonist’s tail.
Burns got physical in the ninth, pouring on the pressure, digging in body shots and draping himself over a tired Relikh, who responded by driving his shoulder into Burns’ jaw. The challenger still had some life in him, throwing plenty of punches, but the momentum clearly lay with the Scot.
The championship rounds can make or break a fighter, and Relikh seemed eager to prove he possessed the minerals, blazing at Burns with an unending sequence of punches in the tenth. Ricky Burns is durable; he tied Relikh up, moved around the ring, administered a time-buying headlock, and yet the challenger would not be denied. In the closing minute, he landed a glancing left hook while Burns teed up a combination, then pursued his rival and inflicted three crippling body punches. Burns pulled himself together and threw some nice warding-off shots before the bell, but it was a big Relikh round just when he needed it.
The challenger’s efforts in the tenth left him looking zapped in the eleventh, allowing Burns to dominate the first half. But with just over a minute remaining, he burst forth like a dormant volcano, putting together a series of powerful wallops as Burns, wearing a grimace, slinked along the ropes and nearly lost his footing. Perhaps attributing the slip to one of his own shots, Relikh’s pressure intensified. Burns wearily enfolded his opponent’s torso in his arms, stealing time, then fired back with right hands. But undeniably, it was another round in the bank for Hatton’s relentless protege.
The final round was a firefight, with both men loading up their heavy artillery. In the last minute Relikh landed two hard right hooks, with Burns stumbling to the canvas on the end of the latter. The knockdown was disputed by Burns, and the ref deemed it inadmissible, with replays showing that Relikh’s left arm might’ve tugged the champion down. Nevertheless, Burns was shattered, even if he was throwing cannons at the sound of the 12th.
A hard, competitive title defence in the eyes of most, though the judges saw things differently. Scores of 118-110 and 116-112 (twice) seemed harsh on the challenger, who in my eyes won four clear rounds, with an argument to be made for five or six. I scored it 115-113 for Burns.
At 33, Burns is on the back end of his career, though he has often talked of campaigning into his forties. So long as he can keep hold of the world title, he should be able to attract large crowds to Glasgow, the famous fighting city that spawned the incomparable Benny Lynch. Talk has now centred on a long-mooted showdown with Adrien Broner, forecasted to land Stateside. It’s a pity Hearn can’t bankroll the flashy AB and secure his man home advantage. After all, in Vegas the bout will be lucky to attract more than five thousand, whereas it could comfortably do 10 or 12 at the Hydro.
Burns hasn’t had much luck against Americans, losing to Terence Crawford and Omar Figueroa, but Broner – who parties hard and has his fingers in a million different pies – might be ripe for the taking. Whatever the outcome, whether in Glasgow or Vegas, it should be a good fight. But for now, Burns deserves a well-earned rest. And Hatton shouldn’t despair of his spirited student, Kiryl Relikh. The Hitman has an exciting young fighter on his hands, one who, with a little more schooling, could yet become a world champion. — Ronnie McCluskey