The Curious Case Of Kell Brook
Ezekiel Brook of Sheffield, England is something of an enigma. He became one of the very few British boxers to win a world title from an American champion on U.S. soil when he won a majority decision over Shawn Porter in August of 2014. Undefeated and with 24 knockouts in 36 victories, Brook is ranked as the top welterweight in the world by both the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board and The Ring, ahead of the likes of WBA champion Keith Thurman, WBC belt-holder Danny Garcia, and former WBO champ Timothy Bradley. But at the same time, the most common criticism leveled against him is that his record lacks “world-class opponents.”
On the one hand then, Brook can fairly be described as an undefeated and legitimate world champion who stands atop the hottest division in boxing. On the other, he is widely considered a belt-holder lacking name-value, whose success was attained by besting a string of underwhelming opponents, an opinion only bolstered by “The Special One’s” competition since being crowned champion. Challengers Jo Jo Dan, Frankie Gavin and Kevin Bizier failed to provide the kind of excitement necessary to elevate his profile and set up the huge contests he had been chasing. Or so it seemed.
In July Matchroom Boxing and K2 Promotions revealed that negotiations for a title fight between British middleweight contender Chris Eubank Jr. and Gennady Golovkin had fallen through and that instead of Eubank, the fearsome and undefeated Kazakh had signed to face Kell Brook at London’s O2 Arena on September 10th. And not only is Brook set to do battle with one of the most feared men in all of boxing, he’s also jumping up two full weight classes to do it. While Amir Khan fought Canelo Alvarez for the WBC version of the middleweight championship at a contracted weight five pounds below the division’s limit, Brook is foregoing a “catchweight” entirely.
The champion, who some view as unproven, is now set to face the most dangerous challenge of his career in a match which, should he win it, would rank as one of the greatest upsets in recent years and grant him the kind of acclaim and renown which he has eagerly sought since winning his world title two years ago.
A graduate of the famous Wincobank gym in Sheffield that produced world champions Junior Witter, Johnny Nelson and Naseem Hamed, Kell Brook, aka “The Special One,” turned pro in 2004 and rose steadily through the domestic ranks, winning the British Lonsdale belt in 2008. In September of 2009 he was honoured with the prestigious Young British Boxer of the Year award, joining Ken Buchanan, Barry McGuigan, Joe Calzaghe, Ricky Hatton and former stablemate ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed on the illustrious list of boxers to receive it.
Wins over Michael Jennings, Lovemore N’dou and Matthew Hatton soon followed. The first real taste of adversity came in a bruising encounter with American Carson Jones in July 2012. After controlling the bout early on, “Special K” was dragged into a grueling war as he faded down the stretch. Forced to dig deep and display a fighting heart the like of which he hadn’t previously needed to call upon, the Sheffield man prevailed by majority decision, but it was hardly a perfect advert for his credentials as a world-class welterweight.
In the post-fight interview, there were signs that perhaps everything had not gone smoothly behind the scenes. “I was tired half-way through,” stated the winner. “I think we need to be looking at the correct diet… I’m a big welterweight, so things need to be addressed.”
The reward for Brook’s gut-check with Jones was an IBF final eliminator against Hector Saldivia in October 2012. A dedicated nutritionist was added to the team and a sharper-looking Brook impressed with a third-round stoppage victory, making him the mandatory challenger for Devon Alexander’s welterweight title. The bout was scheduled to take place in January of 2013 in Los Angeles.
But in mid-December, the first of what would be a series of unfortunate setbacks was announced. Brook sustained an ankle injury, and the match had to be postponed; it was re-scheduled for February in Detroit, until Alexander was forced to withdraw with a bicep injury. The bout was re-scheduled yet again, for May in Atlantic City, but the contest was scuttled altogether when Brook suffered a stress fracture in his right foot.
After nine months out of the ring, Kell finally returned to action in July 2013, re-matching his old adversary, Carson Jones and this time the American was stopped in eight rounds. A fight with the man who ended Ricky Hatton’s career, experienced former champion Vyacheslav Senchenko, followed; Brook was shaken by a peach of a right hand midway through round four but the Englishman battled back and by the end of the round had blasted Senchenko to the canvas to score an impressive knockout victory. It was a classy performance against a very useful opponent, precisely the kind of showing needed to re-affirm the credibility of Brook’s world title aspirations.
After Devon Alexander lost his IBF title to Shawn Porter, the new champion agreed to make his second defence against Brook. Almost two years after he won his “final eliminator” against Hector Saldivia, Brook finally stepped into the ring to challenge for a world title. In a closely fought contest, the Englishman’s cleaner, straighter punches and more effective ring generalship found favour with the judges over the American’s swarming, messier style. As the majority decision was announced, the Sheffield fighter jumped into his promoter’s arms and screamed in joy to the heavens. His ten year journey as a professional had culminated in his wildest dream coming true: he was world champion.
And then disaster struck.
The headlines made for shocking reading: “Boxer Kell Brook stabbed on holiday in Tenerife!” Weeks after achieving his life-long dream, it looked like the champion’s career was in jeopardy. Initial reports were that the injuries were sustained in an entirely “unprovoked attack,” though details were sketchy, at best. A week later, Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper was granted an exclusive “tell all” report from the fighter, but his story doesn’t quite add up. The attack was presumably the gory end to a night of drinking with strangers, but one wonders why no one has been arrested since the assailant, if Brook’s version of events is true, could be easily identified, and also since The Daily Mail claims to know the man’s identity.
Celebrating a great victory with a drink or two certainly isn’t a crime, and Kell is definitely not the first world-class athlete to let his hair down and end up landing in a spot of bother. But in Brook’s case, it was just the latest in a series of strange incidents. In 2007 he was stabbed by a group of men outside a nightclub in his home city of Sheffield and was hospitalized with knife wounds. In 2010 he was convicted of assaulting a bar manager on a night out in Barnsley. Clearly, there is a side to Kell Brook not reflected in the public image and which, to some extent at least, remains a mystery.
Fortunately, after receiving 32 metal staples in his left-thigh and undergoing months of rehabilitation, the laceration to his leg healed with no lasting impairment to his ability to box. Seven months after the stabbing, he blitzed the over-matched mandatory challenger Jo Jo Dan in four rounds. Victories over the aforementioned Frankie Gavin and Kevin Bizier followed, in what can best be described as impressive, business-like performances against uninspiring opposition. A unification match against WBO champion Jessie Vargas appeared on the verge of being set, until the shock announcement of the GGG fight.
Most odds-makers opened with Brook as a 7 to 1 underdog while the reaction on social media appeared fairly uniform: Brook should be respected for showing such a massive pair of cojones, but he has no chance of winning. If Carson Jones was able to bully Brook around in the later stages of their fight, how could he possibly hold off a powerful middleweight like Golovkin? “Triple G” is simply too big, too strong and too good, goes the argument. Brook is brave, but overmatched.
But in recent weeks that line of argument has softened. The current odds on a Brook victory have shortened to around 4 to 1, the shortest odds of any GGG opponent since he fought Grzegorz Proksa in 2012. In part, this is a result of the WBC’s check weigh-ins, where fighters are tested 30 days and seven days prior to a contest, to ensure they are not cutting weight too drastically. Surprisingly, Brook came in 11 pounds heavier than Golovkin at the 30-day check (176 to 165), and was five pounds heavier at the seven day check (168 to 163).
A number of Brook’s countrymen and former stablemates have cautioned against underestimating Kell based on size alone. Johnny Nelson and Ryan Rhodes, for example, hinted that Brook’s normal “walking around weight” between fights was so high that actually he should be at middleweight anyway. Carl Froch, the British former super middleweight world champ, referenced past sparring sessions and warned that Brook had the ability to give GGG “far more trouble” than any of his past opponents. Although Froch didn’t go so far as to say he thought Brook would win, he argued that he would be more than capable of hearing the final bell.
Huge upsets have been pulled off before where fighters made significant jumps in weight. Famously, Sugar Ray Leonard moved up and defeated another middleweight monster, longtime champion Marvin Hagler, with speed and ring smarts. And Brook is certainly making all the right noises in the build-up to the biggest test of his career, speaking positively and confidently at the press conferences. “To be a great fighter, you’ve gotta do great things,” he says. “We’re gonna go through hell in this training camp, but that’s what you need to do to reach greatness.”
Though untested at the higher weight, Brook is almost certainly a more skillful, technically proficient and athletically gifted boxer than any of Golovkin’s previous challengers. His footwork, sense of distance, precision and punch variety all bode well for him. And while he may not have enough power to score a knockout, he doesn’t need a knockout to win the fight. He only needs to carry enough power to earn Triple G’s respect, and make him hesitate for that extra split second, much like Leonard was able to do against Hagler. One of the surprises of this fight, I think, may be that the Englishman’s punches carry enough pop to do just that.
In the end though, I do think GGG will prevail, not because Brook is an unworthy challenger, but because Golovkin is simply so good. I see Brook competing effectively for large portions of the fight and thus probably drawing a career-best performance from the visiting Kazakh. And I will not be surprised if he becomes the first man to take Golovkin the 12 round distance. Whatever the outcome, I believe that, even in defeat, Brook will raise his standing in the sport and prove conclusively that he belongs at the elite level. But that won’t change the fact that the man remains a unique and enigmatic character. Win, lose or draw, my guess is his performance against Golovkin will surprise us somehow, which would only be fitting. As it will be if the man from Sheffield goes on to become one of England’s biggest sports stars and most intriguing public personalities. — Matt O’Brien