The Fight of the Year is a subjective award based upon arbitrary criteria. Some hum in appreciation of cerebral displays of high-level, well-matched stylistic proficiencies, where the dance between two elite fighters transcends the primitive world of violence and attains to the lofty realm of art. Others appreciate the repudiation of any pre-agreed tactics or superfluous technical filigree, instead preferring contests fought on heart, toughness and desire alone; ‘barnstormers’, ‘slugfests’, ‘wars’. Yet my particular choice for the 2019 Fight of the Year errs towards each of these categories without readily belonging to either.
Instead, it is a contest which when viewed metaphorically can be seen as a microcosmic representation of the interplay between one of the oldest behavioural dualities known within man, that of arrogance vs humility. It is a fight which has roots in biblical verse, specifically the Book of Proverbs – King James Version, section 16:18 – which cautions that ‘Pride cometh before a fall’. It was a match-up hosted in Liverpool’s Echo Arena between two British super middleweight prospects and show live on Sky Sports. It was and is, of course, March’s 10-round contest between Scott Fitzgerald and Anthony Fowler.
A pair of decorated amateurs, they both won gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games within minutes of each other – Fitzgerald in the welterweight category and Fowler as a middleweight. They confessed to enjoying each other’s company, to sharing celebratory drinks in toast of mutual successes and to deliberately seeking each other’s company, socialising together on jointly arranged evenings out. Fowler had even conceded that they were friends. All that seemed a long time ago, however, in the acrimonious build-up to this fight.
Disrespect and antipathy which began on Twitter, spilled into interviews and characterised the pre-fight promotion. It manifested in threats of personal violence, in demeaning and exaggerated descriptions of amateur, Team GB sparring sessions; in snide slights at each other’s personality traits and integrity, in Fitzgerald’s verbal jibe allusively referencing Fowler’s partner and in Fowler continually mocking and questioning Fitzgerald’s apparent inability to continue to make the 154-pound super welterweight limit (resulting in an amusing video riposte from Fitzgerald where he ripped his shirt off to show a conditioned torso, whilst continually referencing and mocking ‘Toe-knee’). In fact, it became so omniscient, incessant and engaging that Sky even filmed an impromptu The Gloves Are Off within Liverpool’s Cunard building on the day of the weigh in, just to capitalise on this organic and unpremeditated marketable hype and humour.
True to Fowler’s retrospectively prescient prediction, Fitzgerald did struggle to make the agreed weight, initially weighing in at 154 pounds and 6 ounces. Subjected to a further verbal barrage from Fowler during the face off, he was then given an additional hour to cut the surplus 6 ounces, before returning, stripping entirely and reweighing in at exactly 154 pounds. Thus, after months of rancour and hype, in which Fowler had promised a classy beatdown which would end in somewhere around round five, a summation the majority of bookies and Sky pundits agreed with (Fowler came into the fight a 1/7 favourite; Fitzgerald as the 4/1 outsider) we now finally had a sanctioned fight.
‘The Mad Man’ walked to the ring first, white hood up, bouncing and swaggering, his countenance a paradoxical combination of expressionless focus. By contrast, Fowler, as home fighter, walked second. Hood down and smiling, he waved to the crowd and fist-bumped the idolatrous, who eagerly craned themselves into the entranceway for a chance to touch or encourage their favourite. To look at Fowler was to see a fighter exhibiting confidence and bravado. There was a detection of understandable nervousness, but this manifested as the positive, energising kind, rather than the destructive overwhelm which acute anxiety can wreak.
As they were both introduced, the clear contrast in demeanour continued. Fitzgerald, backed by his father and head trainer, Dave, bounced on the balls of his feet, beat his chest defiantly and raised his right hand to the sky, all whilst sporting the wide-eyed glare of the steely determined. Fowler, flanked by Coldwell and backed by distinguished cutman, Kerry Hayes, beat his gloves against his own head and torso, smirked and threw sideways glances at the crowd. Finally, following final instructions from referee, Steve Gray, the obligatory touching of the gloves, the final hugs, kisses and importunes from the cornermen and the dinging of the bell, we, and they, were off.
The first three rounds followed a similar pattern. Fowler found his rhythm immediately and began landing his jab with unmissable regularity. Fitzgerald’s footwork and movement, whilst more pneumatic and vigorous than Fowler’s, struggled to work him into range and his irregular incursions were often falling impotent and short. He settled somewhat in round two, but Fowler’s jab still appeared magnetized to the Fitzgerald face, and he began to now work the body, a tactic he also employed in round three. Coming out for round four, Fitzgerald was a clear three rounds down in a fight which was only scheduled to go a maximum of ten.
In the fourth, he finally began finding his range; his balletic footwork still pendulously moving him in and out with hypnotic rhythm. His jabs were now landing and his sharp counter and lead right hands caught both Fowler’s as well as the eyes of those spectating. This pattern endured for rounds five and six. Fowler had visibly slowed and his growing fatigue appeared measurable against the barometer which was the declining speed of his now laboured jab. Once expeditious and accurate, it was now easily slippable an thrown more in habit than with considered, baleful intent.
Seven and eight were both close rounds, rounds which Sky Sport’s Andy Clarke gave to Fitzgerald but which could easily have been scored either way. Fitzgerald seemed to take the majority of round seven off, catching Fowler with a solid overhand right, but spending much of it swallowing the Liverpudlian’s now rejuvenated jab. He caught Fowler with a straight right and another overhand right in the eighth, but ended the round resting in the neutral corner, following the receipt of a clear low blow, which seemed – and was indeed reacted to – as one thrown more out of exhausted miscalculation than any Fowler deliberateness or cynicism.
Being for the vacant WBA International super welterweight title, rounds nine and ten can legitimately be referred to as championship rounds, and they were certainly fought in a spirit indicating that they were. Round nine was a significant Fowler round and an exacting chin examination for Scott Fitzgerald. For the first minute of the round, Fowler through a near-continuous combination, with many of his hooks landing unchallenged upon the Fitzgerald jaw and cranium. Fitzgerald managed to land several clean shots by manner of reply and Fowler was indeed – to use the proper boxing coinage – ‘blowing’ at the end of the round, but he had landed many of the cleaner punches and clearly dominated for another 10-9 on all judges’ scorecards.
Round ten started slowly. There was jabbing, there was tentativeness and there was a tired reluctance from both men to readily invest in any enervating aggression. It was cagey and it was understandable. This had been an enthralling, demanding contest, the majority of which had already been fought. Yet with only one minute and seventeen seconds left, Scott Fitzgerald launched a five shot combination which would define the fight, write himself into legend and throw many of the boxing public into rapt euphoria. Right uppercut (landed), left hook (landed), straight right (missed), left hook (landed) and then another left hook (landed), leaving Anthony Fowler firstly supine upon the canvas and propped up only by his elbows, and then crouched upon his knees and staring at his corner with a look of surprised stupefaction.
As Fowler fell, Fitzgerald ran towards him, screamed ‘yessss’ and in that precise moment of jubilant ecstasy seemed to invert and expel all the frustrations from the previous weeks (it was also this twenty second period, which would take me emotionally higher than any other boxing related moment of 2019, and why this contest is my undisputed Fight Of The Year). Such an animated explosion of emotion, commensurate, energised by and in exact opposition to the oppressive, incessant and riling taunts from Fowler. The referee dragged Fitzgerald to the neutral corner and continued the 10 second count. Fitzgerald, raising his arms into the crucifix position, stared in joint celebration at his corner. Fowler cast a smirking look of knowing resignation at his, before placing his gloves before his face and walking to meet the referee as instructed.
The fight resumed. Fowler, shattered and broken, expelled several jabs to repel the expected Fitzgerald onslaught. However, he was neither sufficiently discombobulated, nor Fitzgerald fresh enough to complete the stoppage. Fowler was also too tired to launch any retaliatory salvos of his own. Fitzgerald, sensing the end of the fight and with a guaranteed 10-8 round on the scorecards, spent the final 10 seconds waving Fowler forwards and walking to all the four corners of the ring. The bell sounded, Fowler smirked again, touched his glove to Fitzgerald’s head and walked to his corner in the uncelebratory way a fighter does when he knows he is unlikely be judged victorious.
Despite the obviousness of who won, or whom should win, Master of Ceremonies, David Diamante announced that the judges ringside had come to a split decision. Judge Erkki Meronen scored the contest 96-94, Fowler; judge Terry O’Connor scored it 95-94, Fitzgerald. As the final score of 95-94 from judge Ingo Barrabas was read aloud, the referee had already begun raising Fitzgerald’s hand, betraying who he instinctively felt had won the fight. Thankfully, he was proven correct and in the momentary raising of Fitzgerald’s hand, signified him as the new WBA International super welterweight champion. Fitzgerald, still undefeated, had moved to 13-0 and satisfactorily handed Anthony Fowler his first professional loss.
It’s not often the fractious, fractured boxing subculture of the social media app Twitter is united. This app is also not a true indicator as to the perceptions or shibboleths of wider society – given that, if it was, Jeremy Corbyn would have surfed into number 10 on an inexorable tide of socialist good will – but in the immediate aftermath of the fight, this ethereal microcosm was a beside itself, drunk on a heady mixture of anti-Fowler schadenfreude which ranged in expression from the self-congratulatory and triumphant, to the snickering and scornfully derisive.
Fitzgerald allowed himself the post-fight conceit that he had ‘walloped [Fowler]’, but otherwise retained a dignified, smug and respectful silence; the victory and conclusive manner in which it occurred saying more than any words needed to or ever could. Fowler, disappointed and terse, said initially, ‘I don’t like the kid, but fair play. He was the better man tonight,’ before latterly adding the surprising analysis that he would have won the fight had he not have been knocked down. Whether this was denial, concussion or the subconscious use of fantasy to self-soothe his vanquished ego, such disparaging and belittling remarks appear in callow poor taste when contextualised against this defeat and the manner in which it arrived.
Both men would fight again in 2019: Fowler twice and Fitzgerald only once. Challenging Ted Cheeseman (15-2-1) in October, Fitzgerald became the British Super Welterweight champion via a unanimous decision victory. Fowler, chasing silverware of his own, defeated Brian Rose (31-6-1) for the WBO Inter-Continental middleweight title in Liverpool in August, before returning in November to win the WBA International super welterweight title with a unanimous decision victory of his own over Harry Scarff (8-1).
Each now with a super welterweight belt and both more commercially profitable and marketable as a dualistic pair, their paths look set to collide again in 2020. Both signed to Matchroom Boxing, their promoter Eddie Hearn continues to speak of the apparent unfinished business leftover from the first fight and of the consequent inevitability of a required rematch; subliminally both implanting the contest within the public’s collective imagination and gauging expectation and demand for it prior to what-seems-likely as its ineluctable announcement. The prevailing rumour is that as incumbent British champion, Fitzgerald will be rewarded with a Spring homecoming defence at his beloved Preston’s Deepdale stadium. And that, to maximise sales and to capitalise on the cultural clamour for yet more Fowler chagrin, his preferred ‘dance partner’ is indeed his nemesis, his antithesis, Anthony John Fowler.