In a week where the Sunday Times finally published a damning critique of the government’s preparation and handling of the Coronavirus pandemic – naming Boris Johnson personally and thus directly speaking to and holding power accountable – I caught up with Mohamed Mimoune for a piece which carries the same rebel attitude; for an exiguous, echo-rearticulation of the same bold sentiment, which, whether power in our pugilistic context ever reads or not, can serve as a proud, indelible testament, similarly giving a voice to one also betrayed and unfairly taken advantage of.
Unlike Boris Johnson’s, or the brave, embattled staff of the NHS, Mimoune’s exacting front line location was the black-matted, yellow-roped ring of Bethnal Green’s York Hall. In front of a capacity crowd, populated and buttressed by the standing, passionate, partisan, vociferous multitude of opponent McKenna’s traveling Irish support, this Golden Contract semi-final fight went the full 10-round distance at a compelling, ferocious pace. There were no official knockdowns, yet McKenna tumbled on several occasions; there was blood, from McKenna’s right eye, swelling, upon the face of Mimoune, and several warnings directed at the French fighter to keep his punches up. As the final bell sounded, the instinctive reaction of both men told the story of the contest: Mimoune ran to the corner, ascended to the second turnbuckle and raised his hands to the buoyant crowd, emboldened by feelings of expected victory. McKenna, initially chastened, was then held aloft and also raised his hands in celebration.
Matthew Macklin’s ringside scorecard totalled the fight at 98-92, Mimoune. I had the score 97-93 to Mimoune, generously giving McKenna the second round, unlike Macklin. As the official scorecards were read aloud – 97-93, 96-94 and 96-94, close but perhaps narrower due to home advantage – the result seemed a formality. Yet as Tyrone McKenna’s name was announced in shock conclusion as the winner, the mood visibly shifted. The referee, Victor Loughlin, bore a stupefied expression and articulated his eye-raising confusion in protestations directed at the ring announcer. The McKenna camp applauded, and Mimoune walked around the ring with his arms extended perpendicular to his body, his post-fight smiles and bonhomie replaced with a look of nonplussed astonishment, pleadingly to anyone sat at ringside who could meet his eye. So just what was going through his mind as he stalked the ring in this manner?
‘When McKenna’s hand was lifted, I was shocked and angry. It is not possible I said to myself. How can it be like this when I hit him for all 10 rounds? McKenna took a lot of blows during the fight and whilst he didn’t go down, he was hurt several times and nearly knocked out whilst stood upright.’
There are many reasons why a fighter may feel, or indeed actually be, on the receiving end of a poor (less slanderous euphemism for corrupt) decision. These can involve cosy relationships between judges and promoters, between judges and the rarefied personnel at the upper echelons of the various sanctioning bodies, or through pressures implied by various television companies; all of whom are capable of subtly buying a judge’s complicity through the funding of a comfortable international lifestyle and regular ringside tickets to ‘the big dance’. This is not overt bribery, but it’s hardly principled or virtuous, unless of course your principles are founded upon venality. (There is also, of course, the possibly of gross human incompetence.) But then in a world where moral fortitude would likely have you sitting and watching from home, how would you respond…? When the money generated per fight is not fixed but fluid and based upon sales, fighter popularity and advertising revenue, is it any wonder that the larger earners, whose pull lines the pockets of all those associated, and to a moveable, changeable degree, receive such favourable treatment? Though whilst these were musings for a separate time, they continued to work the background of my consciousness throughout our discussion, and I was intrigued to find out the explicable reasons Mimoune attributed to this injustice:
‘I think it was all towards having two British men in the final, especially with all the money that would be behind that. The whole world saw this incredible injustice. Even the fans in England watching did not want to see McKenna in the final. They wanted to see me fight and to try and win this tournament because I gave them a magnificent show.’
With the world now on lockdown and experiencing what is tritely and ubiquitously being referred to as either ‘strange’ or ‘unprecedented’ times, it did feel unusual to then converse on future plans. As are many, Mimoune is keeping in shape by working out in his garage. His coach is sending him programs and he has this spacious room sans voiture and equipped with all the apparatus he needs. But in a future where lockdown restrictions have been lifted and a sense of normality resumed, where would he – as the former IBO world super lightweight, EBU European, EBU European Union and France welterweight champion; 32 years old, a southpaw, and with a professional record of 22-4 – now like to go from here?
‘Josh Taylor vs Mimoune would be a great fight for the British fans. I need big fights. I have never picked or chosen opponents, so it is up to MTK to make these kinds of fights. I became champion of Europe against the very good Sam Eggington, in the Manchester Arena in front of 15,000 people. I need these big nights and these big events. I am ready for whatever and whoever at super lightweight.’
‘If McKenna wants me to fight him again, it’s not a problem. For a lot of money, I will take that fight again, no problem. McKenna will never be the same boxer again because of the blows he took from me in our last fight. All the blows he took to his body. I’ve already done half the work for Davies.’
I ask him whether his love of the sport has diminished since February’s shameful unfairness, not wishing to darken his mood away from fantasies of contesting Taylor at the Hydro, but instead trying to ascertain whether his enduring dedication was instead now borne out of financial obligation – that ideal, child-like devotion transubstantiated, corrupted and reduced to a mere capitalist expression – or whether the youthful sublimation towards boxing as a pure and fantastical ideal remained true.
‘I am still deeply attracted to boxing because I have been a nervous person my whole life, since childhood. I was a brawling child. Boxing has brought a lot of calm to my life. It really is the school of life for me, and it remains so.’
Mimoune’s childhood was lived where he continues to reside now, in France’s fourth-largest metropolitan area and the capital of its southern Occitanie region: Toulouse. Known as ‘La Ville Rose’ (The Pink City), due to the terra-cotta brick work used to construct many of its buildings, Mimoune first enrolled in the city’s Bagatelle boxing club at the age of 12. Growing up ‘watching a lot of Roy Jones Jr.,’ I wondered aloud on the comparative struggle between succeeding within the domestic France boxing scene, compared to the now-burgeoning British equivalent.
‘Boxing in France is much, much less publicised,’ Mimoune told me. ‘We have to work a lot harder to get recognised than we would in either England or the United States.’
And it was on this final poignancy that we bid each other farewell – my French ample enough to order tickets on the TGV, as well as thank Mohamed for his time – and where I would usually conclude this piece. But in the days following our conversation, and now included as a necessary addendum, spiralling into a much larger debate, it must be noted that I still couldn’t shake his sense of disappointment. I wondered whether through empathy, I had absorbed too much of it, becoming infected and having my default malaise towards such cultural malpractice upgraded to full-on resentment and a longing to be free from the burden which is a hopeless, lifelong addiction to boxing.
Ideas unspooled with free-form indiscrimination, and I became obsessed with the then-unanswerable dilemma: if you are scrambling and fighting for recognition in any walk of life, surely a motivating factor, or at least a foundational assumption, would be the tacit promise of a ‘fair shake’. That you will receive commensurately what you invest; that your initial faith will yield eventual reward. ‘Hard work and dedication’ is a mantra familiar to all boxing fans and media alike, but if hard work and dedication are reduced to mere distractions and inefficiencies leading towards a failure before an already predetermined and prearranged outcome, the only question which remains unresolved in my mind is ‘What really is the point?’ And that extends to both participation from a fighter perspective, and the emotional investment and financial consumption from both fan and media involvement.
In the days following this interview, and still ruminating on the above, I happened upon a discussion between Boxing Social’s Rob Tebbutt and @TakeAymz, where they alighted upon the very question: ‘Did Mimoune v McKenna hurt the legitimacy of the Golden Contract?’
This question, presented in this way, brought a banner focus to my own scattered reflections, and sharpened my final, considered take on the matter to this: the answer to their question is entirely subjective and depends on each ponderer’s expectations of and for boxing. If, for example, your engagement with boxing is confined to the disposable entertainment provided during the maximum 36 minutes that two combatants will box each other, then perhaps not. Or if you appreciate pomp and narrative, then Davies vs McKenna will likely satisfy each of your desired requirements. They have a backstory – a WWE-style carpark confrontation, where IFL reports that they ‘NEARLY CAME TO BLOWS’ – and two contrasting styles that will pitch Ohara’s heavier hands and lesser output, to McKenna’s purer natural ability but reduced knockout percentage. (Yes, Mimoune does have fewer knockouts than McKenna, but his proven skill, already measured against a higher class of opposition, would have likely seen him dance around Davies for an untroubled UD.)
Davies vs McKenna is the fight that most wanted at the announcement of this Golden Contract tournament, and it is the fight that we now have as the final. But for those of us who still deludedly assume that once both fighters have arrived in the ring and the commencing bell has sounded, that the contest itself will be scored fairly – even despite the common sense outcome of having our own appreciation of the sport sullied by the concessionary acceptance that there likely occurs potential improprieties in many training camps before the lights of fight night are even empowered (see Donald McRae’s excellent piece in the Guardian with the former heavyweight boxer Larry Olubamiwo for wider context) – this showpiece final and thus the tournament as a whole can’t help but to have been cheapened.
Mohamed Mimoune should be in the final; he should be fighting against Ohara Davies; and he should now be the WBC International super lightweight champion.