WATCH enough mismatches and you come to know the signs. When, for instance, a fight ends 12 seconds prematurely, you know even the officials have had enough and want to get home. When, too, the fighters come together at this point and rather than embrace, as is customary at the conclusion of a fight, they butt heads and suddenly get aggressive, you know both have a lot more to give. Finally, when you notice that the away fighter’s coaches have celebrated the mere fact their man has lasted the full 12 rounds, you know there was no ambition to do anything more than that.
Tonight (July 15), in Newcastle, we saw all these signs following Josh Kelly’s dominant yet somehow disappointing decision win over Argentina’s Gabriel Corzo (scores: 120-107, 120-107, 117-110). They each confirmed what we already knew, of course, that the fight was as dull as it was meaningless, but it was still comforting to see them at the end nevertheless. For, after all, such is the nature of a televised mismatch, there is a tendency on the part of those commentating on it, or providing punditry, to present the spectacle to you as something it is not, which means that when watching it, particularly at close to midnight, you start to feel like a “paranoid” and “hysterical” housewife being gaslighted by a philandering husband. In other words, though it all seems a little off, maybe it is just the late hour that has you thinking that. Maybe the people talking it up, the ones presented to you as experts, are the ones really seeing it correctly and you, both tired and miserable, just need your bed.
Nowadays, it is hard to know what people can and can’t say on air, but it was surely clear to anyone watching Kelly vs. Corzo that they were not watching a fight in the purest sense of the word: that is, two well-matched athletes with an equal, or at least close to equal, chance of winning the contest. Instead, so one-sided was it, the fight became rather uncomfortable to watch and quickly. It also became a chore, especially given how late it started (11pm) and the fact it followed a heavyweight bout between Franklin Ignatius and Steve “Drago” Robinson which tested the patience of everybody, including the brass band playing the odd Rocky tune during scenes of intense clinching, heavy breathing, and sheer exhaustion.
By the time Kelly and Corzo then arrived, people were just ready to go home. They wanted either an early finish or a compelling fight, but, in the end, were destined to receive neither. In lieu of that, they watched Kelly rattle through his extensive repertoire of punches, showboat when he could (whenever really), and run away with it so easily he too was as bored as those watching the fight by its second half.
Corzo, for his part, brought with him only a counter left hook and some durability. These two things were, it turned out, enough to keep Kelly from fully committing to getting the stoppage, which was something, and also ensured Corzo reached the final bell. In the second, too, Corzo did have the odd moment, even landing a series of left hands which resembled slaps rather than punches. Yet this was due only to Kelly, forever smiling, realising that Corzo, with just three knockouts in 18 wins, had no way of hurting him. The hooks themselves were often well-picked and clever, albeit thrown more in desperation than by design, but that had little bearing on the damage they would do. For after Kelly had tasted one, in the very first round, he knew he had his man beaten beyond any doubt.
That’s another sign of a mismatch, I suppose: the idea that a fighter knows he has an opponent’s number not when nailing him with a particular shot but, conversely, when he, the favourite, is nailed by a particular shot. If, in that moment, the favourite senses the fight is as good as won, what really is the point of any of it?
For Kelly, it’s hard to say. In rounds three and four he landed some eye-catching body shots, notably with the left hook, and then in round six he turned southpaw, just for the hell of it. It was, again, a sign of Kelly’s boredom, not to mention the ease with which he could play with Corzo, 18-1 (3). The challenge, by then, was seemingly not so much to win (a given) but to simply open up a negative opponent and put a significant dent in him. It was a challenge of sorts, sure, and can be considered a learning exercise, but for Kelly, at 29, it’s the sort of exam he could have quite easily sat behind closed doors.
It certainly wasn’t something people should be watching on a Saturday night. Indeed, the sense of unease was to perhaps peak when between rounds Kelly, clearly enjoying himself, received instructions from his corner to the sounds of Michael Jackson playing over the PA system. Prevalent more and more as the fight threatened to go long, come round 10 – that’s 11:40 pm, by the way – we had an eerily silent crowd and a young Jacko turned up even louder; the stuff of nightmares.
In the 11th, meanwhile, Kelly landed a superb right uppercut, one of the punches of the fight, and then decided on an entirely new approach to the assignment. Fed up, it appeared, of trying to twist the lid of the jar with moist hands, he now simply set it down on the work surface and left it alone for a bit; meaning he beckoned Corzo on to him and went for a walk. This was a tactic Kelly could have possibly tried sooner, too, for it was clear, having tried it, that the idea of coming forward was, for Corzo, as difficult for him as throwing his right hand. Asked all of a sudden to make his move, his limitations, in both footwork and hand speed, were now abundantly clear and one couldn’t help but wonder at this stage how Corzo, had he been British and not Argentinean, would fare at domestic title level. Certainly, only a fool would pick the 28-year-old to beat someone like Troy Williamson, Kelly’s previous opponent, and the same could be said regarding a fight with Sam Eggington, whose career at 154 pounds has caught fire again following a recent win against Joe Pigford.
Still, Corzo was the opponent and this was the fight. It was, we should also remember, Kelly’s first on DAZN and therefore it is most likely the message – from the fight itself to the one delivered by employees on the night – was that what was needed was some sort of showcase for the marketable 2016 Olympian. Or at least that’s the only way one can explain a) the choice of opponent; b) the fact the fight started with a DAZN pundit telling the watching audience that the Vertu Motors Arena was sold out all the while DAZN were busy showing shots of countless empty seats; and c) this same audience being told Josh Kelly was one win away from a world title shot even though the win in question would be against a man Kelly would have beaten with little difficulty on his professional debut.
The reality is, people were walking out of the arena tonight in Newcastle and that’s not because Kelly himself isn’t exciting or wasn’t delivering excellent punches and pretty moves. It was simply because the fight in which Kelly was embroiled contained absolutely no peril and therefore no meaning or importance or, at close to midnight, reason to watch.
In the right fight, however, and when against the right opponent, there is no doubt Kelly, 14-1-1 (7), could sell tickets in the North East. This was to some extent shown in his last fight, that quite brilliant performance against Troy Williamson in a fight that really mattered, and it can be proven again, too. Put him in against the controversial Conor Benn or Chris Eubank Jnr, for example, and he would not only become the perfect foil for those two bigger names, but will also find some of his own pressure removed. Even someone like Sam Eggington, while not the sexiest name in the 154-pound division, would undeniably do everything Gabriel Corzo was unable to do tonight; chiefly, and most importantly, bring out the best in Josh Kelly and keep his fans in the arena.