“YOU see these two geezers,” said Kellie Maloney. “They would never be sparring partners for Lennox Lewis. No chance.”
Outside it was January of 2008, inside the studio it was bedlam. Maloney was flying and we had not even been on air for more than three minutes. It was her opening gambit.
The “two geezers” were Ruslan Chagaev and Matt Skelton and they were fighting for Chagaev’s WBA heavyweight championship in Dusseldorf. Maloney was on fire.
“And the Germans,” he continued. “Come on, they just sit there. Terrible crowd, terrible. The worst crowd in boxing.”
Paul Dempsey, who was presenting the live Saturday night broadcast, glanced at me and I had not yet said a single word. He shrugged, rolled a substantial eyebrow and then we went to a commercial break. We had been on air about four minutes; it was a Setanta high, and Maloney seemed genuinely shocked that she had perhaps said anything wrong.
The Chagaev and Skelton fight was still about three hours away. Dempsey was unflappable, Maloney was unstoppable, and another fun heavyweight title fight was about to go down. It was a tricky time for the heavyweight championship of the world, especially the WBA version.
In the ring, Big Ruslan, a personal favourite of mine, and Skelton, who was a genuine handful, ‘beared’ their way through 12 rounds; a mix of maul and haul and pull and snarling. It was hard and gruelling and it was never going to be any different. Chagaev kept his title, Maloney stayed awake, and another WBA heavyweight title fight was history. Remember, the boys from Caracas had launched their heavyweight championship by stripping Muhammad Ali and sanctioning Ernie Terrell and Eddie Machen in 1965.
In 2007, Chagaev had beaten the Beast from the East, Nikolai Valuev, to win the title and would, in the defence after Skelton, beat Costa Rica’s Carl Davis Drummond. That is a triple of opponents that even the WBA should be proud of. Sadly, Chagaev walked away from their belt to fight Wladimir Klitschko for three others; David Haye beat Valuev for the vacant WBA title. What fun we had with that gaudy strap, and we are still having it.
As an aside, the story, set one night at Battersea Town Hall, when Maloney realised it was no longer a good idea (or safe) to promote Valuev is a beauty.
It was certainly an odd time for the heavyweights with Joe Hipp, Owen Beck and other assorted fringe, fringe contenders getting shots. There were also some great fights. Alexander Povetkin against Chagaev, Povetkin and Marco Huck. And who could ever forget the Swiss epic between Valuev and Evander Holyfield in 2008. What a time it was; there were 22 WBA heavyweight fights between 2005 and 2017.
Chagaev, meanwhile, was not finished with the WBA. He was far from finished; he regained the title by beating Puerto Rico’s Fres Oquendo in a tight fight and then lost it when he was stopped by Lucas Browne in 2016. What a list.
The Oquendo fight was in Grozny with the Chechen warlord, Ramzan Kadyrov, sitting on his throne at ringside. It was a throne. Kadyrov was not afraid to leave his seat and get in the corner and tell his fighters what to do. Haye once sat next to him as a guest and never looked comfortable. Kadyrov would also blend exotic fruit shakes for the fighters at ringside in a hastily constructed kitchen area, I’m not inventing this, it is real. It looked like the set of a bad shopping channel and that at any second, he was going to pull out a miracle mop and a six-carat gold chain. Oquendo is still waiting for justice and his promised rematch. I’m not joking, he is. It was a tight fight with the Uzbek warrior and another fight that I did from a studio somewhere. Maloney was not used for that classic in 2014. I think I made Barry Jones sit on the sofa to suffer the lunacy that night on BoxNation.
Since Lucas Browne, the beast from Bondi, bashed a weary Chagaev, the WBA heavyweight title has had a varied life. I would like to invent some of this stuff, but it is all true. After Browne it was Mahmoud Charr and then Trevor Bryan, one of boxing’s good guys, and then Daniel Dubois won it during a storm one night in Miami. Bryan had managed a defence against a guy called Jonathan Guidry, who looks like a one-man tribute to ZZ Top. And then Dubois knocked out poor Trev. The WBA heavyweight belt is like some type of mediaeval chalice that travels all over the world with its secrets and lies and charms intact.
There are so many obscure names in the recent history of the strap; it is truly a belt for the ages. From Grozny to Rostok and with men from Costa Rica, Uzbekistan, Jamaica and Lebanon, it is one of sport’s craziest trophies. I love it, sorry.
And the champions and challengers enter folklore when they have been part of the relentlessly messy mayhem.
Charr was meant to defend his title against Oquendo in late 2018, but the fight collapsed when Charr failed a test. Oquendo had previously lobbied the WBA to get a Chagaev rematch.
Charr was shot four times outside a kebab shop in Essen in 2015 but recovered and last fought about six months ago. He still wants one more shot; I think Charr has been linked with as many as ten British heavyweights in the last decade or so.
Sweet Fast Fres Oquendo is now 50 and still battling the WBA through the courts, searching for justice and a chance to win the WBA heavyweight title. He is a decent man trapped in the living hell of one of the WBA’s lunatic prizes.
Dubois used the WBA title perfectly; won it, waited and secured the big prize with Oleksandr Usyk. He also had to win it under Don King’s patronage, in a crumbling venue with dead rats on the floor and then he only got his money through legal channels. The original WBA heavyweight belt is medieval, it really is.