By Steve Bunce
THERE was a search for camels, sense and respect in the rings, taxis and deserts of Riyadh.
At the end of seven days, I had located the camels and was still trying to make sense of what I had seen in the ring. There was no need to hunt for respect; some things are best left unsaid in our business.
Francis Ngannou was too polite to moan like any other wounded boxer at the end of his fight, Fury was too shocked to gloat and the third man in the relationship, Oleksandr Usyk, just shrugged. I spoke to Usyk in a luxury suite up in the sky the following morning. He was not interested in being critical. “It’s boxing,” he shrugged.
Ngannou’s peaceful acceptance of the verdict had, understandably, shifted slightly by the end of the following day and he was talking about a robbery; Fury, thankfully, was still holding his tongue and icing his face. Please, no more “gap-toothed little sausage” garbage. I think we have had enough dossers for a bit. There might actually be a positive from Ngannou’s cameo in our heavyweight division. I’m not saying that he has saved it, but there might just be fewer pantomime insults from this date. It was, let’s all be honest, open season on Ngannou all week.
The respect was in the silence; the camels were in the distance, moving slowly in the haze of a fading Arabian night. My planned stunt to preview the carnival from the back of a camel never happened and that is a relief. Ngannou deserved better than me playing the fool. In fairness, I do like herds of camels.
It was not my first skirmish with wildlife on the boxing road. An attempt to preview Anthony Yarde and Sergey Kovalev from the inside of a lion’s cage had also been scrapped. The circus on the edge of Chelyabinsk had a dubious health and safety record.
There was also the pigeon-room incident with Mike Tyson one afternoon before his loss to Danny Williams in Louisville. On the day, about six of us with pads and pens were told that Mike would talk to us in his suite at a very expensive downtown hotel. We scuttled over, sat in a lobby and were then ushered up in the special lift.
Mike was hard work that day; not great and then he invited us from his lounge to the bedroom. He changed; he was suddenly radiant. Steve Lillis of the Sport was writing headlines as we filed in. “In bed with the baddest man on the planet”. However, when the door opened, all headlines vanished. It was a genuine “hold-the-back Page” moment. He was, it has to be said, good at those moments.
Mike sat down on the bed and the room came to life. We stood, stunned witnesses as about a dozen pigeons started to fly, flutter, pooh, walk over the pillows and land on Tyson’s head. He cooed and cooed, and they fell gracefully still in his giant hands. There was both a purr and a pong in that presidential suite bedroom.
I had never seen Mike Tyson with his pigeons before; they transformed the man. Luckily, one of us had a throwaway camera and those slightly iffy pictures made their way to the back pages of most British newspapers the following day. He was officially the Birdman of boxing, and the red-top intros were simple: Mike Tyson shares his bed with eight birds every night. Bosh, sorted. Me riding a camel would have been art.
There was also the close call at midnight in the mountains high above the ancient city of Sana’a in the Yemen with Naseem Hamed. We had parked to get a view of the twinkling city lights below, our armed guards seemed relaxed and then I heard the unmistakable sound of a mountain lion or some type of big cat moving invisibly and ominously in the dark. Obviously, I’m familiar with the sound of a Middle Eastern puma.
There was a bit of panic to get Naz back in the car. There was also a bit of laughter: there are no mountain lions or big cats in the mountains above Sana’a. I might have heard a goat, it turns out.
Tyson was in the lobby of the fancy hotel when I had finished talking to Usyk the morning after the fight. He was sitting with his old and genuine friend, Scott Welch. Mike was happy with his fighter’s performance and stood to demonstrate the left hook that dropped Tyson Fury. It was planned, a tactic, a shot they had rehearsed in drills. How dare they work on countering the heavyweight champion of the world. On his feet, his shoulders set, he can still shift like the genius kid he once was in the ring. It’s scary. He was delighted, obviously.
The night before, in the TNT studio, right after the final bell, Lennox Lewis had looked over at me and just shook his head. Lewis treats his beautiful sport with respect and pride. “You don’t just let a man come over to our sport,” he said. He was not delighted, that was obvious. We both agreed that Fury will never be this bad again.
Usyk had told me a story about walking with giants at the banquet the night before the fight (no invite, so no report, sorry). He talked about legends, heroes and his pride at meeting and being greeted by the sport’s greatest names. They had been his childhood heroes. Amir Khan told me the same thing – they both had a look of delight in their eyes. It meant something to them. They are part of our rich tradition; a tradition forged in sacrifice, devotion, glory, cash and abuse.
I get the impression that big Francis Ngannou knows a thing or two about sacrifice, glory, devotion and abuse. Certainly, more than I know about mountain lions. Big Lad, welcome.