By Pete Carvill
RONNY GABEL is getting ready to say goodbye. Again.
It had not supposed to be this way. He should be retired by now, able to relax from the rigours and stresses of training. The plan had been for one last fight in May 2023 at the Verti Music Hall against Ilias Essaoudi, but a cut in the fourth led to a no-contest.
Gabel, a genuine local hero in Berlin, cried in the ring that night. A trickle of blood joined the tears, running down from his eyebrow and onto his chest. It was the drawn-out frustration of seeing the finish line move a little further out of reach. He walked into the centre of the ring, looked down at the floor, and seemed to freeze under the realisation of what he was about to say, and what those words would mean.
He took the microphone and said to the crowd: “I’m so sorry. I didn’t want it to finish this way. We need to do this again. We will do this again.”
Now, on January 12, 2024, Gabel is in the upstairs room at the Hofbräu Wirtshaus on Berlin’s Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse, a garish venue designed for tourists. He wears a dark tracksuit and a woollen red and white hat. He is to be the last to be weighed in. Waiting, he sits at a table with some friends and looks out over the 30 or so people who have arrived for the weigh-in.
Eventually, he gets up and moves around the room, milling with those there, talking with this person, laughing with that person, moving from table to table.
Essaoudi and Gabel eventually step onto the scales. Essaoudi goes first, stripping down to his shorts. He looks out to the crowd.
“69.8 kilograms, Ilias Essaoudi!” says one of the promoters.
Gabel, 39 years old, is introduced. He strips down to blue shorts, then steps onto the scale. He looks in better shape than he was for the first fight, with no spare flesh on his bones. It seems he had given everything for one last run.
“69.5kilograms, Ronny Gabel!”
The pair of them come together. Fifteen or seconds pass before they shake hands and embrace. Then they turn to the photographers, posing together. Another hug precedes greeting members of the crowd before both go their separate ways.
Gabel then sits at one of the long wooden benches in the room. He smiles, there are no obvious signs of nerves. He has learned enough in his 40 professional fights to not be fazed by the 41st.
“I’m feeling good today,” he says. “My training has gone really well and, naturally, I’m looking for a victory.”
He allows himself to think back to the injury that had ended the first fight. He shrugs his shoulders. “It was an accident,” he says, “but it was still sad that the match was over. I didn’t want it to finish that way. I wanted to finish my career after a full 12 rounds.”
He loves Essaoudi, still, and becomes animated when he talk about him. “He’s a strong opponent,” Gabel says. “He’s a good man. In the ring, we do sports, but we are friends outside. After the fight, we’ll go and have some beers, maybe eat something. He’s a good man. The fight is just a fight.”
The crowd is starting to thin out. Gabel looks at the people starting to leave the room and takes that as his cue to do the same.
“It’s time to go,” he says, the precise meaning of which unclear.
He smiles, again, as another hand is offered to shake. Life after boxing has been calling him for some time. Looking at his face, one wonders if he’s ready for it, to leave, to start afresh.
There are plans to be a baker, he says. “I’m going to spend some time with my family,” he adds. “No more after this.”
Essaoudi sits at another table. His family a few metres away, and he looks over every few seconds at his young son. He smiles, the flower-like tattoo on his neck widens and blooms.
He too wanted something better in May. A victory. More than that, he wanted to be one half of a fitting sendoff for his friend. He had also cried in the ring that night.
“In that moment, I felt that Ronny wanted the second fight, too,” he says. “The ending of the first fight was bullshit for everyone. I didn’t want him to be cut like that.
“I’m a respectful person,” he says, “not just a respectful boxer. And boxing is part of me. When my opponent trash talks, it’s not friendly. But Ronny respects me, and I respect him. After the fight, we’ll be friends and have some beers together. But we both still want to win.
“It’s an honour for me to fight Ronny. I feel every second before, during, and after the fight that it’s an honour for me to fight him.”
Gabel will lose the following night. Essaoudi will take the majority decision inside the same Verti Music Hall where they’d cried together eight months previously. But, as is Gabel’s wish, he will go 12 rounds to hear the final bell. One judge will even kindly call it draw. It won’t upset him, he will be pleased that his career has ended in the right way, on the sound of a final bell. Gabel won’t sit between rounds, he’ll choose to stand, to soak up every moment. He’ll fall behind early before making a fight of it from the halfway point.
Essaoudi will enjoy it too. He’ll shout to the fans and those fans will shout back. The final seconds will approach, and neither will throw a punch. Instead, as that final bell threatens to sound, the two fighters, the rivals and friends, will place their hands on their sides and smile at each other. Look at what we’ve achieved, they will seem to say to each other.
Essaodi won’t join Gabel in retirement, he will fight on, he still has more he wants to achieve for his family. By way of celebration, Essaoudi will make the shape of a heart with his hands and direct it towards his family, tears filling his eyes.
Gabel grabs the microphone. “Once again,” he says to the crowd, “I thank you.”
There’s a bang. Golden confetti starts to fall. Gabel puts his head down. His family are in the centre of the ring, looking at their hero. He goes and stands with them.
Pete Carvill is the author of Death of a Boxer (Biteback Publishing), which is released next month and is available for pre-order.