- Steve Bunce
"You can be a sportsman or a bandit - your choice"Steve Bunce November 5, 2013
On Saturday night their stories came together in two fights that had very different outcomes but looked similar on paper.
All four heavyweights began the night unbeaten. All four knew that a win took them to a higher level and a loss left them wandering the smaller halls and venues searching for boxing's elusive elixir.
Each had his own desperate tale, his own uplifting story about overcoming the odds just to get to the ring for two crucial fights in the course of their careers.
In Hull, Richard Towers was fighting Lucas Browne in a final eliminator for the Commonwealth heavyweight title. Towers had been saved by Brendan Ingle, the training guru from Sheffield, who scooped him up from the pavement when he was released from prison.
"Boxing saved me," Towers told me in 2011. He is 6'8" and arrived unbeaten in 14 fights.
Aussie Browne is a nice guy with a violent history and at 34, with 17 wins, the big lad knew that Saturday was his chance - possibly his last chance. "I had to win, losing meant I dropped off the radar," Browne said. His planned fight with Towers fell through in the summer when the Briton was refused entry to Australia. He had been sentenced to 13-years for kidnap in 2001 and released in 2007 to start his new life as a boxer. "I have never heard anything like it," Ingle joked.
In the basement at Madison Square Garden, formerly known as the Felt Forum, Mike Perez, a Cuban defector based in Cork, was just one fight away from full recognition. Perez escaped over the wall to make his fortune and like a lot of forgotten Cuban defectors it has not been easy; his date at the Garden would change it all if he could stay unbeaten and win fight number 20.
In the opposite corner stood Magomed Abdusalamov, whose journey to the famous neon lights of the Garden might possibly have been the most difficult of all. It was not going to get any easier or better for the Russian fighter.
Abdusalamov was born in Dagestan, which is a troubled and dangerous region of Russia. His father had pulled young Mago, as he is known, to one side when he was still an impressionable boy and delivered a deathless ultimatum: "He told me: 'You can either be a sportsman or a bandit. It's your choice. But, if you choose to become a bandit, I will kill you'," Mago recalled earlier this year. He turned to boxing and represented Russia, narrowly failing to reach the Beijing Olympics.
Mago was 18 and zero with 18 knockouts before the first bell on Saturday night and making a career-high $40,000 for the showdown with Perez, who was making $10,000 less but still a career best. Mago had been living in America chasing the boxing dream on and off since 2009, settling in Oxnard, California, where his third daughter was born. It was a hard and lonely life for the Abdusalamovs and boxing success was their one salvation.
In Hull an odd fight unfolded as Towers tried to box, move and deflect Browne's punches. It was a bold strategy that failed to work when Towers, who was guilty of leaning too far back on the ropes, was caught by a vicious onslaught in round five and rescued by the referee. Browne was cut and getting tired at the time.
"Let's not forget that I was never meant to be here," Towers reminded people after the fight. "Well, I'm here now. It never worked out tonight but I will be back." Browne will get a chance to win the Commonwealth title when he fights David Price next year - Price, who denied Abdusalamov a place at the Olympics when he beat him in a qualifier.
The fight in New York was a modern classic. Perez and Mago fought like desperate men, desperate for the millions that are out there in heavyweightland and prepared to push their bodies to the very edge. They stood toe-to-toe and slugged it out for ten relentless rounds. It was breathtaking to watch. Perez got the nod, one judge only able to separate them by a round, and a shattered Mago looked desolate as he congratulated his Cuban opponent. It was not the end of the night.
Mago went off to hospital with a suspected broken hand and nose, but it was more serious than that. A clot on his brain was detected and he had emergency surgery to remove it. Lying in intensive care, he is stable and doing well says his doctor, and expected to make a full recovery and return to his three little daughters.