• Steve Bunce

Risk v Reward: It's hard to win on the road

Steve Bunce December 3, 2013
Tony Bellew was beaten by Adonis Stevenson © AP

Last Saturday in Quebec Tony Bellew from Liverpool was paid well but discovered just how painful it can be to try and win a world title in the champion's backyard.

Bellew joined a long and distinguished list of good British fighters that have taken the money, taken the plane and then taken the beating overseas in fights where the reward was greater than the risk. It is a risk, but Bellew's sore head will be clear whenever he glances at his swollen bank account.

There are other true British fighting heroes, men that went overseas and somehow defied the odds to return to Britain with the cash and the world title but they belong on a short and celebrated list. John H.Stracey, Mo Hope, Alan Minter and Ken Buchanan all pulled off spectacular heists on fevered nights in Las Vegas, San Juan, Mexico City and San Remo. The four names remain iconic for a reason.

The Maurice Hope story is often overlooked when boxing people talk about great champions from history. It seems that people remember Stracey beating Jose Napoles in December 1975 in a bullring in Mexico City. They talk about Buchanan fighting Ismael Laguna in 110 degrees of heat and leaving with the world lightweight title in 1970 and Minter winning the undisputed middleweight title in Las Vegas. Hope, for some reason, too often slips through the memory and is overlooked.

In 1979 Hope travelled to San Remo, a gorgeous little casino haven just across the French border, to challenge Italian hardman Rocky Mattioli. Now, when I say hardman, I'm not talking Vin Diesel and his make-up or Vinnie Jones and his snarl: Oh no, I'm talking toughest man on the planet contender. Rocky won the title in Germany, made a stunning defence in Australia, where he had lived, before a triumphant return to Italy. Mo was Mattioli's next fight, a lamb for the brutal Italian to devour, and it was a real task for the Hackney boy, trust me. Hope stopped Rocky in the ninth to win the WBC light-middleweight title. As they say: you couldn't invent it.

Hope had history on the road in proper fights, winning fights and that is something that only Carl Froch and David Haye can claim at the moment in British boxing. In a seven-month period starting in October 1976 in Rome and ending in Hamburg in May 1977, Hope had three fifteen round fights for the European light-middle title. He was, make no mistake, the underdog in all three fights.

His triple started in Rome against Vito Antuofermo, the only Italian on earth tougher than Mattioli. The fight was savage and with just 12 seconds left in the 15th and last round Hope landed enough punches to make the ref step in. Hope was getting ready to win the world title by serving a hard apprenticeship. He retained over the longer distance in back-to-back fights against German boxers Eckhard Dagge and Frank Wissenbach. He was ready for Mattioli after the trio of European jaunts, ready for the unexpected. Hope deserves a higher position on the list of great British boxers.

Hope made three defences of his world title before taking the money to lose in Las Vegas to the legendary Wifredo Benitez in 1981. It was a sad end for Hope as world champion. However, it was not as ugly as Bellew's collapse or the one-sided beatings that so many British boxers have gladly accepted in return for "life-changing money" in world title fights. In so many ways the boxing business is far better now with increased safety, increased numbers of fighters and increased money. Sadly, there are just too many titles, too many men fighting for the titles and too many ridiculous claims made by boxers. Bellew will be a better boxer for the beating he took and, it goes without saying, a richer one.

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Steve Bunce Close
Steve Bunce has been ringside in Las Vegas over 50 times, he has been at five Olympics and has been writing about boxing for over 25 years for a variety of national newspapers in Britain, including four which folded! It is possible that his face and voice have appeared on over 60 channels worldwide in a variety of languages - his first novel The Fixer was published in 2010 to no acclaim; amazingly it has been shortlisted for Sports Book of the Year.