IN FRONT of a delirious crowd at a sold-out Cardiff International Arena, local hero Joe Cordina regained the IBF super-feather title he never lost in the ring, but only thanks to a knockdown in the second round.
The extra point tipped the scale on the 114-113 card of judge Phil Edwards, meaning he and Pole Pawel Kardyni, who had 115-112, outvoted Florida’s Alex Levin, who favoured defending champion Shavkat Rakhimov by a surprisingly wide 116-111.
Presumably American fondness for the man coming forwards influenced that margin and for much of a thrilling contest scoring was a matter of whether you preferred the quantity of punches hurled by the southpaw from Tajikistan or the quality of the fewer blows thrown by Cordina.
Joe, six years to the day from his pro debut, entered to Dafydd Iwan’s Yma o Hyd (“We’re still here”), the chorus sung with gusto by his followers, who were in equally good voice for the official Welsh national anthem. Shavkat responded by belting out the Tajik counterpart to suggest he was not fazed by the partisan atmosphere.
Cordina, back in the hall where his spectacular knockout of Japanese Kenichi Ogawa last June first won him this crown, was under extra pressure, promoter Eddie Hearn having stressed that defeat would see Matchroom turn their back on Wales for the foreseeable future. Success, on the other hand, promised regular big-time action, including potential unification showdowns at the home of Joe’s beloved Cardiff City, though first up could well be a defence against Zelfa Barrett, a winner earlier in the evening.
The opening exchanges suggested that the 31-year-old would cope with the burden. Constantly moving, he landed a solid left to the body along with a series of uppercuts as Rakhimov moved in behind a high guard. Referee Steve Gray rebuked the champion for use of the head before the place exploded when Cordina dropped ‘Shere Khan’ midway through the second.
Unlike the right hand which demolished Ogawa in the same stanza – and was later fractured in sparring, causing the inactivity which led to the IBF stripping the Welshman – it was a sharp left which sent the holder to the deck. He rose and fought back, but that moment was to prove decisive.
Rakhimov did better in the third, although Cordina landed the cleaner shots, culminating in another left on the bell. The Central Asian – though based in Los Angeles, where he trains with the renowned Freddie Roach – constantly marched forward, but Joe’s self-belief was demonstrated in the fourth when he drew Shavkat into a corner, waited for him to throw the right and sent a perfectly timed left counter arrowing into the visitor’s jaw.
The Tajik’s consistent pressure began to have an effect in the fifth, when it started to knock the Cardiffian out of his rhythm, and the sixth also went his way with Joe forced to hold to gain some respite. However, Cordina’s own work was reflected in a swelling beneath Shavkat’s left eye and a cut above it, caused by a right hook.
Rakhimov, undeterred, kept forcing the pace, Joe confining himself to fewer, but more accurate blows from distance. They were not, though, enough to guarantee him the judges’ approval.
It was somewhat surprising that Shavkat did not come out hell-for-leather in the last, instead standing off and allowing the local, urged on by deafening support, to negotiate the last three minutes and indulge in a little showboating at the end. When the Tajik’s corner brought a stool into the ring for their man to recover, it was clear that he had simply been too exhausted to launch the final onslaught that might have kept his crown.
Nabchester’s Barrett staked his claim to be Cordina’s next challenger with a wide, but by no means easy, unanimous decision over Jason Sanchez, from Albuquerque, who battled gamely throughout. Indeed, the American, who stepped in when original foe Alex Dilmaghani withdrew through injury, was the early aggressor while ‘Brown Flash’ sussed out his stand-in opponent.
Barrett, in his first action since losing to Rakhimov in Abu Dhabi after replacing the dethroned Cordina, was focussing on single punches thrown with malice, rather than his usual reliance on pure skill.
The import from New Mexico, clearly possessed of a sturdy chin, seemed unflustered until the fifth saw him dropped by a right to the temple. He rose immediately, but thought better of it and took a knee for a further five seconds before managing to survive the session, hanging on as Zelfa missed with attempted finishers. The former European king was never able to make a dent in Sanchez thereafter, although his clever boxing on the retreat frustrated Jason’s efforts.
Referee Howard Foster clearly thought the bout, which had the WBA Continental trinket on the line, was a 10-rounder, going to the away corner after nine to remind Jason to touch gloves on resumption. The Americans demurred and a hurried check with ringside officials saw Mr Foster acknowledge his error.
Perhaps the Statesiders would have preferred the shorter distance as their tiring charge was unable to alter the pattern. The margins – 116-111 for Mr Kardyni, 118-110 for Spain’s Salvador Salva and a harsh 119-108 from Mr Edwards – did not truly reflect Sanchez’s contribution.
Sandy Ryan won the vacant WBO welter belt with a comfortable 10-twos victory over French-Canadian Marie Pier Houle, whose unbeaten record had come against lesser foes.
Houle, an ever-smiling presence during fight week, tried to garner some home support by climbing through the ropes draped in a Welsh flag, but lacked the wherewithal to make a serious contest of what followed. Although Sandy, from Derby, was moving up from 140lbs, she looked the bigger girl – and was certainly the stronger.
The Quebecoise came out fast, but soon found herself on the receiving end. Her courage and durability saw her through, but margins of 97-93 (Italian Marco Moscadelli), 98-92 (Mr Foster) and 99-91 (Frenchman Christophe Beaurain) told the tale.
Last September in Bolton, Welsh duo Gavin Gwynne and Craig Woodruff produced a fight-of-the-year contender before Gwynne retained his British lightweight title via a majority draw. The rematch in their homeland never lived up to expectation.
Woodruff, from Newport, began as anticipated, dancing around the ring, flicking out his jab and frustrating the holder’s attempts to engage. But it did not last. The second and third saw ‘Smiler’, incomprehensibly, waiting by the ropes and happy to trade, a course which played right into Gavin’s hands.
Gwynne, from Treharris, never stops working and with Woodruff opting to ignore the mobility that is his principal asset, matters became one-sided. The ‘Merthyr Mexican’ lacks power – he had only three previous stoppages to his name – but Compubox calculated that he landed 52 punches in the fourth alone. Referee Michael Alexander could not allow the challenger to keep taking them, calling a halt at 2-02 of the fifth.
The Woodruff team were baffled by the outcome after a camp which included a spell in Gibraltar and no problems making weight. But when Craig needed to call on his resources, there was nothing there. Messrs Gray, McDonnell and Reece Carter were the superfluous judges.
There was also an early ending to the cruiser collision between Jordan Thompson and former Commonwealth ruler Luke Watkins, but this was far more competitive. Manchester giant Thompson – five inches taller than Swindon’s Watkins, himself 6ft 1in – can be somewhat ponderous and once ‘The Duke’ realised this he had a degree of joy with smart combinations.
Jordan, with 11 quick wins in his 14 fights hitherto, always carries a threat, but Luke’s in-and-out adventures were nicking rounds until the sixth. A vicious left to the ribs forced Watkins to take a knee; when Thompson, now guided by Tony Sims, raised the pace a thumping right dropped the Wiltshire fighter beneath the ropes, referee Foster jumping to cradle his battered body and wave it off at the 2-17 mark. The cards of Messrs Levin, Kardyni and Edwards were left unfilled. The IBF European gong was on the line.
There were fairly facile victories for two gold medallists from the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Skye Nicolson, in whose Queensland back yard the event was held, strolled to an 80-72 whitewash from third man Chris Jones against Peruvian Linda Lecca, who was never able to get untracked. The status of the ‘Inca Princess’ as a former WBA super-fly belt-holder merely underlines how shallow the female pool remains beyond the big names.
Linda had no idea how to cut the gap between her and the taller Aussie and duly went down to as wide a defeat as that handed out by Raven Chapman in Telford last month. Southpaw Skye’s inability to capitalise fully shows that she still needs more seasoning if she is to fulfil her potential.
The other Gold Coast podium-topper, Swansea’s Sammy Lee, who ballooned in weight during two years away from the gym, is aiming at the light-heavy class in which he struck gold. But he was still over the cruiser limit when he took on the much lighter Latvian, Juris Zundevskis, in a scheduled six and after a lopsided opening round the visitor pulled out, claiming an iffy left shoulder. Mr Jones accepted the retirement.
Lee’s fellow townsman, Brandon Scott, stole the show in the preceding days, his varied outfits and cheeky comments earning a host of new fans on social media. Promoter Hearn was one who succumbed to the charm offensive and will have been relieved to see with his own eyes that the 19-year-old featherweight can box a bit too.
Once the ring-entering somersault was done, it was all business for the former GB Junior champion, ‘Boom Boom’ dominating his four-threes against Nicaraguan veteran Reynaldo Cajina – in his 101st bout, not the 100th as announced, a No Contest having been missed – with a 40-36 reward from Mr Carter.
Afterwards, he apologised for the lack of a stoppage, citing a hand injury during his preparation. No matter, the Matchroom boss has been won over. We will see more of this young entertainer.
There were also two four-round wins for Newport-based operators. Super-feather Nathan Howells worked behind the jab to secure a 40-36 margin (Mr Carter) over orange-haired Midlander Jahfieus Faure. The Oldbury man made things messy on occasions, but Howells can now look forward to a return in June against Jose Manuel Perez, the Costa Rican who held him to a draw two months ago.
Transplanted Londoner Miles Gordon-Darby, like Nathan a member of the Tony Borg stable, looked tentative in the show-opener against Swindon trier Phil Williams, but generally did enough to earn Mr Jones’s approval by 39-37.
THE VERDICT It was a bit too close for comfort, but now Cordina – and the Welsh fans – can dream of more nights like this.