Pain game ends Ryan Burnett's world title reign but he can come back bigger and better

Ryan Burnett reaches for his lower back as referee Howard Foster begins the count. That injury would signal the end of the fight at the end of the fourth round. Picture by PA
From Neil Loughran in Glasgow

THEY don’t call it the pain game for nothing. Take the surge that coursed through Ryan Burnett’s body as he twisted to fire a right hand at Nonito Donaire, inexplicably finding himself in agony seconds later.

For a man who had hadn’t touched the canvas in his 19 previous fights as a pro, it must have been a disorienting experience – not to mention a debilitatingly painful one - when referee Howard Foster began the count, knowing it wasn’t an opponent’s glove that had put him there.

Somehow Burnett saw out the final 35 seconds of the fourth round but even he must have known the game was up at that stage, despite summoning the strength to bob and weave as Donaire scented blood.

The physical pain aside, imagine the mental torment of knowing that the world title you had won after 12 rounds of murder with Zhanat Zhakiyanov had been relieved from your grasp because your body, or a part of it, had said no.

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Burnett has hardly had his troubles to seek on that front, calling upon his warrior instinct time and again during his sensational rise to the top of the bantamweight division in the past 18 months.

First of all he required plastic surgery on a gruesome cut sustained in ripping the IBF belt from Lee Haskins in June 2017, before being rushed to hospital with severe headaches and a temporary loss of hearing immediately after taking defeating Zhakiyanov.

Against tough Venezuelan Yonfrez Parejo in his first defence of the WBA strap back in March, Burnett broke a hand in the third round but still battled to a wide points win.

Yet, even in the midst of all those travails, when he reached his right glove to his lower back - just around the belt line - with 52 seconds of the fourth remaining before dropping to the canvas, it was the first time in his career when you really sensed Ryan Burnett was in trouble.

Alarm bells had already begun to sound at the end of the third, however. Although he was boxing beautifully at times, Burnett was heard telling Booth “I can’t move it - I tried to throw a shot there” once he reached the corner, before muttering something about his waistline.

Three minutes later, Booth was telling Foster the fight was over – a decision he should be applauded for. At 26, Burnett has plenty of road left in his career, there was nothing to be gained from sending him back out in such obvious discomfort.

A sombre round of applause swept around the SSE Hydro at the sad sight of Burnett leaving the auditorium on a stretcher, an oxygen mask being held to his face, after being examined by ringside paramedics.

Unconfirmed suggestions indicate Burnett may have suffered a slipped disc, but he was given the green light to travel home and will have further scans today to discover the extent of the injury.  “I’m absolutely heartbroken,” said Burnett in a post on Facebook yesterday.

“My back went, I tried to continue but I was simply in too much pain. This is boxing.

“I’m gutted but it was completely out of my control. Thank you everyone for your support.”

What made that shock ending all the more difficult to digest for those inside the Hydro was the fact there were no physical tells up to that point. No obvious signs of distress.

Indeed, the third was arguably his best round of the four, and by that stage Burnett looked to be gaining a measure of control against an all-time great of the fight game, and one of the most feared punchers at 118lb.

Along with Booth, Burnett will have meticulously studied the strengths and weaknesses of the ‘Filipino Flash’, who looked big back down at bantam for the first time since 2011.

Booth could be heard urging his man to remain unpredictable, not to stand in front of Donaire for too long and, despite finding himself pinned in the neutral corner more often than he would have liked, Burnett expertly carried out his coach’s instructions.

Crouching low, spearing quick, snappy jabs into the Filipino’s face and landing solid counters, utilising his quicker feet and superior upper body movement to good effect, he had settled into the fight well.

Donaire may have edged a cagey first round, although on second viewing I’m not so sure, having been a bit busier and landing the more eye-catching shots. Crucially, though, a trademark left and an overhand right both caught Burnett at different stages, and the Belfast man didn’t blink.

“He’s not as quick as I thought he was,” said Booth at the end of the first, before a beautiful cross right saw Burnett get off to the perfect start in the second.

Ryan Burnett looked to be settling into the fight well before it was called off at the end of the fourth round

Donaire landed a big shot near the ribs as he turned his attacked to the body, but Burnett was evading most of what was coming his way and landed a lovely short left uppercut followed by a right over the top towards the end of the round.

Having looked a bit sluggish early on, always loading up and looking for the big shot, Donaire started to use his feet well in the third, closing the distance in the corner again and landing two big rights over the guard, as well as a nice counter left close in seconds later.

But Burnett came back strongly with a right hook, straight left combo heading into the final minute before a beautiful straight left, right cross sent Donaire backtracking into the ropes, although the Filipino finished the third strongly.

Perhaps further to what he had told Booth in the corner, Burnett stayed on his bike more in what turned out to be the final round, circling back and forth, frustrating Donaire but picking his own shots carefully, perhaps warily.

Yet nobody could have imagined what was about to unfold as Burnett suddenly hit the canvas, leaving ringside observers to hastily squint up at the big screen to see the shot that had done the damage.

It turns out it was his own, and whatever way he threw it sent his back into spasm, signalling a premature end to a fight that was just bubbling along nicely.

For my money Burnett was 2-1 up heading into the fourth. If he was to meet Donaire again down the line, I would be even more confident than before they men entered the ring on Saturday night.

But all that matters for nothing now. Once the physical and mental pain subsides, it is Ryan Burnett who must rebuild and plot his way back to the top. He has done it so many times before, you better believe he can do it again.

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