Belfast a special stage for the fight game says voice of boxing Steve Bunce
THE BBC’s Harry Carpenter was the voice of boxing back in the 1970s and 80s and that honorary title now belongs to Steve Bunce.
Equally passionate and engaging as writer, broadcaster or author, Bunce has been covering the fight game around the world for close to 40 years now and he first hit the streets of Belfast to meet Paul Hodkinson at Barney Eastwood’s gym back in 1989.
‘Buncey’ has been a regular visitor ever since and he discusses what makes Belfast his favourite fighting city, early days with Barney Eastwood, Carl Frampton and his dispute with Barry McGuigan, the emergence of Paddy Barnes and getting stopped by the Army with Andy Watters…
HE describes himself as “quite big and quite loud” so it’s not hard to spot Steve Bunce at ringside.
He was there at the SSE Arena a fortnight ago, fronting the BoxNation/BT Sport coverage of Carl Frampton’s homecoming fight and he’d been at the Waterfront Hall a few months previously for the bill headlined by Jamie Conlan.
‘Buncey’ has traveled the globe - from his native London to Las Vegas, watching great fighters in great fights and have-a-go heroes in small hall tear-ups - but his favourite fighting city is Belfast.
“It’s the only city in the world, I’m convinced, where kids that have won junior titles at 13 and 14 are known and respected and people look up to them,” he said.
“Winning an Ulster title and then going down to Dublin and winning the All-Irelands really counts. It’s prestigious.
“It carries weight and currency, I don’t think it carries any currency in Scotland or Wales or England.”
He’s absolutely right. For fighters brought up on the ultra-competitive Irish amateur scene an Ulster title is like a Purple Heart, a national title is a medal of honour. Ask any of the pros from Wayne McCullough to Carl Frampton and they’ll rhyme off their achievements at amateur level with pride. But it’s not just the fighters, it’s the crowds that make Belfast a special place to watch the fights.
“The crowd knows,” says Bunce.
“People in London and Liverpool try to claim it, but the big thing about Belfast people is they know when they’re watching a mismatch and they’ll only watch it once or twice. “They know when they’re watching something that isn’t what they’ve been told it is.
“It’s a smart crowd, a boxing crowd. They came out for Frampton’s homecoming a couple of weeks ago but they won’t stand for three or four homecomings, they won’t stand for three or four easy fights because they know. I don’t mean they go online and search the opponents, they just understand good fights and they demand them.”
Bunce’s first visit to these shores was back in 1989 when he arrived to write a piece for The Daily Telegraph on future world featherweight champion Paul Hodkinson. Scouser ‘Hoko’ was based at Barney Eastwood’s gym in the city and the trip was an eye-opener for Bunce who admits: “Let’s be brutally honest, English people are generally clueless about issues in Northern Ireland.”
He had to learn as he went along.
“There was no city airport then so I was out at the international. Barney told me: ‘Get the bus into town and it’ll drop you at the Europa Hotel and just stay there’. When I got there they had security gates and sentries and Barney picked me up and we went to see Paul in the gym.
“I got the bus back out that night and as we were driving out to the airport it was stopped by an army patrol and two of the soldiers got on the bus in full gear.
“Outside you could see soldiers on the road with their guns pointed at us. Now that was weird! For an Englishman going to visit an English world champion in a British city, that was really odd.”
He’s been back at least once a year since 1992, taking in fighters like Ray Close, Sam Storey, Eamonn Loughran, Damaen Kelly, the World Amateurs in 2002 and then Brian Magee through to the Frampton era.
“I came over in 1996 for the Olympic training camp at Holy Trinity in Turf Lodge (west Belfast),” he recalls.
“That was quite an interesting place to be in! I liked it out there.
“I’ve never felt threatened or intimidated in Belfast but when I went back I got pulled out going through arrivals in Birmingham.
The guy asked me: ‘Where have you been?
I said: ‘I’ve been in Belfast’.
He says: ‘Yeah, I know you’ve been in Belfast. What you doing in Belfast?’
I said: Well, I work for the Daily Telegraph, I was talking to fighters.
He says: ‘Where were you?’
I was in gyms.
‘What gyms?’ he asks.
Holy Trinity in Turf Lodge.
‘Oh that’s better,’ he says.
“He knew where I’d been! Not just in Belfast, he knew I’d been on that estate! I thought that was really weird.”
Bunce came here through the Troubles but has never seen trouble – “other than a couple of people pissed” - at a show in Belfast and that’s a welcome change from London where, worryingly, there are now regular punch-ups between rivals groups of (football) fans at fight nights.
Of course there is trouble brewing outside the ring here between Frampton and his former handlers Barry McGuigan’s Cyclone Promotions. Bunce has been around far too long to get involved in that dispute.
“I keep seeing stuff about Barry and I’m thinking ‘Bloody hell, this is savage stuff’,” he says.
“There’s a lot of pro-Frampton stuff out there. In my book (Bunce’s Big Fat Short History of British Boxing) I talk about fighters and promoters who have ended up in court and it never ends well – no-one wins, it’s horrible. It costs a load of money, someone has to pay for it and the only winners are the lawyers who don’t know a left hook from a fish hook and that’s really sad.
“It’s all going to be ugly with the McGuigans and Carl.
“I know nothing about it and I don’t want to because I’ve been around too many splits over the years where Frank Bruno left, or Amir Khan or Naseem Hamed or Joe Calzaghe or Rick Hatton have left managers or promoters. Invariably one side thinks you’re with the other side but I’m 100 per cent neutral.”
The night Frampton, with McGuigan cheering him on, beat Kiko Martinez to become world champion is one of many highlights for Bunce and he can’t pick just one.
“Whether it’s Brian Magee at the Kings Hall, Eamonn Loughran at the Kings Hall, Ray Close pushing Eubank when the Leprechaun was in the ring, Frampton winning the world title in front of 18,000 people or watching Paddy Barnes at the Dockers… Basically, you always have a good night.”
Steve Bunce on:
I thought he put himself under a bit of pressure last time out. He tried a bit too hard because that (Horacio Garcia) was a tough kid he was up against and Carl maybe should have relaxed a bit more.
But then Carl sets himself such high standards and I think he’ll be better next time out. He was carrying a bit of pressure on his shoulders - he had all the agro with the split (from Cyclone), it was a homecoming, it wasn’t a world title fight and he had to get up for it… There was a combination of factors and I think it was a relief for him to get it over with, but he pissed it really and it was a good 10-rounder.
Twenty years ago they would have found a bum for Carl to blast out in two rounds, 25 years ago they would have found an even bigger bum and 30 years ago they would have found a guy who could barely walk for that kind of fight. We’re in a different business now – they might get easy touches on the way up but once they get there they can’t top bills anywhere in Britain and certainly not in Belfast against easy touches. You can’t fight bums.
He’s good, he’s done what he’s had to do and he’s a terrific fighter. He looked really good last time out and the crowd is warming to him.
The Conlan brothers
Michael Conlan will come back next year and the crowd will warm to him.
We’ll see what Jamie Conlan is going to do but that guy (Jerwin Ancajas) he got beat by is an exceptional fighter – with a couple of breaks he could have a really good four-five run and I think he’s a bit special.
Last time out he stole the show. He looked fantastic, he had a little bit of extra weight and he had no pressure – he puts himself under pressure – but he’s rocking at the moment.
That is a talent and he nearly slipped through the net. He had some run-ins with the system. He’s only young but I like him a lot.