Belfast lightweight clash between Joe Fitzpatrick and Stephen Webb rekindles memories of some legendary Irish derby battles of yesteryear

Stephen Webb at John Breen's Gym on Tuesday. Pic Philip Walsh.
Andy Watters

IT'S not in the Kings Hall, it's in a small hall, but the all-Belfast lightweight clash between Joe Fitzpatrick and Stephen Webb has rekindled memories of some of the legendary Irish derby battles of yesteryear.

The former sparring partners are both in the early stages of their professional careers, but the action at the Devenish Complex on Saturday night will be intense as the city rivals go at it from the first bell.

Fitzpatrick, the favourite, has returned after almost 18 months out of the ring. He won a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2014 and has vowed to honour the memory of his late father Gerry by becoming a world champion.

In the opposite corner, underdog Webb can’t match Fitzpatrick’s achievements at amateur level but he does have a rich boxing pedigree to draw upon.

Stephen (23) is a nephew of Jim Webb, the man who famously choked back floods of tears as team doctor Sean Donnelly belted out a spine-tingling rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ during the medal ceremony after he’d won gold at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Canada.

Like his uncle, Stephen is a southpaw who began his career at Oliver Plunkett ABC before switching to the Holy Trinity club.

A late starter, he first pulled gloves on seriously at the age of 15 and boxed for Holy Trinity until he was 19 and torn tendons (he stepped on a bottle on the second day of a lad’s jolly in Megaluf) put paid to his boxing and his holiday.

He was on crutches for three months and out of the gym until he returned to boxing aged 21. He struggled to get back in the groove and jumped at the chance to turn professional last year.

“I was always in and around boxing, training and sparring and stuff, but I was never able to push myself to get back in for the championships,” he explained.

“It was more a mental issue, I was always thinking: ‘What if my foot goes in the first round or something?’ I was more worried about being embarrassed than the fight. But last March Kieran Farrell (Manchester-based boxing manager) approached me and I went over and it turned out great.

“I got to spar Anthony Crolla and I boxed very well. I turned a few heads and the likes of Joe Gallagher liked what he saw.

“I came back and I’ve had some great spars with the likes of Paddy Gallagher and Lewis Crocker.”

Another of his sparring partners was Fitzpatrick. The pair of them locked horns in a series of spars last summer and, although he knows ‘sparring ain’t fighting’, Webb took plenty of confidence from their meetings.

“Because I was so inactive as an amateur, I had to get my licence from the BUI and they came to watch the spar – you have to spar well for them to give you a licence,” he explained.

“I picked Joe to spar for mine and we sparred three days in-a-row. The first day the BUI said: ‘You wouldn’t know who the Commonwealth silver medallist was there’.

“It was brilliant sparring, neither of us was 100 per cent fit so we wouldn’t take too much away from it. I was happy with the way it went but I’m not expecting it to be like that on Saturday night. It’ll be a completely different story.”

With only one professional fight behind him – he rolled over Slovakian journeyman Rudolf Durica on his debut – this is a considerable step up in class for Webb. He feels he has been overlooked and is determined to rip up the script on Saturday night.

“Some people who don’t know much about boxing are going: ‘Joe Fitzpatrick is gonna walk over this guy’ but it is a real 50-50 fight and I think he knows that as well,” said Webb.

“He is talking himself up to give himself confidence but it is going to be a cracking fight and it will come down to who wants it more. Throughout this whole training camp I have wanted it so much – my sparring partners in this camp have been James Tennyson, Marco McCullough and Feargal McCrory.

“They’re all tough, tough guys and I’ve had to dig down deep and I’ve come out well so I’m very, very confident. On the night I think I’m going to be bigger than him and stronger than him – it’s going to be in his favour the way he thinks it is.

“When I do win it, it’ll open up an awful lot of doors for me so I’m looking forward to it.”

Pride is at stake but there are other factors at play too. The carrot of a Celtic title shot is being dangled in front of both fighters on Saturday night and Webb, like his rival Fitzpatrick, is determined he’ll be the man that gets it.

“It’s a big fight for my second fight and I did jump at it as soon as it was offered to me, I didn’t have to think twice about it,” he said.

“After this I could go and have one or two warm-up fights and then go for a title fight at the end of the year. The plan is to get this win and then there’s talk of a Celtic title fight in September – the title is vacant so there is talk of the winner of this fighting Martin Quinn.

“Victor Rabei is the super-lightweight Celtic champion and I feel more comfortable at that weight as well so I could go up even though I’ve made lightweight for this fight very, very easy.”

Trained by the wily John Breen, Webb goes into the fight with a clear gameplan and he fully expects to win.

“It’s only my second fight but the last eight weeks have been the best I’ve had in my whole boxing career,” he said.

“The whole camp has been outstanding.”

All-Ireland grudge matches

THE rich history of Irish boxing has served up some famous duels and some memorable ones at many levels. Here are a few:

Johnny Caldwell v Freddie Gilroy

October 20, 1962

TWO of Irish boxing’s bona fide all-time greats met at a packed Kings Hall in 1962 with the British and Commonwealth Bantamweight titles on the line. Both had been Olympic Games medal winners but there was genuine acrimony between them and Caldwell, from the Falls Road, and Ardoyne’s Gilroy went at it with spiteful intent from the first bell.

Gilroy had his rival down with a left hook counter in the opener and Caldwell, who never gave an inch in the fight, was forced to retire at the end of the ninth round after a clash of heads. Despite winning, Gilroy never fought again and Caldwell went on to capture the vacant titles in 1964.

Hugh Russell v Davy Larmour

October 5, 1982, Ulster Hall

THE first meeting of the Belfast rivals was a rip-roaring, blood-soaked classic that has gone down in Irish boxing folklore. Russell, an Olympic medallist, was skilful and quick, Larmour was experienced and tough.

The vacant Northern Ireland Area and Irish Bantamweight titles were on the line and Russell, the younger man by 10 years, got the nod over 15 brutal rounds.

The fight was also a final eliminator for the British title and it was a truly bloody affair that went the distance. Russell was awarded a points win by referee Mike Jacobs.

Hugh Russell v Davy Larmour II

February 2, 1983, Kings Hall,

RUSSELL went on to beat John Feeney to win the British title and it was on the line when he faced off against Larmour for the second time – just four months later – this time at the Kings Hall.

The pair of them served up another absorbing, action-packed clash but his time, having put Russell down with a thumping right hand in the fifth round, Larmour got the decision. He made one defence of the title, losing it to Feeney in November 1983 and he subsequently retired. Hugh Russell went on to win the British flyweight title before hanging up his gloves in 1985.

Alfredo Meli v Conrad Cummings

November 20, 2015, The Waterfront Hall

TYRONE native Cummings had Shane McGuigan in his corner for this Irish middleweight title fight and he was expected to follow in the footsteps of stablemate Carl Frampton by blasting out full-time car mechanic Meli. But the Immaculata fighter was in no mood to give an inch.

Meli was dropped in the first round though and Cummings returned to his corner confident of living up to his billing. However, with streetwise Belfast fighting men like Gerard ‘Nugget’ Nugent manning his corner, Meli rallied with a mixture of raw strength and clever boxing and he pushed Cummings to the brink of defeat before he gamely fought back to scrape a draw.

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