Boxing

BBC correspondent Mike Costello hopes for Tyson Fury versus Anthony Joshua when boxing returns

Mike Costello (right) blocks a left hook and gets ready to land one of his own during his amateur days with Lynn AC Boxing Club
Andy Watters

IT WAS Mike Costello’s first senior contest and in the opposite corner was a tough nut from Camden Town called Jim McDonnell.

Like Costello, McDonnell was making his senior debut. They were both 17 and went into the bout as prospects with plenty of junior success behind them.

The bell in “an old nightclub on the Tottenham Court Road” rang and McDonnell went straight at his Lynn AC adversary. Search-and-destroy, search-and-destroy… It was like that for all three rounds.

At the end, McDonnell had his hand raised and Costello had no complaints. Victory over his London rival gave the Camden lad the confidence to kick on to a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in 1982 and then to a professional career which delivered a European title, a win over Barry McGuigan (he was the only man to stop him) and a gutsy challenge for Azumah Nelson’s WBC title at the Royal Albert Hall.

“I had some success as a junior, up to 15, but I didn’t get the requisite body-strength when I turned senior at 17 and that was when I started to get found out,” says Costello.

“Jim went on to be a terrific professional. He still remembers that night well and we have a laugh about it now. He hit me at one stage that night and I remember thinking: ‘Blimey, this is different…’

“That made me wake-up and realise that I had to put an awful lot more in, it wasn’t just about practising hooks and uppercuts and combinations any more, it was about getting your body strong and fit.

“Jim just came at me relentlessly for three rounds and it flicked a switch in me. He went on over the next three years and became comfortably the most improved amateur boxer in England and then went on to win a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games and had a really good pro career. I stayed exactly where I was that night whereas Jim kicked on.”

But Costello banked the events of that night and put them to good use in his own way. After hanging up his gloves he became a respected and successful coach at the Lynn club in south-east London where his products included former British Olympic heavyweight Henry Akinwande and of course he has since forged a career in broadcasting as BBC 5 Live’s boxing and athletics correspondent.

“That experience turned out to be so useful in terms of the insight it gave me,” he explains.

“I have seen the same thing that happened to me happening to pros as well. You see a fighter and you think: ‘Oh, they’re going to make strides here…’ but they stay at British title level or Southern Area title level or whatever it is.

“Sometimes you can’t quite pin down the reason but it might just be that they don’t believe in themselves enough or they haven’t put the work in, or they don’t have the right chin… There are so many factors.

“That night against Jim McDonnell made me realise that this is how you separate the good, the very good and the elite. There are levels and levels and levels and Jim left me behind that night.”

There are levels in sport that only the very best can reach but hard work can take you a long way in life if you are prepared to seize your opportunity when it comes along.

Around the same time that he boxed Jim McDonnell, Costello left school and started his first job, in the BBC accounts department. Of course, it was a means to an end, a foot in the door, for him because his passion was sport – first boxing and then athletics. Gradually, through a mixture of sheer enthusiasm, ambition and dedication, he worked his way into the sportsroom and had already commentated at the athletics World Championships and the 2000 Olympic Games when a chance to call the live action in the ring finally came his way.

John Rawling lost his voice at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester. Mike was at ringside to do bulletins for the BBC World Service and was hastily drafted in to replace his colleague half-an-hour before the leather started flying.

“I just knew I had to step up,” he says.

“That night I genuinely said to myself: ‘You’ve been talking about it all this time, you tell everyone how the best in the business step up when they need to… So I just thought: ‘Right, here we go’.

“I didn’t have time to get nervous, I had 20 minutes to get myself together and luckily I had done quite a lot of research for my bulletins for the World Service.

“I’ve learned from the people I’ve been around that you have to apply yourself to your job like the top sportstars do. I’ve seen Usain Bolt vomiting on the trackside in Kingston, I’ve seen Floyd Mayweather throwing punches at a punchbag like they were the last punches he was ever going to throw. He put such effort, such determination and precision into every shot.

“I just thought: ‘I have to apply myself like that’ and when young bucks come to me and ask if I’ve got any tips, I always tell them: ‘You just don’t know when the chance will come your way, so be ready’.

“I was ready that night and it changed everything for me. Without it I wouldn’t be commentating now. We all need that lucky break but when it comes you have to take it.”

Costello’s first professional boxing commentary was Ricky Hatton versus Ray Oliveira in a non-title fight at the Excel, London in December 2004. The following year Rawling (who now works for BT Sport) left BBC radio to become ITV’s new boxing commentator. Costello stepped in and has been there since.

“The big name in my early days was Joe Calzaghe so I got to cover the last couple of years of his career,” he explains.

“The first massive fight I did, and the prospect of doing it frightened me a bit, was Floyd Mayweather versus Oscar De La Hoya in Las Vegas (May, 2007). It felt absolutely massive at the time and then later that year I went back for Mayweather versus Hatton.

“In my first four or five years there was Hatton, Calzaghe, David Haye all winning or coming very close to world titles and those were the kind of names you didn’t have persuade the BBC to pay commentary rights for. I didn’t have to do anything because they sold themselves.

“I remember two years in-a-row they boxed October-November-December. Boxing was always on the 5 Live radar, so it was a good time to be around.”

Hatton, Haye and Calzaghe had their time on the stage but there was a lull in the British boxing scene for a while around 2011-2012. Then a 6’8” colossus called Anthony Joshua emerged and grabbed the spotlight, winning gold at London 2012. Tyson Fury, Carl Froch, Darren Barker, George Groves, Carl Frampton and others have emerged since.

“From the 2012 Olympics onwards it has been a great time to be a boxing correspondent in Britain for sure,” says Costello who has been very, very busy.

As well as seven Olympic Games’ dating back to 1998, he is now the veteran of around 100 world title fights (he hasn’t kept a record) and you can guarantee that he has prepared for and treated every one of those fights with the same attention to detail, professionalism and enthusiasm he did when he got his first chance to call the action at those Commonwealth Games.

“A really important part of it is the passion and I still love it,” he says.

“In boxing you deal sometimes with deaths and issues and fighters who have been turned over and haven’t got the chances they want but at its purist, the sport that I fell in love with as a kid, I still get that giddiness when the boxers walk to the ring.

“In most cases, because of the commentary position you can almost reach out and touch the fighters as they go to the ring. I still get that buzz and there’s almost a little bit of a ‘that could have been me’ kind of thing although I wasn’t good enough.

“And also there’s something to be said for my understanding of it because the game has given me three lives: as a boxer, a coach and now as a commentator and you build a whole range of different experiences that you can bring into a commentary so it’s not left-right, left-right, left-right all night long.

“I have so much passion for the sport and so much respect for what they (the boxers) are doing in the ring. In fact the criticism I sometimes get is that I’m too excited about it but if that’s all they (the critics) can find to say then that’ll suit me.”

Alongside his work as a correspondent, his podcast with Steve Bunce ‘5 Live boxing with Costello and Bunce’ is now essential listening for fight fans. He first came across Bunce when his club Lynn AC travelled the short distance for shows against Fitzroy Lodge ABC in the 1970s.

Bunce boxed for Fitzroy, was he good?

“He was, yeah,” says Costello.

“I’d say we were both of a similar standard. I’m about 18 months older than him, but we boxed in the same environment.

“His club was my club’s local rival so we’re very much from the same boxing background but after that we disappeared out of each other’s lives for years.

“Buncey knew the amateur scene by heart and he was forging a career in papers and magazines at the time when I was unable to get a breakthrough on radio. We drifted back together when I got the correspondent’s job in 2005 and by then he was very established.

“We work together now on the podcast and for fight build-up and commentary and our background is a big part of why we understand each other so well on air even though we’re very different personalities. We’ve both got that all-important back catalogue that we can both refer to.”

Mike turned 60 last week and would have celebrated with a family trip to Lisbon if it hadn’t been for the Coronavirus pandemic. Now he’s “staring at four walls” like the rest of us and looking forward to be day when sport returns again. When the current lockdown passes, the prospect of a heavyweight battle of Britain world title fight for the ages is an intriguing proposition.

“The fight that I’d love to be doing is Anthony Joshua against Tyson Fury,” he says.

“That would have to be close to the biggest event in British boxing history and one of the biggest even in British sporting history overall.

“It would be one of those events where everybody would have an opinion, everybody would know it was happening – even if they were saying ‘I’m not watching that rubbish’ - and you can’t say that about much in sport apart from the Olympics or the World Cup. It would be monstrous.

“To do an all-British world heavyweight title fight that the whole world genuinely cared about would be really special.”

Now that’s something to look forward to.

Mike Costello’s top five Irish fighters

Carl Frampton

I was lucky enough to do commentary for Frampton’s win against Leo Santa Cruz in New York. It was a really special performance and a great win.

Steve Collins

Like Frampton, a two-weight world champion and a terrific fighter.

Barry McGuigan

The radio commentary from the McGuigan-Pedroza fight at QPR has just been put up on the BBC website and I’ve just listened to it for the first time.

Dave ‘Boy’ McAuley

He beat a good mate of mine – Duke McKenzie – to win the world flyweight title. I was at the fight and very close to the ring apron that night. Duke told me had a nightmare making the weight but everyone down at flyweight does as he quite openly said at the same time.

Michael Carruth

Because of my background in amateur boxing I know how hard it is to win Olympic gold and one of the measures I’ve always used for the value of a sporting achievement is a scale of rarity – if it hasn’t been done, or it’s been done very rarely, then it must be hard to do. That makes it all the more special. I was there that day at Barcelona, it was my first Olympics and I remember all the flags around the arena. I remember thinking he had no chance against this Cuban kid Juan Hernandez but it was an amazing win. Great atmosphere, great noise... A really special day.

It was the same day that Wayne McCullough won the silver and later I did a summary interview with Terry Wogan for his show on Radio 5. So you can imagine how popular I was with the clan having been interviewed by Terry Wogan!

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