British Beat: Gary Sykes Goes For Broke Against Carl Johanneson

(credit: Chris Bevan)

There aren’t many fighters who would elect to dust themselves off after a knockout loss and then go right back into the eye of the storm with a teeth-jangling power puncher. That is the challenge, however, that British junior lightweight champion Gary Sykes has chosen for himself Saturday evening in Huddersfield, against the neon-glowing danger man, Carl Johanneson.


Sykes had steadily begun to make a name for himself on the domestic scene, after scoring solid wins over the likes of Anthony Crolla, Andy Morris and Kevin O’Hara. That was until he made the ruinous decision in November to enter one of Matchroom Promotion’s Prizefighter competitions. The popular three-round elimination tournament tends to favour busy little swarmers fuelled on desperation. It always looked an odd fit for a precision boxer who usually takes a while to warm to his task, and appeared even more of a gamble when one considers that Sykes already had a Lonsdale belt around his waist.

After stopping Scott Lawton in his opening bout, Sykes was starched with a single overhand right thrown in round 2 by the eventual winner, Gary Buckland. Never has a beaten fighter’s face summed up his plight more succinctly. As he tottered to his feet in slow motion and into the arms of his cornerman, Sykes looked stunned, baffled and incredulous in equal measure.

Johanneson, 30-4 (19) returns to 130 lbs for the first time in three years, with his last outing at this weight having resulted in defeat at the hands of Kevin Mitchell. The “Dagenham Destroyer” halted him in round 9 of a topsy turvy gripper which had left the crowd simmering nicely ahead of David Haye’s demolition job on Enzo Maccarinelli. His three comeback victories since then have all taken place at light welterweight and, while they’ve been steady rather than spectacular, he still looks to have something left to give, which could be bad news for Sykes.

The Leeds slugger learnt his trade in the U,S., where he went 12-0 before dropping a split decision to Koba Gogoladze in a ShoBox televised battle of unbeatens. After bouncing back and then signing off with a win at the Blue Horizon in Philly, Johanneson returned home yet was quickly derailed by the hammer fisted Armenian, Levan Kirakosyan – splattered within two minutes of the off.

Johanesson then entered the most successful phase of his career, which brought him a British title along with big wins over Femi Fehintola and the current WBO titlist, Ricky Burns. Unfortunately, he then ran into Kirakosyan again, a bigger, stronger and harder punching version of himself. Again he exited the contest quickly, this time after taking a frightful pasting in the 3rd round and winding up on his back attended to by paramedics in round 4. Lesser fighters would have called it a career.

Sykes, 17-1 (4) usually has only one method of victory available to him. After finding his feet in the fight’s opening third, he starts to pick his punches from range before outworking his man down the stretch. Whilst his footwork can sometimes require adjustment, he’s an accurate sniper and has bags of energy.

It will be interesting to note how Sykes approaches this one. The manner in which he went out against Buckland would suggest a more cautious approach – Gary himself admits that he boxed raggedly due to the competition’s short format. Should he decide to take the alternate route in front of a roaring sell out crowd, allowing machismo to overrule common sense, then he could find himself in serious trouble.

One other main point to consider is how effectively Johanesson can reduce weight. Whilst the art of boiling down can bestow a boxer with unnatural punching power, it can also cripple their energy reserves in the bout’s latter stages, right when Sykes is at his most effective.

At 32, Johanesson is getting on a bit for a pressure fighter, yet he remains convinced that his former gym mate is vulnerable and that the British title is his for the taking. He’ll be looking to jump on Sykes immediately, hoping to shake up any insecurities which have taken root since the Buckland fight. As Sykes motors in and out of range, Carl will look to touch him up downstairs, all the while setting him up for his booming overhand right.

Sykes, the younger man by six years, will have to show some mettle to come out on the right side of victory. He’ll need to ride out a stormy opening passage before settling into his stride, picking up the pace after half way to carry him home on points. Whilst he undoubtedly has the gumption required to do so, we’ll know far more about his punch resistance after the dust has settled on this intriguing Yorkshire derby.

Oddschecker make Sykes a firm favourite at 1/2, with Johanneson excellent value at 19/10. I see this as a genuine pick ‘em fight, and have a nagging feeling that the underdog may just have more avenues to victory open to him. Whilst Sykes on points is the sensible pick, Johanneson can spring a surprise here if he can perform anywhere close to his best.

A couple of potential stars are in action on the undercard. Barry McGuigan protégé, Carl Frampton, looks to make it 9-0 against Venezuelan Oscar Chacin at junior featherweight, whilst super middleweight puncher, George Groves shakes off the rust in this, his twelfth outing, against Ghanaian champion Daniel Adotey Allotey.  

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board ( He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.