An unexpected slog befell heavy betting favourite John Murray at London’s York Hall on Saturday evening as ring rust, lethargy and a most obstinate foe in the shape of Spaniard Karim El Ouazghari conspired to leave him moonwalking miserably back into the pack of lightweight contenders he had appeared to have stolen a march on. Unable to summon his usual zeal, rhythm and rolling boulder impetus, he was left to pull out an ugly unanimous decision win instead, one which served to highlight more holes in his game than wrinkles.
Murray found himself in an odd position here. Ridiculously overpriced with bookmakers, he’d been ushered down to the big smoke to impress with a crushing performance in a perfunctory win. With his main domestic rival, Kevin Mitchell, on hand at ringside, a quick blow-out, a couple of camera clicks and a knowing smile from promoter Frank Warren would have catalysed anticipation perfectly ahead of a mooted summer meet. Unfortunately, though, Ouazghari, limited as he is, had arrived with plans on flipping the script. Regrettably also, Murray isn’t geared towards blasting inferior opposition asunder with any great ease.
Murray’s trainer, the erudite and heedful Joe Gallagher, had whispered his misgivings all week. With nary a scrap of film footage to be found on Ouazghari, Manchester’s dynamic duo found their usual, meticulous prep work hampered. And boy, did it show.
Competitive from the get-go, Ouazghari arrived in sparkling condition and brought with him a wretched style, brimming with gauche. Looking slow and sluggish, Murray sought to crank up his usual attacking waves; however, his starting motor looked to have snagged, or worse still, blown completely. Ouazghari, doing little more than standing his ground whilst retaliating with basic punches found himself, surprisingly, on competitive terms. The Sky Sports commentary team, comprised of Jim Watt and John Rawling, leapt immediately onto Ouazghari’s coat tails and refused to budge for the remainder of the contest – wrongly leading viewers down their fairytale garden path in the process.
Watt, notorious for reporting to duty with a preconceived notion of how a fight will play out and clinging to it like a dog with a bone, even when the action before him advises him to conform to reality, was at his pedantic best. With Rawling effusively backing him up, Watt proceeded to trample all over the play-by-play, cheerleading for the Spaniard as though he’d staked his week’s pension on an unfathomable upset.
Murray’s bulldozing, hardman routine clearly didn’t sit right with Jim, a fan of the more cerebral, hit-and-not-get-hit style of fighting. Regardless, the Manchester man’s subtle infighting skills (under par as they were) allowed him to sweep the majority of rounds, albeit narrowly, whenever he allowed himself space enough to land. Crunching body shots and drilling, subtle digs inside paled into insignificance alongside Ouazghari’s frantic, flashing one-twos, according to the mic men at least. Perhaps they were auditioning for a button pressing gig at London 2012 — who can say exactly?
After his attempts at stampeding Ouazghari in as crude a fashion as can be imagined failed, Murray changed tack, waiting for the challenger to lead before wading into him, still ungainly, still off-key but well enough to diminish his threat. And on it dragged, an eyesore to be sure. Murray, bruised under both eyes laboured his way through invisible treacle whilst Ouazghari revelled in his role as ointment fly, flicking a bit, spoiling a tad and wrestling willingly when Murray smothered him against the ropes.
The visitor came on in the 10th, showing admirable spirit and resolve which only added to the green-gilled Murray’s bad night. Watt and Rawling moved into overdrive now, their Waldorf and Statler style “balconisms” bringing unprecedented use to mute buttons across the land. Ouazghari, on leaden legs and clearly fed up with Murray’s roughhousing, flicked a butt towards his bully in the penultmate session, one which Zinedine Zidane would have admired – instantly incurring a point penalty in the process. Waldorf was outraged now, claiming this imaginary fluffed call would cause his man to lose heart and as a result, the fight. After Murray bundled a dilapidated Ouazghari to the canvas with a succession of scuffing blows for a count moments later, one half expected to see a pair of headphones come sailing across the ring in protest.
Murray somehow conspired to let the Catalan survive the final round, the away fighter displaying real determination to ride out the 12th on wilting flower stems for legs, chased all the while by the spluttering, misfiring victor. Summing up his suffocating frustration, Murray slugged his man behind the head as the clock ticked down, a blatant foul which knocked a point from his tallies. Scores were returned 117-111, 116-110 and 115-112, carrying Murray to 31-0 (18), whist lowering Ouazghari to 11-2-2 (4).
As an audition for a gig up at world level, it could not have aired more poorly. The improvements in craft, power and defence — which would appear prerequisites before he considers stepping into higher class — were missing entirely. In fact, so poor was Murray’s form, he can expect to start as an underdog against Mitchell (the Londoner who failed miserably in his own attempt to “break through” last year against warmonger Michael Katsidis).
If Murray is to fulfil his ambitions, the reminder had been sent. He’ll have to do it the hard way, the only way he knows how.