Bring aa’ yor nobles grand an’ fine
An match him if ye can;
The brightest gem upon the Tyne’s
The honest workin’ man
–“The Honest Workin’ Man” by James Anderson
Boxing returns to Newcastle on Saturday, as Darlington’s Stuart Hall tackles exciting Ellesmere Port talent Paul Butler at the Metro Arena, a suddenly reinvigorated boxing venue adjoining the River Tyne. Hall (16-2-2, 7 KOs) defends his portion of a segmented world bantamweight title picture against Butler (15-0, 8 KOs), the latest “Baby-faced Assassin” from Merseyside, who has scouted Hall in the manner Wile E. Coyote once slobbered over Road Runner.
Of the five men who currently lay claim to world titles at 118 lbs., Hall, 34, is the lowliest ranked; despite his courageous title-winning effort over the South African Vusi Malinga in December, Hall’s credentials as a world class fighter have also been called into question. Domestic rivals Jamie McDonnell and Lee Haskins account for Hall’s loss column in its entirety and both are angling to face him again, should he emerge into Sunday’s twilight hours still guarding his coveted belt.
Butler, 25, a career junior bantamweight, has gambled with the three pound handicap that separates his own division from Hall’s. Despite the increasingly destructive machinations of boxing’s world governing bodies, fighters (including Butler) continue to hanker after their straps. Notional championships — such as those awarded by boxing’s media in an attempt to help clarify an unfathomable championship mess — mean next to nothing to a fighter scrabbling for a living. For the time being at least, alphabet titles, as detrimental as they are to the game’s overall health, remain a prize that can enhance both a man’s profile and earnings, especially in the lower weights — divisions that remain neglected stepchildren agin heavier, more glamorous groupings.
Hall suddenly finds himself spearheading a movement in his native North East, one initiated by promoter Frank Maloney and built around Sunderland Olympian Tony Jeffries (until hand injuries curtailed Jeffries’ career two years ago). After fighting for brass buttons over recent years, Hall — now under the canny stewardship of Sheffield scrap magnate Dennis Hobson — has seen his boat unexpectedly come in; he’ll fight tooth and nail to secure it on the slipway.
There is an old boxing adage that suggests a world title triumph, the fulfilment of a lifetime ambition for many, can elevate a fighter to another level. In that regard, a belt becomes something of an amulet. But it remains to be seen whether Hall, who is riding a five-fight unbeaten run, is the latest beneficiary of such abstract osmosis. For in his maiden defence, a well-attended local derby against West Rainton’s Martin Ward, the bout ended inconclusively just minutes from the off, when a head clash injured Ward and reduced his long-shot dreams to tatters.
Butler has looked a prodigious talent coming through — nimble, dextrous and smart, he looks something of an original. The 2010 ABA champion at flyweight, Butler proceeded to canter to British and Commonwealth honours within 11 professional bouts.
At first glance, one could be minded of Scarborough’s former world class featherweight Paul Ingle. Butler, though, raids the body like his idol, Marco Antonio Barrera, the Mexican maestro who annihilated Butler’s hometown hero and family friend, Paul Lloyd, 15 years ago in London.
It is a match that pits Hall’s size, strength and tenacity against the younger man’s skill, speed and poise. Hall, primed under the quietly-spoken 50-year-old Mick Marsden of Rothwell, will bank on being relentless; crowding, swinging, forward-pressing, he’ll attempt to intimidate and ultimately expose Butler’s wizardry before a partisan Geordie crowd.
Butler boasts a confidence that would be presumed cocky were he not such a reserved orator. There is a quiet air about him, though, of a man who holds answers to questions yet to be asked. In that sense, he recalls a young Naseem Hamed. In 1995, Hamed, then a junior featherweight prodigy willing to sacrifice his best weight for a first world title tilt, challenged Cinderella man Steve Robinson for the Cardiffian’s world title before a hostile Welsh crowd. Hamed left his hosts (many of whom had encroached menacingly upon the ring) spellbound with a mercurial showing. That went double for Robinson, who succumbed to a demoralising 8th round TKO.
Hall, who is gargantuan for a bantamweight, looks set to be equally confounded. As honest as they come, he won’t crumble or quit, least of all stop working. Butler, though, the 1-to-3 favourite, looks ready to grasp the nettle. It seems likely that two gems will have lit the coaly Tyne at the close of 12 engrossing rounds.