Matt Maher: Fairytales to be written as bell rings for return

The highlight of boxing’s return tomorrow night pits a champion aiming to extend a remarkable start to his career against a contender determined to write a fairytale of his own.

Brad Foster from Lichfield and Harry Reeve fight at The Venue In Dudley.
Brad Foster from Lichfield and Harry Reeve fight at The Venue In Dudley.

Brad Foster’s defence of his British and Commonwealth super-bantamweight titles against James Beech heralds a new and what is hoped brief behind closed doors era for the sport in the immediate post-lockdown world.

It is also a huge night for Midlands boxing, as two fighters from the region top the bill on a televised show for the first time since Dudley’s Darren McDermott challenged Birmingham’s Wayne Elcock for the British middleweight belt in 2008.

On that particular night Wolverhampton Civic Hall was packed to the rafters with fans screaming their support for both men, a complete contrast to the east London TV studio in which Lichfield’s Foster and Walsall’s Beech will do battle, with entry restricted to the fighters, referee, judges, corner teams and BT Sport production staff.

Everyone else will have to make do with watching on TV, including Foster’s Black Country-based manager PJ Rowson, for whom it will be a bittersweet experience.

“I’m absolutely gutted I can’t be there,” says Rowson. “In a weird way fighting at the BT Sport studios is something of a homecoming for Brad.

“It’s where I was first introduced to him at a kickboxing event about five years ago. I got chatting to him and his dad, Martin, and was invited to go and watch him spar. From the moment I watched him in action I knew there was something special about this young man.”

It is part of Rowson’s job to talk Foster up, yet it is no attempt at PR bluster when he speaks about one of the most exciting talents he has seen during two decades in the business as a manager and small hall promoter, one who has so far flipped boxing’s accepted logic on its head.

Foster turned professional when he was aged just 18, having never had an amateur fight, his background spent entirely in kickboxing where he won nine versions of a world title at four different weights.

In March last year, at the age of 21, he claimed the British title courtesy of an upset win over Josh Wale in front of a hostile Barnsley crowd. Over the next 11 months he made three defences, something only a handful of boxers have ever managed at any weight. Victory tomorrow would see him keep the Lonsdale belt for good and open up doors to who knows where?

“I honestly don’t know where he will end up,” says Rowson.

“He’s certainly got the potential to be a world-class boxer.

“In all my years in boxing I have never quite met a fighter like him. There really is no comparison. It’s not just about breaking records, he is setting them.

“Things like this just don’t happen in boxing. To come into the sport with no amateur background and do what he has done is incredible. His capacity to learn and his sporting brain are unlike anything I have previously experienced. He really is a rare talent.”

A rising star in the ring, Foster remains grounded out of it. During lockdown he continued to work at his local Tesco, the usual 2am to 8am shift packing online orders for the following day.

“He was classed as a key worker,” explains Rowson. “He’s been working his shift and then heading off to train.”

Foster’s stoppage win over Lucien Reid in February was his most impressive to date and he enters tomorrow’s fight as the obvious favourite.

Yet Beech has not travelled to London merely to make up the numbers and the 23-year-old, who is unbeaten in 12 professional bouts, is confident of pulling off a shock.

His route through the sport has been more traditional. Introduced to boxing at the age of six when his dad took him to Pleck ABC, Beech won 50 of his 80 amateur fights before embarking on a career in the paid ranks which has seen him claim Midlands titles at featherweight and super-featherweight. He certainly doesn’t consider himself the underdog.

“I’m not too bothered about what anyone else is saying. I think I’m going to win,” said Beech, who works as a painter and decorator and trains under the guidance of Pete Hickingbottom at Great Wyrley ABC.

“I’ve trained full-time for this fight and I’ve never felt in better shape. I’m comfortable with a number of styles and I think I can handle whatever he throws at me.

“I’m strong, I’ve got a good jab and I’ve just got to stick to the gameplan.

“It’s a big night, of course. The British title, that belt, is special. It’s potentially life-changing if I win.”

The fighters and their corner teams, which are restricted to three people, have twice been tested for coronavirus and quarantined in a hotel close to the venue since Tuesday.

Only they and a handful of others will be permitted to enter the red zone around the ring, while referees will wear a mask and be required to shower between each fight. There are five bouts scheduled, with Foster v Beech topping off the first of 16 shows planned from now until the end of next month.

The build-up for such a big fight will be unusual and perhaps even unnerving, yet once the bell goes it will be the last thing on either fighter’s mind.

As Beech rather succinctly summed up: “When you are in the ring with someone who is trying to punch you in the face, you just tend to get on with it.”

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