A WEEK in LA.
The Staples Centre was nearly empty when I first arrived there on fight day, a few technicians, the ring-card squad, officials in blazers and Jack Reiss sitting quietly in an empty row of seats.
Big Jack was having a reflective moment, perhaps gazing at the 6.9 of canvas space once occupied for about eight seconds by Tyson Fury’s sleeping body. Reiss, Fury and the last-round miracle, our own boxing nativity.
I walked the outside of the ring, patted the canvas, pulled on the ropes, nodded to David Diamanté and walked over to Jack. “It’s a small ring,” I offered. “It’s 18-feet, there’s nowhere to run,” Jack offered back. He was right, there was nowhere to run.
The week had started on Venice Beach four days earlier with the homeless, shameless and nameless all skating, singing and dancing at noon. I had found a quiet bench to watch the first fight between Logan Paul and KSI; there was not much to analyse for the short film I was making for the BBC – the bell went, they started swinging, they got tired, the bell went and the fight was over.
“He’s a douche for doing that and the other one’s a douche for saying that,” said my taxi driver when I left the beach for the glass canyons of downtown. She was from Honduras and her daughters knew the boxers, knew their stories. “I don’t let them watch, but they go over to a friend’s house and they watch this stuff.” There is an old Las Vegas taxi trick, still used by veteran hacks and still accurate: In the taxi from the airport, we ask the driver about Saturday’s fight. If they know it’s on, we have a big fight and if they have no idea, then we just have a fight. In Los Angeles every single taxi driver knew about the fight.
A topless man was shadow boxing outside his tent as we got on the freeway heading to downtown and he looked decent, a former featherweight, perhaps a man of thirty, now looking fifty. He really was slick as he danced in the dust. I remembered the iconic LA fight nights, the venues, the battles and thought that maybe I was watching one of the victims, a man now just about living for the city.
That afternoon I spoke to both boxers, trying to make sense of their fame and to get a feel for their commitment. I needed to be sure they had not conned people, needed to know they had tried every single possible thing in such a short period of time to be boxers; it was about far more than their acquired skills (I knew they would forever be raw) – I wanted proof of sacrifice. I believe I got it that afternoon in private one-on-one interviews: “I went back to YouTube the other day and I was rusty,” Logan Paul told me.
Elsewhere in Los Angeles Gennady Golovkin arrived to talk about future fights. Mike Tyson had his name added to the guest list, three seats next to Justin Bieber’s two.
A night club in Hollywood was the venue for the final conference. Waiters served Chilean cod sticks. Shannon Briggs lost his cool when he was reminded about the Lennox Lewis fight. Paul produced a slip of paper from his pocket and read it out: “This is from Jeff Mayweather and he is supposed to be your trainer. This is what Jeff said: ‘KSI is not a real boxer’, damn.” There was an apology from KSI for talking about death in the ring. The global sales numbers were rocketing; both boxers looked and seemed weary.
Elsewhere in Los Angeles Danny Jacobs and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr arrived to announce their fight. One of my five taxi drivers was Japanese, he had been up early for Naoya Inoue. He thought Paul would win.
In an unmarked room at another Downtown hotel a table heavy with gloves was pitched in front of the scales. The doors were closed, but I was inside for the real weigh-in; Billy Joe Saunders came and went, Devin Haney was touch and go, hidden behind a moving curtain of his men in Dream tracksuits – an entourage member for each year of his young life. KSI was six pounds lighter than Paul. “It was always the plan,” he told me.
Stitch Duran picked KSI’s gloves and smoothly fitted them, pulled them tight, made the boxer make a fist during a silent private moment. Shannon Briggs performed the same ritual for Paul, again mostly silent, just a few murmurs as fighter and trainer conferred. They had picked their fight gloves. The boxers fixed eyes often. Big Neil, hired for Paul duty before a long stint in Saudi Arabia with Anthony Joshua, watched every move. It was, in a city of trickery, twenty minutes of real drama away from any stunts.
On fight night the YouTube royalty arrived like Sly Stallone, Jack Nicholson, Denzel Washington once did at fights in Las Vegas. When FaZe Clan and his boys flowed in there was pandemonium; I was working with Chunkz (a British YouTuber) and he knew the players.
And then the fight started. It was the fight I expected, too many wild shots, too little defence and a lot of desire. It never hurt the boxing game. They refused to back down, perhaps they never knew how. They never let the sport down and I thank them for that.
And the ridiculous? How about the WBC amateur belt given to Logan’s younger brother last year in Manchester when he beat KSI’s now estranged younger brother. Jake Paul had that green and gold belt attached to his shoulder all week. Is that his fault? No, blame the WBC for inventing such a ludicrous belt and giving it to Jake. I have no idea if he is the franchise amateur champ or just the regular.
At about 11 that night I was outside KSI’s dressing room. Reiss emerged smiling. I asked if KSI was inside. “Yeah, the boxer’s there.” The “boxer”, that will do for me. A raw novice, but still a boxer – even if it was for one night only in a town of illusions.