LIMERICK, Republic of Ireland — Andy Lee says he loves nothing better than performing before the worshipful audience that turns out when be fights in his hometown, but on this evening it was a mixed blessing. Lee had so dominated the first eight and a half rounds of his 10-rounder against Affif Belghecham that every soul at the Limerick University Arena, Belghecham included, knew the Frenchman's only possible chance lay in luring Lee into a street fight in the hope of landing a lucky punch in those last four minutes.
It didn't happen, but — shades of Brian Vera — it came a bit too close for comfort. Belghechem didn't even start fighting until the penultimate round, but once he did he appeared dangerous enough that in the corner, Joey Gamache ordered Lee onto his bicycle. That worked fine for about a minute, but as Lee stopped in his tracks and stood his ground to sock the Frenchman with a right-left combination, the crowd broke into a singsong chant of ANDYLEEANDYLEEANDYLEE!, and all those rational thoughts of self-preservation went right out the window. Next thing you knew, Belghecham had staggered Lee with a combination of his own, adding an air of suspense to the final minute of the bout.
It wasn't until literally the last ten seconds of the fight that Lee finally grabbed Belghecham in a clinch, and the two waltzed away the rest of the round without breaking their embrace.
The shaky conclusion should not detract from just how thoroughly Lee was in control for most of the night. Facing a tough, durable (and sneaky-fast, when he chose to be) opponent who holds both the French and European Union middleweight belts, Lee won pretty much every second of the first eight rounds.
Landing hard jabs aimed at the middle of Beghecham's peekaboo defense punctuated by hard lefts to the body that often found their way through the protective cage of forearms and elbows with which the Frenchman sought to protect himself, Lee seemed almost surprised by how little Belghecham was offering in return.
This was one of those fights that would look even more one-sided in a CompuBox analysis. We can tell you, for instance, that the fight was a minute and five seconds old before Belghecham so much as threw a punch — a missed jab — and more than two minutes old before he even landed so much as a glancing blow.
“I was landing some good shots,” said Lee, “but even though I was landing the left to the body with such ease, I had it in the back of my mind that maybe he was just pretending to be hurt so he could lure me in.”
It was in any case a convincingly one-sided victory. Lee won 99-92 on the scorecard of referee Emile TIedt (and 98-92 on ours) to run his pro record to 20-1. Belghecham fell 19-4-1, but retained both of his belts, since the Limerick bout was officially contested at super-middleweight.
The other good news for Lee was that he was essentially unscathed in this one. Although he sported a scrape across the bridge of his nose, there was no blood shed, as he avoided the cuts that have marred his most significant fights over the past few years.
Although Gamache, assisted by Lee's brother Roger, worked the corner, Lee entered the ring in his Kronk robe, boxed in his Kronk trunks, and in discussing his future after the fight noted that the next step would be determined after consultation with manager Emanuel Steward, suggesting that the rather icy turn that relationship appeared to have taken recently may have just been a phase.
Steward, who was working the Pacquiao-Cotto PPV telecast in Vegas, could not have worked Lee's corner in Limerick Saturday night if he'd wanted to, but (although he seemed more disappointed than angry) the Hall of Fame trainer is known to have been less than pleased by the entire episode, which had seen Lee's Belfast advisor Damien McCann negotiate the fight with Belghecham, and Gamache oversee all of Lee's training in New York with no input from Steward.
Since Belghechm went into the fight rated ahead of Lee in both the European and world ratings, it is reasonable to suppose that Lee will at least incrementally improve his status in both with the win. Having relocated from Detroit to New York, Lee said he probably wouldn't even turn his thoughts to the next fight until after the Christmas holiday, but when whatever happens next does happen, for the first time in a long time waiting around for a cut to heal won't be part of the equation.
Lee's win sent the nearly 2,000-strong crowd home happy. The mood had been somewhat somber two hours earlier when Ireland fell 1-0 to France in Dublin in the home half leg of their World Cup qualifying playoff, but the spirits of the locals were picked up considerably when Lee's win followed those posted by two other Limerick boxers on the undercard. Light-heavyweight Jamie Power, Lee's amateur teammate at the St. Francis Boxing Club, bounced back from his first career defeat to impressively TKO Latvian Aleksandr Dunec 42 seconds into the fifth round.
Powers, stopped by countryman Michael Sweeney in Dublin two months earlier, continued his domination of Eastern European opposition to run his overall record to 7-1. In the second, Dunec turned his back and appeared ready to quit after being cut above his left eye, but referee David Irving, who ruled that the damage had come from an accidental clash of heads, was reluctant to accept the opponent's surrender.
“If I'd stopped it then,” Irving said later, “I'd have had to call it a (technical) draw.”
Under a ferocious fourth-round body attack from Power, Dunec tried to buy time by simultaneously spitting out his mouthpiece and taking a knee, and got away with it, but early in the fifth, when he went down after taking a hard left to the body from Power, Irving waved off the fight without administering a count.
Dunec, who had also been stopped by Sweeney last year in Cork, is now 5-5-2 — 5-0-1 within the city limits of Riga, 0-5-1 elsewhere.
Willie Casey (3-0) , a 27 year-old featherweight from Limerick's hardscrabble Southill who only recently turned pro after a long amateur career, earned a sixth-round TKO when Tiedt rescued English opponent Michael O'Gara (0-4) 37 seconds into the round. Casey, who had dominated throughout, had opened up a cut near O'Gara's left eye in the fourth, and by the end of the fifth the eye had swollen almost completely shut.
Mayo light-heavyweight John Waldron (4-2) was the beneficiary of some seriously skewed hometown scoring, but still barely eked out a dubious 58-57 win over Latvian Martins Kukuls (5-27). At 25, Kukuls has already lost in ten countries (including Ireland, where he is 0-5, but he probably won this one in every respect save the one that counted: Tiedt's scorecard. (The Sweet Science had the Latvian comfortably on top at 59-55.) Waldron, who six years ago fought Lee as an amateur, kept alive his prospects for a bout against Sweeney for the Irish 175-pound title.
Canadian super-middleweight Matt O'Brien (18-1) got the referee's nod (Irving, 58-57) in another questionable verdict, with the victim this time German-based Cameroon native Jean-Rodrigue Kamdoun (5-8). It was the first outing in two and a half years for O'Brien, a British Columbia fighter who had won his first 17 pro start before being knocked out by John Duddy tormentor Walid Smichet in Montreal in March of 2007.
TSS saw it 58-56 for Kamdoun.
With former world title challenger Sean Mannion working his corner, 36 year-old Leeds southpaw Lee Murtagh improved to 26-11-1 with a decision over German Marcen Gierke (9-26-2) in their middleweight prelim. Murtagh, who has Irish ancestry, is pointing for an Irish title fight against Andrew Fitzgerald in Dublin next month.
In dropping his fourth in a row, Gierke won just one round on Irving's 59-55 card and none on that of the Sweet Science (60-54), but never let it be said the visitor failed to appreciate his surroundings: As his cornermen worked feverishly over him between rounds, a round-card girl came sashaying by. Gierke leaned forward on his stool and, as a leer spread across his face, cut loose with a cry of “Wooooo!” that did not require translation.
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Yanjing Fight Night
University Sports Arena
November 14, 2009
SUPER MIDDLEWEIGHTS: Andy Lee, 162, Limerick dec. Affif Belghecham, 160 1/2, Feyzin, France (10)
Matt O'Brien, 166 1/4, Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada dec, Jean-Rodrigue Kamdoum, 165 1/4, Cameroon (6)
LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHTS: Jamie Power, 176, Limerick TKO'd Aleksandr Dunec, 174 1/2, Riga, Latvia
John Waldron, 173 1/4, Ballyhaunis, Mayo, Ireland dec. Martins Kukuls, 172, Tukums, Latvia (6)
MIDDLEWEIGHTS: Lee Murtaugh, 159 , Leeds, England dec. Marcen Gierke, 158, Berlin, Germany (6)
FEATHERWEIGHTS: Willie Casey, 126 1/4, Limerick TKO'd Michael O'Gara, 126, Middlesborough, England (6)