David Price: One Punch from the Big Time

Only at heavyweight is the impossible dream of eternal sporting resurrection possible. They threw money at the corpse of Mike Tyson until he publicly declaimed his lost love for the sport live on television in order that he might be released; his nemesis Evander Holyfield boxed a career that survived a diagnosed heart condition and a defeat to Larry Donald – he went on calling for “The Klitschkos” and a world title shot, right up until the end. Larry Holmes, who boxed both of these men, had a career that stretched from 1973 until 2002.

Oliver McCall, fascinating, but hardly a household name, didn’t give up until a 2014 loss to a journeyman named Marcin Rekowski. Rekowski had knocked out McCall’s son, Elijah, the year before.

Each of them will have shared, at one time or another, the same tired thought:

“I’m one punch away from the big time.”

The reason, primarily, is that it is true – or seems true. Heavyweights of course are the biggest of punchers, the one weight class in which a majority of the practitioners operating at international level are capable of rendering a trained opponent unconscious with a single punch.

In the lower classes, too, lurk fighters capable of separating seasoned professionals from their senses with one blow: one punch from the big time.

David Price is washed up. His 2017 defeat by Christian Hammer who successfully defended his European title against the huge Englishman in February, was as humiliating as a defeat can be for a professional. Price finished the fight exhausted, unable to defend himself, making not even the barest gesture towards offense, hardly able to remain upright. This physical collapse occurred in the seventh round.

The incontestable weakness of his chin had been irretrievably revealed by a jubilant Tony Thompson back in 2013 and now the world had seen final proof of an engine that could not carry him through more than six rounds of a well-paced heavyweight contest.

That Price decided to continue boxing after his disastrous 2015 knockout loss to Erkan Teper was surprising, but that he decided to box on after the loss to Hammer seemed ridiculous.

“He was going to call it a day,” said former Price trainer David Coldwell in the wake of the news that Price would box on. “Fighters are always going to think ‘I can give it one more try’, but we’ve been here before with David.  Once the doubts creep in, it’s very, very hard to get rid of them. He’s got to manage his nerves and his doubts…he’s genuinely one of the nicest people you will meet. I really hope he succeeds.”

Price did succeed, at least in winning his next contest, fought against professional loser Kamil Sokolowski on a free-to-air internet broadcast fought in front of a small and intermittently silent crowd.

I watched it live but remember very little about it aside from a certain sadness at Price’s timidity and a sense of shame at my own lurid fascination with the possibility that he might once again be viciously knocked out.  But Price got through against his much smaller, limited but tough opponent (stopped just twice in eighteen contests) and took a six round decision. It was hardly the Phoenix rising from the flames, but Price was “back” for whatever that was worth.

Then something very strange happened.

Rumors began to circulate that Alexander Povetkin, the mandatory to one of Anthony Joshua’s alphabet straps, would fight on the undercard of his huge contest with Joseph Parker – and that his opponent would be David Price.  It seemed a fight so utterly bizarre that the rumors could only be true. Alexander Povetkin, an alleged drugs cheat and one of the most avoided fighters of the last generation, a withering puncher with a merciless stalking style and some of the best orthodox skills in the heavyweight division, and David Price, a giant of a fighter but one who is so smothered with weaknesses and the tragic scent of failure that retirement had at one point seemed the only honorable path.

The fight was confirmed as “almost there” late in January and confirmed in early February; two of the more esoteric, less recognized straps churned out by the WBA will be on the line and David Price, somehow, suddenly, was one punch away from the big time.

For orchestrating this miracle, Eddie Hearn has not received nearly enough credit, if that is right the word, for he has brought back a one-time heavyweight prospect from the brink of career oblivion to the biggest stage in boxing with one deft slight-of-hand. While choreographing the puppet-show between two of the world’s best heavies, he has slipped one of the division’s most crushing failures in through the back door and into a ring where he is so outclassed as to be in real danger. It is a move so audacious and irresponsible as to draw admiration and criticism in equal servings. Price, after, all, could really get hurt here; he has been dangerously knocked out by fighters who themselves would not last six rounds with Povetkin.

And I love it. I can’t think of the last time I wanted a fighter to win more than I want Price to beat Povetkin.

“It’s a big ask,” Price has admitted, “but upsets happen all the time.” And then, with a charming level of deprecating self-knowledge: “I should know, I’ve been on the wrong end of them four times.”

“Upsets happen in sports,” has become his mantra. He’s taken the truism associated, somewhat erroneously, with heavyweight boxing more than any other sporting endeavor and expanded it to encapsulate an entire competitive arena. “And I can’t afford to lose. There’s too much on the other side. I’ve got to give it everything.”

It would be too much to describe this one, final shot at redemption as “a real life Rocky story.” Rocky Balboa didn’t get cheap imports laid on for him to knock out so he could bash his way up the ladder to riches and this was very much in Price’s beginning. But he does have a chance here to wipe the slate clean at 34 and re-launch a career which fell so far short of his supposed potential as to be a bigger disappointment than that of Audley Harrison.

To do it, he has to beat one of the world’s better heavyweights and negotiate one of the world’s best left hooks.  Anyone who has seen the chilling knockout he suffered against Teper, whose own left hook is not among the best in the world, will understand what an enormous task this is.

Arraigned against Povetkin is height, which Price has never been adept at using, reach, which no qualified opponent has ever had difficulty breaching, and a right hand so booming that we still can hear from his fellow professionals (Tony Bellew among them) as to the disaster that will be wrought upon his opposition should it land. Only Price has looked so unsure of himself against even limited opposition that it now rarely does.

As a mis-match it is as pronounced as they come and there is almost no hope. Here is the tiny glimmer I’ve managed to dig up:

Alexander Povetkin has been using substances, now illegal, to enhance his performance. With his contendership to the huge wealth available in a fight with Joshua on the line, he will be clean for this fight. Sometimes fighters who are using certain drugs to sustain themselves drop off dramatically when they stop using them.

And that’s pretty much it. A dramatically reduced Povetkin combine with what David Price has promised, specifically “the best David Price you have ever seen” might just be enough to get through as far as the seventh or eighth round, where, presumably, Price will gas and be knocked out.

If, however, he can land that punch in a thousand, that perfect Hail Mary right-hand, and if a turgid, choppy Povetkin doesn’t see coming, it is just possible that David Price will find himself back in the big time, the mandatory contender to a strap that is held by one of the biggest names in the sport.

Or as Price himself puts it:

“All I can do is what I’m doing in the gym and then put it all together in the ring.

And hope.”

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