Comedians Boxing | Review by Steve Bennett at the Blyth Sports Centre © Andy Hollingworth

Comedians Boxing

Review by Steve Bennett at the Blyth Sports Centre

Blyth is not the obvious place to host one of the comedy events of the year. A slow hour’s bus ride north of Newcastle, this former shipbuilding and coal-mining town of 37,000 is now an unexceptional dormitory settlement of pleasant but bland Barratt-style estates.

Yet 21 top circuit comics have descended on its sports centre – many more if you count those here to commentate, support, or act as cornermen – for the first ever comedians’ boxing evening.

It’s the brainchild of stand-up Kai Humphries, who has built up a hugely successful comedy club here, called, appropriately enough, Punch Drunk, by tapping into the strong community spirit. It’s in that vein that 800 punters, too, have been drawn to tonight’s spectacle, raising more than £20,000 towards sending Kian Musgrove, a local toddler with cancer,  for pioneering treatment in the US.

What does a comedians’ boxing match look like? 'I don't think any of us know what this is going to be,’ says Rhod Gilbert in his capacity as ring announcer at the very start of the night. But any illusions that this is going to be played for laughs are dispelled from the very first bout.

There was no holding back as Tom Houghton, from improv group Noise Next Door, traded blows with Phil Nichol. Although the Canadian was clearly having trouble with his headguard from the start, he fought back gallantly when he was on the ropes – only to wind up on the canvas, unable to get up for ten seconds and so the first knockout of the match. Later Nichol tells me he hopes to have the match officially voided because of his very apparent helmet problems. He angles for a rematch at the next event, should there be one.

His protests signify how seriously this is being taken. Not every comic has perhaps done the training they should – although some have undergone intensive sessions with former champions. But in the ring, faced with someone who’s trying to punch you in the face, there’s no time for mucking around. Surely the skivers quick;y regretted not putting more time in at the gym.

The funnies come from Gilbert, from the pre-fight trash-talk videos each pugilist has recorded (Houghton rewrote Nichol's Only Gay Eskimo song as 'I'm going to take you out by KO’), and from the commentary team led by John Robertson with a revolving roster of colleagues. And there’s a minor farce as it takes three matches to source a timer to measure the three two-minute rounds and a bell to signal when they are over. 

But beneath the quips, there’s a fierce competitive edge. ‘It's been considerably more brutal than I expected,’ says Gilbert after that first bout.

For the second, Matt Reed takes on Barry Dodds, who takes to the ring in tight metallic purple bodysuit ‘like he's ready to be fired out of a rocket’ the commentators say.  Yet again, though the outfit may be silly, the fight is deadly serious. The pair dance around each other; Dodds gets a couple of jabs in, but Reed comes back with force and claims the second knockout in two bouts, as the prone Dodds struggles to get to his feet.

Next Bobby Mair takes on Carl Donnelly, giving him a cheeky kiss before the fists fly, part of his extravagant ‘badass’ showmanship. This is a lively contest, both swinging wildly at each other, but the ref ends the bout early because of Mair’s exhaustion. 'I don't like being hit,’ Mair tells the crowd, stating the bleeding obvious. 

The audience, incidentally, are fully invested in the fights, creating a fervent atmosphere that rises with the commitment of the boxers; which in the case of the next pair is absolute. There’s another delay to the start of the Adam Rowe - Elliot Steel match as the former’s headguard proves too small and another is sent for. The new one is shown to fit, in a  Cinderella-like moment, and the newly discovered bell is rung. The fight is instantly brutal, both youngsters trading blows fast and furious. Rowe’s the bulkier but evenly matched with the sprightly Steel. His dad, comedian and columnist Mark Steel, yells enthusiastically from the ringside.

This fierce contest goes the distance, though by the end of the third gruelling round, the physical strain is starting to show and the pair jab at each other with less ferocity. Steel goes for a last-minute swing, but it fails to connect. For the first time the winner will be declared by the judges… and it’s victory for Steel.

After the full-on contact of Rowe vs Steel, Gavin Webster and Mark Nelson  pair are more cautious, testing each other’s defences with exploratory jabs. Into the second round, Webster gets more adventurous, throwing more powerful punches, one of which temporarily floors Nelson – who’s gone the full Braveheart in kilt and blue face paint. The pair of Bruiser again go the distance, then the judges call it for Webster. 

Next comes the only female bout, with Penella Mellor taking on Nicola Mantalios-Lovett, a last-minute substitute for Luisa Omielan. Mantalios-Lovett is a much bigger fighter, but Mellor’s had the advantage of having much longer to train. Neither hold back, and Mantalios-Lovett gets the early upper hand, before a fighting-fit Mellor turns the tables in the second half, getting her opponent on the ropes with nowhere to go but hitting back with an illegal backhander. The pace doesn’t flag in round three, and again both women take a lot of punishment, before the fight’s ended due to Mantalios-Lovett’s exhaustion.  

There’s a break from the boxing next to air a video by Buzzcocks – not the seminal punk band but a chav-style character who’s a local YouTube hero. He’s been dormant for many years, so getting this is something of a coup for the promoters. If you’re outside the North East, you’ve almost certainly never heard of him, but everyone here has, and they love the exclusive comeback.

A huge mismatch next as John Hastings, at 238lbs, takes on Chris Martin at 154lbs. There has certainly been inconsistencies in the fitness and the bulk of the fighters over the night, but this is the most dramatic. Predictably, Martin is simply overpowered, and he spends most of the fight cowering from punches. Every retaliatory blow – and there are a few – is a victory; but for all his fight Martin is never going to win. He lasts the distance, which is quite some achievement, but Hastings is declared the clear victor.

With plenty of ringside jibes about their weight, Barry Castagnola took on Jarred Christmas next – the former making quite the entrance with a rap on video, then striking an ironic heroic pose. Christmas instead boasts, if that’s the right word, that he’s done ‘zero training’ for the clash. It’s a surprisingly fast and spirited fight between the pals, and plenty of to-and-fro as to which of them has the upper hand. In the dying seconds, Castagnola gets Christmas into the corner, which helps tips the balance in his favour, and he’s declared the victor.

Patrick Monahan was recently named the hardest-working man in comedy; and so it proves tonight as he Doubled Up this physical challenge with a gig elsewhere. Talk about nonchalant. When he finally arrives, he hands out his trademark hugs to the ref and members of the audience, friends and strangers alike, making for a long build-up with his clash with James Dowdeswell. But don’t let Monahan’s hugs deceive; as once the bell ring he unleashes a brutal fury against his West Country opponent. A vicious blow to the nose just a few seconds in leads to the towel being thrown from Dowdeswell’s corner. A brief and furious bout.

Character comedian Milo McCabe cuts a great heel in the shape of upper-class pugilist Troy Hawk, pitched against David Hadingham, the butt of lots of ringside jokes about his age. They jab hard at each other, but few blows land, although Hawk starts to dominate in the second half, and is ultimately declared the winner.

Finally a special match when organiser Humphries takes on his brother Gav, in a match where both go without headguards. This is a properly full-on match, years of sibling rivalry being vented in a series of fast, hard blows from each side – a demonstration of the inherent violence behind this sport that the other bouts could not match. The crowd are on their feet, hollering their support, as the atmosphere becomes electric. For three intense rounds this continues, both brothers on the attack, offering little in the way of defence. Kai ducks a few lethal-looking blows but landing as many as he takes. The bell finally separates them, and then it’s emotional embraces all round. Judges declare a tie – the Hollywood ending to a unique, exciting night that’s done so much to boost a charity’s coffers.

Review date: 8 Feb 2016
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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