|Craig Watson defeats John O’Donnell
By Daniel Cann at ringside (April 12, 2009) DoghouseBoxing.com
That great boxing venue the York Hall served up another classic on Saturday as champion Craig ‘The Hammer’ Watson defended his Commonwealth Crown against John O’Donnell. Although it was a ‘Battle of the Southpaws’ their styles and builds could not have been in greater contrast. Watson was compact, shaven-skulled and renowned for his strength and power. O’Donnell was the taller man looking lean and rangy.
There was plenty of needle before the fight and it was an eagerly anticipated affair. What actually transpired over thirty-six minutes surpassed everyone’s expectations as we were treated to a truly scintillating and highly charged thriller.
From the first bell Watson tore out of his corner, all purpose and controlled aggression. He threw plenty of hooks to head and body driving a startled O’Donnell to the ropes. O’Donnell was getting involved instead of standing back and giving himself space to use his greater boxing skills. Watson landed a lovely right uppercut on the inside and had continued success with hooks. Towards the end of the opening round Watson landed with a well-timed overhand right. He could not have wished for a better start.
Watson began the second with some damage under his left eye, but he made yet another positive start as he mixed hooks and uppercuts. O’Donnell was holding his right arm almost casually by his side leaving himself open. Although this is his style it offered the champion a tempting target. Halfway through this round O’Donnell landed a decent combination showing good hand speed. O’Donnell smiled at the champion, the challenger was starting to loosen up at last. At times he looked a little too cavalier for my liking but he closed the round with some confident work and looked to have settled.
The third saw Watson land a decent right and the cocky challenger with his hands low continued to smile. O’Donnell did manage to pick the onrushing champion from Manchester off with more success and regularity but was soaking up some good shots in return. Both eyed each other warily centre ring after one exchange. They had both measured each other and seemed to come to the same conclusion: They were both in for a long, tough night. The round ended with both men connecting with good hooks. At this stage after three hotly contested rounds in the bank, I could not separate them.
Watson launched himself at O’Donnell like an exocet missile to start the fourth. The champion looked so focussed and intense, he was throwing everything into each attack. O’Donnell continued smiling and playing mind games. The Londoner from an Irish travelling background looked untroubled and composed. As the experienced Watson landed more leather causing blood to emerge from O’Donnell’s nose and mouth the challenger still looked too relaxed. He was in a title fight against a tough pumped up competitor and as the bell rang to end the round it looked like he was letting it slip away.
Watson was jabbing as he frowned in concentration. He landed a decent left to the body with not much coming back from O’Donnell. The challenger showed a lot of defiance and bravado as he talked to the champion in the clinches, but fights are not won by just talking and kidology. O’Donnell needed to get busy fast. Late in the round after taking more unnecessary punches O’Donnell finally opened up and backed Watson into the ropes only for Watson to come roaring back.
The sixth saw both men’s styles blending to make an absorbing and exciting contest. O’Donnell seemed to have regained his focus as he drilled the onrushing champion with some classy punches. Watson landed a decent uppercut inside. O’Donnell was finally keeping things at range as Watson showed signs of finally slowing down after maintaining an excellent pace for the first half of the contest. O’Donnell was finally using his skills and coming into it. He landed a cracking straight right followed up with hurtful body shots leaving Watson looking shaken at the bell.
Had the tide finally turned as we entered the second half? Certainly O’Donnell looked more confident and aggressive now. He was fighting with renewed purpose and conviction. Watson continued to plough forward but O’Donnell was meeting him with hurtful combinations. Both men were unloading on each other as the contest ebbed and flowed. The atmosphere at the York Hall was cracking with both sets of fans lifting their fighters to new heights of determination and courage. Watson landed a good left hook as he backed O’Donnell onto the ropes. O’Donnell managed to dance away out of trouble with Watson still trying to bully on the inside.
Watson backed O’Donnell into a corner and tried to work him over only for O’Donnell to turn him beautifully, landing a decent body shot for good measure. A follow up combination appeared to badly stagger the champion and it looked like he would go down! Somehow Watson stayed on his feet as the younger challenger finished the round strongly. O’Donnell walked back to his corner at the bell grinning ear to ear. It was just the morale booster he needed.
A confident and self-assured O’Donnell emerged to start the eighth. He was met with a defiant and proud champion who walked straight back into the fight. It was becoming a real barnstormer as the crowd roared every effort. Watson landed a nicely timed straight right to remind O’Donnell he was still very much in a fight.
Both boxers mixed it in mid ring and their gloves were a blur of leather as they battled for supremacy. Watson had more success with an excellent left uppercut on the inside. If he had a bad last round he was having a much better time of it in this one. There were quality shots landed from both sides and the fans were being treated to a fight of ferociousness and intensity. O’Donnell whipped in several body shots in an effort to slow down the dervish that was Watson. Watson landed a good jab a punch that I thought O’Donnell would have used more often. There was simply no quarter being given.
As the eighth ran down I noted how extraordinarily Watson was out boxing the boxer! O’Donnell was marking up under his right eye and Watson managed to slam in more jabs to close a much better round for him.
At the beginning of the ninth the fight was very much in the balance. They were soon mixing it again, showing decent skills as they slipped and countered, using a variety of punches. This was one for the connoisseurs as well as the casual fan. Watson rolled under O’Donnell’s jab to land an uppercut in an impressive and canny manoeuvre. At this point I wondered if conditioning would be the deciding factor as both maintained a fast pace.
Suddenly O’Donnell unleashed a furious flurry of punches, the champion did not look unduly troubled but the point was made, the challenger still had plenty left in the tank. Watson responded with a neat jab, even doubling it at one point. He was showing surprising boxing skills amid the mayhem. It was unusual as the slugger was electing to box and the boxer was trying to prove he could go toe-to-toe. Wise tactics? It was certainly making for an unexpected and absorbing contest.
At the bell the crowd were cheering, stamping and chanting. They were being served up a five star fight. So much effort was being expended, as each man tried to enforce his will on the other. During the interval O’Donnell’s cornerman, Robert McKracken told him in no uncertain terms that he needed every remaining round to be assured of victory. It was an astute judgement. Nothing could be left to chance; it was that kind of a fight.
The tenth saw O’Donnell unload a great early flurry with Watson responding again with a well-timed uppercut. For a man who had been out of the ring for over a year, Watson was showing no rust. Inevitably for a fight fought at such a furious pace the fighters were showing signs of tiring as they clinched and wrestled. They were now fighting in spurts. An O’Donnell attack drove Watson to the ropes and the champion frantically bobbed and weaved as he tried to avoid the shots coming his way. O’Donnell was finding more gears and he closed the round well.
Watson landed a good left to start the eleventh and O’Donnell responded with a body punch. They were still slugging it out; it was really give and take stuff. I was amazed at the pace they were maintaining. My notes at this point said ‘They just don’t stop working.’ By this point only enmity and determination was driving them on. Both looked tired but continued to look for openings that could be exploited. O’Donnell drove Watson back only for the champion to counter. The round ended with both slugging it out. In the old days this would be a ‘nobbins’ fight where the ring would be pelted with coins at the end to show the fans appreciation.
At the bell to signal the last round of the title fight the crowd roared, there was deafening support for both. Watson began with a nice left hand. O’Donnell responded with a good one-two. It was evident that they were still fighting at a fast pace even in the last round. Watson looked to hold whether it was to rest and regroup or whether it was because he believed he had it in the bag was uncertain.
O’Donnell went to work with lots of hurtful salvos to the champions body. Watson responded with a good left hook, a punch that served him well throughout the fight. O’Donnell showed an exceptional chin tonight though and after taking a deep gulp came on again. Watson took a long walk, trying to regroup once more only to find his challenger right on him again.
The final twenty seconds of the fight saw both men launch themselves at each other. They exchanged blows, wrestled and vied for any possible advantage. It went right to the wire and the bell sounded to end a very close contest.
My gut feeling at the conclusion was that it was too close to call and a draw would not have been out of order. It seemed harsh to separate such fortitude, skill and courage by mathematics but that’s the nature of the game. My own card after I totted it up had O’Donnell ahead by the slenderest of margins at 115-114. However, I could see a scenario where Watson could have nicked it and I would not have thought that unjust. It was that kind of fight.
After a long wait the decision of the three judges was announced. O’Donnell was the split decision winner: 115-114 (twice) with the other judge giving it to Watson 116-113. It was a fantastic display of boxing and a rematch would be a natural.
For more from Daniel, visit: www.danielcann.com
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