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I came into Magdeburg in the afternoon, about an hour before the storm started. It had been hot late the day before when I had cycled from Berlin to the small town of Bad Belzig, but the Saturday had started with a temperature of thirty degrees. It was plain early in the morning that another 83 kilometres was not going to be done on the bike that day.

So I took the trains, three of them, into Magdeburg and arrived at my hotel near the station in the early afternoon when the air was still so hot that your skin felt cooked. And I checked into the hotel and lay down on the bed with a cup of cold water, the curtains closed, and readied to sleep. It was then that the rain started, and I got up and went to the window, thinking that something was being thrown against the glass. But it was water and then, somewhere over the city, there was the distant bang of thunder.

The fight that night was to be held in the Elbauenpark, just outside the centre of the city, in an open-air theatre. It was the third time in a year I had been there. I had been to watch Agit Kabayel against Evgenios Lazaridis, then Yoan Pablo Hernandez against Kevin Johnson. But last Saturday, it was the winners of those two fights that were meeting.

The last time I had been in Magdeburg had been to watch the returning Cuban Hernandez begin a heavyweight campaign. He had chosen, badly, to fight gatekeeper Kevin Johnson, who had taken the little Hernandez could offer and returned it, plus more, until he outlasted, outwore, and ultimately knocked out the Cuban in seven. I wrote about that fight for the UK’s Boxing News.

Johnson had been picked, by promoters and critics, to be the b-side, the guy brought in to last a few rounds, probably the whole fight, but ultimately lose. The reason everyone picked that was because that is what gatekeepers do. “Beat him, and you add a name to your record and some seasoning to your skills,” I wrote back then.  “Lose, and well, your future is called into serious question.”

Johnson was back in town, chosen again, but this time to fight Agit Kabayel. The question was whether he would once more flip the script and beat his opponent in their hometown. 

                                      ***

German boxing is starved of big names. Ten years ago, the Klitschko brothers were selling out stadiums around the country. Crowds of 50,000-plus were not unheard of. At the same time, Arthur Abraham was often packing out the larger arenas in Berlin. You also had Marco Huck and Felix Sturm. Nowadays, the Klitschkos are both retired, as is Abraham, and Huck is not far behind, his last fight in front of a few hundred in a small town in the mountains (I wrote on that for NY Fights). Sturm is still fighting—he is scheduled to box next week in Hamburg—but he is old, has money troubles, and has been in prison for tax evasion. He last fought in a closed show in Hamburg in December, and his next fight is at the same venue. But the boxer seen last time out was less the Sturm of old, than an old Sturm. At 42, and with boxing crowds sparse since the pandemic, the likelihood of a big fight for him is receding fast. Even a mooted match with Arthur Abraham is off the cards since the Armenian has said he is comfortably retired. And the overrated Jurgen Braehmer, also 42, seems more comfortable in a coaching role, having last fought in December 2019.

There are no big names coming through, and little opportunity for any if there were. The Sauerlands no longer seem to promote in Europe and even the big names like Huck and Sturm have lacked TV deals in their most-recent outings. The few fairly prominent fighters over here are Jack Culcay, the aforementioned Agit Kabayel, Vincent Feigenbutz, and Robin Krasniqi. None of them have made much of an impression at world level, or are likely to do so. And they are not draws, either. Best known to US audiences right now is Tom Schwarz, who fought Tyson Fury, but is being prosecuted for domestic violence.

Kabayel has probably the most promise. On Saturday, he was 20-0 going into the ring, but the biggest name on his record—Dereck Chisora—had been nearly four years before. At 6’3”, he is a little small for the heavyweight division and has not much of a punch. Of Kurdish descent, he reportedly lives in Bochum, about 380 kilometres from Magdeburg.

The show was to be held at the Seebuehne and was promoted by SES Boxing, who are based in the same city. The fight was to be broadcast on MDR on its Sport im Osten program, one of the rare times a bout is shown on German TV nowadays.

The coronavirus pandemic has largely killed live events in Germany and the organisers were taking pains to keep people safe. Attendance was limited to 1,000 people and there was extensive testing and contract tracing protocols, although much of the crowd was bunching up, particularly in the permanent seating, and few facemasks were being worn by those in attendance. Even though it was wet and damp, the venue remained dry, although the rain fell heavily for hours.

Undercards are rarely good, and this was no exception. But one of the fighters, Roman Fress from Magdeburg, may be the next German star (John Bielenberg from Luebeck is also worth watching). A 6’3” cruiserweight without the bones to go up, Fress seemed destined for brighter things at 12-0 (7). He fought the 11-0 Kamel Kouaouch on Saturday and, with a beautiful uppercut, knocked him in a stoppage that may be one of the best/most devastating of 2021.

                                         ***

It turned dark some time before the main events. The Seebuehneis not a great venue for boxing. No outdoor venue is. But give SES Steinforth credit where it is due for getting a fairly major event on in times like these.

Kevin Johnson has been a solid gate keeper but at 41, his time as a tester may be coming to a close sooner than later.

The rain stopped shortly before the fight. Johnson came out first, dressed completely in black.

The words ‘Asbury Park’ were stitched in blue across the back of his trunks.
Kabayel came second, dressed in white and red. A loud contingent of fans, carrying at least one Kurdish flag, cheered him.

After final instructions, the fighters went back to the corners. In the lull before the first bell, Johnson moved his gumshield around in his mouth. The movement looked like a smile.

The fight was ugly and scrappy, and Johnson looked in the ring to be all of his forty-one years. From the second round, Kabayel hit him repeatedly with right hands, to which Johnson often responded by goading the German into hitting him again. There was a moment early in that round when Johnson looked briefly as if he was about to go down. He was breathing heavily in the next and his jab, the rangefinder that had served him so well, was missing. He covered up a lot and tried to show that he was not hurt, but the sense was that this playing would soon seem desperate. Kabayel was not much better, but he was younger and, unlike Johnson, did not breathe heavily between rounds like a middle-aged man who had just run up the stairs.

From the fourth, Kabayel’s most-sophisticated move was to stand in front of Johnson and hit him with right hands. Johnson obliged him. From the fifth, Kabayel beat Johnson to the jab, and it seemed almost rude that Johnson would be beaten by the very punch that he had made a career of. It had all the temerity of a burglar using your own key to steal from your house.

Water dripped from Johnson’s mouth in the seventh, as if he no longer had the energy to hold it in. He began to use the old tricks, the ones he had picked up on the road over the years, that slowed down a fight. He stepped back, tried to minimise the movements he was making, and attempted to make Kabayel think he was setting up traps that he would never let loose.

Desperation seemed to set in from the eighth and Johnson was often square on, occasionally southpaw. By the tenth and eleventh, he began to look confused, as if he knew somehow that the answers were right, but everyone else was convinced they were changed. He tried to make two and two equal five, but could not.

Kabayel is one of the brighter spots on the German boxing scene. The post-fight madness was most certainly a dark stain on the sport, though, and will be something he needs to work to minimize.

There was not much skill in the last two rounds. Johnson tried to knock Kabayel out for the win, and Kabayel tried to do the same. They traded in the twelfth.

Johnson left the ring shortly after the 118-111, 118-111, and 119-110 verdict. It was a good move.

The Kabayel fans had become raucous, and, after the final bellthey approached the barrier separating the general crowd from the inner ring area. Security moved in. The fans were directly behind me and I packed up, then moved away to the side of the ring. A riot then broke out.

Some people, uninvolved, ran to the side of the ring, and tried to escape from the venue. I moved to the opposite side. While safe, it meant that I saw little of what happened. Later, German media would report that a wheelchair user had wanted to get into the ring with Kabayel. Security said no and things escalated. About fifty people started fighting, with chairs thrown. The microphone was given to Kabayel, who shouted at the rioters to stop.

After a few waves of fighting, it did.

It was an ugly end to the night, and senseless. Kabayel had won. If the rioters had known anything, it would have been that not everyone can get into the ring to congratulate the winner, even if security might have been more accommodating.

I used my press ID and went into the back to see if Kevin was still around. I wanted to thank him, face to face, for the interview last year. But he was gone.

The mess after the flair up. (Photo by Peter Carvill)

I then went back out onto the floating stage where the ring had been. A few dozen chairs lay on their sides.

One security guard was being bandaged by paramedics. The German commentators were talking about the riot.

Kabayel walked past. He shook his head in disgust. The riot had ruined the night.

He had proven, once again, that he could fight a fringe contender and was probably hoping that it would propel him to bigger things, bigger names. But there will be a question mark next time he fights about some of the crowd he draws. The worst thing was that even though their man had won, they had made him lose.

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