Fighting In the Pandemic



Fighting In the Pandemic

For all intents and purposes, experiencing the Covid-19 epidemic in Germany has been akin to being slowly run over by a tank. Imagine, if you will, laying on the floor and feeling the dull rumble of the treads on the ground as it rolls towards you. You cannot move. So you lie there and you see the tank bearing down on you, coming ever and ever closer, until it is in front of your eyes. You can see the grease on the treads, dust and soil stuck in there, and you know what is coming. And then the tank is on you and the crushing weight of it is all you can feel, and see, and taste, and smell. For the eternity it feels that you are under the tank, the tank is everything. It is your entire world. And then when the tank goes, and the sunlight hits your eyes again, you can breathe, and you like that, but the problem is that you now have to get up and check what the damage is. That is what it has been like living here in the time of coronavirus.

The first confirmed, reported case was at the end of January in the city of Munich. Even though it was apparent and obvious that this was a major crisis, it took until the beginning of March before a recommendation was made for all events with more than 1,000 attendees to be cancelled.

The lockdowns came soon after. At the state level, they began on 13 March and a travel ban came into place two days after that. That was extended three days later. Curfews soon followed and, on the 22 March, the government imposed a two-week national lockdown, later extended to 19 April. Throughout March, the wearing of masks on public transport and in shops became mandatory.

The closures and cancellations kept on coming. Munich’s Oktoberfest was cancelled on 21 April and different sports leagues either abandoned 2020 or played their games behind closed doors. Large cultural events were to remain banned until 31 August (this is still in place).

Reopening has begun, somewhat, although it has taken a long time. Schools and daycares did remain closed for months and when they began, they did so with shorter hours and reduced classroom sizes. In May, the city government of Berlin issued a ‘traffic light’ system, where three red lights would automatically mean new restrictions for the city. These are if the reproduction number remains above 1.2 for three consecutive days, if the incidence of new infections per 100,000 people goes above thirty, and if a quarter of intensive care beds are occupied by Covid-19 patients. So far, borders have begun to reopen and travel to other EU countries was reallowed this month.

Live boxing within the country has been dormant for months. However, on Saturday, SES Boxing held a live card at the Seebuehne in Magdeburg. It was one of the first to be held since the lockdown, and the main event was Agit Kabayel against Evgenios Lazaridis.

Kabayel is ranked No. 11 by the WBA and the IBF, while the WBC has him at No. 15 among heavyweights.

The fight was set for ten rounds for the spurious WBA continental belt. It was one of four events taking place that night, with other cards listed on Boxrec in Cologne, Wiesbaden, and Euskirchen. This one, however, was not only being broadcast live on German television, but was also being shown on ESPN in the US.

While fighters are based in Germany, Kabayel was favoured. Based in Bochum, the 6-3 Kabayel was born in Leverkusen and is of Kurdish descent. The 27 year old man made his professional debut in 2011 after playing football and kickboxing in his youth. Since then, he has been undefeated in nineteen fights, with thirteen stoppages. His most notable fight has been a majority decision over heavyweight gatekeeper Dereck Chisora in Monte Carlo in 2017.

The 6-6 Lazaridis, born in Greece but residing in Frankfurt, was the ‘away’ fighter. Before Saturday, he had won sixteen fights, ten by stoppage, but lost two, once by knockout, to Erkan Teper and Samuel Kadje. Lazaridis came to the fight  having reached his level. The question was where Kabayel would reach his.

Still, it was a good and fairly evenly-matched fight, and a drink of cool water after a parched few months. Most importantly, it was the first fight in front of a paying audience since the beginning of the year. 

All of this took place against the backdrop of the ongoing crisis. The tracking of coronavirus cases is undertaken in Germany by the Robert Koch Institut, based in Berlin. Each day, they release statistics on the spread and prevalence of the disease. As of Saturday, there had been just over 200,000 confirmed cases in the country and a little over 9,000 deaths. In the state of Saxony-Anhalt, where Magdeburg is located, the virus had affected nearly 2,000 people and taken over sixty lives.

I spoke with Marieke Degen, deputy press officer at the RKI, about the current situation in Germany, a few days before the event. Therefore, the numbers quoted by Ms Degen do not match those in the paragraph above.

“In Germany, 199,726 lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases have been notified to RKI up to today, among them 9,071 deaths,” she said. “The daily number of cases transmitted to RKI has stabilized over the past weeks (around several hundreds per day) which is good news. The cumulative nationwide incidence over the past 7 days was 2.7 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. Many regions didn't report any case within the last 7 days or only very few cases. However, there are still some smaller and bigger local outbreaks which need to be monitored closely; also in larger cities, we still observe a relevant number of new infections.”

Degen said that there were fewer outbreaks in retirement and care homes, and that the number of deaths per day had declined and stabilised in recent weeks. The low number of new cases was, she said, enough to be dealt with by the local authorities. She also said that testing capacities were still ‘very high’. 

“These are very positive developments,” she went on, “but it is essential to stress that the pandemic is not over, not in Germany nor anywhere else. So all people in Germany still have to make great efforts to keep the infection numbers at this level; as soon as the virus gets the chance to spread, it will do so. Therefore, it is essential to further stick to the, as we call it in Germany, AHA rules: keeping distance (abstand) of minimum 1.5 metres, keeping the hygiene rules (hygieneregeln), and in certain situations additionally wearing a face mask of fabric (alltagsmasken).” 

To put an event on at this time, even as the curve within Germany was flattening, meant that a number of rigorous precautions had to be put in place by the promoters. There have been some events in recent months, but these took place without an audience. Chief among these were an Agon Sports-card in Berlin on 12 June, with a main event of Jack Culcay against Howard Cospolite. That was filmed at the Havel Studios on the outskirts of the city and was closed to all, press included. Another event took place a week before Kabayel-Lazaridis in Dusseldorf. The main event was nothing spectacular but what made the whole thing stand out was that it was a drive-in event where spectators could watch from the comfort of their vehicles.

Across the world, boxing events have trickled in during the various lockdowns, usually without spectators. In the US, Top Rank has run a number of cards from empty venues and the UK is poised to do something similar with shows from Eddie Hearn’s backgarden and from various TV studios. I reached out to the British Boxing Board of Control last week and asked about their recommended precautions for the resumption of live boxing.

According the BBBC, “[…] there are no plans to run a tournament with the general public in attendance.  Promoters are booking dates hopeful that the Government permit audiences in the future. Once we are in a position and are aware of any restrictions imposed at any time in the future, the Board will announce the procedures or protocols required. As presently stated, we are not in that position at the moment and things are changing on a regular basis and continuous dialogue with promoters is taking place along with the Board's Medical Officers.”

Before I went to Magdeburg, I spoke with Christof Hawerkamp of SES Boxing about their plans. Hawekamp said that there had been segregation of the event into three areas. The most-important of these was the route from the dressing room to the ring, the ring itself, and the corners. Entrance within this area was only possible with a negative Covid-19 test. There were two referees that were to work the six bouts of the evening, with all other officials having to stay outside the ring. If anyone else—a doctor, for example—was to enter the ring, it would only be possible with full protective equipment. Virus testing had taken place three times in the weeks before—a month prior, in the fighter’s gym; on the Monday before the event; and on the Friday morning before the weigh-in. All fighters and their teams were to be sealed in ‘bubbles’ at the city’s Maritim Hotel. In addition, the press conference was closed, only one coach was allowed to work more than one fight, and the attendance was limited to 1,000 people, plus security. Those attending had to wear masks on entering that could be removed once they were sat down, the seating was socially-distanced, and contact details had to be given by all attending should another outbreak occur.

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I have lived in the German capital for ten years after stints in Tokyo and London. My current home is not far from the city’s main train station, and it was from there that I took a train for nearly two hours to get to Magdeburg. On entering Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof, you are asked to put on your facemask and disinfect your hands. 99 per cent of people comply, even on the platforms and concourses.

Writer Carvill took the train to see boxing in Magdeburg and was happy to see most folks being smart with distancing and hygiene.

It was crowded at first on the train, and among those of us not in first class, a handful ignored social distancing and sat on the stairs. I settled in and began to read the book I’d brought. After we crossed over the state border into Saxony-Anhalt, many got off the train at the small-and-charmless town of  Genthin. Beyond the glass, in the first-class compartment, a single person sat alone. I cannot say that I envied them. We all wore masks.

My hotel was 100 metres for the train station and I did not see much of Magdeburg. Later inspection showed that there was little to miss. Magdeburg is one of those unlovely German towns that populate the map, the sort of place always recognised when written down but no one would ever make a special trip to visit. Yet it is kind of pleasant, probably down to the fact that not much seems to be going on there, a kind of civic boring cousin.

Magdeburg may have seemed boring and far from the bigger and brighter lights of other cities, but it was clean and pleasant, and probably a nice place to live. It is the sort of place probably beloved by those who live there, and beloved with a passion that those from outside would not understand. It would be a good and fine place for those people not despite it being dull, but because of that fact.

The town was empty when I ventured out later. I had come from Berlin with only one razor, which was not enough. That is the problem when you have facial hair that needs felling, rather than shaving. I had tried, rewashing the single razor continually in the sink, to do it all in one go, but had failed and now looked mildly ridiculous at close quarters. The only thing worse in shaving that not doing it is to have done so badly. Luckily, I had a facemask (see below) for the five-minute walk to the local shopping centre.

No sign of shaving woes from this angle.

Later, having eaten and showered, I ventured out to the Seebuehne. It was a distance from the city centre and I had to take a local train and a tram to get there. It usually holds 1,500 people but on Saturday, the organisers had permission for up to 1,000 spectators, plus security. But by nine-thirty, it looked as if only 150 to 200 people were in attendance. It seemed that not everybody's appetite for watching sweaty men and women punch each other had returned.

There are five stands at the Seebuehne in Elbauenpark, and they rise up from the water in a a fan-like shape. The ring stood at the bottom of the fan-like sculpture with a rig of lights above it. Above that was a a canopy, part of the stage, that seemed superfluous under the gazebo-like roof that throughout the night was lit up from below in shades of red, blue, and all in between.

There was a security check on the way in and each person there was awarded a green band around the wrist. All the security personnel wore masks and gloves. A little further, down the broad avenue that led to the venue, and just outside the bar area was a second security checkpoint. There, you had to hand in the completed form with your name, address, phone number, and other details. At this point, you were given a white wristband. Then, you went to your seats where, if you chose to, you could remove your mask.

All the seats were socially distanced and those of us on the floor sat in small banks of one or two seats, each pulled a metre-and-a-half from each other laterally and vertically.

That the crowd didn't hit capacity likely didn't dismay some of the patrons, who appreciated the elbow room while watching Kabayel rise to 20-0.

There were six fights on the card on Saturday. Three of them were between heavyweights. On the undercard, Collins Omondi Ojal plodded to an uninspiring points decision over Czech journeyman Georgij Fibich. It was the first fight of the evening to be shown on US TV and it seemed unwise that the former's corner did not tell them to fight harder, to make themselves more palatable for an international audience.

It had been a hot day in Magdeburg and the temperature had climbed during the day into the high twenties. It had been one of the rare hot days of this summer and the day’s sky had been clear and dry.

Later, the air began to cool and turn cold, and I was thankful for the packaway down jacket that I had put earlier that day into my bag. An algid breeze came across the brief slip of water and passed through and around the crowd like a ribbon. 

Outdoor fights are terrible for atmosphere. I once saw Ricky Hatton fight in the open air at Etihad Stadium in Manchester in his first fight after losing to Floyd Mayweather. Hatton's fans were always passionate and loud, and there were 55,000 of them there that night, but even that number, in close quarters, was not enough to generate much of an atmosphere. If that was what you were looking for that night, it would have been better if they had had half that number and Hatton had fought, as he traditionally did in Manchester, at the city's smaller MEN Arena. But with stadium fights, and any time a fight goes out of doors, any sound the crowd makes leaks out into the night air and up into the sky. In Magdeburg, it was doubly unfortunate as, with such a sparse crowd, there was little noise anywhere, except for a scattering of shouts and yells from the friends of those in the ring. As it was, the evening always felt like it was just starting and that it would liven up later, although it never did.

The second heavyweight fight was a match between Peter Kodiru and Eugen Buchmueller. Kodiru was bigger and stronger, Buchmueller was a late substitute. He was gamer than expected and even though shorter and smaller than Kodiru, he threw back when he could, and which was more often than would normally be the script. He held his hands high and winged punches from the elbow, and most of them, accompanied by a hiss as he exhaled, scored nowhere.

A left hook in the second from Kodiru interrupted the flow but even though the openings were there, he seemed in coming to the venue that night to have left his uppercuts back in the hotel. Buchmueller complained of a shoulder injury, and the ring doctor was brought upon onto the ring apron for a quick examination. The fight continued, although he still complained about the shoulder, touching it gingerly, as he went back to his corner. It was a gesture to his own people for them to acknowledge the injury, as if he were saying, “Hey, look at this. Take note. This is something.” In the dip between rounds, his corner, citing injury, pulled him from the fight.

It got colder as the evening went on and it went dark. People began to pull out jackets and sweaters. It was a python-like cold that wrapped itself around you and then settled. You do not notice the dip in temperature at first and it is only later, as the hairs on your limbs bristle, that you realise what it is and that you need to move.

There were a number of small spotlights that were aimed away from the ground, revolving, shooting their yellow beams up against the dark, solid night.

The sky looked almost unreal, like the darkest coal, its lack of colour a vacuum that seemed to pull at everything around it. As everything grew darker, we saw increasingly less of the world outside the Seebuehne and our senses became sharpened and more focused. We could see the curve of the awning, as straight as a blade, its unilluminated dark-blue a sharp edge to the black night, and it felt as if we were on a moon somewhere, looking out and upwards into space.

The noise crept up by the time of the main event, and the crowd had swollen to about half of capacity. The stands still looked empty, though, and the crowd looked scattered rather than sparse.

Shouts of “Agit” came from the crowd immediately after the national anthems had been played, some of them like whoops and cheers, others like growls as if warning Kabayel to be careful.

The fight became a competition in which one tough guy was forced to prove his toughness against another. What gave the other the edge was skill. Lazaridis could fight a lot, but he had no real defensive skills, and this was underlined by the pecking jabs and right hands that laced him throughout. But he was big and tough and game, and that counts in its own way, even if it does not count on the scorecards. Kabayel, meanwhile, discovered that he could hit his opponent, almost at will, with a thief-like right hand, and he nipped at Lazaridis with this all night. In the third round, this right hand, with some power on it, made that short-and-repeated move again, caught Lazaridis, and exposed something of his marrow. Hit, he drew his head back and his body followed, and he dipped backwards and down, like a man losing his balance on a ledge and then being yanked back by a firm hand grasping the buttons of his shirt.

Lazaridis tried to come back in the following rounds and he went for Kabayel, but the latter moved back with his left hand in front of him and managed to not be wherever Lazaridis’s own hands swept through the air. In the fifth, Kabayel did something new and he added a left hook to one of those flickering, glancing crosses, and it landed with a thick and meaty thud.

In the seventh, it appeared that if there was just one jab to be used between the pair of them, then Kabayel decided at that moment that it was only fair for Lazaridis to have a go. It was an ugly and mauling round, each of them caught the other, and Kabayel shook his legs in mockery towards the end. The eighth and ninth passed with little of note, and they abandoned boxing in the last round and slugged each other—politely, it must be said—until the bell.

Kabayel won by scores of 100-90, 99-91, and 98-92. Click here for video of the clash.

The crowd were on their feet and heading out of the stands when the superfluous readings of the cards came out. Satisfied, they had already begun to dissipate into the cool night. The Elbauenpark, in which the Seebuehne sits, is a long way from the centre of the city. It took a long time to walk back. Like live boxing anywhere after this pandemic, it takes a long time to come back. 

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