Photos by Sumio Yamada
CRAIG WATSON vs JOHN O'DONNELL
For a long time now, promoter Mick Hennessy has been calling his welterweight up-and-comer, John ODonnell, one of the hottest prospects in the sport. On Saturday we will see how good ODonnell really is, because he faces by far his toughest opponent when he challenges Craig Watson for the Commonwealth title in a meeting of southpaws that will be televised on ITV4 in the UK and on Super Channel in Canada.
Watson is the obvious favourite. The 26-year-old from Manchester in northwest England has beaten solid fighters such as Matthew Hatton, Ali Nuumbembe and Michael Lomax (the latter being a tall southpaw with a similar height and reach to ODonnell).
ODonnell, a 23-year-old Londoner, has been outclassing opponents of a generally low quality. His best win was a 10-round points victory over Stuart Elwell, the southpaw Royal Marine who was unbeaten at the time. Since then Elwell has been blown out quickly by Vyacehslav Senchenko in Ukraine and Kell Brook in a British title bout in London, results that put ODonnells win over Elwell in a less flattering light.
Watson gave perhaps his best-ever performance in his last fight when he outboxed Matthew Hatton but he has been inactive for 11 months. ODonnell has been busier but he has lately been overwhelming opponents with losing records.
Each man has been shockingly stopped. Watson was halted in the third round by an unbeaten Italian, Daniele Petrucci, in March of last year, when he got dropped in the second round and again in the third round. It was a startling setback because Petrucci had not been regarded as much of a puncher (he had scored just three stoppage wins in his last 11 fights before meeting Watson).
ODonnell suffered a similar sort of defeat when he was stopped in two rounds by a Mexican trial horse, Cristian Solano, on the Mayweather-De La Hoya show in Las Vegas. I was ringside that night, and ODonnell started well only to get caught by a left hook high on the head and dropped in delayed reaction just before the end of the first round. He had not recovered when he came out for the second and was quickly dropped again, and the fight was waved over.
A bitterly disappointed ODonnell took that defeat very hard indeed, and he was out of the ring for a year. He says he had never been down before, amateur or professional, and he was disgusted with himself, although promoter Hennessy has revealed that his man went into the fight suffering from a problem with the inner ear that he had not told anyone about and which has since been rectified by an operation.
Both fighters have sounded ultra-confident, which is to be expected, and the British fight fraternity is eagerly looking forward to the contest.
My first thoughts were that Watson will be too much for ODonnell. He has fought at a much higher level, and he looks the stronger man and the heavier puncher. ODonnell is quick and clever, but there is a willowy, slightly frail look to his body, and his style of boxing, with hands low, could get him into trouble against an accurate puncher such as Watson.
The more I have looked at the fight, however, the more I give ODonnell a good chance at pulling off an upset. He was a talented amateur, winning a Junior Olympics gold medal and two English national junior titles. He seems to have the supreme confidence of a natural-born winner. Watson is a sound technician but ODonnells hand speed and flashy combinations could trouble the defending champion.
On the evidence of the boxers careers so far, Watson will be the winner on Saturday. If ODonnell is going to win, he will have to take his boxing to another level, because he will be tested severely. The question is whether he can elevate his performance sufficiently. I have the sense that he can do it, and Im leaning towards ODonnell rising to the occasion and boxing his way to a points win.