The annual Town versus Gown event presents a singular boxing experience that only Oxford could conjure: the Union’s revered debating chamber, so often the arena of verbal blows and pejorative jabs, hosts a full-size ring in the centre of its famous floor- for one night only, where punches count for more than put-downs at Frewin Court.
OUABC is the oldest student amateur boxing club in the country, and has been competing for over a century; the Town versus Gown tournament itself has taken place for many years, with the event’s announcer speculating that it might even be the oldest continuing fixture in the sport. The show is unique on the Oxford calendar; few fixtures attract this volume of attention or anticipation- at least 500 people, possibly more, crammed into the hall (a complete sell-out) for what proved to be an extraordinary evening of entertainment and sporting prowess. Ringside benches were quickly filled, and dozens more watched from the chamber’s balconies. Lights glared down upon the daunting canvas as music pumped around the venue, generating an excited, expectant atmosphere before the bouts had even begun. The sights of awaiting ambulances and stand-by stretchers did not necessarily ease a tense crowd, either. The noble brutality of boxing was about to be unleashed at the Union.
Eleven individual match-ups were scheduled, each pitting a member of the Oxford University Amateur Boxing Club against a ‘Town’ opponent. The ‘Town’ team comprised a variety of fighters and clubs- some were members of local organisations (Oxford Boxing Academy, Blackbird Leys ABC), where others, intimidatingly, were active paratroopers representing their regiment. Each clash lasted three rounds, with each round lasting two minutes; that might not seem too long, but the duration between the opening and closing bells must feel like at eternity at this intense level of exertion and physical punishment.
The first pairing were the lightest fighters, and Oxford made an excellent start to the contest- Melvin Chen won the bout convincingly, setting the tone for what was a commendable performance from all of the Blues boxers. Some bouts were extremely close-fought, where victors won by only the slightest of points margins; others were dominated more comprehensively, and a number of the fights were awarded by the judges as unanimous decisions. The overall score on the night was 7-4 to the ‘Town’ amalgamation, but the Blues were competitive in every battle. Victories were achieved by Chen, Meredith, Pickering and Guevel, all of whom thoroughly deserved their success. The team’s coaches and trainers were delighted with Oxford’s efforts here, especially considering that several of the university fighters were boxing their very first competitive contests.
Equally, the Blues’ opponents were at times excellent. Oxford University’s Walton performed admirably in the face of ruthless boxing quality and efficiency: his challenger, paratrooper Private Barry, was undoubtedly the night’s most complete fighter, a frightening blend of raw athleticism and devastating technique. His constant barrages of hooks and uppercuts were delivered with precision and power, eliciting moments of empathetic recoil in the crowd, who were by now vicariously throwing fists and absorbing hits with each lightning combination of punches. Chalidhary was notable for his unorthodox fighting style, where he seemed to discard the need for any obvious defensive guard- his reach was so long, though, that Oxford’s Upton could scarcely get close enough to land a punch.
David Lee was unfortunate to lose against Town’s Tukunov in a contest that was too tight for the casual spectator to call. The defeated Blue was proud of his inaugural bout, never wilting under the pressure of a paying and baying crowd: ‘I just zoned it all out. I really enjoyed it in there, I knew it was going to be a close decision so I kept fighting and working.’ In fact, all of the Blues’ losses were close, and no fight was disproportionately one-sided. Tyrell, Mahoney, Fields and Morris fought balanced bouts that might have gone their way with minor technical or tactical adjustments.
The crowd revelled in the spirit of the event, fervently supporting boxers from both teams. It has always been the paradox of the prize-fight that such a ferocious sport can foster such a convivial, social mood: if the Union isn’t Caesar’s Palace, it at least succeeded in bringing a shade of a big-time Vegas bout to the centre of Oxford- glamour might not be the word, but the show certainly felt somehow special. That the event was flavoured in an idiosyncratic Oxford fashion is undeniable: perhaps the best image was of the team’s water jug, used to refill the boxers’ sports bottles- printed in large red letters on the container was, of course, ‘Pimm’s’.
OUABC captain, Richard Pickering, received a huge reception from the crowd; his boxing style was aggressive and relentless, giving his opponent very little opportunity to settle into any sort of offensive rhythm. Pickering’s win was arguably the most accomplished Blues performance, and his demeanour in the ring suggested a composed leadership that will serve this team well as it approaches the all-important Varsity bouts.
The final word should go to Borna Guevel, though, the Blues’ most charismatic and compelling boxer: within twenty seconds of his first round, this fierce hitter knocked his counterpart to the canvas with a sharp hook to the face: after that, the crowd went wild for every left-right combination that he landed, another after another after another. ‘That was awesome’, he said. ‘I loved it, awesome. A big crowd like that just makes it better; it was great how they got behind us with so much passion. I love fighting.’ The Light Blues over in Cambridge had better watch out then.
Roundup: How the Blues fared:
M. Chen beat W. Houston
D. Lee lost to I. Tukunov
J. Meredith beat M. Mallone
W. Tyrell lost to M. Gibson
L. Upton lost to M. Chalidhary
S. Mahoney lost to S. Jitsingh
J. Fields lost to A. Craigmile
R. Pickering beat D. Flatley
C. Walton lost to Pvt. Barry
B. Guevel beat S. Reese
B. Morris lost to M. Ellis
Why not take a look at Cherwell’s extended photo coverage of the boxing?