By Andrew Hunt
GARY Sykes showed great heart and determination to climb off the canvas and secure a stunning victory over West Yorkshire rival Carl Johanneson to retain his British super featherweight title in Huddersfield last Saturday.
Sykes appeared in complete control when, in the ninth round, he was struck by a devastating right to the head, which sent him crashing to the floor.
The 27-year-old from Dewsbury Moor beat the count and immediately went back on the attack, forcing Johanneson onto the ropes with a flurry of punches, stunning the former champion and almost forcing a stoppage.
The knock-down had got Johanneson right back into the fight and there was a real danger that Sykes was on the verge of relinquishing the crown he captured 12 months ago to the day.
Sykes is renowned for his stamina and the conditioning he had done with Mark Hurley certainly paid off in the final three rounds, when he produced some of the best boxing of his career to completely outclass Johanneson and ensure the Lonsdale belt would be returning to Dewsbury.
Sykes forced Johanneson back with some fierce head shots, which visibly hurt the Leeds man and he went into overdrive for the 11th round, unleashing a superb volley of combination shots to the head and body.
Just how Sky commentator Glenn McCrory had the fight level going into the final round was a mystery as most pundits at ringside had Sykes two or three rounds ahead on the scorecard.
Johanneson was exhausted at the start of the 12th round and could do nothing to prevent the Dewsbury star inflicting further punishment on his weary body.
Time and again Sykes forced Johanneson onto the back foot and on three separate occasions in the final round, he had the Leeds man in serious trouble.
The huge partisan crown roared Sykes home in the final seconds as he continued to force the pace and he fully deserved to take the contest on all three judges cards.
Judge Steve Gray awarded Sykes a 116-112 victory — having him winning by four clear rounds — Mark Green had the Dewsbury man winning 115-112, while John Keane awarded a two-round win by 115-113 to spark joyous scenes in a packed arena.
While Sykes’s stunning finish had sealed the victory, nothing can be taken away from his work-rate in the early stages of the fight as he racked up the points with some tremendous combinations.
Sykes forced Johanneson back onto the ropes as early as the first round and he showed his physical strength by continuing to push the Leeds man back, although he was warned on three separate occasions for illegal use of his shoulder by referee Marcus McDonnell.
He broke Johanneson’s defences in the second, snapping his opponent’s head back and the speed of his punches in the third saw Sykes rack up another round in his favour.
Johanneson is renowned as one of the biggest punchers in the super featherweight division, having recorded knock-out wins in over half of his 34 fights, and he continually looked for the overhand right in an attempt to knock Sykes out.
Sykes did well to duck and weave, until he was caught by the cracking punch to the side of his head, which sent him crashing to the floor 20 seconds into the ninth round.
Sykes had vowed he would do everything in his power to keep hold of the Lonsdale belt and he did just that, dominating the final three rounds to secure a victory in what is sure to be shortlisted for the 2011 fight of the year.
Speaking straight after the fight, a delighted Sykes said: “I don’t know any other way but to haul myself up and carry on.
“I showed all the doubters that I do have a jaw and that I can take a punch, I also took some big body shots in there.
“Carl did put me down but I got straight back up. When you look at his knockout record, you know he is a big puncher but I showed great fight to come through.”
n Sykes showed his support for local organisation BAD — Boxing Activities in Dewsbury — by sporting their logo on his shorts for last Saturday’s title showdown.
How Sykes prepared for his huge title fight and a year in the life of the British champion — see page 24.