On Saturday, English lightweight marvel Lewis “The Sandman” Ritson bids to extend one of the most exhilarating runs seen in British boxing since Nigel Benn’s Commonwealth title streak at middleweight in the late ‘80s. An overnight sensation, Ritson is the man from nowhere.
Prior to the five-fight knockout roll that transformed the North East puncher into a headline act, British champion Ritson was scraping a living, fighting on ticket deals in leisure centers. Just another undiscovered prospect from a boxing backwater.
Tyneside stands alone. Part of the borderlands separating England from Scotland, Ritson’s home patch remains something of an outpost. The distinctive dialect and culture, preserved after the death of heavy industry in the 1980s, remains a source of pride for ‘Geordies’. These children of former pitmen, ship-builders and steel workers cast asunder, Thatcher’s “moaning minnies” left to the ignominy of the dole, are, contrariwise, renowned for their warmth and knowing pragmatism. ‘Canny’, to coin a local colloquialism, in every sense of the word.
Born of working-class struggle across austere terrain, Geordies have inhabited, seemingly, perfect conditions to breed prizefighters. Yet the dearth of stand-out examples produced by the area remains unfathomable.
Ritson, 17-0 (11 KOs), could be the exception. Huge for a lightweight, his power is generated across wide shoulders. He stalks opponents from behind a tight guard and everything he throws looks solid. His punches flow effortlessly, from spearing jabs to gruff body shots. Sky Sports pundit Tony Bellew compared this innate heavy-handedness to that of Glasgow’s former WBO featherweight world champion Scott Harrison. Unlike the dynamic puncher who relies on speed to generate snap, Ritson rag-dolls opponents with a consistent, bludgeoning strength.
He is from nowhere, meaning he was never part of a major network’s plans. Nowhere, in that at his lowest ebb he’d applied for factory work packing bottles of bleach after his daughter, Darcie, was born seven weeks premature – just as he received the call to fight Robbie Barrett for the British title.
Somewhere now, he could be the change.
Newcastle has never produced a world champion boxer. The closest a native came to world honors was in 1993, when 34-year-old late-starter John Davison dropped a desperately close split decision to Steve Robinson, for the then lightly regarded WBO featherweight belt. Working as a storeman for £52 a week, ever-ready Robinson was afforded two days’ notice after Colombian Rubén “El Huracán” Palacios tested positive for HIV during fight week. The North East as a whole – from Northumberland down to the Tees Valley – can only boast two: Glenn McCrory and Stuart Hall.
Raised close to the old pitheads and spoil heaps in Annfield Plain, County Durham, McCrory grabbed a cruiserweight world title in 1989, from the void left by Evander Holyfield. From a squalid makeshift gym above a fruit shop in the former mining village of Catchgate, dreamer McCrory weathered inept management and an ill-judged campaign at heavyweight to land an unlikely sparring gig with Mike Tyson in the States.
Grinding on red alert alongside the likes of James Broad and James “Quick” Tillis, McCrory developed enough savvy to overcome Patrick Lumumba before two thousand of his home fans, just a short walk from his in-laws’ home. Still only 24 yet satisfied after a fairy-tale win that has since passed into folklore, McCrory could only manage a tally of 4-3-1 in the ensuing years. He made just a single successful defense of his title, against South African Siza Makathini, before being cleaned out by Ohioan journeyman Jeff Lampkin. Retirement came in 1993, after a spirited loss in Moscow to Alfred “Ice” Cole.
Hard-faced Hall, from the market town of Darlington, won a bantamweight world title in 2013 with an irrepressible showing against Vusi Malinga (like McCrory, for a vacant IBF title). A late-comer à la Davison at 28, Hall returned from a five-year-long drink and drug-fuelled binge on the Balearic Isles to carve out a decorated career. It included creditable losing efforts to world titlists Jamie McDonnell, Lee Haskins, Paul Butler, and Randy Caballero. Tall, rangy, well-conditioned but a notorious slow starter, Hall was never an attraction in the North East.
Ritson, meanwhile, has struck a chord. In football, no player is more fêted than the midfield playmaker, the regista who can dictate a game’s rhythm. A goal-scorer, though, will move a crowd (in Newcastle, they build statues of them). A goal, a dunk, a home run, a knockout: excitement, emotion, connection. Ritson’s appeal mushrooms each time he takes someone apart.
On Saturday, he’ll carry his first major card as a solo act. Close to 9,000 fans will raise the roof inside the city’s riverside arena, as Ritson, so full of promise, rips into the smooth-boxing Belgian-Italian Francesco Patera in pursuit of the European crown. Promoter Eddie Hearn tested the waters here over the summer, installing Ritson as co-main alongside Sunderland’s budding welterweight star Josh Kelly. The support Ritson received was affirmation: Here was an unforeseen goldmine in an untapped market.
Humble and self-deprecating, Ritson’s personality bolsters his appeal. He’s repeatedly played down his own punching power in interviews – as though all of this hullabaloo is some sort of welcome mix-up. Tongue-in-cheek references to him being “The Geordie Golovkin” have been laughed off, along with any notion of dueling division leaders Vasyl Lomachenko and Mikey Garcia. Such candor makes a bone-breaker relatable. His openness is quintessentially Geordie.
Sport has long been a focus for local pride on Tyneside. The river was Newcastle’s beating heart in the 19th century, and professional rowing produced sporting heroes for the keelmen and wherrymen who worked the waters, before football gripped the people.
In between, Newcastle boasted a bustling fight scene at the purpose-built St. James’ Hall (replaced by New St. James’ Hall in 1929 and dubbed the ‘Graveyard of Champions’). During the Great Depression, shows often spanned six nights a week and spawned top local fighters such as Mickey McGuire, Benny Sharkey, George Bowes, Maurice Cullen and perhaps the best of all, “Seaman” Tommy Watson, a featherweight from Byker who beat former world flyweight champion Fidel LaBarba at Madison Square Garden in 1933.
Dubbed “The Idol of the North” Watson, who lost a decision to Kid Chocolate for the title later that same year, won 112 of 123 fights. Great crowds swelled the streets on his homecoming from the LaBarba win, from Bath Lane to Westgate Road. Flanked by police on horseback, his convertible resembled a coal ship bobbing on a sea of flat caps.
Notably, from oarsmen such as Harry Clasper and James Renworth to footballing legends Jackie Milburn and Alan Shearer, the retention of working-class links, loyalty to the region and a down-to-earth manner helped cement their popularity.
A qualified tradesman, Ritson holds that everyman appeal. Like most Geordies, he’s a diehard supporter of the city’s permanently maligned top-flight football team. He wears Newcastle United’s black and white colors to the ring accompanied by the local hymn “The Blaydon Races” – a folk song depicting the 1862 horse race immortalized by painter William Irving – and dreams of one day fighting at the club’s St. James’ Park stadium.
United are currently in the doldrums, with regular protests against the stewardship of owner Mike Ashley, the sportswear tycoon accused of dispassionately prioritizing profit over trophies. Former light-welterweight king Ricky Hatton benefitted from a similar scenario when current champions Manchester City were languishing in England’s third tier. In coupling himself to the ‘Sky Blues’, complete with their anthem “Blue Moon”, Hatton provided an outlet for supporters with precious little to cheer.
A more recent example of this phenomenon is the relationship between IBF featherweight champion Josh Warrington and Leeds United. Warrington’s affiliation with the club has boosted his appeal. His crowds are notoriously raucous and helped fuel his blood-splattered victory over Welshman Lee Selby for the title at Leeds’ Elland Road stadium in May. There are other examples. It’s no coincidence that when Ritson trampled over unbeaten Ulsterman Paul Hyland in June, his post-fight fanfare took the form of a traditional terrace chant.
Ritson’s ceiling is yet to be defined, as a fighter and an attraction. From an over-trained prospect struggling to put away journeymen off-TV, he now has a tight-knit team, a powerhouse promoter and, crucially, broadcasters DAZN and Sky Sports behind him.
Whether he reaches a world title fight or even world-class may not matter. The North East – regenerated yet subject to economic disparity with the south and with its key export markets currently under threat from Brexit – has latched onto him. An electrifying fighter, a new ‘Kid Dynamite’ might provide the right fillip at the right time.
Kayo artists are often on marked time, before someone, usually crafty, typically hardy, strips away their aura. Electric now, Ritson taps into a masculine pride long since gone and the penchant for revelry and carnival that remains. You hope they’ll go on forever, these punchers. Maybe he will?
He grunts with each punch – thunderbolts lost in time. Each of them capable of changing his life, his opponent’s, his status, theirs.
He’s somewhere now, though. A rickety gym, but soon the lights and the people. How far will he go? Isn’t that the point?
Have faith, kidda. A few more knockouts and he could be part of this city, like Keegan, The Gallowgate, ‘Wor Jackie’, Fenwick’s Window, ‘Grainger Town’, ‘Supermac’, The Beehive, Grey’s Monument, Friday night laughs, ‘Gazza’…
Maybe they’ll sing songs about him one day? About hope and right hooks.