Natasha Jonas: “Going into the last round I thought I was up, and I thought I won the last so I thought I had won.”
The claret stained ring attire in Eddie Hearn’s backyard pugilistic bubble, highlighted perfectly the blood and guts spilt in a never say die battle for supremacy.
But it was about so much more, that never-ending search for acceptance should now be over. Anyone still doubting the validity of women’s boxing are likely to now be forever unconvinced. Prejudice and ignorance are hard things to overcome.
The red stuff might have flowed freely, but the class on display was much more visible.
For the reigning champion, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. The challenger walked to the ring for the supposed ‘last dance’ but the fight under the stars gave us unexpected drama and tension.
A champion bravely, desperately at times trying to save her titles. A challenger going into the unknown, looking for redemption, chasing glory that looked remote to so many.
You don’t have to put any label on it, in simple terms it was just a really good high-quality fight.
Nothing has been normal in 2020, a year of the unexpected, a year in many ways, is one of survival. Natasha Jonas in that unlikely setting in Essex was battling for her own survival. A career perceived as being almost over. A fight week spent largely in isolation meant a build-up of monotony in Fight Camp:
“Even when you were out of the room there wasn’t much to do. The courtyard bit was literally only 30 yards away from the hotel room. So if you weren’t in the courtyard you were in your room because there wasn’t anything else to do.”
A big fight deserves the biggest possible setting, but the current restrictions saw Terri Harper and Jonas do battle in front of a handful of people, but the eerie atmosphere couldn’t prevent the TV viewers seeing one of the fights of the year:
“Once the bell goes you don’t really hear anything anyway. But all the fireworks and the pyrotechnics were really something, I’ve not experienced that before, so that was nice. It was mad, but at the same time it didn’t feel strange.”
Harper, the unbeaten unified WBC & IBO super-featherweight champion, was expected to win, and win easily. Jonas largely based on her age and one fight was almost completely written off, much to her annoyance:
“It makes me laugh, it’s not the fans it’s the boxing people. I just think how can you say something like that.”
The split-draw verdict left us without a clear winner, and yet again a great fight was spoilt somewhat by controversial scoring. This observer had Jonas up 6-4 in rounds, but in boxing, you always have that feeling that a rightful winner will be denied what they have earned:
“Joe is very harsh, if you clearly won the round he will give it to me, but if you clearly didn’t win the round he will say. After 8 rounds he said he had it even and you have got 4 minutes to be a world champion. Watching it back I think I had round two, so I think I would be up going into round 9.”
Jonas very nearly made the judges redundant in the 8th round. A beautiful combination had the champion hurt, and her world title reign in real danger of ending. But Harper survived the round, and Jonas ruing letting that opportunity pass her by:
“Watching it back I am so frustrated I let her hang on, I wish I had pushed a little harder to create space. You are taught to hang on and hold when you get hurt, but when we did separate I again let her hang on. I should have kept her at length, trying to keep her off and getting my shots off. But she swarmed me so I couldn’t land my good shots.”
Despite Harper staying in the fight, Jonas followed the 8th with another good round in the 9th, and that ‘everything’ moment looked a formality if she avoided a disastrous final round. Jonas certainly was of the belief that she was on the verge of becoming a world champion:
“Going into the last round I thought I was up, and I thought I won the last so I thought I had won.”
Harper and Jonas gave us a certain fight of the year contender. You knew the respect was there between the two fighters, but neither fighter wanted to acknowledge each other in the heat of battle. Only at the very end of the fight did the two embrace, but the body language of each was perhaps telling. Jonas threw her arms in anticipation of a famous win, while the champion slumped fearing the worst:
“You can’t always read too much into that. I know she would be disappointed, but that would be because of the things she had said prior to the fight. I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful to Terri, but I was being genuine when I said there is nothing she does better than me. They were saying I am too old, weight-drained, and I would die in the later rounds because I wasn’t that fit, I’d only done one camp. It wasn’t necessarily her to be fair, but she was under a lot of pressure to do what she said. I just said I was better than her and I proved that.”
A better than expected performance, coming so near to her dream moment is of little consolation after the euphoria of the fight dims with the passing of time:
“I was just disappointed I couldn’t bring the belts home to symbolise all the hard work I had put in during the camp. To come home and look at them, and I don’t have that, it’s hard dealing with that.”
All way through her training camp Jonas seemed a different person, a different fighter. Words of confidence flowed, and they never sounded like someone trying to convince herself. Jonas meant and believed every single word she said:
“I saw someone say ‘that was the performance of her career, and I don’t think she can get any better, but Harper will learn from it and get better.’ But if you go into a training camp and not trying to improve then you are not doing it right. When we first got the fight the only thing we were worried about was the fitness and her output. But when we broke it down we realised she only threw an average of 25 shots per round. There was all this talk about that she is a workaholic and she has a great engine. When we worked it out we realised she wasn’t that person, I am not trying to be disrespectful in saying that. I have always been a puncher, I have always been accurate. But if you can’t get the shots off it doesn’t matter, you have to set things up and that’s what we worked on.”
A rematch looks locked in, but with boxing politics and mandatory obligations to overcome, nothing is ever guaranteed in boxing:
“Eddie Hearn is very confident that we will get the rematch but it’s a matter of when. The WBC has said what a good fight it was for the sport and women’s boxing, so they will have discussions to see if Harper has to fight her mandatory first and then I get the winner.”
Whatever happens in the immediate future, Jonas has plenty of options going forward. There is little doubt further opportunities will emerge, even a showdown with Katie Taylor has been mentioned in the aftermath of that incredible fight with Harper last Friday.
Jonas might not yet have a belt to show for her efforts, but she will undoubtedly get another chance to get one. But regardless of her future, that loss in a Wales ring back in 2018 will not define her career. Jonas will not now be remembered for that defeat to Viviane Obenauf, something that was always incredibly harsh on her. One loss should not mean the end, in many ways, it was a new beginning for Jonas. It was bitter sweet, but the pain of that loss has undoubtedly driven her on to another level.
There is that feeling that Jonas might have had her best chance of victory against Harper. I am not so sure, Harper first time around had little doubt that she would win, in any rematch, there now has to be real doubt. Harper might indeed be better when they meet again, but so will Jonas.
Jonas was always supremely confident of winning, and only the judges denied her. Next time she might not leave any doubt whatsoever.
Photo Credit: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing