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‘Unleash the animal’ – Geale’s crowning moment in Oberhausen

‘Unleash the animal’ – Geale’s crowning moment in Oberhausen

As IBF titleholder Daniel Geale prepared to face long-time WBA ruler Felix Sturm in Oberhausen, leading boxing broadcaster Ben Damon travelled with the Australian to Germany to document the fight. This is his tribute to the famous victory on foreign soil.

“Unleash the fucking animal!”

That’s the advice the most American man I have ever met imparts on a far more unassuming chap, who may soon deserve to be considered Australia’s newest sporting superstar, at the decisive moment of his career.

American boxing promoter Gary Shaw is the American. Australia’s ‘good bloke’ middleweight boxing world champion Daniel Geale is the looming superstar, and mine is a privileged position inside the camp for the biggest bout in recent Australian boxing history – a world title unification fight on foreign soil, against the daunting German Felix Sturm.

When Geale won his first legitimate world title, the IBF middleweight crown, I was sitting comfortably in a Main Event Television studio at Foxtel in Sydney. It was the early hours of Mothers’ Day 2011, and former world champion Barry Michael and I called the fight.

The Tasmanian born Geale went into that bout, against another German world champion Sebastian Sylvester, as a significant underdog. He was venturing into unchartered territory – his first professional fight overseas. Plus he was going to Germany, where judges and referees notoriously err on the side of the local.

Geale had unquestionable boxing quality and enormous potential but it was not the two men on either side of the ring that stirred our concern that morning as much as those holding the scorecards sitting around its edges.

To take a title from a world champion in Germany, you need a knockout – so the conventional wisdom goes. That day Geale proved the assertion was wrong, defeating Sylvester via split decision. Now, on Fathers’ Day 2012, he’d have to prove it again.

Calling the Sylvester fight was an experience. Sitting alongside a former world champion, commentating on a monumental chapter in Australian boxing history, was the kind of aspiration I had held since developing a fascination with the sport, long before coming to know television cameras and microphones.

We knew what result we wanted to see that morning but we were unashamedly scared. We’d seen Aussies robbed overseas before and we acutely did not want to see it again. If the result went to the scorecards, we thought, I would be forced to end the broadcast with a bitter taste and words not dissimilar to “that’s boxing.” But Daniel outclassed Sylvester and he got the result he deserved. He got justice, and he won a World Title.

For Geale, two bouts in Tasmania followed. Daniel promised he’d take the first of his title defences back home, and such is his style, he took two. Then it was booked – a World Title unification contest, back in Germany against a man who had never lost a decision there. Victory in this bout against WBA’s super world middleweight champion Felix Sturm would be the greatest achievement of Geale’s career, and one of the largest mountains ever climbed by an Australian boxer.

This time I would be at the arena, in a foreign land, watching an Australian athlete of exceptional character and ability as he sought to ascend to a level of major pugilistic distinction. Daniel Geale was going back to Germany to re-attempt the impossible, and I was going too.

My role was to handle Daniel’s media and PR on behalf of Team Geale and Main Event Television. Essentially I was to spend a week in Germany, trying to tell those back in Australia just how big a deal this sporting event was, or could be. No easy task given the esteem in which boxing has found itself held in this country in recent times. As a boxing lover, my cards are marked, but I understand why the odour of some of the sport’s rotten elements has seen it edge out of the mainstream.

What Australian boxing needed was a saviour. Could it be this quietly-spoken Tasmanian? Could our knight in shiny trunks be this shy family man who walks the walk while refusing to talk the talk? Well, maybe. But he had to win this one first.

Oberhausen is not much of a place. It’s a bit like Daniel inviting Felix to Australia to fight, then announcing the venue is near his home outside Camden, south west of Sydney. Lovely people. Lovely place. But for those working with the visiting camp there is not much to do outside of work and training hours.

Even so, after arriving in the team hotel, excitement built quickly. This was to be something special. Sporting history in the making.

After a couple of days of interviews and press conferences and transferring vision back home, it was clear to me Daniel would not be affected by the occasion. Such is his natural composure and certainty that while others in the camp had trouble sleeping, with a mixture of nerves and expectation, Daniel would rest easily, dreaming of bigger things and of home.

In training he reached a new level. Crisper than I’d ever seen him. Stronger. More confident in interviews. Intent without intensity. The fight got traction back home too. The coverage was, relatively, good. This was huge and at least a decent slice of people cared.

I have always liked Daniel Geale. He is a true sporting ‘everyman’. Just a battler from Tassie done good. But he has not changed. Even at age 31, when many would have bought into the game and been force fed an ego, Daniel is unaffected. He is a good bloke, at his own peril.

The Australian sporting public find it easy not to notice good blokes. The evolution of our sporting coverage and expectation has placed the focus firmly on sensationalism. The only place Daniel is sensational is in the ring. Everywhere else he is Daniel.

I went to Germany to help the fight get the coverage it deserved and ensure at least some small portion of Australians noticed what could be one of the great sporting achievements in our history. But I was to be much closer to the action than I had imagined.

Graham Shaw is Daniel’s trainer. The gym is Grange Old School Boxing – perfectly named because Graham and the team are truly from the ‘old school’. Uncomplicated. Tough. Graham is from London’s north east but he’s been in Sydney since the 1980s. He tells a yarn along the lines of how, like so many ‘new Australians’ he began his time here at Villawood. Like so many of them he has proved his worth. We’ll keep Graham Shaw and we’ll claim him.

The German promotion had Daniel training at a gymnasium in Essen, near Oberhausen, where the typical focus was middle-aged men, young girls, and ‘boxercise’. The set-up was fine but this onlooker was intrigued by the contrast.

A world champion boxer going through the integral final phase of his preparation for a true ‘Super Fight’ while girls sweated away puppy fat and greying men flared arms wildly to heavy metal music.

Such is the nature of Graham and Daniel that they did not even consider asking the gym’s owner to close his doors to the classes, as was their right. By the day of the fight the owner would be firmly backing Geale against his own countryman.

It was after one such session that Graham made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

“What do you have to do during the fight Ben?” he asked.

“Well, nothing really. We aren’t calling it so I’m just going to get a good seat and watch,” I replied.

“Do you want to be in the corner then?”

“What do you mean?”

“We have a spare place in the corner. We’d love it if you’d help out. It’s nothing too difficult. Brian (Willmott, the cut man) and I will show you what to do. Would you be interested?” asked Graham.

Since my youth spent hanging around Johnny Lewis’ Newtown Police Boys Club, boxing has been a passion. I’ve been around the sport for most of my life and through television, and a bit of ring announcing, I have had the pleasure of making that passion into something of a career in recent times.

But I’d never been this close. In the corner, next to the trainer, for the one of the most significant bouts for Australian boxing of all time. Yes I was interested.

Fight day was slow. It always is. When you wake up there are so many hours before things get started. A final interview with Daniel out of the way. He was calm. He was relaxed. He always is. His sleep had been sound despite the occasion and he spent another day watching bad DVDs in his hotel room.

The main event would start at 11pm. A van was picking us up at 7:30pm and when we all met in the lobby there was nothing to mark the significance of what was about to occur. Accompanying Daniel Geale would be trainer Graham Shaw, promoter Gary Shaw (no relation, at all), cut man Brian Willmott, brother Joe Geale and myself.

We piled into the van and with some traditionally efficient German driving we were at the venue much earlier than necessary.

The dressing room was nothing spectacular but the venue was. An impressive piece of German design where over 10,000 people would be perfectly placed to disparage our Australian cause. In our sanctum the mood was light. I waited to gauge how things were to be played in here.

We were still hours away from the fight, but what level of decorum was required, I wondered. Then I remembered that Gary Shaw was amongst us – the metaphorical and physical epitome of a larger than life character.

The mood went from light to boisterous with Gary’s stories, though Graham took the cake with his reference to a boxer in one of the undercard bouts, whose rolls of fat made his pit bull tattoo look more like a shar pei.

Daniel was quiet, but no quieter than usual.

“What DVD’s did you watch today?” I asked.

“I got a fair way trough that ‘Police Academy’ Box Set that Joe bought,” he said. Seriously.

“Mate that is terrible. They start bad, but they get even worse!”

“Nah they get better,” he argued, smiling. “I got up to six and it was the best of the lot. Only had one to go!”

In the dressing room I looked at the television screen where a mismatch was unfolding.

“You should have brought the last one, it would have to have been better than this!”

As we got closer, 9:30pm, Brian meticulously wrapped Daniel’s hands. There was the entrance and exit of officials and various Germans, but all stayed calm. I opened the door, filled water bottles, and threw in only the very occasional comment. Daniel was quiet. Everyone else was not. Daniel smiled at the jokes. Everyone else laughed.

“We’re ready to put gloves on,” I was instructed to tell the German boxing commissioner. His long blond hair and horrifically shiny suit would have been more suitable had he been presenting a magic show.

He followed me into the dressing room and Graham put the gloves on Daniel. There was something wrong.

“Why’s there an 8 on there?” asked Daniel, knowing the answer. These were 8 ounce gloves, not 10. A mild debacle followed. Gary Shaw’s Americanism sorted it out. Daniel would wear Sturm’s second pair of gloves. All would be ok.

“That’s why I get paid the big bucks,” said Gary Shaw. If there was sarcasm it was a fair way beneath the surface.

All the while a set of studio lights and a fixed camera had shone though the dressing room’s main section. We had not ventured there yet but that would be where Daniel warmedup.

“Great idea!” I had thought. We’d never get away with that in Australia. Then I realised – nobody else knew what they were.

“Did you blokes agree to that camera in here?”

“No we didn’t,” answered Gary and Graham.

“Are you ok with it?”

“Definitely not.”

“I’ll get rid of it.”

Lights off, microphone off, camera tilted to the roof. Just paid for myself.

With prying German eyes removed it was time to warm up. First though, Daniel needed relief. It’s not easy to urinate while wearing boxing gloves.

“Go on Ben, you’re the newest, you have to help,” joked Graham.

Daniel’s a resourceful man. He got it done without me.

It’s an interesting thing, the warm up for a big fight. With Daniel’s Australian managers Bill Treacy and Garrie Francisco, both giants of men, added to the mix, there were now five of us watching Graham put Daniel through his well-rehearsed routine. Graham held the pads and Daniel punched, and the rest of us watched. All felt compelled to comment.

Brian is a natural motivator. One of Australia’s most experienced cut men and trainers who has seen everything that can happen inside a boxing ring. He said all the right things.

“You’ve been practicing boy,” he hooted, “a great time to bring this out!”

“It’s always been there,” answered Garrie Francisco, a likeable behemoth of positivity, who with his tattoos and beard resembles an extra out of a future series of Underbelly.

“This is the one you want Gealey,” cheered Bill Treacy in fatherly tones. This fight meant as much to Bill as it did to Daniel, and if both could legally have entered the ring it would have been so.

Daniel’s brother Joe is as Tasmanian as you get. No fuss. No ceremony. He’d been here with Daniel before and had helped his brother as only family can. He knew his brother had greatness and victory within him. He watched on as Daniel hit the pads, nodding and clapping. Never wasting a sentence.

In contrast, Gary Shaw is less frugal with his words. He is a talker by trade. Loud, confident, brash. A relentless businessman who has forced himself towards the top of world boxing promotion – a profession with no place for shrinking violets, or any type of quiet flora. Think a white Don King who loves only his food more than a deal in his favour.

His stories tell of the stars with whom he has associated and always end with a joke – never at his expense. He is rich and successful because he finds people like Daniel and clears a path for them. He sees dollars in Daniel, and while his main job is to make sure contracts are fair and judges remain relatively honest, his American exuberance flowed freely as Daniel threw hooks and jabs.

“You’re better than him, you’re younger than him. He can’t beat you,” he bellowed.

“This is your time. Time to do it for yourself, for your family, for your country. Remember, Felix chose you – he wanted to fight you. He can’t beat you!”

Graham remained measured as he talked Daniel through the pads routine. There is no doubt that, once warm, Daniel looked sharp – perhaps sharper than any of us had seen him before. Graham called the punches and commented on the ones he liked.

He has paid particular attention to an overhand right and called on Daniel to throw more of those. It looked good. Maybe it could catch Felix out if he stayed moulded in his European stance.

There was a lot of nodding in the room. And clapping. I joined in and offered the occasional comment but was comforted by the fact that whatever I said would be drowned out by Gary. Then, a knock at the door.

“It’s time.”

Brian tells me to bring the buckets of ice and water I had earlier taken great pride in preparing, as he grabs his own. We head to the blue corner, as Daniel walks out to Wolfmother and to the boos of 10,000 Germans. He is in the ring quickly, without ceremony.

We wait for Sturm. Then Gary Shaw re-appears, in the ring. He stands in front of Daniel yelling as Sturm’s music track plays and the crowd goes wild. The huge American still has no trouble being heard.

I am behind Daniel, next to Graham, who is next to Joe. Brian is preparing the adrenalin he will use should Daniel sustain a cut. We all hear as Gary repeats his final words to the fighter before moving away.

They are well chosen and befitting of the setting. It is time for the IBF middleweight world champion to go to another level. This is the moment where there must be a brutal shedding of any doubt over whether this uncontroversial, understated Tasmanian has the ‘mongrel’ to become a truly great champion.

“Unleash the fucking animal!!!!”

Sturm is in the ring now. He wears what looks like Mr Miyagi’s headband, but his intensity is obvious. He stares at Daniel and we all stare back. It feels like a pub fight is about to break out. Daniel is facing a local hero who has defended his belt an incredible 12 times.

Joe holds what Daniel is wagering tonight – his IBF world title belt. Sturm’s men enter the ring and parade the WBA edition. They walk a lap of the ring, showing the belt to the crowd. Then the two large Bosnian/Germans take a detour to linger in front of Daniel. They have not weighed-in for this – they are huge.

They want to intimidate on behalf of their man in the other corner. I have a moment and wave them away. Daniel doesn’t seem to notice anything at all. He stares through them at Sturm, as legendary ring announcer Michael Buffer begins the introductions.

The Australian anthem is sung well by a German ring girl. I stand next to Graham – if he knows the words he’s not showing it. Daniel sings. A handful of Aussies at ringside do their best but when the German anthem play the whole crowd is involved. Finally Buffer earns his no-doubt astronomical fee with those five words that have made his career. It is perfect.

“Let’s get ready to rumble!”

Daniel has the robe removed and Graham gives final instructions.

“Be first to the punch Daniel. Work hard mate. Let’s start strong!”

Daniel turns to Joe who nods knowingly.

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He turns to me. My turn. I’m back at the pub brawl.

“Fucking smash this bloke!”

Well if I’d known there would be speeches I would have prepared something better.

The bell rings and all too quickly it’s on. Round 1 shows what we are in for, a war. It is level – too tight to call either way. Daniel is just warming up.

Brian or I call out times as the clock ticks down, “15 seconds to go Daniel.”

The bell rings.

In the corner, things move fast. There is no damage to the fighter so it’s just about Graham’s instructions and the water. I take the mouthguard and rinse it out. Not hard, but glamorous in its own way.

Rounds 2 and 3 are not so smooth. Sturm steps it up and Daniel’s rhythm is slightly off. He works a few openings but doesn’t follow them up with the same crispness we saw in the dressing room. A cut opens behind his left ear, and when I take the mouthguard at the end of the third it is covered in blood. Graham is poised. He calms Daniel expertly as Brian gets to work on the cut with adrenaline and Vaseline.

“We are ok Daniel. He can’t keep that up. You need to be first to the punch Daniel. Work for it here.”

He’s right. Sturm tries to find a rest during the next couple of rounds but Daniel doesn’t let him. Our man forces the fight, moving forward. Crisper punches, in combinations. When Daniel is punching hard he makes an audible gasp at each blow. He is gasping now.

In the corner Brian has the cut under control and it is Sturm’s cut man with the work to do. Graham is calm and Daniel is relatively fresh. Nerves now gone. Things are going well but this is an ongoing battle and the intensity must be maintained. The mouthguard is washed again. More blood.

During the rounds I had not planned to do too much talking. My viewing position is a small staircase used by Mr Buffer, next to the corner, shared by Graham, the trainer. What could I contribute that he couldn’t? The reasoning doesn’t hold up for long and soon I am calling out and supporting each flurry, willing Daniel on. Trying to build his energy and motivate along with the rest of the corner team.

“Ben this round we want that ice towel across his front and the ice pack on the back of his neck,” yells Brian.

The bell rings. I am up with them. Graham speaks to Daniel. I throw the maroon towel that had been soaking in ice across his chest. I asked Daniel to go forward so I can put the ice pack on the back of his neck. Nothing. Brian pushes his head forward. Done.

I rinse the mouthguard and it goes back in. The towel and the ice pack are removed with a single movement and we are ready to go. Final instructions from Graham, “be first.” Daniel moves back to centre ring. I need a rest.

The atmosphere in the corner for a big fight is manic. It is an absolute whirlwind and a very different way to watch a fight to the crowd or the commentary position. There is no lull. It is constant. It ages you. There is a togetherness too and for that period you are a team. Everyone gives feedback, and it’s all positive.

“Great work Ben.” Not something I’m used to in my line of work.

In the latter rounds things ease up. Graham and I manage some dialogue during the rounds.

“Felix only wants to fight in 15 second bursts… Daniel’s fitter than him… that jab looks great.”

All the while we call out to Daniel urging him to be first to the punch. Not to take breaks. To throw his shots in bunches. Combinations.

He is fighting well. He is undoubtedly winning the fight. But we are in Germany…

The bell sounds to end Round 11. I repeat the towel routine for the final time. Graham keeps Daniel focused.

“Daniel we need to finish strong. This is the last three minutes. You need to fight all three minutes.”

“This is the biggest round of your life,” comes the message from Bill Treacy in the front row. He still wants to be in there with him.

It is a brilliant round. Both men throw the depth of their soul at the opponent, but nobody goes down. More time calls. Another bell. It is over.

There is back-slapping and handshakes. We all embrace Daniel. The ring fills with people. Gary Shaw is there in a flash. For a big man he can move very fast when there is a camera around! Gary is nodding – a very, very good sign.

We all think Daniel has won but we don’t know for sure. Bill and Garrie want it intensely. We all do. Daniel is confident but it is the confidence of a man who has been robbed in the ring before. Then Buffer speaks.

The first judge gives it to Sturm. Not good. The second goes the way of Geale. A split decision. Buffer hardly even draws out the deciding score.

“I would have built the drama,” I think – myself a part-time ring announcer not worthy of sharing canvas with the great man I’m questioning.

“… your winner. The fighting pride of…….”

This is the moment. It decides a career. Win, and Daniel Geale suddenly deserves to be Australia’s next sporting superstar. Massive fights await. Doors open. This would be a victory to be placed alongside our America’s Cup win, at the very top echelon of all-time Australian athletic performances overseas. Lose and, well, who knows.

Buffer doesn’t leave a pause, he rolls straight in, giving us the answer we wanted.

“Australia. Daniel ‘The Real Deal’ Geeeeeeeeeale!”

There is a great photo of that moment. In it Daniel smiles, as the referee raises his hand. One part exhaustion, one part jubilation, two parts relief. The significance of the achievement is just beginning the long journey towards ‘sinking in’.

Gary Shaw is front and centre, obviously – if the photo showed his brain the cogs could already be seen turning to the next payday for his new star. The rest of the entourage is buzzing in its own way. Graham Shaw holds up two arms.

For hours he will say that he cannot believe what has happened. He knew Daniel had won the fight, but to get the decision is truly a blessing.

“That’s why they pay me the big bucks,” Gary Shaw would offer.

In the background of the photo you can see me. I’m out of my comfort zone, showing partiality. A hand raised in jubilation. On the other side of the fence and loving it.

I hug Graham. He thanks me. I thank him more. Joe, Brian and I all embrace. Good job team.

Then Daniel gets his belts. More hugging and high fives. I congratulate the unified Middleweight World Champion. He thanks me for my help.

No Daniel, thank you!

Australia, please meet your new superstar, Daniel ‘The Real Deal’ Geale. It’s time to embrace him. The animal has been unleashed.

Words: Ben Damon/Follow Ben on Twitter
Photo: Getty Images

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