Jay Harris breaks down Paddy Barnes in Belfast and eyes world titles

Jay Harris breaks down Paddy Barnes in Belfast and eyes world titles

This article first appeared in the Welsh Boxing Annual 2019-2020. Click here to buy on Amazon.

By Dewi Powell: Swansea’s Jay Harris (17-0, 9KO) signaled his stardom and headed to world level in four storming rounds, ending the career of Ireland’s Paddy Barnes (6-3, 1KO) in the process.

‘The Leprechaun’ was an apt nickname for Belfast’s pint-sized puncher Barnes, a red-head standing at just five foot four inches tall. The only feature of a mythical Irish fairy missing for the flyweight was the most important ingredient – a bit of luck. It had seemingly deserted 32-year-old Barnes since he ended a stellar amateur career to join the paid code in 2016. Though undoubtedly well-paid, the treble-Olympian struggled to impress in most of his professional outings and failed to recreate the form that captured medals at most of the major international amateur tournaments.

Before fighting Harris, there were six victories against a crop of unambitious opponents and two reverses on Barnes’ ledger. That skid included a fourth round stoppage loss in a dubiously deserved shot at then-WBC world champion Cristofer Rosales and a bruising decision defeat to American club fighter Oscar Mojica in New York on St Patrick’s Day. For those reasons, the European Boxing Union [EBU] refused to sanction a challenge to Harris, their champion. It was an understandable decision for the EBU given Barnes’ form, which included just one win in 14 months and that sole triumph came against a Nicaraguan journeyman.

Belt collecting is a hereditary habit for the Harris family, headed by former Welsh and British featherweight champion Peter Harris. However, there was no significant signing fee when his son Jay turned professional in 2013, instead he walked away with just £140 in his pocket. The debut was practically a loss-making exercise once he shelved out for his first set of medicals and license fees. Pontyclun-based manager Gary Lockett persisted to provide opportunities for Harris, whilst Peter handled the bulk of training in the gym. Harris managed to stop half of his opponents inside the distance and pick up the Commonwealth title with a well-earned decision against Cameroon’s Olympian Thomas Essomba in 2017. Oddly, Hall of Fame promoter Frank Warren lost interest immediately afterwards and Harris was condemned to no man’s land, reappearing on the small hall scene.

Broken promises were overcome when Harris was snapped up by the increasingly influential MTK Global in early 2019. The Dubai-based outfit was initially set up by former boxer Matt Macklin in 2012 and boasted a plethora of world-class talent in its stable, including Tyson Fury and Carl Frampton. Harris was given a routine outing against Brett Fidoe on MTK Global’s first show on Welsh soil, producing a below par performance, and he then received the opportunity to headline their second show. Spain’s recent world title challenger Angel Moreno provided little threat as Harris ran away with a wide unanimous decision and the blue EBU belt at the height of summer to set up the Barnes fight.

MTK Global’s initial investment was rewarded and they turned attention to the world scene. The absence of European honours prompted the inclusion of the IBF Inter-Continental title. Harris was ranked sixth by the sanctioning body, whose South African champion Moruti Mthalane was also in the MTK Global stable alongside Barnes. With a stake in a lot of relevant flyweights, MTK Global brought major exposure to the lighter weight classes by streaming shows live on YouTube channel iFL TV and ESPN+ in America. It was a far cry from the small hall shows Harris had appeared on as recently as 11 months ago and he flew to Belfast feeling fortunate.

The pre-fight talk remained respectful; both smiled awkwardly during face-offs for the cameras and agreed on most points, including opinions on the 12 rounds of sparring they had previously shared. Barnes’ more venomous verbal jabs were scored online, where he often went viral with comedic quips to creditors and critics alike. However, Harris was spared and the most recent victim was heavyweight legend Lennox Lewis. The latest argument was hardly ideal preparation the night before a crucial fight in Barnes’ career.

Although on away soil, Harris instantly looked at home. He recreated Swansea city centre with his own version of a one-way traffic system. Straight rights and screw shots stiffened a wide-eyed Barnes and he squeezed his guard to endure the attacks. Barnes attempted his own quick spurts but they lacked the power to damage Harris. Instead, Harris marched forward with more menace and he retained an ice-cold composure. Both stood in the pocket in the second round. The difference wasn’t just Harris’ power but his ring smarts, too. An old school cross-arm stance enabled him to lean backwards away from Barnes’ work, before he returned with heavy replies.

Barnes began the third round brightly, firing a sustained burst of short hooks to head and body. Not all of them got through but Harris was now cut above his right eye. Harris replied quickly and punished Barnes for his ambition; rocking his head back and issuing a call to war. Barnes, now bloodied himself, accepted the challenge and toe-to-toe exchanges entertained the sold-out Ulster Hall in a round of the year contender. However, whilst Barnes was revving his engine to the max, Harris looked like he was just starting to accelerate.

The breakthrough came with a left hook to the body. It rolled the brave Barnes to the floor and an equally brutal follow up attack was uncomfortable viewing. Barnes’ corner, led by Danny Vaughan, would’ve been justified in waving a white towel but they resisted. There was a clear difference in size and Harris towered above Barnes. Many, even Harris’ own team, were surprised to learn that the Welshman was only three pounds over the eight stone limit at the IBF’s check weigh-in on the morning of the fight.

Harris reintroduced his right hand in the fourth round and he couldn’t miss the target. Barnes remained busy but his attempts were now desperate and inaccurate. It presented openings to Harris to pick his shots – and he did. Another left hook to the body returned Barnes to the floor and this time, he wasn’t getting up. A statement was made, and it sent 40 travelling fans into delirious celebrations.

“He said it was going to be ‘do or die.’ He was coming to knock my head off but I give it back as good as I get it,” Harris told commentator Alex Steedman at ringside. “I’ve never boxed in the Ulster Hall before ever but I got told what the atmosphere was going to be like and it didn’t disappoint. It’s absolutely electric in here.”

Manager Gary Lockett was equally enthused: “We’ve been on a fantastic journey. Peter entrusted me with Jay’s career from the start and we’re finally there.

“We’re working with MTK. We’ve got plans for the mandatory [Mohammed Obbadi], which could potentially double up as an IBF world title eliminator as well.

“It’s a shame for Paddy, he’s a lovely fella. Y’know, this is how boxers should treat each other. They should be respectful and it’s been like that for the last few days. Well done to both.”

Barnes slipped to 6-3, 1KO and grumbles of retirement sounded louder. Meanwhile, Harris extended his run to 17-0, 9KO and further cemented his rankings with all four sanctioning bodies – the IBF, WBC, WBA and WBO. A bid to become world champion had become a real possibility.

This article first appeared in the Welsh Boxing Annual 2019-2020. Click here to buy on Amazon.

Image by Liam Hartery.

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