Underdog Maxi Hughes upsets Jono ‘King Kong’ Carroll

Underdog Maxi Hughes upsets Jono ‘King Kong’ Carroll

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

By Dewi Powell: Whilst the post-pandemic matchmaking offered by Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren was slightly more competitive than some of their usual events, it was fair to say that it hadn’t affected the results. They promised ‘no easy fights’ but the pledge threatened to go unfulfilled because between the pair of promoters, there hadn’t been a single win from the away corner in the first five shows of British boxing’s restart.

The winning streak of home corner favourites was extended for another four fights on the undercard of MTK Global’s show. A non-title encounter between Ireland’s uber confident Jono Carroll (18-2-1, 4KO) and Maxi Hughes (21-5-2, 4KO) headlined the show and, at the 29th time of asking, it happened – an upset, finally, from the away corner.

It took place at the Production Park Studios in South Kirby, Yorkshire. Even though Hughes resided 20 miles away in Rossington, he was very much an outsider and the oddsmakers priced him as wide as 10/1. The 30-year-old wasn’t discouraged and he persuaded all three judges to side with him via 96-95, 96-95 and 97-93 scorecards. Hughes, half Welsh through his father who lives in Llanelli, landed the best win of his 10-year career after 10 tense and tactical rounds.

“I’ve been about a bit. I’ve got experience, that’s not to be frowned upon,” Hughes reminded, before reflecting on his post-triumph reaction. “Some people, when they win a world or British title, say that they’ve climbed that mountain. I don’t feel like I’ve climbed that mountain but it’s a satisfying feeling knowing the hard work I put in has paid off.

“People say, ‘Maxi is a good kid and he’s always pushing the top kids’ but now I’ve beaten a top kid, it goes to show. I’ve felt like I’ve always been able to do it, I’ve just not had the rub of the green. All these years of hard work have paid off now.”

Carroll challenged for an IBF world title against Tevin Farmer a year ago and he pushed the American over 12 rounds. ‘King Kong’ then retired former world champion Scott Quigg in the weeks prior to lockdown to recement his status as a leading contender. Hughes, conversely, had been a quality domestic operator for years but he came runner up in his big fights against the likes of Liam Walsh, Sam Bowen and Martin J Ward. Few onlookers could foresee the upset when Carroll strutted to the ring and flashed a smile to the camera that was wider than the betting odds. That complacency would prove costly.

Hughes, in his own mild-mannered way, wasn’t impressed with the narrative. He said: “I don’t bet or do any gambling, not because I have a bad history, it’s just because I’m a Yorkshireman [and] tight with money. It were only after [the fight] when some of the lads said, ‘thanks for that, you’ve made me some good money with those odds.’ Now I know them odds, I feel a bit offended.

“What makes those odds? It’s bizarre! It is almost a bit offending. I’m not that interested, I don’t take any notice… though if someone would’ve told me before, I’d have told everyone to back it.

“In the interview straight after, he was like, ‘I’m not gonna take anything away from Maxi or make any excuses but… here’s a big list of excuses why I lost.’ I think, because I’m too humble, I stood there and listened to it. I should’ve said, ‘hold on a minute.’ I believe whatever Jono Carroll turned up with on fight night, I would’ve had an answer for.”

The battle of southpaws began tentatively. Hughes settled quicker and he was first to land his well-schooled jab. Carroll came forward but his replies were avoided as Hughes used his savvy knowledge to slide to the sides and scoot away from danger. Sean O’Hagan, the father of IBF world featherweight champion Josh Warrington, headed the corner and he was audibly pleased with the start. The role of the matador was impressively executed in the empty venue and Hughes’ footwork made Carroll fall short in the early rounds.

“He says he couldn’t find his rhythm or get into it but the reason is what I was doing,” said Hughes, who was conscious that he had to take the play away from Carrol by executing a strategy based on boxing IQ. “It was my game plan and he wasn’t able to adapt. I think that’s why two southpaws didn’t clash because I was able to keep him at bay.

“I’m a traditional boxer. I keep my hands tight, I work on my defence. A big part of my game is my ability to evade punches with my footwork and distance, whereas Carroll likes to be really busy and to try and let his hands go. I think he thinks he hits stronger than he does. He tries to overpower and overwhelm opponents with work rate. If my style would’ve been different, he might’ve been able to do all that.”

For all of Carroll’s intent in the third round, his attempts to close the distance lacked any real accuracy. Hughes’ movement was coupled with sneaky backhands and it led to a crunching hook to Carroll’s ribs. It was stoically sucked up and Hughes then scored with an eye-catching uppercut before the round was out to send spray from the Irishman’s bold beard. Carroll was the less conventional southpaw and he squared up on the inside, allowing Hughes’ technical ability to take advantage.

The middle rounds were closely contested. Both feinted frequently and they willed the other to take the lead. Carroll was keener and he pressed on, only to hit the gloves of Hughes’ tight guard more often than he expected. There was some success in Carroll’s looping left hand and Hughes had to dip very low to make them miss. Amidst Carroll’s intensity and spurts of salvos, Hughes’ own activity dipped and he focused on quality shots, stepping across with a clean left cross in the sixth round. More of those sharp single punches were forecast for later on.

They both gave as good as they got in the seventh round, the difference was Hughes’ insistence on having the last say before pivoting away. Carroll’s straight left disturbed Hughes in the eighth round and knocked him off balance. Hughes credited the instability to his new boots and he was quick to regain his shape. The response was an economical output as Hughes didn’t want to give Carroll another chance to edge an exchange in the eyes of the judges.

Hughes, with the fight still to be won, was implored to finish strong and eliminate any doubt in the last two rounds. He had regularly ventured out of his comfort zone over the last decade, demonstrated when he travelled 200 miles to be trained by Gary Lockett for a period in 2014. Now, the usually back footed boxer needed to leave his comfort zone again and do the exact opposite of his natural instincts.

Stimulated by the corner, Hughes unleashed a trio of left crosses to confront Carroll early in the 10th round and it set the tone for the final session. Those shots lacked the power to hurt Carroll but cracked hard enough to barge him backwards. The flip side of that coin was a surge of confidence through Hughes’ veins as he closed in on the finish line.

He said: “I felt him tire, I saw him tire. Because it was so quiet, with no crowd, I could hear him breathing heavy. His corner were saying things all night to encourage him and bring him on.

“Quite early in the round, I let go an overhand backhand. It caught him and briefly hurt him. I gained some encouragement after that and I still felt fresh enough. I thought he was tired, so I’ll put it on him and finish strong.”

Another left cross registered in the last minute and the forthright fashion Hughes had adopted sent Carroll reeling into reverse gear. The momentum was only broken when Carroll’s back bounced into the ropes. It was one of the clearer rounds and, at least on two of the judges’ scorecards, sealed an unexpected win.

The boxers’ body language was telling when they embraced. Carroll, perhaps underwhelmed by boxing behind closed doors and without fans, again wore his mandated wide smile but it was more transparent and he appeared nervous under the surface. He wasn’t alone. Hughes awaited confirmation of his win and it was unfamiliar territory for the contender, who had come close so many times before.

“I felt it was maybe close but deep down, I knew I’d done enough to win,” reassured Hughes, before he confessed last second insecurities. “I really felt I’d won but then I started getting an anxious feeling.

“It was taking a while for the judges and MC to announce the decision. I looked out of the ring and I saw the three judges together, gathering their scorecards ready to give them to the MC. I thought they were gonna do me again, it’s not gonna go my way for whatever reason.

“I’d have been devastated if that [happened] because I really did think I’d won. I listened to everything Sean, my trainer, had said and everything he said Jono Carroll were gonna do, he did do it. Then I felt like it was scripted, it was my night.”

Carroll would’ve preferred to compete at super-featherweight in more settled times. However, the match was made at lightweight and Carroll came in his heaviest for four years at 137lbs, two pounds more than Hughes. The excess weight might’ve explained the dip in Carroll’s energy levels, which commonly replicated the Duracell bunny. The other explanation was that Hughes, now 30-years-old, caused the power-outage with carefully placed counters and his more refined technique.

The fight was televised across the world on iFL TV and ESPN+. Hughes, a father of one, had long paid his dues at domestic level. Now he wanted the win over Carroll to catapult him towards a shot at a significant title, even though he offered nothing but risk to future opponents. A British title loss to Sam Bowen in 2018 resulted in a low profile and short-lived retirement, which was ended when close friend Josh Warrington dethroned Lee Selby to become world champion. That spark of inspiration was repeated in the final round against Carroll as Hughes remembered the words Warrington spoke in their most recent conversation.

“I had a few months off and the birth of my daughter,” said Hughes, before explaining the turnaround in fistic fortunes. “Boxing is a short career and I still felt good enough to box at domestic level and win a title. I didn’t want to get to my mid-thirties and wish I’d done it.

“Something that was going through my mind was from talking to Josh [Warrington]. He’d been giving me some advice. Last time we talked, he wished me luck and said, ‘Do what you’ve been doing in gym and leave it all in the ring.’

“That was going through my head. What he [Carroll] was throwing back, I had my defences up and there was nowt in the punches. I thought ‘I can go for this.’ It paid off.”

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

Image by MTK Global.

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