What Is It Like In a Head-To-Head?
All boxing fans have watched them on TV, those awkward interviews where two fighters sit across the table and get the chance to look each other in the eye.  Back and forth, snipes fired across the table, awkward pregnant pauses all while a presenter attempts to keep peace and order in a tempestuous environment.  It’s a familiar scenario, sometimes coming across as contrived for a viewership who want to see a personal animosity build between two boxers who already have a date in the diary to fight it out in the ring.
The purpose, of course, it to build anticipation and promote an event.  We have seen this format build in America and the concept has come across the Atlantic over the years.  Famously we have seen George Groves and Carl Froch sit down with Johnny Nelson on Sky and debate in advance their rematch.  We have seen Anthony Joshua and Dillian Whyte, Gary ‘Spike’ O’Sullivan and Chris Eubank Jr as well as a particularly fiery even between Leon McKenzie and John McCallum that bordered on getting out of hand.
Sometimes there is a per-existing dislike, a simmering tension from the off.  Sometimes it builds, climaxing in a full on argument before the culmination of the programme.  Sometimes it fails to ignite, the two involved not willing to engage in pre-fight mind games and happy to do their talking in the ring on fight night. 

So what then, is the job of the host?  The person sat between two hyped up fighters who have travelled to the set pre-planning their best insults to trade with their opposition like a grown up ‘he said-she said’, is there to ensure it all goes without a hitch.  Keep the peace?  Not really.  After all, we all want to see a bit of fire and an argument.  Where is the fun in two fighters agreeing with each other?  Ultimately, agreement is unlikely to happen.  They may not always share views, but fighters share traits; namely, confidence.  Confidence in themselves and their ability to walk away with the win from their next fight. 
I had the pleasure of playing host twice, building up to fights on March 12th and March 19th between Sohail Ahmed vs Rakeem Ashaye Noble and Eric Mokonzo vs Dalton Miller both as part of Goodwin Boxing shows at the famous York Hall.  Two very different fights and four very different personalities, it was my job to hold court over proceedings and try to guide it to a structured outcome and get the best build up possible.  Note the use of the word ‘try’ because ultimately, if two bulls decide to lock horns then don’t anticipate a matador to jump in with a red rag.  If the fire is lit, let it burn.
The first thing to note here is that people may not be what you expect.  Those that are quiet and elusive when the camera is off can grow in stature once the red light shines.  Conversely those who are renowned for liking to dominate a discussion or a press conference may not wish to take on the same role when sat around the table.  It’s different personalities, different scenarios.  How someone acts and react when sat at a press conference will be different to when the lights get dimmed and it’s just the three of you around a table.

All four of the fighters are under the Goodwin Boxing stable and the boss man Steve and son Josh are in attendance.  Is there an element of showing off to be done with the management team looking on?  Perhaps, or perhaps you need to keep your mouth in check so as not to come across too egregiously, cocky or over bearing.  There is the consideration for a fighter of how they will come across on camera as each of these will ultimately end up on an online media for the ticket buying public to watch and hype their excitement.  Do you want to be ‘that’ bad guy, renowned for making the outlandish statements?  Or the more sedate and laid back member of the discussion, happy to let your opponent do the trash talking and engage emotionally while you keep your cool and let it wash over?
The gym where we are filming is cold for me, let alone four boxers who are reducing body fat to a minimum.  Requests for heaters to be turned on are overruled as the whirring will be picked up by microphones.  The dim lighting creates an ambience over the ring where a table is adorned with black cloth and three chairs situated around it.  Stepping through the ropes to take my seat it is evident that those that are the star attraction are far more au fait with slipping between the ropes than I am as I mentally weigh up the advantages of sliding between the different levels of potential entrance.  I avoid the Eubank vault or the Naseem flip over the top and instead stumble awkwardly through the top and second ropes as we all settle down for the main events.
The action started with Rakeem and Sohail.  Let’s be clear here, I’m not giving any information away about what happened nor what was said.  I’m going to talk about the intricacies, the things to perhaps look out for that aren’t so obvious.  Rakeem and Sohail are both respectful young men.  Before shooting started the two were sat around chatting with others, stroking dogs and chilling out.  You feel that with Sohail chilling out is a difficult task.  The man is 100 miles per hour, constantly ‘on’.  If he’s not shadow boxing while telling you how he knocked out his last opponent then he’s locked into a conversation.  He is engaging, the nickname ‘Showstar’ is apt.  Rakeem is far more chilled out.  It’s his birthday, but you sense that for him the build up to his March 19th fight is far more important right now.  This fight is the biggest of both of their careers, looking to take place for the Southern Area super lightweight (light welterweight) title.  Both are in impressive shape already with six weeks until fight night.  Sohail is undefeated, while Rakeem is coming in off the back of his first career loss.  It’s probably not a spoiler to tell you that the loss is something Sohail is happy to bring up while Rakeem is happy to move on from and focus on the future. 
It’s all a bit sedate to start with.  Both men are respectful.  Things heat up throughout the conversation, the calmness and respectfulness temporarily put to one side and replaced with, not so much bad mouthing, but self-confidence.  This is the biggest fight out there for both fighters at the moment and both talk about their ambitions for moving on past March 19th.  I feel at times like the waiter in a restaurant who has stepped into the middle of a domestic.  Not quite willing to jump in the middle when they are both leant forward, eyes gripped upon each other but body language giving away that this isn’t a conversation about love and cuddles.  Sohail straddles his chair, Rakeem more laid back.  It matches their personalities, Sohail almost anticipating it to turn into a bucking bronco to expend some of the energy that is always bubbling under the surface and Rakeem waiting for his to lay back and transform to a deck chair. 
A lot is read into about body language, eye contact and the unspoken between fighters.  Perhaps far more can be interpreted through this than what comes out of the mouth.  For what it’s worth I suspect I was lucky enough to get an insight into each of them that perhaps wouldn’t and couldn’t have been captured through the camera lens.  Yes there are moments when it heats up as you would anticipate in a testosterone debate.  But there are little tells from each of them, moments when you perhaps don’t feel that their non-verbal communication backs up the sound they are making. 
It’s hard to know where to look when the disagreements surface.  There are moments when I get to watch these back where I am sure that I will have pulled off the David Brent look; straight down the camera.  It’s hard not to, there’s only so much swinging of the neck you can do while two grown men talk over the top of each other and the tension raises.  Where would the waiter in the restaurant look when the domestic kicks off?  He has the advantage of checking over the bill or fine reading the menu.  For me, it is looking at Fighter A or Fighter B. 
Rakeem and Sohail will fight it out on March 19th in what will be a fascinating fight.  It’s fair to say that each fighter knows the style of the other based upon the words exchanged, both studious fighters.  The fans are in for a treat.  The head to head between the two is just going to fan those flames a little bit more.  
For Eric and Dalton, these two are less aware of each other perhaps than Rakeem and Sohail.  Eric has only had the two fights in his career with a three year gap in the middle, while Dalton has got a 10 fight résumé which is a mixture of wins, losses and draws.  He too has had long stretches out of the ring at times, other focuses getting in the way of his boxing.  These are the big boys, both super middleweights and looking in tip top shape.  Mokonzo has a reputation as a fearsome puncher while Miller is more of a slick boxer, a good contrast in styles for when the two meet properly.
With little known of each other and Eric not arriving until later, the two haven’t had the opportunity to size each other up pre-recording.  No, it’s straight into the ring and get the cameras rolling.  Turns out there is no warm up required.  No historical relationship between the two means that there is no need for mutual respect.  These two come out of the blocks like the front runners of a 100 metre Olympic final.  Again, nothing given away here but it’s fair to say that if two strangers started to react to each other this way in the street then you would likely make for cover, not grab a seat and host their argument.  This one was awkward.  My own role here was limited.  At greyhound racing the person responsible for starting the race lets the hare out of the trap and then sits back to watch the action.  That was my job.  For two men who knew so little about each other beforehand, they were a lot more familiar by the end of filming.  Insults flew and tempers flared, March 12th could be a feisty encounter between the two.
This one didn’t need my input particularly, other than to occasionally ensure one allowed the other to speak or to bring the conversation (argument) back to some form of structure.  I had prepared myself for an evening where, with two unfamiliar foes, I may have to poke and prod to get a reaction.  There were no poker faces or playing it cool though as the two made it perfectly clear to those that will see it that there is little respect for each others records or pasts. 
As I say, no particular details are being given away here.  The videos will be edited and made available in due course by the Goodwin team and I can promise you the content will whet the appetite for two of the three explosive nights of boxing that are being put on by Goodwin Promotions.  Until then, I can mop the brow down and reflect on what was an interesting set of recordings.  My job may have been to poke the sleeping bear into action, it turns out that a bear who fights for a living and is in the middle of a training camp doesn’t need too much of a prod at all.  You will see all of it in the videos.