Sunny Edwards boxes beautifully and withstands a late charge to unseat Moruti Mthalane, while Mick Conlan comes through a gruelling fight with Ionut Baluta
The build-up to the main event of Frank Warren’s show tonight from York Hall had been rather low-key, with IBF flyweight champion Moruti Mthalane his typically gentlemanly self and unbeaten challenger Sunny Edwards eschewing his cheeky side for a maturity beyond his years, perhaps aware of the gravity of the situation at hand.
In 15 previous victories slick, awkward Edwards had barely taken a heavy shot, while Mthalane, without a loss in over 12 years, boasted stoppage wins over Zolani Tete, John Riel Casimero and Akira Yaegashi. That said, the South African maestro is 38 and had not fought in 16 months; there was a feeling that 25-year-old Edwards could be catching Mthalane at the right time and with the right style, similar to Tyson Fury unseating Wladimir Klitschko, albeit at the opposite end of the divisional spectrum.
Edwards produced a incredibly controlled, intelligent and composed performance, full of poise and panache, allied to significant toughness, to dethrone the long-reigning titlist. It became a close fight by the final bell, but there was little doubt about the winner and new champion. Edwards took a unanimous verdict, 118-111, 120-108 and 115-113.
Sunny, younger brother of former WBC flyweight champion Charlie Edwards, who was once chasing a Mthalane unification, began circling and popping out straight shots. Mthalane stalked menacingly behind a high guard and quick feet. Edwards’ lateral movement was excellent, rarely stopping to plant his feet. He’d land singles or a quick burst then be away, his ring generalship belying his tender years. The Sheffield-based Londoner displayed impressive accuracy and timing also. Moruti remained patient but was he overly so? He began to close the distance more quickly in the fourth and landed sporadically, but Edwards moved around the target as he mixed up his combinations.
Mthalane forced Edwards to move even faster in the fifth and the challenger was expending greater energy, but the champ was not winning rounds. Edwards’ shot selection and combination work was superb, the one-two then whipping lead hook to body – from either stance – the pick of the bunch. Round six was the first time I recall Mthalane landing more than one punch in succession, a testament to Sunny’s dominance but also a warning sign. Moruti followed up with his best round in the seventh, managing to pin Edwards on the ropes and connect to head and body, provoking shouts of ‘Move!’ from the latter’s corner. Sunny was forced to work in the pocket more in round eight, still proving evasive, although he did take a left hook as he moved away.
The champion maintained his momentum into the ninth, belabouring Edwards against the strands and targeting the midsection. I marked the next even, as Edwards started well but Mthalane pegged him back, throwing punches as he advanced. Sunny took several clean head shots in the 11th as, tiring, his work became increasingly ragged. He made sure in the final stanza, however, punch-picking neatly and tying up the charging South African when necessary. He even picked a beautiful right uppercut with 20 seconds left, to add an exclamation point.
Chief support saw Ireland’s former amateur standout Michael Conlan weigh within the super-bantamweight limit for the first time and take on dangerous Romanian Ionut Baluta, who had already upset two of his compatriots in TJ Doheny and David Oliver Joyce.
Conlan, unsurprisingly looking big at the weight, began at a brisk pace, switching stances and landing shar blows before darting out of range. Baluta flurried back but was slower and most of his blows were avoided or taken on the gloves.
It became more competitive from the third as Baluta intelligently manoeuvred his way inside as Conlan unloaded, managing to catch the Irishman as he moved away. In the fifth Conlan applied pressure with his feet but failed to throw much, perhaps trying to tire his busier opponent out. Baluta’s workrate certainly dipped in the next.
Conlan briefly shook his man with a right in the seventh and his head movement was good, but Baluta was dogged and enjoyed some success. Conlan focused on the body and a few strayed low. He was certainly weakening his rival but Baluta had never been stopped and Michael has rarely looked a concussive puncher. He picked his punches well in the championship rounds, jolting Baluta’s head back but the Romanian soaked it all up and fired back when he could. It was not the KO Conlan had hoped for but the WBO No. 1, on the verge of a world title shot, retained his status with a majority decision triumph, 115-114, 117-112 and 114-114. I did not feel it was particularly close.