Why Darlington's first world champion is a real-life Rocky

The Northern Echo: FULLY FOCUSED: Stuart Hall is wide-eyed as he enters the ring at the First Direct Arena. He left it triumphant but unable to see out of one eye after a brutal fight FULLY FOCUSED: Stuart Hall is wide-eyed as he enters the ring at the First Direct Arena. He left it triumphant but unable to see out of one eye after a brutal fight

IF it was presented as the script for a Hollywood screenplay, it would be rejected for being too far-fetched.

A talented young amateur boxer throws his career away as his life goes off the rails. After what was supposed to be a two-week holiday on the party island of Ibiza, he ends up staying for five years, and by his own admission, “spends pretty much every day drinking and taking things I shouldn't have”.

The Northern Echo:

ON THE ATTACK: Stuart Hall forces Vusi Malinga on the defensive

Suddenly, however, he realises he is reaching the point of no return and vows to turn his life around. He returns to both England and the boxing ring, turning professional at the age of 28 and fighting in his home town in front of a handful of fans.

He wins a national title, but even then things do not go to plan as he suffers a couple of devastating defeats that see his aspirations of global triumph written off.

Refusing to throw in the towel, he rebuilds his career and, in unexpected fashion, is offered a shot at a world title. Thrillingly, he grasps it with both hands, coming out on top of an explosive encounter that ends with him unable to see out of one eye.

A real-life Rocky? That seems a pretty decent description of Darlington's Stuart Hall, the newly-crowned IBF World Bantamweight champion in the wake of Saturday's sensational points victory over Vusi Malinga. After all, he even has a trainer called Mickey.

The only thing missing is the training run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but with a bit of artistic licence, perhaps the climb from the underpass at Darlington Train Station will have to suffice.

Given the way in which Hall threatened to go off the rails, only to get his life back on track, maybe that would be a perfect fit.

“I know where I am, and I know where I've been,” said Hall, in the wake of Saturday's remarkable triumph at Leeds' First Direct Arena. “My life has been completely switched around and that feels so special.

“I know where I've come from, and I won't forget that, but I'm a world champion now and no one can ever take that away from me.

“I've done it. People said I couldn't, but I have. Whatever else happens in the future is just a bonus now. I've achieved this, and I've come through a lot of things to do it.”

The Northern Echo: Stuart Hall and Vusi Malinga at Friday's weigh-in

Boxing tends to attract an array of colourful characters with unconventional back stories, but even by the sport's somewhat unique standards, Hall stands out.

You don't disappear off the radar like he did, and then suddenly reappear in your mid-20s and go on to claim a world crown. Or at least you don't unless you possess a remarkable strength of will and a fierce determination to make something of your life when most people are writing you off as a wasted talent.

Saturday's success was largely down to skill, and it would be a shame if Hall's unusual route to the top masked just how accomplished a boxer he has become.

But it was also about something more primal and visceral, an unshakeable will to win that enabled him to block out the pain and discomfort of two badly cut eyes to see the job through.

Boxers trade on their raw emotions more than any other sportsmen or women, and on Saturday, Hall looked in the abyss and refused to be dragged in.

“He's a special character, and special characters win world titles,” said his promoter, Dennis Hobson. “No matter how talented you are, to win a world title, you're going to have to dig deep.

“You've got to be prepared to go into the trenches, and he did that. He's got so much heart it's unreal, and that's what makes you stand out from the rest.

“It's a great story isn't it? It's a fairytale. People didn't give him a chance after he lost a couple of fights, but look how far he's come. And the best thing of all is, he's still got further to go.”

The prospect of Hall successfully defending his title in his native North-East is a hugely appealing one, but even that would struggle to eclipse the drama and tension of Saturday's showdown.

From the minute Malinga approached the ring on the back of his corner-man, in full tribal attire, it was obvious this was going to be no ordinary evening.

Hall bounded out next to the refrains of “Titanium” by David Guetta. A throwback to his clubbing past? Possibly, although the lyrics proved a perfect precursor to what was to follow. “I'm bulletproof, nothing to lose, fire away, fire away.” And so the template for the next hour was established.

Hall unleashed a barrage of explosive punches, and Malinga responded in equal measure. Hall knocked Malinga to the floor with a searing right hand in the third round; Malinga dusted himself off to inflict serious damage to Hall's left eye in the middle section of the fight.

Leeds' sparkling new arena had seen nothing like it. Six days earlier, the venue had staged the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards. Suddenly, in its midst, a new star was emerging.

The roars of the North-East contingent in the crowd grew louder, with Glenn McCrory, the region's only previous world champion, taking on the cheer-leading role from ringside. Malinga's entourage delivered their own encouragement, and the whole thing built to a bone-shuddering climax in the final few rounds.

Then, silence. Or at least the closest thing you'll get to it in such a gladiatorial setting. Two boxers, stood motionless in the ring, separated by an official who literally had their fate in his hands.

A glance down at the scorecard, a word or two into the microphone, and then Hall's hand held aloft in glorious celebration. A career fulfilled; a narrative rewritten.

The night was billed and marketed as “Redemption”. For Hall, the moniker could not have been more fitting.

“People told me something like this couldn't happen to a normal lad from Darlington,” said Hall. “Well it can, and it has. My life's been a bit all over the place at times, but it's turned out all right in the end.”


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