BRIAN ROSE entered a grey changing room in the bullring at Valdemoro in preparation to exchange violence with Sergio Martinez in a boxing match. It was the place where, after a bullfight, dead cattle are dragged in and hung from a pulley on the ceiling. It was not hard to imagine the clean floor slicked with blood.
But there was no claret on the floor, just old strips of tape and gauze that had been pulled and ripped from the hands of those on the undercard.
Rose sat on a cheap plastic chair, his hands on the back of another in front of him, a small towel taped to its slats. His trainer Bobby Rimmer was wrapping one of his hands. They had their own corner by themselves, their equipment piled on a table next to them.
Rose was nervous. His leg shuddered and tapped against the speckled, tiled floor. “This is going to be your night,” said Rimmer. “I really believe in you. Martinez has seen you. He’s seen that you’re in great shape. Everything we’ve done. Everything. It’s all fitting together like a jigsaw.”
Rimmer was working on the second hand now. He turned occasionally and pulled pre-cut strips of tape from the wall, pinched them so they came up in a ‘v’, and laid them between Rose’s fingers and on the back of his hand. “We’re going to make history tonight,” he said. “You’re going to go in there and you’re going to be fearless and sharp like a lion. That’s why they call you ‘The Lion’.”
Sergio Martinez, the former world middleweight champion, was a few feet away, preparing for the third fight of his comeback. He was trying, at the age of 46, to put himself back into the picture. After victories over the unheralded Jose Miguel Fandino and Jussi Koivula, the Martinez camp had selected Rose as the next opponent.
This was the biggest fight of Rose’s career. Winning would open new doors for him. Losing would close them.
A camera crew wandered in. Rose thanked them as they left. Then someone from the promotion came in with gloves, still in the plastic bag. A member of the Board asked if Martinez was wearing the same gloves. “Yes, but in a different colour,” he was told. Again, Rose thanked them as they left.
The wrapping was finished. “How does it feel?” said Rimmer.
Rose left the room briefly, then came back in. There was no toilet other than the one in Martinez’s room. “I’m not going in there,” he said. He went outside again.
At ten o’clock, someone came in and confirmed that everything would start at 11.30. “He’s not going out until then,” someone said of Martinez. “That’s when it’s going on Argentinian TV. There’s no way he’s going out before then.”
Rose sat down. His leg shook. “I feel good,” he said. “I’ve put so much work in. I’ve been training for 14 weeks. I feel as fit as I’ll ever be. If I’d been half-hearted about it, if I hadn’t put the work in…” He looked at Rimmer. “I’m only 12 stone, you know,” he said, pleased with himself. “168lbs this morning.”
“That’s good. That extra half stone is what we want.” said Rimmer.
A TV crew came in again. Rose went off with them to the other side of the room. When the interview was done, he thanked them as they left.
Rose sat down again. This was his second fight in Spain in 2021 after beating Jose Manuel Lopez Clavero by majority decision in March. The calls to come over had begun at the beginning of the year. “I suffered a bit with my mental health,” he said. “I was drinking too much at the beginning of the year until Kieran Farrell got hold of me and got me some fights over here. It was the best thing that could have happened, getting back in shape. I took the first fight, which ended up being a war with some Spanish kid. I was a stone-and-a-half overweight for that.”
He began talking about the Martinez fight. “I’ve got a plan,” he said, “and it’s to win systematically. I don’t want to fall behind, but the plan is get him into the late rounds.”
He reflected on what it might take to win. “Sometimes,” he said, “the only way is to stop and have a fight. I can do that. I know I’m not a concussive puncher, I can’t rely on my power. But I’m strong. If it comes, it comes.”
Rimmer came back and took out the pads. Rose hit them lightly at first. He tapped his left shoulder with his glove. “I’m prepared,” he said.
Someone wandered in to take a photo. Rose posed with them, thanked them. He then needed the bathroom again. He looked at the sink in the changing room, debated it in his mind for a second, then went out the door.
When he came back, Rimmer picked up the protector and walked to him. “Shall we start?” he said. Rose nodded, took another sip of water, and tried on the protector. “Does it feel okay, or is it a bit tight?” said Rimmer.
The protector was adjusted. “Do you want to put your t-shirt on?” said Rimmer.
Rose shook his head.
Someone from the promotion came to check that everything was alright. As he left, Rose asked if it was his company that made the gloves. “Are these yours?” he said. “They’re very good. Brilliant.”
Rose put on his shorts, then hit the pads again. Someone came in and asked the team to start taping up the laces on the gloves. Rose stopped them. “I’m going to go toilet again before I put gloves on,” he said.
Robert Rimmer, Bobby’s son, was in the room when Rose came back. The padwork restarted. The younger Rimmer spoke as Rose moved around, his voice low but intense. “Work the feet, in and out. Move, that’s the key. Move in and out. Move the feet. Move around.”
The older Rimmer smeared Vaseline over Rose’s face and neck. They hit the pads again. “Sharp, sharp,” he said.
At 11.25, the man who had brought the gloves came in, clapped his hands twice, and said, “Let’s go.”
Rose went out of the dressing room, circled through the edge of the bullring, came out onto the platform, and went down a runway to the ring. Martinez followed a few moments later.
There were about 3,000 people crammed tight in the bullring. They gave Martinez a rapturous reception. The Argentinian, who has been living in Spain since 2002, walked to the ring like the national, transplanted, hero he has become, bedecked in silver shorts and a black waistcost.
Rose fought better than anyone had expected. He moved from start, gloves high, and centred everything around his jab. But Martinez won the first round.
In truth, it was a night of shifting tides with Rose trying to walk down Martinez, who showed occasional flashes of what he once was. Rose seemed to take the second, when a right hand made Martinez stumble, the third, when a head-clash opened a gash on Rose’s left eye, and the fourth.
Martinez won the fifth, catching Rose with jabs. There was little to separate them in the sixth and seventh. Rose went down from a slip in the eighth, got up, and hit Martinez with a jab. Martinez grinned, and the crowd began to chant his name as he dropped his hands and darted his head back and forth to avoid everything that was coming back. Rose slipped again in the ninth and pointed to the wet floor.
After the 10th, they embraced briefly, then separately walked around the ring with their arms in the air. The referee brought them together, facemasks on, for the result. It looked like Rose had done enough.
Martinez won. Unanimous decision. Two scores of 97-94, another slightly closer at 96-94. None seemed to tell the right story.
Rose turned to his corner. His face dropped. He felt betrayed. He walked away, ducked quickly between the ropes, and jumped down to the ground. Security stopped and guided him back onto the runway. He climbed back up, walked down it away from the ring, and went back to the changing room.
He paced the room. “It’s f**king bollocks,” he said. “I worked hard. I worked f**king hard. I thought I’d won it. I f**king won it. I know I did.”
The corner came back now. Rose was angry. “I need to get out of here,” he said.
Everyone agreed that he had not lost the fight. Bobby Rimmer looked at him and said, “Brian, I thought you had it by four rounds. We all did.”
It had been a close fight. Rose winning by four rounds was generous. Martinez winning by two and three rounds, more so. It was hard to escape the sense of injustice in the room. There were many close rounds. Rounds, perhaps, he was never destined to win on the road. Still, Rose had done more than he had been expected to.
Rose sat on the same chair he had been sitting on before the fight. His leg was no longer tapping the floor. The anticipation, the hope, had gone. He began to cry.
Bobby Rimmer kneeled in front of the chair and put his arms around Rose. “It’s his promotion, his show. He lives in this town and it’s a massive event for them. They don’t get fights like this. You were never going to get the decision.” Rimmer put a hand on his shoulder. “Brian, that’s the business you’re in.”
“I won’t come back from that. I had to win tonight.”
The younger Rimmer came over. “Look,” he said. “We were up against it. He’s a national treasure over here. We weren’t going to win on points. You’d have to knock him out three days in a row to get the decision.”
Rose took off his boxing gear and put on a dark grey tracksuit with white trainers. He and his team went over to Martinez’s dressing room to offer congratulations.
Back inside the changing room, Rose took a bottle of water and drank from it. He was calmer. “It’s s**t, isn’t it?” he said to no one in particular. “I absolutely outboxed the boxer tonight.”
His face began to relax. The tension dropped from his shoulders. The result, ultimately, was out of his hands. “I’ve never been that up for a fight,” he said, ruefully. “It was nothing to do with fitness.”
Some medics came in and looked at the wound near his eye. They decided to stitch him there and then. Two tables were cleared beneath the photographer’s lamp. They laid Rose down and used the light to guide their work.
“Thank you,” said Rose, gently and softly, beneath the blue gauze. “Thank you.”