As professional celebrity boxing debuts go this was probably about as good as it gets: Andrew Flintoff, three years retired from cricket, remains unbeaten in the ring after an endearingly ragged, frantically energetic performance over four two-minute rounds in Manchester.
Flintoff, charging forwards like a man who does, at least, have plenty of experience in charging forwards, beat Richard Dawson of Tulsa 39-38 despite taking a standing eight count in the second round after being caught with a left. It was pretty much the only punch thrown all night by the American, who looked bemused by a raucous and beer-sodden 6,000 Manchester crowd.
"You mention the Ashes and things at international level which were amazing but as a personal achievement I think this is better," Flintoff said afterwards. " I have had to work so hard. The feeling of being back in there in front of a crowd and winning. I can't describe it.
"I've learned a lot of things. I've sprouted a few abs I've never seen. I've lost a load of weight. The physical aspect of boxing is one thing but the mental part is something else. I've never experienced anything like it."
Appearing at the MEN Arena for his professional heavyweight debut, a project overseen by the former world flyweight champion Barry McGuigan, Flintoff emerged into the arena fully Manc'ed up in a Lancashire Lightning Twenty20 shirt and accompanied by a mass chorus of Roll With It by Oasis.
And here he was again, really Andrew Flintoff, weighing in at a lean and six-packed 15-stone, bouncing on the balls of his feet like a proper boxer, vast wingspan spread, jaw set, cinematically handsome in all black shorts and gloves.
It was a tear-up from the start, Flintoff shimmying forward and unleashing a series of battering, chopping punches and Dawson slipping and sliding across the ring as England's third most prolific One-Day International bowler unloaded his famed big right hand like a man in a saloon bar shoot-out. Oddly he even looked like the same old Andrew Flintoff out there, the same cantering stride forward, the same familiar crook of the arms.
Caught by a left hook, Flintoff took a standing count of eight ("The referee said, 'What's your name?' I said, 'It's Fred isn't it?'"). But by the halfway stage there was already a sense that this was a fight that might have gone on a little longer. Flintoff has lost four stone and was, we were told, "fitter than at any stage in his career"– which, for an England or Lancashire cricket fan, might be cause for a moment's rueful reflection.
He duly put his opponent here to shame with the sculpted revelation of his boxing physique, looming over the 17-stone Dawson, a lurching butterball of alarming breadth, wobbling unconvincingly above his extremely large red shorts, but a fighter who had knocked out both his previous opponents in the first round.
Oh, Freddie. Many had wondered in the build-up about the probity of the whole venture. Boxing was not happy. Cricket seemed bemused, although here Flintoff was supported by a mixed bag of England internationals past: Rob Key, Steve Harmison, Matthew Hoggard. Then again everybody needs to earn a buck. If the career of the retired cricketer has always been something of a journey without maps – coach, PE teacher, corporate speechifier – Flintoff has spent the last two years on a uniquely meandering course, propelled into unexpected corners by the confusing legacy of his own sporting celebrity, dabbling in light entertainment, a catalogue clothing line, a period of unhappy exile in Dubai.
And so to professional boxing: the third round at the MEN passed in a blur of holding and sliding, Flintoff not so much landing punches as charging his man gamely into the ropes. It must be said at this point that Flintoff at no point really looked like a boxer, instead resembling a very fit, lean man in shorts hurtling in to bowl off a very short run, guard held wide like a man riding a bike, bulldozing his rather bewildered opponent into the bulge of the ropes to wild and partisan cheers.
And really, iIt was all a little upsetting for the career-long Flintoff fan, seeing that familiar, likeable face contorted with fight-lust, caught periodically in some ghastly clinch with Dawson's armpit. Albeit it was Flintoff coming on strong in the final two-minute round and then, as the bell went in a confusion of flailing legs and arms, dropping to adopt the famous pose of the arms-spread gladiator.
In the moments before the result was called Flintoff went to embrace his opponent and could be heard, touchingly, saying "Thank you, thank you very much" over and over again. Victory was no surprise, although the 39-38 margin was closer than expected.
The crowd erupted. McGuigan capered like Michael Flatley on the fringes, while Flintoff, as always magnanimous, went again to embrace Dawson. There was the suggestion at the end that Flintoff "had no aspirations" for another fight, and this is no doubt all for the best. This was a courageous, albeit rather frantic debut from British boxing's newest unbeaten heavyweight who will, it is to be hoped, be hanging up those black gloves for good.
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