No amount of sentiment could carry the wholehearted Liverpool veteran Derry Mathews to a fairytale high point of a long, hard career here on Saturday night but, in front of his own fans, he gave the world lightweight champion Terry Flanagan all the trouble he could handle over 12 absorbing rounds.
The unbeaten Mancunian southpaw, six years younger than the 32-year-old Mathews, deserved his unanimous points win, even if he stirred anger in the crowd with tactics that would not have looked out of place in a nearby bar.
The judges saw it by two cards of 117-110 and one of 115-112. The Observer had it much closer: 116-114; but Flanagan won well enough in a strong finish.
It is not going out on much of a limb to speculate that a fair number of those fans who turned Anfield into such an antagonistic pit when Liverpool entertained – and soundly beat – Manchester United on Thursday night had paid their money to be here for the fisticuffs.
The rich boxing rivalry between the cities stretching back more than a century was reason enough for most of them to pay out again – even those disappointed by the no-show of the Cuban master, Guillermo Rigondeaux, who had been scheduled to entertain local Jazza Dickens but preferred, for reasons known only to himself, to stay in Miami.
The crowd favoured Mathews, having his 50th fight; the bookies put their faith in Flanagan, in his 30th. There is no beating those sort of numbers, usually.
There was little in the first round although two clubbing southpaw lefts to the head probably edged it for Flanagan. They got in an ugly tangle that sent both of them to the floor in the second as Mathews eased into the contest to share the points.
Flanagan skirted the boundaries of legality in the early rounds and was lucky to get away with mere warnings. Mathews (happily known to his fans as “Dirty”) showed admirable composure as his opponent raked his eyes with his gloves, slammed him to the floor and belted him somewhere south of Acapulco.
Mathews, who has been in plenty of memorable scrapes in a long career, let his punches fly in the fifth and Flanagan did not much like it.
The referee, Phil Edwards, brought them together for a chat at the start of the eighth but Flanagan took no heed and was warned for another low blow but not penalised. When he rubbed his gloves in his opponent’s eyes for a third time, however, it finally cost him a point. Mathews imposed his own justice, winning the round anyway.
Flanagan’s strength began to tell in the ninth and 10th as his attacks grew more frequent and more damaging, to body and head. While Mathews has often proved dangerous towards the end of big fights, his punch rate dropped and he struggled to find openings.
It was still a don’t-look-away fight over the final three minutes, neither man sure of the judges’ view of things. There was a strong sense, though, that Mathews needed a one-punch conclusion, and he could not quite find it.
Paul Butler, once a world champion at super-fly and bantam, is one win closer to moving in that sort of company again. The Ellesmere Port favourite chased and harried the strangely hesitant Mexican, Sebastián Sánchez, for nine rounds before stopping him for the full count with a body shot that delivered him the WBO’s vacant international super-flyweight belt.
His next fight could be against another “Mexican” – Belfast’s unbeaten ticket-seller, Jamie Conlan, who uses that fighting moniker and is also in the Frank Warren promotional stable. Beyond that lie world title chances for the winner.
Earlier, Zolani Tete, who stopped Butler in eight rounds a year ago, took seven rounds to do a similar number on José Santos González, who at least showed more ambition than his compatriot Sánchez.
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