It is a week since the biggest fight of their lives and Rhiannon Dixon and James Moorcroft are itching get back in the ring after a memorable night in Bilbao.
It was mixed fortunes for Team Million Dollar – both trained by former WBA lightweight champion Anthony Crolla – with Rhiannon victorious against former Olympian Mahjouba Oubtil, while a stoppage defeat to Spaniard Jon Miguez left James devastated.
“It still hurts loads, but it’s getting easier,” James says with a smile from the cottage in Wales he has rented for a few days of rest and recuperation with his partner Hannah and baby Mia.
“We’re having a great time to be honest, and I’ve had some amazing messages from great people. Some really top-end people have messaged me saying how well I’d done. It makes it that little bit easier to process, to know I can do it. People telling me I was at European level, that does give you a big lift.
“I’ve had a few pints this week, but Monday’s a new week. I’m getting a fight as soon as possible. I live by the rule you’re only as good as your last fight and I’m on a loss, so I need a win!”
“I wouldn’t stay in boxing if I didn’t think I was good enough, it’s too dangerous a sport. But I think I can come again. Next time this kind of experience comes around I’ll be more than ready.
It was a different story on the night for James’s great pal Rhiannon. There was some strange officiating during the contest with her Moroccan opponent – a baffling point deduction for use of the head and the judges’ scorecards were read as split decision win, rather than the actual unanimous decision. But all’s well that ends well and it’s five fights unbeaten as a pro now for the NHS pharmacist from Warrington.
“It was my second fight on Matchroom, so it was important I make an impression. Eddie was complimentary when he came into the dressing room after the fight. But I’m never happy with my performance – I’m still learning, and I want to get better and show improvements with every fight. But it was an amazing experience and a brilliant trip. I just cannot wait to get out and fight again.”
The journey to the Basque region earlier in the week had gone smoothly – other that the party struggling to get a seat in the departure lounge at Manchester Airport due to the sheer number of Rangers fans heading out to Seville for their Europa League final with Eintracht Frankfurt.
Once settled-in to Hotel Catalonia Gran Via, there was a little down time before the fight week formalities. The team – Dixon, Moorcroft, Crolla, Ross Thomasson (Rhiannon’s partner and cornerman) and cutsman John Hodkinson even had time to see a bit of the city, a highlight being a tour of Athletic Bilbao’s San Mamés stadium.
The press conference went well for Rhiannon and James, both speaking eloquently about their respective opportunities – both confident of impressing on the big stage – Rhiannon the odds-on home fighter, James in the away corner with a seemingly bigger task on his hands. Either way, both sure of success, both completely respectful of their opponents.
Weight was made by both on the San Mamés pitch on Thursday with little fuss, and then it was all about counting down the hours.
After breakfast and another walk around the district, there is a few hours to go before the fighters are picked up and taken to the arena, so a chance to add a little more fuel and relax in the hotel restaurant.
Rhiannon has returned to the group with newly braided hair - Crolla tries to make out it was his work.
“It’s a bit of a ritual,” she says. “I went somewhere in Bilbao to get it done. I just typed in braids-Bilbao on Instagram.” At this point her opponent Mahjouba walks past – the pair glance at each other. “We’ve got the same hair!” Rhiannon says quietly.
James is tucking into some rice. “I’m pretty awful in fight week” he says between mouthfuls. “Hannah puts up with a hell of a lot, I’m not gonna lie. Me and the baby!”
It is the first time the couple have been abroad without one-year-old Mia who’s staying with Hannah’s parents. James’s mum and dad – Alby and Linda have travelled over from Wigan for the big show.
The chat moves to pick-up times and ringwalks. “I’m coming out to ‘Highway to Hell’ by AC/DC,” says James. “It was either that or ‘Shipping up to Boston’ by the Dropkick Murphys. But I’ve gone for 70’s rock. I just want a song that’s gonna get everyone going. I’ve got to make a statement out there. It’s my big night on Matchroom.”
Rhiannon’s going for a bit of British rap, but she cannot remember the name. Ross chips in that it’s Tion Wayne’s ‘In for the Kill’ featuring La Roux.
“I think I only really switch on when I get in the ring,” she says. “When you’re sat like this with everyone you don’t really think about anything, then you think, hang on, I’m fighting tonight!”
Jon Miguez walks past the group and through a glass door to the outside courtyard area to join his own team. James eyes him up with a grin. “Eddie said yesterday that if I beat Jon – his words, because I know I’ll beat Jon – then I’ll get on the British Matchroom shows. The world’s my oyster then, isn’t it?”
“Look, he’s well capable of doing it,” Anthony chips in. “He’s a tough lad [Miguez] and we know what we’re up against, but James is in a great place.”
Situated in the Miribilla district of the city, the ten thousand capacity arena, mainly used for basketball, is an impressive sight. It’s a green glittering bowl- seemingly perched on stilts when observed from one of the many hills overlooking the venue. Digital billboards show the fight poster – local favourite Kermin Lejarraga’s face nose-to-nose with Liverpool’s JJ Metcalf. The pair will fight for the vacant WBA Continental Super Welterweight title in the top-of-the-bill bout.
Once inside and through a few corridors in the bowls of the arena, the names Dixon and Moorcroft can be found printed on a dressing room door. Once inside a smallish, white-tiled room, Rhiannon is kitted out in sparkling light blue and navy kit and warming up on pads with Anthony. The familiar bam bam bam sound of leather on leather as she thuds in heavy shots.
“She can punch, can’t she! She finishes on that hook like Tasha [Jonas].” Says Joe McNally, trainer of JJ who’s been in the dressing room wrapping Rhiannon’s hands.
One of Abba’s most famous tunes is playing on the small speaker. The 27-year-old breaks off from pads to announce: “I am loving it. I am the dancing Queen!
Promoter Eddie Hearn – who has flown in for the night before heading back for Saturday’s show Buatsi v Richards show at the O2 – pops into the dressing room to wish both fighters well.
When the call is made, Rhiannon hugs all in the room, puts on her robe and heads out to the ring. She takes in the ringwalk with a smile as white laser lights swirl around the arena – half-full at this stage.
It’s her first fight abroad and the first since returning from an operation on her left hand. But after the first bell in this lightweight fight, all is looking good. Rhiannon settles in well and has her opponent down in the third and sixth rounds.
Despite the bizarre point deduction, and the wrong split decision announcement, it’s an impressive showing and relief all around when her arm is raised.
Back in the dressing room, James is first to give her hug as he warms up for his fight. Rhiannon sits in the corner of the room, starts to unbraid her hair as John Hodkinson has a quick look at the bumps and bruises. During the fight he worked on swelling to the left eye which has turned a fine shade of purple.
James is in charge of the music now and it’s his own particularly eclectic mix of 70’s rock and Irish folk. AC/DC to The Dubliners and Jim McCann and back again. He’s gloved up and ready to go. Anthony helps him on with his black and light blue shiny robe before James thanks everyone in the room for their help and support. Hugs all round and off the team goes again.
When James makes his walk down the runway to the ring, a small band of 20 or so Wiganers go wild in the lower tier of the arena, just behind the ringside area.
It’s a huge step up for James against unbeaten, highly ranked Spaniard Jon Miguez. Once underway, it’s a lively and entertaining spectacle with both fighters having successes, plenty of give and take in a cracker of a welterweight contest.
With a minute of the sixth round remaining, Miguez surges forward and after letting his hands go, catches James with a heavy body shot, forcing him to the canvas. He manages to beat the count, but referee Jon Luna waves it off much to James’s dismay.
After leaving the ring, he heads straight to his parents in the stand for a consolatory hug before making a move back to the dressing room.
He sits with his head in his hands, still in his fight gear and robe with a white towel draped over his head. His partner Hannah is silently sat next to him with her arm around him.
“James, listen. I know I’ve already told you that it’s meant to hurt. It’s meant to hurt because we’re winners!” Anthony is stood in front of his fighter, trying to pick him up. “You should be very proud of yourself. You’ll get a chance, your stock’s only gone up there. I know it’s a loss, but you’ve only gained, and we’ll come again.”
“Thank you, Ant, thank you,” James says without looking up.
Jon Miguez comes into the dressing in just his fight shorts, his hands still wrapped. He walks over to James, casps his hands together and bows. James looks up, forces a smile and the pair exchange pleasantries.
“It may be a lack of experience from me – the body shot; I was ready to go but the referee….” James explains.
“Sorry,” Jon shoots back. “Don’t be sorry,” James says clasping his outstretched hand again. “You’re a very good fighter.”
“Thank you. Thank you,” Jon says as he shakes everyone’s hands on leaving the dressing room.
In the main event of the night, JJ Metcalf and his former sparring partner and friend Kerman Lejarraga didn’t exactly go hell for leather with each other, but it was career-best, measured performance from Metcalf. A popular lad, there was plenty of scouse support for him – none more so than his Dad, former champ Shea Neary who never stopped shouting and encouraging all through the ten rounds.
Metcalf was a unanimous victor, getting the better of Lejarraga who was fighting on his turf with his vociferous band of supporters behind him.
After the lights had faded and the arena long since emptied, fighters, friends and family all convened at Bar Bernardo’s, next door to the fight hotel. Nobody had an early night.
The morning after, fighters, trainers and the rest of the teams are drinking coffee and chatting at a street café near the hotel. Rhiannon’s shunned the sunglasses and is proudly showing off the purple bruising around her left eye.
Bags are packed and left in the hotel but there a few hours to kill until the flight back to Manchester. The group meets up with James’s family and friends and moves on to Molly Malones bar to meet the Liverpool contingent. JJ Metcalf arrives shortly after with Kermin Lejarraga.
The Bilbao boxer had insisted on taking his friend - and JJ’s pals - out for lunch. A classy touch from a man who had suffered defeat in front of his fanatical fans. Both men are wearing the signs of battle with badly swollen eyes but smiling, chatting, and enjoying sitting outside in the sun.
The beers flow and the hours quickly pass before transport to the airport and the short flight home.
So, what is next for Rhiannon and James? Trainer Anthony Crolla is hoping both have improved their standings despite the mixed results.
“I’m happier now than I was on Saturday morning,” says Ant. “Rhiannon’s had great feedback from her fight. When you weigh it up her opponent was an Olympian and has been at a World Championships. Rhiannon’s experience before being a professional was fighting white collar in Wigan and Burnley nightclubs. It shows you how far she’s come.
“With James, he’s come out with a bit of glory. It’s never nice getting beat, but people from DAZN – people like Darren Barker - were coming up to him in the bar after the fight and telling him how well he’d done.
He’s from the same background as Rhiannon – he’s come a long, long way.
“It was a big night for me as well and I was very proud to be in their corners. They thanked me for being on this stage, but I know how hard they work, and they deserve everything they get out of the sport. Not many work as hard as they do.
“Bilbao is a great city, and it was really good experience for me, Rhiannon, and James. I wouldn’t mind a few more of these kinds of trips!”