Ryan Burnett has become Ireland’s only reigning world professional champion with a dominant points victory over Bristol’s Lee Haskins in their IBF bantamweight championship clash in Belfast.
A metronome of a right hand saw the Belfast native tick-tock his way to a split decision, with only the disgraceful judging of Clark Sammartino threatening to spoil the challenger’s night.
Replicating the feat of fellow Belfast man Wayne McCullough, Burnett has become a world 118lb champion in his 17th professional contest, while he becomes Ireland’s first professional world-title holder since yet another Belfast fighter, Carl Frampton, lost his WBA featherweight title to Leo Santa Cruz last January.
Bristol native Haskins carried a 34-3 record into the ring and had only tasted one defeat in nearly 10 years. The 33-year-old southpaw was brave in his second full defence of the IBF crown, but scorecards of 119-117 from both England’s Dave Parris and American Jerry Jakubco in favour of Burnett were fully justified.
However, somehow Rhode Island’s Sammartino managed to score the fight 118-108 for Haskins as the official scripted his own bizarre fairytale result.
Immediately after the bout it was not yet known if Sammartino made an error in his calculations.
Walking to the ring to Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust’, wearing red with gold trim, 25-year-old Burnett’s entrance music signalled his intentions to extend his unblemished record.
Champion Haskins, wearing grey, was treated to a fairly hostile reception by the Belfast faithful, who appeared to number somewhere around the 3,000 mark.
The first round was a cagey affair as expected, although Burnett – an Olympic champion for Ireland at Youth level – landed the sharper punches, spurred on by a vocal crowd with ‘The Fields of Athenry’ ringing around the Odyssey.
Burnett was a livewire in the opening couple of rounds, constantly on his toes and enjoying success with short right hands and looping right hooks, while a relaxed Haskins attempted to lure the home fighter in and counter.
In a southpaw v orthodox battle, Burnett came off the worse for wear from a clash of heads in the second and blood began to quickly trickle down his face.
Both corners did a good job on patching their men up for the beginning of the third, a round which saw Haskins warned by referee Marcus McDonnell for punching off the break, while by the end of the round, a cut by the champion’s right eye was bleeding.
Burnett’s speed continued to be the difference in the fourth as he landed some nice right hands and one-twos.
With gym-mate Andy Lee - working for Sky TV - cheering him on at ringside, Burnett was still bouncing towards the midway point, working his way past Haskins’ awkward southpaw reticence with his busy and energetic approach.
The champion was by no means being outclassed, but Burnett was fairly dominant at this stage and he put Haskins down towards the end of the sixth with a big right hand - electrifying the Odyssey crowd - before the bell came at a good time for the Bristol man, who seemed to complain to his corner about a problem with his right shoulder.
A cagey seventh round followed before the Adam Booth-trained home fighter reasserted control in the eighth, again landing right hands regularly, with both men’s faces scarred and bleeding.
McDonnell gave Burnett a talking to over use of his head at the beginning of the ninth and despite picking up more cuts – beside his left eye, seemingly from another clash of heads, and the right ear – the Irishman was in complete control in the 10th.
Haskins was down again in the penultimate round and while it appeared that the champion may have slipped, the force of a right-left combo from Burnett sent him on his way to the canvas.
Again Burnett went for the kill, but again the bell came to the rescue of the brave Haskins, who continued to battle.
The champion fought valiantly in the closing round in an effort to save his title, but Burnett continued to press energetically and with intelligent aggression until the closing bell.
Tonight’s bout marked the first time Burnett had headlined a fight card in Belfast and just his fifth paid contest in Ireland as he fought in his hometown for the first time in two-and-a-half years.
Matchroom promoter Eddie Hearn had stated in the build-up to the bout that victory for Burnett would lead to more regular fight dates in the northern city, suggesting that the 25-year-old could aim for a world-title unification alongside Katie Taylor in three months’ time.
In the chief support bouts, Belfast pair James Tennyson and Paul Hyland Jr both claimed stepping-stone titles with early finishes.
Undefeated Hyland Jr made impressively easy work of St Helens’ Adam Dingsdale to pick up the preposterously-named vacant IBF East/West Europe lightweight title.
The 26-year-old ‘Hylo’ (now 16-0) put Dingsdale (16-4-1) down twice in the opening round, overwhelming the Englishman with flurries of punches on both occasions before referee Howard Foster rightly waved it off at 1min 49secs.
Earlier, Irish champion Tennyson came through a seesaw contest to claim the WBA international super-featherweight title as Manchester’s Ryan Doyle was retired by his corner after six rounds of their bout.
After bloodying the nose of Doyle (now 14-2-1) in the sixth, 23-year-old Tennyson (now 19-2) landed a series of clean shots, including a sharp uppercut, leading to the visitor’s corner pulling him out at the end of the round.
Cork-based Cuban Mike Perez enjoyed a slightly-farcical victorious cruiserweight debut as opponent Viktor Biscak retired after just 29 seconds of their six-rounder, with the Slovakian claiming to have picked up a foot or leg injury.
In an earlier cruiserweight bout, Swindon’s Luke Watkins claimed the vacant Irish title with a fourth-round knockout win over Dubliner Ian Tims. Watkins is eligible to contest the domestic belt through his Wexford-born mother.