I never thought I would fight.
The reasons are many. I was born into a sport-loving family but I certainly didn’t come from ‘fighting stock’; both my parents were in the theatre industry, and I grew up in a household run by a rugby-mad father and a coffee-loving, sports-averse mother. Everyone else in my immediate circle nursed their sporting addictions through other means; football, rugby, cricket, athletics and netball were regular fixes, but never boxing. As a result, when I was young, I simply called boxing and fighting the same thing, which was something I hoped I would never have any reason to do.
Rather, I quickly fell in line behind my dad, and followed him to the rugby grounds around London to watch his non-league team, Citizens RFC, get thrashed every weekend by most of the other sides they played. I imagine it was to his great relief when Citizens merged with the much-better ODS, a team affiliated to my school, several years later. By this time I was old enough to play the game myself, which I did from Under 7 level through to Under 15 level as a junior (known as ‘mini-rugby’), and then on to senior level.
On the pitch I suppose I achieved quite a lot; I played mini-rugby for Blackheath, one of the oldest and most accomplished clubs in the country, and my age group was a fearsome side, populated with county and regional level players. During my nine years with the club we won nearly every tournament we played in (I can count the total games I remember losing on two hands), and we were eventually sponsored to go on national tours. In my final year there, I fulfilled the dream of anyone who has ever picked up a rugby ball, and played at Twickenham, England’s national stadium, in the final of one of the biggest junior rugby tournaments in the country. Sadly, that match is one of those I can count on two hands; we lost 14-10.
Even more unfortunately, those achievements counted for little in a football-loving school, and my pursuit of ‘Something Else’ became one of several shortcomings in the eyes of my peers, who dragged me through some difficult years during my teens. I tried to cope in whatever ways I could, which by the start of university included recreational drug use, ju jitsu, heavy metal, body building, and drinking. Most worked to some extent, but none of them were enough to fill the hole that my school days had left in me.
I was 23 years old when I first stepped into Gumshield Boxing Gym, apparently in search of some answers. At the time I knew nothing about boxing, but I had become interested during my last year at university – I had been invited to a mate’s flat one evening after finishing work at a local bar, to watch someone called Ricky Hatton fight somebody else called Floyd Mayweather. Whoever they were. This fight showed me I had been wrong all along; boxing and fighting were not the same thing, and I wanted to find out why they were different. My long, head-banger’s hair hung loosely over the shoulders of my heavy metal band t-shirt as I walked through the front door, and Steve Barrett looked at me disapprovingly from behind the front desk.
Steve, a veteran of 120 fights and the owner of the gym, is a bald, thick-set man with a thin smile and a cauliflower nose. He grips my hand firmly as I remind him of our phone conversation the day earlier. “Welcome to Hell” he grins, and leads me through a partition behind the reception area. The gym is divided into two rooms; from the heavy bag area at the front, Steve points through another doorway to his son Ryan, who is draped over the ropes of the boxing ring in the room at the back. Ryan Barrett, a professional boxer, has inherited his father’s baldness and his father’s nose, and he looks at me with complete disdain. “Ryan’s got a fight coming up. He’s in camp. Former English champion, former British title challenger.” Ryan scowls, nods, then turns his attention back to the sparring in the ring.
The Barretts, along with ‘Big Rob’, the 20 stone strength and conditioning coach, and Darren, another former pro who raised an eyebrow at the sight of my hair, put me through athletic punishment like I have never experienced before that day. Two hours later I lay spread-eagled in the centre of the ring, exhausted, soaked in sweat, pain everywhere, wondering what the hell I was doing in this place. My ribs felt like they might be bruised, and I didn’t know if my tortured legs would ever support my own weight again. Clearly, though, something had clicked in a big way – after I left the gym, I went to the barbers and got my hair cut short. Then I swapped my band t-shirt for an Everlast one. Then I went back to the gym a few days later, and began a relationship with the sport that has lasted the last 10 years, and made friendships that have lasted just as long.
It wasn’t all easy; black eyes, split lips and a suspected dislocated jaw peppered my progress, and and my intentions to fight as an amateur were marred by further injuries and irregular work hours – as time gradually ebbed away, so did my enthusiasm and self belief. Slowly, excuses started to creep in – “Work’s crazy at the moment.” I’d say. “I need to get the Summer out the way.” “I have to focus on moving house.” “My injuries are playing up.” “I’m going away in a month for two weeks. Maybe after that.” And so on, and time passed.
Fast forward to a weekend in September, 2018. I was now 31 years old, and had become involved in the sport in ways I never imagined I would be. I was a sponsor for several pro fighters; I was the events organizer for a promotions company; during the week I was a freelance writer and reviewer for several media outlets. And at the weekends, I put the gloves on myself and became a sparring partner for the local amateur and white collar fighters to help them prep for their upcoming competitions.
On this particular weekend I was sparring some of the white collar guys, and I was having a ball. Although I was yet to fight, I now had more than enough experience to know what I was doing, and my punches zipped around and through their guards with satisfying ease. Even more pleasingly, the punches I took that day, ones that years ago would have sent me panicking to the canvas, were either slipped or shaken off. My ribs no longer ached, and my legs held my weight just fine. I had gotten better.
My final round of the day was against a guy called Tommy, and I snapped his head back with a sharp jab as the timer rang. He grinned, calling me the ‘C-word’ as I wrapped him up in my long arms, smothering his advance. I like Tommy, and Tommy likes me; we have been training together for the best part of a year, and I was one of his sparring partners while he was in camp for his own white collar fight a few months previously. As the clinch became untidy, he rabbit-punched me jokingly and pushed me into a corner. We wrestle. Then he catches me with a right hand that gets my attention – now its my turn to rough-house. We trade body shots, grinning at one another.
Ryan removes my head-guard at the end of the session, then smacks me on the back of the head. “Ow, fuck, what was that for?” I protest.
“When are we gonna see you in the ring, then?” he asks.
“When my own coaches stop hitting me, I’ll think about it.”
“No, seriously,” he persists. I stall, thinking of something to say.
“As soon as I have shifted this weight off” I laugh, pointing to my waist line and taking off my gloves. Ryan thrusts my head guard into my chest and lowers his voice.
“All of the guys in there have fought before, and I’d put you in with any of them. Look at Tommy; he’s fought before, but you look so comfortable against him. Look at Joe, he’s fought twice now, and you’d handle him with ease if you fought him.”
This time he really was asking. I throw my head guard down with my gloves and turn back to him.
“We’re organizing a show on the 1st December in Beckenham, just outside London. You’d be great on that.”
“Because you’re ready, man!”
I think, and massage my aching jaw; Tommy’s right hand had caught me harder than I thought.
“How much do you weigh at the moment?” Asks Ryan. I frown; I know I’m heavier than I should be.
“About 13 ½ stone. I could get it off, though.” Ryan swats at the air dismissively.
Pah!” He says. “We’ll get that off no problem. Come on, man! What are you waiting for?”
He was right; what was I waiting for? I had no idea. The thought of it had always appealed, but there were so many “what ifs” – about being good enough, about preparation, about how my fiancee and family would react, about losing – that I struggled to make sense of, and I was still struggling with them on the walk home from the gym. One thing I did know is that I was running out of excuses, and the longer I continued to make them up, the smaller my chances of fighting became. As I turned the corner of the street where my parents live, still mulling all this over, I heard my phone beep in my pocket – a message from Ryan. I stopped to read it.
“1st December, give it a go.”
I had run out of excuses. If I were to say no to this one, I knew I would never say yes. I’d have been all talk and no minerals for 10 years, and the person I hoped I had become, had worked so hard so grow into, would be just another fictional character in the long list of People I Would Rather Be. So, after a pause, I wrote a message back.