“Billy’s gonna stop him! Billy’s gonna stop him!”
The shouts echoed around the backstage area as excited amateurs reported back from the ring to the changing room. A distant roar echoed down the corridor from the main hall, where it sounded like World War Three was taking place.
“Fuck, he’s given him a standing 8-count!” said a voice, the owner of which was running up and down the corridor excitedly. “This isn’t getting out of the first round!” Billy was my team mate and was opening the evening’s white collar card. He had lost his first fight and was desperate to get a win on his record, and by the sounds of it, was about to get one. Good for him.
But I can’t be too elated for him. I am sat in a small and overcrowded dressing room with six other boxers, stripped to the waist, and I am getting my hands wrapped while trying not to think about what is happening in the ring. I had woken up feeling calm and determined, but now there was a beast in the pit of my stomach that was trying to crawl up my throat and explode in a rainbow of vomit, and I was focusing on keeping that beast firmly where it was.
Anton, who was wrapping my hands, could sense my nerves, and was talking me through his process to keep me distracted. But I wasn’t really listening. After seeing the running order when I arrived at the venue, I was wondering what on earth had happened to Ben Taylor. Ben, my opponent, wasn’t included on the bill. Instead I looked, confused, at the listing under Bout 2: Matt Lewis vs Tony Gunnell.
“Who the fuck is Tony Gunnell?” I had asked.
“Your opponent” said Steve.
“What happened to Ben Taylor?”
“Don’t know. You’re fighting Tony now.” Boxing shorthand can be really unhelpful sometimes.
Suddenly another roar from the main hall prompted more scurrying from the amateurs. “Billy’s gonna get stopped! Billy’s gonna get knocked out! He’s ready to go!” What the hell was going on in there? Louis, my pad man, stuck his head out the door to see what was going on. A few seconds later, he returned.
Another roar from the distant hall. Billy had retired on his stool at the end of the second. My turn next.
Some shadow boxing and a quick burst on the pads with Louis was all the warming up I could manage in the cramped dressing room; we gave up after we tripped over one another’s legs for the third time. I sat down, breathing tensely, feeling like I was up on the gallows. This was so purely and extremely stressful. It was so stressful that it was nothing else. I was beyond nervous, and way past apprehensive. After the 9 weeks of constant training, the huge impacts on my social life and the untold strains on my family, I wanted this over with. I wanted this done. I couldn’t wait to be on the other side of this experience.
Then Steve’s head appeared inside the doorway.
“Matt,” he said resolutely, “come on, son.”
Here we go. I stood up, as the other white collar fighters gave me slaps on the back and shouts of “Let’s go! Let’s go!” as I head out into the corridor. Steve, Louis, Ryan and I made our way to the entrance to the main hall. As I was bouncing on my toes waiting to go in, Billy suddenly appears, heading in the opposition direction, looking like Mr Potato Head with two of the pieces swapped.
“I just got tired!” he insisted. “I just got tired, that’s all! I feel fine!” Unexpectedly, I feel angry. Fuck off, Billy, I think to myself. You fucking lost, you fucked it up, now fuck off so I can get out there and win. Your fight’s over; get the fuck out of my face and into the changing room. I bow my head; I don’t even want to look at him. Ryan shakes me gently on the shoulder. “Remember, Matt… try as hard as you can to enjoy this. You’ve waited a long time; don’t go out there and hate every second.” I cracked my neck, and nodded. Despite it all, that made sense.
Suddenly a muffled voice on the microphone; “…from Eltham, MATT! LEWIS!” Two smoke machines briefly drowned out the cheers as David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” boomed out of the speakers. I followed Steve into the arena and raised a fist in the direction of my nervous-looking family and friends. I made my way up the steps and ducked between the ropes. Suddenly, under the lights, in the boxing ring, I found myself feeling better.
In the corner, Ryan stood in front of me, his face almost pressed into mine as he calmly issued instructions, taking up my entire field of vision as Linkin Park’s “Numb” announced Tony Gunnell’s arrival.
“Stick to your jab” he insisted as he pulled my headguard over my head. “Stay calm, stick that jab out and keep him at length. When the first round is over, you’ll have won it, and you’ll come back to the corner thinking ‘how fucking easy was that?’ Then we’ll re-assess from there.” As he moved aside to grab a water bottle, I got my first glimpse of Tony. What the…? I had been preparing for the best part of a month for a 6 foot 1 inch tall, rangy southpaw, and here was a barrel-chested orthodox guy who couldn’t be taller than 5 foot 6. Boxing’s unique ability to pull the rug from underneath you had struck once again. Oh well… Whatever. We’re here now.
Our names were re-announced, and we shook our fists again in the direction of our respective support. The ref pulled us together and said something about respecting each other, respecting him and respecting the rules of boxing. We get sent back to our corners, Ryan and I nod at one another, followed by nods to Steve and Louis. Then I turn to face Tony, and finally, after 10 years of waiting, my first bell rings.
I go back to the corner as the round ends.
“Exactly,” said Ryan, squirting water into my mouth. “Exactly that.” The first round had been a strange, tiring experience, but we both knew I’d won it. After trying to bull-rush me in the opening few seconds, my long, reliable jab had started to swing the control away from Tony and into my favour, and apart from a warning for holding, I had walked away from the round relatively unscathed.
“Put your arms up on the ropes, it opens your chest out,” he instructed, something that you were absolutely forbidden to do in the gym. “Same again. Double that jab up – bang-bang – keep him at distance.” He cleaned my gum shield out with water and put it back in my mouth. “Remember,” said Ryan, “the same again.” The bell rang. Off we went.
As round two came to a close I go back to the corner, breathing heavily, my feathers ruffled. Ryan squirts water in my mouth. “Arms on the ropes,” he said curtly. After the opener, in which I had boxed decently, the second round had been a bit of a mess. Tony had also received a warning for spoiling, my headguard had come loose and had to be re-fitted, and I had hit him hard with what I thought was a body shot that Tony felt was low. I disagreed, and was still protesting my innocence in the corner.
“That wasn’t a low blow, Ryan” I gasped between breaths. “Don’t worry about it,” he responded, swatting the comment away. “Now, listen. You won the first round. The second round could have gone either way. So it’s up to you. You can mix it with him if you fancy it, but I reckon your best bet is to get back to your boxing. Jab, move, tag him and get out of there. This last one will be tough. You’ve got to stick it out.”
“Last round, gents” said the referee over Ryan’s shoulder.
“Oi!” came a shout from ringside. I look down to see Steve, scowling and pointing at me from beneath the corner post. “Don’t fuck this up! Relax, you’ve got this.” Talk about mixed messages. I briefly remembered how much I wanted this to be over; my nerves had eaten up all my energy; I couldn’t believe I had another round do go through. How on earth do fighters do 12 of them?
The referee beckoned us together. “Touch gloves boys.”
The bell rang.
I came out confidently, trying to re-establish the distance between us. My tired legs were solid enough but there was no spring left in them, and I felt sluggish. Suddenly, Tony waded forward, throwing hooks to the body and pushing me back to the ropes. I tried to work on the inside, and was looking for an opening when BANG! – a big right hand over the top connected heavily. I wrapped him in my long arms, momentarily stunned. At that moment I had the weird realisation that his corner had scored the fight the same as Ryan, and they had told Tony he was losing. Winning the round would not be enough for him, he coach had said. To win the fight, Tony had to knock me out.
Well, fuck that.
I pushed him away and we traded punches, just at the moment he wanted to take a rest. He threw a jab and missed; I threw a right hand, and didn’t. Two more big rights forced him to hold. We were both feeling the pace; he threw a left uppercut that forced me back; I countered with a combination of my own. By now, Tony was looking spent, and a big body shot took most of the remaining fight out of him. Suddenly, through no particular action of my own, he stopped moving. In the clinch that followed, I could feel his dead weight; he was trying to see the round out. “He’s hanging on, Matt!” came a shout. “It’s yours, Matt! Keep going!”
The ref split us with probably around a minute left in the round. Tony raised his guard in a neutral corner, looking heavy and laboured. I sprang forward and a one-two forced another clinch from him. A resentful ref parted us again. Then the money shot. I was exhausted, but Tony’s unwillingness to engage – he was, again, covered up in a neutral corner – was telling. I stepped forward, threw a jab that took his guard down, and unleashed a howitzer right hand, the best punch of the fight. His head shot up, and he staggered backwards as I unloaded whatever I had left into him. The supporting cheers nearly drowned out the final bell.
“What a cracking fight that was; please show your appreciation for both boxers. Fantastic, well done boys. Please take the centre of the ring. After three very hard-fought rounds of boxing, I’ve scored the contest 30 points to 28. In favour of…”
I want to thank my coaches, Ryan Barrett, Steve Barrett and Louis Currie for encouraging me to fight in the first place, for seeing me through the eye of the needle, and for getting me the win that we had all waited 10 years for. Having my hand raised at the end of it all was a life goal. Thanks to Luke and all my sparring partners, who helped break me down to build me back up. Thanks to my fiancé, who went through a tough time watching me train so relentlessly, and an even tougher time watching me fight, as did my family and friends who came to support me. It meant so much to have you all there.
I would especially like to thank Tony Gunnell. Tony Gunnell isn’t his real name, but he will know who he is if by some slim chance he ever reads this. I found out a few days afterwards that both of us had our respective opponents pull out at the last minute; the pair of them had lost their guts the Thursday before the fight and chose not to compete. By luck, Tony and I were the same weight, and so were able to face one another instead (explaining the sudden change on the running order). Tony, I would have been crestfallen if it had all been for nothing. Thanks for having the courage to go through with it. I’ll buy you a beer if I ever see you again.
Lastly, thanks to all the boxers and their trainers everywhere, of every ability and from every background and walk of life. I never knew how stressful this sport was. Watching you has taken on new meaning.
I’ll see you ringside.