‘I don’t see anything missing in Luke Watkins’

Lawrence Okolie vs Luke Watkins
Lawrence Lustig/Matchroom
Declan Warrington profiles Paddy Fitzpatrick, the man behind Luke Watkins

This feature was originally published in Boxing News magazine

AMID the unmistakeable tension felt at Wembley Stadium in the moments before Carl Froch’s 2014 rematch with George Groves, the mysterious figure of Paddy Fitzpatrick remained relaxed, leaning back against the ring’s ropes as if sitting on a park bench in the sunshine.

To almost all of the 80,000 present he was the enigmatic Irishman who seemingly from nowhere had become Groves’ trainer and overseen perhaps the finest performance of his career in that controversial defeat just six months previous.

The response to that performance, their willingness to challenge the establishment, and the intrigue surrounding that second fight came with occasional, and often blurred, details surrounding Fitzpatrick’s past, yet without recognition of the well-travelled background that meant he was at least as immersed in boxing as any of those present.

If there were few aware of his schooling there were even fewer familiar with the deep-thinking, emotionally-intelligent head of Fitzpatrick’s Boxing Gym who from a distance could so easily be mistaken for the archetypal hippy. The polished Groves lost that rematch after Froch clinically took a brief opening. Even if following the deterioration in their relationship and subsequent split Groves became the WBA super-middleweight champion, the wider picture of the trainer’s career is no less remarkable, such is the individual path taken by the man in the hat.

“I left home at 15,” Fitzpatrick, whose Christian name is Gavin, told Boxing News from his home in Swindon. “I just always travelled: from the age of 12 I used to thumb my way around Ireland on my own. I’m not of travelling stock but I’ve always felt more comfortable moving.

“I lived just outside Limerick city. My old amateur club was St Francis; I started boxing, just had a mad passion for it, won a couple of Limerick titles, got a silver medal in the Munster championships, left home, and thought no more about boxing.

“I first came to Swindon at 16, and was on my way to London. My mum had a brother that lived here; that led to a job offer in a garage as an apprentice mechanic. Then I started taking things I shouldn’t; consumed myself with that for two years.

“I spent a year in Swindon before deciding on the cuff to go travelling, starting in Amsterdam. I travelled to Belgium, France, Spain, Crete, just to bum around. I also used to squat in London, and I used to do anything [to fund travelling]: sell t-shirts.

“There was plenty of times I’d be trying to find somewhere to sleep, and thinking, ‘Why did I leave home? What the hell am I doing?’ But then day-break would crack…

“Things started going really wrong for me when I was 27. I wasn’t living the way I would be proud to live now; I had a door security firm [in Swindon] and it all went the way I didn’t want it to here. I got divorced from my first wife, and had to get out of my own head space.”

It was by that point that Fitzpatrick already appeared to have left any sort of future in boxing long behind. His five professional fights in the space of 13 months from November 1989, all of which ended in defeat, contributed much to the nomadic existence that followed, but it was a return to his travels, amid the breakdown of his marriage, that was to ultimately prove his making.

“I was no good, and got frustrated because I couldn’t figure out why,” the 47-year-old says. “I had two years of abusing myself with acid and all sorts. If I’d done it right I’d have gone amateur for a couple of years and got some confidence. Gavin’s my Christian name; Paddy’s my dad’s name. I’ve been Paddy since I left home out of respect for him.

“It wasn’t until I was working with James Toney that I realised [where I was going wrong]. I’d watch James come in [to Freddie Roach’s Wildcard Gym], and he’d still have the smell of cigar smoke on him, having been in a gentleman’s club. He would spar 12, 15 [rounds], against three or four undefeated up-and-comers. He’d whoop every one of them, like it meant nothing. The composure: he was so at home. He was 242lbs. The penny dropped: ‘These guys are thinking about James; James is only thinking about James’. I’d been in the changing room thinking about everything but me.

“I went to Jersey, Channel Islands, [after my divorce] when Steve Collins was getting ready to defend his title against [Nigel] Benn. I met Freddie Roach through Steve; [me and Collins] had a mutual friend, and I was training amateurs over there on the mitts.

“Freddie was watching me; said he enjoyed the way I did it. One day he said, ‘Do you want to come back and work with me and my fighters?’ I became his assistant back in ’97, so it’s been 20 years.”

Through working with the respected Roach, further opportunities came to Fitzpatrick to continue his admirable education under both Roger Mayweather and Buddy McGirt in Vegas and Florida, with fighters including Michael Moorer, Lamon Brewster and Laila Ali, before the birth of Dj, his third of four children but first from his marriage with Jamaican wife Kerry, prompted his eventual return to Swindon via a year in Berlin.

“I spent one year sleeping in the ring in the Wildcard,” Fitzpatrick explains. “I told me mum I’d got the biggest four-posted bed in Hollywood, just to put her mind at ease. For the second I got a place.

“I’m very spoilt. If it wasn’t for Freddie, I could still be working my way up. He very much made things happen.

“Roach taught me ‘Direction’s better than hype’. Roger was a mine of information, but he made sense to his nephew [Floyd Jnr], not necessarily to other people. Buddy was always ‘It’s never about the other dude; you can’t make him do what you want; he’s going to do what he wants, so you’ve got to adjust’.

“Me and Buddy used to sit down with a couple of [Mexican lagers] Modelo Negras every Friday, smoke a cigar, and just talk boxing for hours. I was also in camp with Manny [Steward] for three weeks up in the Poconos [mountains]; we’d talk every night.

“Roger was always ‘Go to the body’. People used to see him doing the mitts, but say how you could never do that with a heavyweight. Roger did it with everyone, even Hasim Rahman. And no matter what, he’d say ‘Go to the body’. That’s not being disrespectful, that’s just the way he is. All of them were the same [in their influence on me].”

Fitzpatrick had already met a then-amateur David Haye at Fitzroy Lodge, before his permanent return to the UK, but even given the fighter’s promise, in the same way he could not have foreseen a trip to Jersey leading to a decade in the States, there was little indication of the developments that would eventually follow.

At a time when the Irishman was establishing his own gym, through Haye he met Adam Booth, who then was close to signing a talented amateur middleweight by the name of Groves. On the eve of announcing Groves-James DeGale and Klitschko-Haye, Booth asked Fitzpatrick – in so many ways his antithesis – his analysis of each, and after being told his emotional and tactical breakdown for the former, requested his expertise.

“That was it, brother; that’s where it started,” he said. That was followed by similar involvement in that of Glen Johnson, and eventually his becoming Groves’ trainer full-time, shortly after it was announced he would fight Froch. “George had the vibe of being lost, and believed what I said about the game plan and what he should do.”

Since the conclusion of that association, his sole professional focus has again been the gym that stands where his garden should, where the strains of Bob Marley can consistently be heard, and where there is a sign by the entrance that reads: “Welcome to our compound. Please treat our women and children with respect. No bad language accepted in here.”

Fitzpatrick’s Boxing Gym has “Only two rules: no swearing, and everyone has to talk to each other.”

Fitzpatrick considers Luke Watkins asking him to be his godfather his “proudest” moment. He wants to take a fighter from scratch to a world title. “From scratch: that’s always been what I’ve wanted,” he says, “and what I believe I’ll first achieve with Duke. I don’t see anything missing in him.”

Luke Watkins

Luke Watkins puts his Commonwealth cruiserweight title on the line against Lawrence Okolie Wednesday night at York Hall

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