LAST Saturday I was working on an MTK show at the Brentwood Centre. It was a good night with eye-catching performances from talented fighters like Charlie Duffield, Dan Azeez, Sam McNess and Siar Ozgul, a good 50-50 match between Sean Creagh and ID Hill that ended in a draw over eight rounds, and an impressive debut from Martin McDonagh.
But, as well as the fights, another aspect that really kept me entertained was the company I had on commentary. Laura Norton and Kugan Cassius, fresh from his TV presenting debut the night before, dropped in briefly and did a great job but for most of the night I was joined by two young pros, Richie Gray and Umar Sadiq. The beauty of commentating on shows that are streamed, from my perspective at least, is that it’s totally uninterrupted. There are no ads or furniture to negotiate so you have loads of time to chat all things boxing, and with Richie and Umar that meant time to talk about their careers and what life is like for young professional boxers making their way.
Richie’s local to Brentwood and has boxed at the Brentwood Centre numerous times. He’s currently 6-1 at middleweight but after an unspectacular amateur career didn’t think he was talented or marketable enough to turn professional and only took the plunge after his now manager and trainer Alec Wilkie encouraged him to do so. And he really did take the plunge too, quitting his job and his social life, as he describes it, to give it his all as a full-time pro. Like the vast majority of fighters who turn over he doesn’t have the backing of a major promoter with a big TV deal so he has to drive his own career himself, every day, because if he doesn’t then nothing will happen for him. He talked about the need to get on the phone to local businesses and hunt for sponsorship, to think of ways you can you can offer them a return on their money, however much or little it is, over and above an advertising space on your T-shirt or shorts. If you can’t manage to do that then being a full-time pro will prove impossible; you’ll have to try and progress your boxing career whilst also working which means running in the morning, then doing a full day’s work, more than likely in a physically demanding job, before going straight to the gym in the evening, and then doing it all again the next day, and the day after that. But Richie’s managed to get sponsors, 12 of them feature on his website, www.richiegrayofficial.co.uk, all the result of hard graft and perseverance. And then there’s tickets. If you want to box as a prospect on the small halls then you have to be able to sell tickets, preferably in the hundreds, or promoters simply cannot afford to put you on. And the regularity with which you’re able to fight depends on how often you can persuade people, the same people, to pay to come and watch you. Think for a minute how many people you could manage to get to part with £50 or £60, maybe more, to come and watch you perform in any capacity. Not how many you could get to agree verbally or to express an interest, but how many you could actually get to hand over their cash and turn up. And then think about how many would come back the second, third or fourth time and how long an interval you’d need to leave between requests to make them in any way reasonable. I reckon I could maybe do 20, once. And that’s no indictment on my friends and family, they’re very loyal, but they’re also very busy. Since he made his debut in April 2016 Richie’s boxed seven times, on average once every three months roughly, and every time he’s had to go back to that same ticket selling well. In my estimation that’s a pretty astonishing effort (I’m generally not that keen on comparing boxing to other sports but imagine if a young pro footballer could only get on the pitch on a Saturday if he personally sold a certain number of tickets because that’s basically what we’re talking about here). He works very hard to raise his profile, giving up his time, as he did on Saturday, to do commentary, interviews and contribute to podcasts, anything that he thinks will help him (you can find Richie on twitter – @richiegrayoff and on Instagram – richiegrayofficial). He does have a flair for it which obviously helps but I don’t know whether that’s just something that comes naturally or something he’s had to work at, more than likely it’s a bit of both. He wants a crack at the Southern Area title, as soon as he can get it, because he knows that if he can land a title like that then all of a sudden he’ll be in demand and the bandwagon will really start to roll. But until that day comes he has to get up every morning, put his shoulder to the wheel and push that same wagon up the hill. By himself. It’s an arduous task that demands the kind of minerals very few people possess.
Umar Sadiq’s situation is a bit different. As an amateur he boxed internationally for Nigeria and in 2014 lost a very tight decision to Joshua Buatsi in the London finals of the England Elite championships. He’s always felt that whoever won that fight was destined to go on and win the whole thing and having “English Elite champion” on your CV’s a serious accolade and a valuable marketing tool when it comes to the pros but it’s not something he’s ever chosen to dwell on. Sometimes decisions go your way, sometimes they don’t, that’s boxing; you move on. Knowing he couldn’t rely on boxing working out for him as a career he qualified as an accountant, a potentially very lucrative gig. But boxing was his passion, so, like Richie, he decided to gamble, quit the day job and turn professional. He was quietly confident, certainly hopeful, that his amateur reputation would precede him and a good offer would come his way and although it took a while, that’s what happened. Umar signed with Frank Warren, made his debut last September at the Copperbox on the undercard of Saunders vs Monroe, is now 2-0 and next out on June 23 at the 02 where Saunders vs Murray is the main event. These are big shows, broadcast on BT Sport, so he doesn’t have to worry about shifting tickets, his getting bouts doesn’t depend on his ability to do so, but he’s still solely responsible for furthering his own career. He works hard at the boxing side under trainer Brian O’Shaughnessy and alongside gym mates Lawrence Okolie, Dan Azeez and Mu Fazeldin but away from that invests a lot of time on social media (twitter – @topboxersadiq, Instagram – topboxersadiq, website – www.topboxersadiq.com) and also produces a regular vlog. The latest one – sees him in Harley St updating his medicals, at a casting in Shoreditch and at the Landmark hotel for a press conference. He also uses it to announce his next fight at the 02 and call out English super-middleweight champion Darryll Williams. It’s entertaining and innovative but it’s also hard work; there’s so much digital content out there now, particularly in boxing, that producing it is one thing, getting people to watch it is another. He’s now off to Los Angeles and Las Vegas to train and spar for a couple of weeks which is terrific. But trips like that cost money, plenty of money and it’s either his own money or other people’s that he’s somehow convinced them to part with.
Two fighters, both early in their career, not in identical situations, but both with the same dream; to win titles and make a good living doing the thing they love. For both of them, and many others like them, the hustle never ends, it’s 24/7, but they’re where they want to be, shoulder to the wheel, grinding. It’s relentless and it’s hard, and that’s just outside the ring, but they wouldn’t have it any other way. But they need all the support they can get and even if it’s just a retweet, you’ll never find them ungrateful.