RYAN BURNETT is about to go 12 rounds for the first time in his life but doesn’t know it. He’s also about to engage in his toughest spar to date but doesn’t know it. Facts unbeknown to the Northern Irishman at eleven o’clock on a Wednesday morning, as he pushes out punches in front of a mirror, and then lathers his cherubic features with vaseline, they will soon become character-building truths.
To him, at this point, today will be a day like any other. He’ll warm up, glove up, step inside the Purley boxing gym’s ring and, guided by his coach, Adam Booth, paint a masterpiece on the head-guards of two sparring partners, neither of whom will get close to him, and effortlessly add more credence to growing claims that he
is one of Britain’s most talented young fighters. Rinse, repeat for a proposed 10 rounds.
But signs also suggest today could be different. There’s a feeling in the air. Sparring gloves are applied, his bright orange T-shirt comes off, revealing a sculpted bantamweight physique complete with an Olympic rings tattoo by his torso – a nod to his gold medal success at the 2010 Youth Games – and sporadic glances in the direction of his sparring partners, Jordan Gill and Lucien Reid, remind Burnett he’s about to trade punches with featherweights and therefore naturally bigger men. Undefeated ones, no less. “We can’t get bantamweight or super-bantamweight sparring anymore,” says Booth, after lacing his fighter’s gloves. “He’s too strong for them.” The coach shakes his head, exasperated. “Jamie McDonnell, the WBA ‘regular’ bantamweight champion, said he’d rather fight (former opponent) Tomoki Kameda 10 times than fight Ryan once. They’re all realising how good he is. Ryan does things in the ring that tickle me – make me laugh – because I simply don’t know how he does them.”
Booth has been singing from this hymn sheet ever since hooking up with Belfast’s Burnett last year. Granted, he has spoken with a similarly giddy excitement during the formative stages of his unions with David Haye, George Groves, Andy Lee and others, but somehow this feels different. It feels less predictably hyperbolic. What’s more, Booth himself is far better placed now, as an established trainer of world champions, to make grandiose claims than he was 13 years ago when rising to prominence alongside Haye. Even so… “Ryan’s the most naturally talented fighter I’ve worked with, bar none,” Booth says. “He has that David Haye genetic make-up, but, on top of that, he’s so very, very clever and confident. The harder the fight, the more he wants it. A lot of guys who have that same kind of talent are used to getting their own way. But, as soon as they don’t get their own way, they fall apart. They go in there with this level of entitlement. Ryan’s not like that. I try and shut up talking about him, but it’s hard. I’m so excited.”
Two days before this latest sparring session, Burnett found himself on a versaclimber inside his trainer’s garage. He was told, by Booth, to complete 12 three-minute rounds, but to do so at 75 per cent effort. The instructions were quite clear: 75 per cent. Content, Booth left his boxer to it and decided to go for a stroll, before returning half-an-hour later to find the garage full of condensation and Burnett yelping, howling and clearly in some distress; noises, Booth said, he’d “never before heard a human make.” It was round nine. Booth clocked his scores, which had been written down along the way, and was stunned. The ninth was the best. “Are you sure you’re working at 75 per cent?” he asked as Burnett got down from the machine.
Burnett shook his head. “Don’t ever tell me not to work at 100 per cent again.”
Aware that his fighter was scheduled to spar two days later, and that it would take some 72 hours to recover from a session like that, Booth initially panicked. He worried for Burnett. He questioned his approach.
But then, figuring the damage had already been done, Booth relaxed, smiled and got a kick out of telling him, “Okay, make the last round your best round.” Thus, Burnett got back on, set off at a 20-second sprint pace, and was soon gasping, wheezing, spluttering and retching as manic eyes alternated between looking at the floor and looking at the time remaining. Booth contemplated filming the drama, for it amused him, but in the end thought better of it.
He stood back as Burnett finished his three minutes, admirably resisted the urge to vomit and then staggered across the floor. “It reminded me of when Steve Redgrave used to finish a race and then throw up and pass out,” says Booth. “I thought this boy’s got some demons that are pushing him forward.”
In 2012, before even turning professional, and having only just recovered from a long-term back problem, Burnett was propped up on a hospital bed and told he’d never box again. The neurologist was certain of it.
Not only that, he said there was a 50-50 chance of the teenager suffering a stroke; in fact, given the severity of their findings – a blockage on the right side of his brain – medical professionals were surprised he hadn’t already experienced slurred speech and slowed movements. “I felt absolutely fine,” Burnett says. “They said if I got hit hard enough it could cause serious damage, but I’d had my head smashed all over the place and was okay. I thought to myself, ‘This is wrong. These people are wrong.’ It was up to me and my dad to prove them wrong.”
During this state of limbo, Burnett, who’d just signed a professional contract with Ricky Hatton, often reminisced about his early fighting education and what he stood to lose if boxing was taken from him. He thought about his scraps on the streets and at school.
He thought about his time as a 10-year-old at the Kronk gym in Belfast and as a 15-year-old at the Holy Family facility. He thought about his 94 amateur wins and four losses, his seven All-Ireland titles, four Ulster titles and his 40 Ireland vests. He thought about the Youth Olympic gold medal he’d won in Singapore at the tender age of 18. He thought about the glorious moment he returned to Dublin airport as a gold medal winner, hoisted on the shoulders of his coach and was greeted by hordes of delirious countrymen and women. But, ultimately, for what? To be told it was all in vain? To be a tragic example of unfulfilled potential? To wallow in self-pity for the rest of his days?
“I had no friends and was living in a house-share in Stalybridge, which was an absolute ditch,” he says. “If I was to describe it, you wouldn’t believe me. I was 19 and living in that place, having moved away from home, and it was over before it had even started. Thankfully, Ricky Hatton stuck by me, helped me out and gave me money to keep me going, but it was tough.”
Perseverance, in the end, paid off and the Burnetts did indeed prove the professionals wrong. Ryan was licensed to turn pro and made his debut in May 2013, winning via first-round knockout, and competed four times in total that year. Pretty soon he was on his way to becoming everything everybody had ever said he’d become. But then, he says, things once again got “a little wobbly”. More precisely, promotional issues saw Burnett’s career grind to a sudden halt and, for much of 2014, he was without bouts, without money and without hope.
It got so bad, in fact, that Ryan and his father, Brian, upon amicably splitting from Hatton Promotions, were forced to eat, sleep and live in a car for six weeks because he could no longer afford to rent his Manchester apartment. Ostensibly homeless, the vehicle in question was a company car Hatton had allowed the young boxer to borrow until he found his feet again. And it was all they had.
Alas, father and son would aimlessly drive around, make phone calls, chase up leads and then stop somewhere to sleep. When hungry, they’d find the nearest Tesco and nab whatever “bits and bobs” they could afford; bare minimum stuff, no luxuries, enough to ward off hunger. “We were fortunate to have enough change to buy food,” says Ryan. It’s the harsh reality of a boxer’s life at a certain level, for no amount of talent, titles and endorsements mean all that much in the real world; without stability, without money, Burnett is proof that even the brightest of prospects can be forced to seek comfort in cardboard. “I remember lying in the back of
a van on cardboard boxes with no promoter, no manager, no trainer and only a couple of quid in my pocket, thinking, ‘F**k this, it’s going to be fine,’” he says. “This is not the way it’s meant to go. We never lost hope.
I always knew that if I kept going, I’d be fine.”
And he would be. First, they’d find somewhere to live in Horsham, affordable, with beds and mattresses, and then Ryan would use his friendship with Andy Lee, someone he’d known since he was 11, to go in search of his pal’s trainer, Booth. Soon enough, a two-week trial period was underway. “I did one pads session and
I think Adam was quite taken aback,” Ryan remembers. “It just clicked. I was hitting the pads perfectly, we were having the craic, and then I knew, once he gave me a couple of ‘Boxing Booth’ t-shirts, I was in.”
Burnett’s first fight with Booth took place in Belfast in November 2014, a full 12 months after his previous outing, and, just like his debut, ended with a first-round knockout.
In some ways, then, it poignantly marked the beginning of a second chapter to a second life for a 23-year-old whose boyish looks belie a harrowing backstory.
“I don’t feel like a normal 23-year-old,” says Burnett, 11-0 (9), who is now promoted by Matchroom and lives in an apartment in Kingswood with fellow fighter Richard Towers. “I know what it’s like to be at rock bottom and have absolutely nothing. I am so grateful for everything that’s happening right now. Most 23-year-olds don’t think that way. Some might take things for granted. But I don’t. And I know that everything I’ve gone through, everything I’ve overcome, will all be for a reason. Mark my words, I now know I’m meant to be
a world champion.”
Today’s sparring, watched by WBO middleweight champion Lee, is gearing him up for a shot at the British bantamweight title on November 21 at Manchester Arena, live on Sky Sports, and Burnett operates like someone who’s unable to hide his gratitude; he’s hyperactive, overzealous, keen to punch and seemingly keen to get punched now and again, too. His style changes throughout – high guard, low guard, boxer, brawler, orthodox, southpaw – but his vigour and intensity remains the same.
“Being in a battle is great,” he says. “It sounds strange, but I’m turned on by the thought of getting a cut eye and having to soldier on through it. I like the idea of a war. That turns some people away. It’s the last thing they want. But, for me, when things are rough and going wrong, I love it. If I get hit with a big shot, it doesn’t bother me. The feeling is gone within a second. Some people, though, get hit with a big shot and they start taking steps back and look to survive.”
Not Burnett. Instead, few have ever seemed so composed in the midst of conflict. It’s a poise that allows him to open dialogue with Booth during the course of a round – trainer asks for something, fighter verbally replies – and at one stage even impressively pre-empt his master’s wrath by saying “sorry” and extending a glove of apology after bringing his back leg through with an attempted right hand.
Booth, perched ringside, simply laughs. A sign of trust, a sign of fighting IQ, a sign that he, the boxer, yearns for perfection, it’s why the trainer puts Burnett above the rest. And it’s why he lets him have his way
and do 12 rounds instead of 10. He’s enjoying himself. They both are.
This interview was originally published in Boxing News magazine
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