Clinton Woods

Action Images/Brandon Malone

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I admit to having been a big fan of Sheffield’s Clinton Woods during his rise to eventual world title honours in 2005. There was something very appealing about the unpretentious, humble approach to his trade even when mixing it at the top level with Roy Jones Jnr and Antonio Tarver, and his unaffected ‘man of the people’ personality certainly endeared him to the public in much the same way as Ricky Hatton. Unlike many he also walked away from the hardest sport of all while still in world title contention, and there was no unedifying slide down the rankings as his peak receded into the past. In boxing getting out at the right time is crucial to well-being and reputation and Woods certainly did that.

His recently released autobiography ’Into The Woods’ with author Mark Turley (’Journeymen’, ’Wiped Out: The Jerome Wilson Story’ among others) gives a heartfelt insight into an unpredictable rise to the top of his profession and the drama when he got there. Raised in ‘the steel city’ against the harsh economic climate of the 70’s and 80’s, Woods had a far from privileged upbringing with money being a scarce commodity in his household, but it was accepted without rancor: ‘…when the week’s money had run out Mam would send us out to the fields to pick potatoes. On one occasion we came back with turnips by mistake. They made the worst tasting chips I ever tasted….’ As a child Woods had a temper on him – ‘I had a pot inside of me that sometimes boiled over’ – and as he made himself handy with his fists at school his parents took him to Hillsborough Boys Club where he met the trainer who would prove a great influence, Ray Gillett. Woods was hooked and found the sense of belonging he needed, but the journey wasn’t without interruption as adolescence collided with the required discipline and Woods drifted away from the sport. Frequent street-fighting and minor delinquency resulted in community service until a written plea from his mother to sort himself out brought the mayhem – mostly – to a close and he returned to boxing. Turning pro in 1994 with manager Dennis Hobson and the formidable trainer Neil Port, both of whom would make formative impressions on the young boxer, Woods would also train under the eccentric and mercurial Howard Rainey and briefly Glyn Rhodes as he racked up a 19 – 0 unbeaten streak, snaring the Central Area title and then the Commonwealth in a rousing scrap at Wembley with Lewisham’s unbeaten Mark Baker before a demoralizing loss to Suffolk’s David Starie – partially blamed on an ill-advised flirtation with creatine – provoked a brief retirement.

Moving to light-heavy and the division he would go on to conquer, a meeting with former American great Meldrick Taylor made a big impact that informed Woods later decision to exit the sport at the right time: ‘His hands shook. His voice was as thick as tarmac. You had to concentrate on every syllable and then still struggled to understand him half the time. One thing I knew for sure, I never wanted to end up like that.’ In 1999 Woods won the British, Commonwealth and European titles with a terrific against the odds stoppage of Leeds hard-hitting Crawford Ashley and a ninth round KO of ‘The Golden Viking’ Ole Klemetsen a year later for the European title propelled Woods into the WBC top ten and a match with Michael Nunn, subsequently cancelled when Nunn was refused entry into the country. But in truth it wasn’t a fight Woods wanted: ‘’Oh shit’ I said unconvincingly, while inside I cheered like a madman. What a relief!’ A below par performance against Greg Scott Briggs prompted a split with Howard Rainey and a return to the subtle, understated Neil Port: ‘‘Tha’s a filthy, fat bastard’ he told me on the first day back.’ Welcome home Clint.

Homing in on a shot against Roy Jones Jnr, Woods won an eliminator against Ugandan Yawe Davis before meeting Jones in September 2002 in Oregon. The US boxing press gave little for Woods chances and on air Larry Merchant uncharitably described him as a ‘lunch-bucket prize-fighter’, and despite losing in six rounds Woods was always far, far better than that. Again tempted by retirement Woods continued until in September 2002 he met for the first time the man with whom he would have a notable trilogy of hard-fought bouts, tough Jamaican Glen Johnson. A draw prevented Woods from lifting the vacant IBF title that night, and Woods desire was sorely tested when a rematch months later saw Johnson win a deserved decision over an uncharacteristically listless Woods.

Yet, rebounding with a win over Australian Jason DeLisle put Woods in pole position for a match with Detroit’s intimidating Rico Hoye for the again vacant IBF title, and despite being a big underdog Woods fought the fight of his life at the Magna Centre in Rotherham to produce a sensational fifth round stoppage and become world champion: ‘I’d proved all the naysayers wrong. They couldn’t call me the nearly man anymore. I was champion of the ****ing world.’ Nonetheless, the occasion was to some extent overshadowed by personal tragedy. Neil Port, who had been with Woods for so long, had been struggling with his gender identity and in the midst of transitioning he became involved in a fatal row with his eldest son and was stabbed to death. Woods had been with him just the night before the murder: ‘My coach and friend of the last ten years was dead.’

Four successful defences of his title followed including a much cherished win over Glen Johnson, until a 2008 loss to Antonio Tarver, a man Woods clearly – and justifiably – did not like: ‘‘I’m pretty as a girl’, he had kept shouting. God, I wanted to hurt him.’ But constrained by a debilitating back injury it was a fight Woods should have pulled out of, but under pressure to go through with it, he did – and lost. It led to a parting of the ways with Hobson, and by now firmly in the twilight of his career, Woods teamed up with Glyn Rhodes for a final two fights, a win and a loss against Elvis Muriqi and Tavoris Cloud respectively. The fire had gone out for Woods and of preparing to face Cloud he says: ‘It looked a tough assignment, yet I looked forward to it without excitement or fear. I felt flat, like a man getting a train to the office. It was work for me, nothing more.’ The loss proved that Woods time was up, and he knew it.

Happily married to Natalia and with two children he adores, Jude and Lola, Woods also became reconciled with his first son Kyle: ‘It still haunts, though, how I abandoned him, still chokes me up. It’s my one true regret in life.’ With the Woods family now including granddaughter Bonnie, he is every inch the contented ex-champion running the ‘Clinton Woods Boxing & Fitness Gym’ in Westfield, Sheffield. Woods had a wonderful career, at one point becoming arguably the top light-heavyweight in the world, an accolade the teenage, drifting delinquent Woods could scarcely have imagined. The fact that he achieved it is testament to the strength of character and self-belief of the man himself, and he has an awful lot to be proud of. As I said, I was always a fan of Clinton’s – after reading this superb book, I suspect you will be too.

(‘Into The Woods’ by Clinton Woods & Mark Turley is published by Pitch Publishing, priced £18.99)