AS much as I love boxing, I’m always flirting with the idea of saying, ‘I’ll just give it another couple of years.’ I’ll forever do that, I think. But if I’m enjoying doing something, and I’m enjoying the people I’m working with, there is no reason to stop.
There’s a lot more variety now, too, because of the fighters I am working with. If you look at Josh Kelly and Michael Conlan, as well as Harlem Eubank, who is starting to break through in some competitive fights, and Ellie Scotney, who has also joined the gym, there’s more variety. I also have my own gym again. I’m a lot happier with what I do now in terms of there being less stress and nonsense than I have suffered in the past. That means there are more enjoyable elements and not so many irritating ones.
As well as all that, having two assistant coaches (Charlie Beatt and Huzaifah Iqbal) now means the physical energy and workload is moderated and I can be less of a trainer and more of a coach. I still do a lot of the stuff but when it comes to the energetic stuff in training, they (his assistants) have a great rapport with all the fighters and the set-up seems to be working really well.
That doesn’t change the fact that I still might be sitting there at midnight watching TV but not really watching what’s on because I’m thinking about how one of my fighters has got to negate that fella’s pressure or that fella’s left hook. These thoughts of technique or competition always come into my head. It is an obsession. They (his boxers) always call me at any time of the day to tell me they have an infected finger or something and need to know whether they should train or not. It’s the usual s**t. That never stops.
But, energetically, I certainly feel there are more miles on the clock now that I have taken my foot off the pedal a little bit. We always hope we are going to learn and keep on learning. If I knew then, back when I started, what I know now, the main difference is I would have had less stress. Back then I thought – I believed – what I was doing was right and believed certain situations should be like this or like that and would then try and deal with them. In hindsight, because I hadn’t proven it to myself, I was always questioning myself. I was always questioning myself and asking whether I was doing the right thing. That’s just who I am. I do overanalyse things sometimes. But the main thing I would say to me 16 years ago is don’t stress it.
The first time I properly doubted myself as a trainer was before David Haye’s fight against Carl Thompson in 2004. I doubted whether I knew what I was doing. I remember David going for a run one day on the beach front in Bournemouth and I stood and watched as he was out-run by an overweight conditioning coach who couldn’t really run. It shouldn’t have been like that so close to a fight. I would wake up at night and wonder whether I’d got it all wrong. My second moment of alarm arrived on the day of the fight when I entered his (Haye’s) bedroom and saw him consumed by tickets and wristbands for the after-party. I thought to myself, I’m sure he’s not seeing it right. I’m sure something is really wrong here. Unfortunately, I had nobody around me who had been there before or knew any different.
I didn’t go into boxing wanting or expecting anything out of it. Once I’d broken my leg and realised I wasn’t going to participate in sport for a living, there were no real dreams or aspirations. I used to just go down the gym and do pads for people because it was the closest thing to actually doing it. I could tell other people the way I saw things while they were hitting the pads. It just evolved from there and it’s an ever-evolving thing. I never went into it with any desires or preconceptions. It just happened and I went with it. Being envious of watching other people do what I couldn’t do never crossed my mind. By the time I went back to the gym to do pads for people, I had accepted the fact my injury had stopped any chance I had of competing and was over it. It had been a really dark time for me but I was over it. Touch wood, I’m fortunate that I’ve never been touched with jealousy. I remember being at school and hearing fellas or girls being jealous of other people because of this or that and I could never really comprehend what they meant. I’ve been fortunate not to have been cursed with a jealous eye.
As I started to become a coach, that’s all I really thought about. I think I’m a much better coach than fighter anyway. Whenever I am in the gym, I am passing on knowledge I’ve gained from training, sparring and fights of my own, but 80 per cent of what I pass on to fighters is from falling asleep every single night without fail to the sounds of Reg Gutteridge commentating on Pryor-Arguello, Leonard-Hearns and Benitez-Duran. I would go to sleep watching these fights and wake up in the morning watching them. If I went home at lunchtime, I’d put the video in the video recorder and ensure I had a fight playing on the television while I ate my food. And when I watched these legends, I’d try to imagine what they were feeling when they did certain moves or landed certain punches. It was the same as when I used to imagine what it would feel like for Steve Coppell to run down the wing, beat his full-back and then whip in a cross that came back on itself. How did he feel when he fell and regained his balance? I used to purposely go into the back garden and fall in order to then regain my balance just as he would. I wanted to know how it all felt.
When I see it done right, with the right level of competition, boxing still makes the juices flow. But it’s got to be the right fight, right fighters and right level of skill and competition. I can’t say I just switch the TV on and I’ll be interested in any old fight. I might still watch it, and have some level of interest in it, but the juices won’t flow. But there are fights that do get me interested and remind me of the fact I am, first and foremost, a boxing fan.
Boxing is just like any business. It’s almost political with the lies and the deceit and whatever else goes on. But I have been fortunate to deal with, especially recently, promoters who don’t come across like that anymore. I don’t mean for this to sound naïve, especially at my age, but there does seem to be a bit more honesty and professionalism about the business right now. I’ve done deals with Eddie (Hearn) for a world title fight where we agreed the fight and we agreed the money and there was no contract and the money was in the bank account after the fight on the Monday. Dealing with Eddie and Matchroom has always been like that. It’s the same thing with Michael Conlan and MTK. You don’t need a piece of paper. You have a phone call, you agree something, and it happens.
In years gone by I’ve been in situations where you’ve got a cast-iron contract yet you’re still either waiting for your money or got some of it but not quite all of it. I haven’t encountered that for quite a long time. As a coach, you want your fella to land one punch, finish the fight, and not take one. What’s entertaining to the crowd isn’t what’s entertaining to the coach. That said, my favourite fights are: Haye vs. Jean-Marc Mormeck, Burnett vs. Zhanat Zhakiyanov, Andy Lee vs. Matt Korobov, and also Haye vs. Enzo Maccarinelli. I remember we talked about how Enzo would jab so that you jabbed and then he’d take advantage of that counter. We talked about that a lot: How he would give you your jab to create an opening. It was a habit of his I noticed and right at the start of the second round that’s exactly what he did. Enzo jabbed, Haye went to jab back, and Enzo then looked to take advantage of it. It was near where I was in the corner and all I remember is that it was about half two in the morning and I was shouting up at him, ‘That’s what we talked about.’ David then made a noise and nodded. He twitched his hand and acknowledged what I said. That was quite a surreal moment. It was like playing a computer game.
In terms of importance, the fights that stick in the memory are: Haye vs. Mormeck, because it was the first one and it was special; Haye vs. (Nikolai) Valuev, because it was the world heavyweight champion; Burnett beating Zhanat Zhakiyanov, because it was a unification fight and because at the time Zhakiyanov was a monster. The way Ryan went about the job that night was phenomenal. Also, anyone who knows Andy Lee will know why the night he beat Matt Korobov in Las Vegas was so special. Those four all go down as my favourite performances and they cover my three world champions.
As well as memorable fights, you also see memorable spars as a coach. Not long ago, for example, Josh Kelly had a great spar with Liam Williams. They did 10 rounds and did it twice in one week. They were great to watch. That was when I knew Josh had something in him that people don’t even know yet. The last spar before Haye fought (Enzo) Maccarinelli was another memorable one. He was in Miami sparring Elieser Castillo, a Cuban, and during the whole lead up to that fight we talked about not looking for left hooks. Only use a left hook as a distraction. Don’t hook with a hooker. Trade a straight right hand instead. That was the thing we kept saying all along. But, in the second to last spar with Castillo, David started looking for the left hook and got dropped. He was vexed, obviously, and whereas normally we’d spar three days later he wanted to do it two days after instead. We had that discussion and I agreed to rearrange it. For that last spar Castillo turned up with a whole Cuban posse in the gym. It was as if he had gone back and told them all he had dropped Haye and this time he was going to put him to sleep. Everybody had come to watch him knock out the world champion. Because it was the last spar, I think they did six rounds, no more than eight, and all I remember was how immaculate David was throughout that spar and that after the last bell he walked back to me to get out the ring and Castillo was left standing in the centre of the ring just watching him. He had a look on his face that said, What the f**k did you just do to me? He didn’t have a clue. That was the most immaculate Haye had sparred because he was so vexed about getting dropped.
As for the best fighter I have seen in the gym, I remember watching Montell Griffin spar at the Peacock gym in the nineties. I think he was a middleweight at the time and I couldn’t believe he was a middleweight. He was so short. But his IQ and his ability to make the fellas he was sparring miss was so impressive to me. He looked so solid and quick. I remember watching him that day and being really, really impressed. One of the biggest things for me, in terms of the art of boxing, is to be able to control what goes on in the ring without having to use your hands. You control it without using your hands and win the fight by using your hands. Griffin certainly exemplified that. He just had this ability to be in control even though he wasn’t throwing his hands.
Fighters splitting from coaches is commonplace in boxing and something you deal with as you go along. There was only one ‘bad’ scenario really (George Groves), but it was a choice of mine to walk away from a situation that I’d invested so much of me into because I’d lost my belief in it. It was a personal thing more than anything else. But, over time, I appreciate everything that I have done, because whatever happened before has made me what I am at this moment in time. If I am happy and content with what boxing means to me, what I’ve done and how I view it, then I have to appreciate everything that has gone into it. It’s all part of my little journey as a coach.
Ultimately, to do what I do as a coach I’ve got to not only have belief in them as fighters but belief in them as people. I don’t just want to go to the gym and for it to feel mechanical. I don’t want to be there saying, ‘Do this, do that,’ and not be emotionally invested in it. Because if you’re not emotionally invested in it, it’s not as satisfying. It’s got to be personal. That’s just how I am and it’s how I will always be for as long as I do it.