I STARTED off in the sport when I was 14 years old. I remember I was talking with a few of my mates at school and we said that we fancied going to the boxing gym round the corner – Collyhurst and Moston ABC. We said that we’d all bring our kit in the next day and head down there after school. The next day came and I was the only one who brought my kit in with me! So I went down there on my own and from then on I just loved boxing.
As an amateur I was trained by my dad, Gary Farnell, as well as Brian Hughes and Pat Barrett. I had 22 wins and three defeats overall, and I won the NABC Class C title and the Junior ABAs. I turned pro when I was 18, but to tell you the truth, I thought I was a bit too young at the time. I only had 25 fights in the amateurs, but I had a lot of knockouts. I think that’s why people thought that I’d be suited to the pros. Brian got in touch with Frank Warren about me turning pro and that was it.
I won my pro debut in May 1997. It was on the undercard of a big show in Manchester. There were three world title fights on the bill – Naseem Hamed versus Billy Hardy, Robin Reid versus Henry Wharton and Winky Wright versus Steve Foster. It was absolutely brilliant, especially with it being in my hometown. I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve made it! I’m big time now!’ From my pro debut until the end of 1999, I had 19 fights in total and won them all. Two of those fights were in Germany and two were in America. For someone who’d had a very short amateur career, it was an amazing experience fighting abroad and being shown on the tele.
I came up through the pro ranks with Ricky Hatton and Michael Gomez – we shared a lot of bills. They’d been my mates since the age of 14 and I was always close with them. With all three of us being from Manchester, we had a big following in the city. I sold the majority of the tickets at the time but Ricky was the main guy, so the fans went on to follow him all over. The atmospheres were crazy on those nights when we all fought together. Even when we were just coming up through the ranks we’d still get noticed when we were out in Manchester. We were on Sky Sports quite a lot, so it was great. There was a show in Halifax in 1999 when the three of us headlined together – we each boxed for an Inter-Continental title. It was class.
I won a lot of Inter-Continental title fights, which got me to number one in the WBO super-welterweight rankings. Harry Simon was the champion at the time. Of course, I would’ve fought him – I would’ve fought anyone – but he was at a different level. Frank Warren wanted me to go down the Inter-Continental title route and he wanted another one of his fighters, Wayne Alexander, to go down the British title route, with the hope that we’d meet up down the line. But then in 2001 I lost my unbeaten record to Takaloo. I’d won all 26 of my fights beforehand and I was too cocksure. I’d sparred Takaloo in the past and had controlled him quite easily, so I thought I was going to just take him apart. I was overconfident and he ended up chinning me in the first round! It was stupid how emotional I was before that fight. It was in front of my home fans, so I was nearly crying when I was walking to the ring! Instead of being relaxed and composed, I was too pumped up.
After the loss, I switched trainers from Brian Hughes to Billy Graham. I’d wanted to switch a long time before I did – for plenty of different reasons that there’s no point going into now. But when I was unbeaten, I always thought that if I switched, I’d jinx myself. So that stopped me from making the change. When I got beat for the first time, that’s when I thought, ‘Right, I can switch now because I’ve already lost my unbeaten record anyway.’
On Billy’s advice, I moved up to middleweight in 2002. He already had a welterweight and a super-welterweight in his camp, so I think he just wanted fighters at different weights. Really though, middleweight wasn’t a good division for me because the other middleweights were much naturally bigger. Even though I was struggling to make the super-welterweight limit at the time, looking back, I just didn’t know how to make the weight properly. With what I know now about weight-making, I’m sure I could’ve been a welterweight for my whole career, let alone a super-welterweight.
In the year I moved up to middleweight I fought Ruben Groenewald twice. They were hard fights. Groenewald was a very tough lad. He was naturally a lot, lot bigger than me. It was close but I thought I beat him the first time. He got the decision, though. In the rematch, it was me who got the decision. After those two fights, we ended up sparring each other later on. I was too hot-headed in the fights – I just wanted to scrap. Whereas in sparring I was relaxed and calm, so I just boxed him and ended up handling him quite easily. Afterwards, I thought to myself, ‘How did I make those two fights so hard?’
I won the WBU title when I beat Groenewald, but I lost it the following year on points to Wayne Elcock. There were a lot of things going on at the time but I’ve got no excuses – he beat me. He was a very good fighter. I’m not saying that if I was at 100 per cent I would’ve beaten him, but it wasn’t me in there that night. I wasn’t right.
After the Elcock loss I wanted a change, so I hired Oliver Harrison as my new trainer. He was a great guy. I got a chance to win back the title in 2004 against Lawrence Murphy, who’d become the champion by beating Elcock. Before the fight I went out to Christy Martin’s gym in Florida for two weeks of training with Oliver. When I came back home, I felt like there was no way Murphy could beat me. That fight was win or bust. I couldn’t afford to lose. It was a very hostile atmosphere up in Scotland, but I managed to stop him in the third round.
Later that year I defended the title against Eugenio Monteiro. I wasn’t actually supposed to be fighting on that show, but Joe Calzaghe’s fight was cancelled, so I was asked to jump in at 10 days’ notice. The problem was, I was about 19 pounds overweight. I decided to take the fight anyway and it was my own stupid fault. I felt OK in the first round but in the second it felt like my head was going to burst. I was eventually stopped in the 10th and had to go to hospital. Being a boxer, they were worried that I had a brain injury, but it turned out that my brain was OK. They gave me a lumbar puncture and found out that I was suffering from viral meningitis, caused by bringing my weight down too quickly. The doctors couldn’t believe that I’d been able to box for nearly 10 full rounds. I was in hospital for nearly four weeks.
The Monteiro fight ended up being my last. I retired in January 2005 after my mandatory annual MRI scan revealed complications. The same thing had happened the previous year, but I’d passed the second scan. This time I didn’t even bother having a second scan. I just thought, ‘F**k that. It’s not worth risking it. I’ll retire.’ I was only 26 but I’d had a hard career and I was feeling a bit knackered if I’m honest. All of the spars and fights had taken their toll.
For the first few months it was really difficult coming to terms with not being a boxer anymore. I was depressed. I had to see psychiatrists and counsellors. I got addicted to anti-depressants. It was terrible. I never used to drink that much when I was boxing. I’d have a few beers after I’d fought and that was it. But when I retired I started having between 10 and 12 pints a night. It was awful. Opening my first gym in October 2005 was what saved me. From that point on I’ve not looked back. I haven’t touched a drop of alcohol for the last 14 years.
The gym I’m at now is the third one I’ve been at. I was at my first gym for just over three years and I was at my second one for about nine years. All three of them have been in Manchester – just up the road from each other. I’ve come to enjoy being a trainer more than being a fighter. I had to put so much into being a fighter. I don’t know how I put my body through it! I was never a great boxer.
I succeeded in the sport because I wanted it so much and I trained so hard. Looking back, I would’ve loved to have fought for the British title, but there’s no point having any regrets.
Over the years I’ve trained a lot of good fighters, such as Anthony Crolla, David Barnes, Joe Selkirk, Stevie Bell, John Murray, Tony Bellew, Frankie Gavin and Paul Butler. Although I trained Butler when he won the IBF bantamweight title, I’d say that my best achievement as a trainer was when he won the British super-flyweight title. It’s because of the way that he won it. We practised the left hook to the body in the changing room before the fight, then he went out and won the fight in the first round with that specific punch. As you get older and you get more experienced as a trainer, you come to realise that it’s not about how good you can hold the pads, it’s about how good you can actually coach the fighters.
I’m training a few really good fighters now like Jimmy Kelly, Lee Whelan, Jamie Mitchell and Muhammad Ali. There’s also my son, Frankie Farnell. He’s only 17 but he’s a very good fighter. He wants to go pro but I’d prefer him to just get a nice job, as I know how hard boxing is!