THERE are no easy lives in the boxing business. Even among those changed for the better, the ones saved, the ones directed away from the darkness, from the cells, from the ground. Every professional fighter complicit to boxing’s unspoken truth; that something of themselves must be sacrificed, perhaps only temporarily, perhaps permanently, in order to access the financial and emotional benefits derived from success, however modest or fleeting they may be.
This grittier reality swiftly overwrites those cinematic show reels, composed in the imaginings of their adolescence, that novice professionals may still cling to when they become professionals. The dream is nevertheless important, prizefighters are not enticed to lace up the gloves as willowy 10-year-olds, or encouraged to punish and curate their bodies into adulthood, with the expectation of losing or moreover, choosing to, being paid to.
But losing is half of the boxing story. You either win or you don’t. In the building of careers, the engineering of the greats who illuminate our weekends with their skill and courage, the risk of defeat is controlled. The young asset is protected and within this amoral capitalism, the subverted grey in boxing’s otherwise black and white simplicity, a demand for participants willing to lose arises.
Fighters with guile, durability and the temperament to merely survive; to dodge, wrestle, slip and hold. The ability to protect themselves at all times. To pawn their own dream to facilitate those of another. But lose. Always lose.
For a century of fights, at municipal leisure centres, on obscure Sunday shows and the undercards of sell out superstars, Arvil Mittoo, or Arv as everyone in the boxing fraternity greets him, was just such a fighter.
Part of a familiar and respected band of brothers, each with scarred brows and armfuls of ‘couldas, wouldas and shouldas’, Arv, like contemporaries Brian Coleman, Peter Buckley and Jason Nesbitt, opted for the pragmatic life of a journeyman. Choosing to lose in the ring, in order to survive outside it.
Now 14 years retired, I met Arv at his home, where he was swaddled in a giant fleece jumper and surrounded by the trappings of middle age and apparent contentment. Despite his warm and ready smile, the 47-year-old proved troubled and conflicted about the truth of his career.
“It’s funny isn’t it, you know, my career wasn’t meant to go… [he pauses] I wasn’t meant to be a journeyman, but you don’t have nobody to guide you right or anything,” Arv tells BN. “I was on my own and I took a wrong route really but I have to be grateful because I enjoyed myself even though I didn’t achieve what I went into the professional boxing for.”
In many ways Arv’s boxing career reflected the story that led him to the doors of Nobby Nobbs’ gym in the early 90s; alone and facing an opponent that always wins. His wits and the chaos of chance his only protection from a life of trouble and homelessness the circumstances of his teenage years could be presumed to impose.
One of seven children to Jamaican parents who first arrived in the British Isles during the Winrush era in pursuit of a better life. Their dream gave way to a yearning for home and forced a crossroads into Arv’s life in the 1980s. Shortly after he turned 16, Arv’s parents decided they wanted to return to Jamaica.
“They left me, I was on my own with nothing; all alone and I didn’t speak to them for years. They’d had enough. Came in the sixties, went back in ‘87. I couldn’t see the sense in going to a third world country and having it tougher. It’s not my country, I’ve never even been. I’m born and bred. It’s only lately, now, they’ve got a phone in Jamaica and they’ll ring me and I’ll have a little chat. I can tell…they feel like they’ve done something wrong but I don’t want them to feel like that. It’s alright. I’ve told ’em; ‘don’t worry, I ain’t got no problem with you’.”
The rise and fall of Arv’s soft West Midlands brogue reveals the emotion still held in the memory, despite the apparent forgiveness.
“I didn’t feel like this back then though. It’s funny isn’t? As you get older you change don’t’ yer? I’m 47 I am. I’m totally different now. Back then I was full of the hate, I hated ’em all, I hated both of ‘em.”
Like so many prizefighters before him and the thousands yet to come, boxing offered Arv far more than the thrill of sporting competition; at a tumultuous point in his life, it provided something far greater.
“I was in the amateurs, I think boxing gave me some roots, I loved that game. But I would’ve stayed amateur for a while longer yer know, I think. I didn’t actually fight [professionally] until I was 23 or 24. I came from such a strict background, I’m soft like a bottle of pop with mine because it was so hard, so strict. Religion was part of it, I didn’t mind that so much, but they were old school. There were eight of us in the house, me and three brothers in one bedroom, two sisters in another bedroom. The age I was [when his parents left], I didn’t have any money and a few times…”
Arv pauses, wrestling with the memory and the words on his tongue. “I was hungry. Things like that. Work, it always seemed hard to get jobs, for me anyway. I don’t know if it was a race thing. I didn’t have the personality, couldn’t talk to anyone, not back then.”
For those who have met the Arv I was talking to, in the warmth of his Birmingham home or on the railways where he now works, in the 30 years since, it hard to believe that his charisma and jocular character wasn’t evident in his youth. From YTS welding, to employment knocking on doors selling fizzy drinks in the coalfields of South Yorkshire, the period from his parent’s departure to his professional debut appear to have taught him much. Made a man of the lost boy.
“From meeting my wife, everything went up. Before that it was very hard, no money, there was times I was hungry, but she was there, she helped me. I never asked for it, she just did it. When you become a fighter, you want to win belts. Some of these guys win British titles, give them up, win European titles, give it up. People these days don’t seem bothered about titles. A British title would’ve done me. But, I had a plan, I boxed to make money. I knew It was going to come to an end and then that’s it, it’s done. I keep in touch but as for fighting, everyone gets old, and then it’s done. When I started boxing I enjoyed it and I stopped when I wanted to.”
The truth of what Arv may have been capable of achieving, by the conventional metrics of belts and titles, the jewellery of boxing’s convoluted meritocracy, can never be known. In conversation, there is a fondness for the fighter he was as a teenager, the one who still held dreams, and yet a detachment, as though remembering a friend he once knew but lost touch with.
“Things didn’t go the way I wanted them to go. It still bothers me. It will always bother me. I should’ve stayed amateur but I didn’t have anyone around round me then. It was still hard times. I won a Novice ABA championship and my coach at the time, he’s a coach for the Olympic team now. He trained me as a kid, where Pat Cowdell used to train. But I went to Nobby Nobbs, because I never had a clue about managers and trainers. There were two managers in the Midlands back then, it was Pat Cowdell or Nobby Nobbs.”
For anyone who took a seat at a boxing show in the 1990s, particularly when fights were still at the four threes end of the card and the crowd are still quaffing drinks and powdering their nose, the distinctive profile of trainer and manager Nobby Nobbs leaning against the ring apron would have been as familiar a sight as the fighters themselves. Seemingly omnipresent, saving shows at late notice and providing opponents for the up and coming starlets, Nobby would ferry Arv and others across the country, necessary but unnoticed, the aging Peugeot panting outside. They were an essential thread in the tapestry of the British boxing scene, the dull backdrop to the prettier pattern people paid to see. It was a run that lasted a generation but came to an abrupt end a decade or so ago.
“You don’t see him around much now, there was a few tax problems and he said he’d had enough and called it a day. [Pause] Too much hassle with the revenue people. I always worked when I was boxing. I remember once, finishing work, coming to the gym to train. Nobby had a phone call at the gym. He said; ‘You ant got yer stuff in that bag av yer Arv?’. I said ‘Yaeh, I’ve got my stuff, why?’. ‘Coz I’ve got a fight for you right now, do you want it?’. ‘Yeah’. So, we drove down to London…what’s that? five minutes’ or 10 minutes’ notice!”
Arv chortles at the memory, thick twists of his famous hair bouncing above him. But the smiles would break, the awkwardness, the regret would soon return. “I didn’t know. I never knew Nobby’s gym was that way. The whole late notice thing and not always doing what you wanted to do. You know, there were a lot of fights I could’ve won. But you weren’t meant to win. It’s not very good is it? Because of that, my record is terrible. When I had a few fights with Nobby at first, I went in with them to beat them, but he’d say, ‘I just want you to walk in, and walk out.’ I fought Alan Bosworth, I wasn’t too long out of the amateurs. I was very quick on my toes and I was going [in] to win. I cut him over both eyes and I lost by half-a-point, but I never lost that fight. That’s the way it goes. It upset me for a while. I wondered ‘what’s going on here?’. But the more you got to these fights, the more you begin to see what’s going on by yourself.”
The conflict in how Arv feels about his career is a thread throughout our conversation, the love of boxing shines brightly but the blight of his own journey still hurts. A truth for which the need to apologise, to deflect my presumed judgement, recurs.
“Boxing was brilliant. Nobby is still around, he doesn’t do the boxing. He did ring me and say, ‘were gonna go for a meal’. But we still haven’t got around to it. I saw him at one of those meet and greets, Ray Mancini. I was shocked to see him. Lovely guy Nobby. He had ones [boxers] he weren’t keen on because they’d fight and then you wouldn’t see them again. Me, Brian, Peter. We always fought. We’d always say ‘yes’.”
A yes to losing at boxing, in the hope of winning at life. As his children and wife tumbled in from the school run, laden with hugs and shopping, it appeared to me, an interloper on a dark winter’s afternoon in Birmingham, that in life at least, Arv was well ahead on the cards.