THE last time I attempted to get hold of Kell Brook with a view to writing a feature about him the interview was scuppered by the small matter of him being slashed in the leg while on holiday in Tenerife.
That incident occurred just 19 days after Brook beat Shawn Porter to become the IBF welterweight champion in 2014, and it forced me to pull a handbrake turn on a feature meant to originally celebrate Brook’s seamless ascent from prodigious teenager to fully-fledged world champion.
Unable to answer the phone, much less speak about his victory, Brook spent days in a Spanish hospital recovering from the attack, while I spent days trying to source men to offer comments on his behalf: Dominic Ingle, his current trainer, Dave Coldwell, his old trainer, Johnny Nelson and Ryan Rhodes, his former Wincobank stable mates.
To a man, they all said the same thing: phenomenal talent, with the potential to reign for years, but always one bad decision away from collapsing like Jenga. They were both proud of and worried for him in equal measure. Nobody knew what the future would hold for Kell Brook – not that week, following his stabbing, nor at any previous point in his life.
Five and a half years later, I try again. This time Brook is no longer a world champion. This time I catch Brook not in Tenerife letting his hair down but at home putting his children to bed. He asks me to call back once he has completed the task and “sent her off to sleep”. It sounds to me like progress.
Brook is 33 now. Father first, fighter second, he knows he is one defeat away from retirement but is done messing around. He is also 10 days away from his next fight, his 41st as a professional.
“Having kids makes you more mature,” he says. “You realise they’re watching you leave a legacy behind. They’re looking up at you. You can see they’re thinking, Yeah, that’s my dad. I want to look good for them and be a role model for them.
“Some fighters get soft when they have kids. But I just think it’s in me to keep driving forward and pushing on to be successful. I think I’ve got something else – something spiritual. I’m thanking God every day for what He has given me, and I’ve never done that before. I’m thanking Him for putting me in this position I’m in. I just took it for granted before. But I’m maturing now and I’m more appreciative of what I’ve got. It’s not like I’m doing it for the money. I want to give it my best because I know I can win a world title, without a shadow of a doubt, and be The Man again.”
Though Brook talks about getting back on top, being The Man and champion again, it could be argued we have never really seen Brook on top. We have seen him become a world champion, yes, but not the number one in the division. We have seen him beat some very good welterweights, yes, but not the best. We have seen him produce cameos of brilliance, yes, but never fulfil his potential.
It’s perhaps both the thing that rankles him most and the thing that drives him at this point in his 15-year pro career.
“I feel like I’m a seasoned professional, because I’ve been in big fights, but I still feel young,” he says. “I still feel like my mojo is there and I’m looking after myself.
“Before I used to train hard and not live the life. I’ve always cut corners. But now I’m looking after myself a lot more. I’m having sports massages and eating the right things and going to bed on time and getting plenty of water in me. Before I didn’t have an idea. Now I’ve got an idea and I’m doing things properly.
“Because there are a lot of young guys out there you’ve got to look after yourself just to survive. I think I’m wiser, more experienced and I’ve been there many times before. I know what it takes to be the best.”
The Kell Brook stories used to be legendary. Legendary and diverse, for every person who regaled you with stories of the talent he showed in the gym and heralded him as the next ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed there would be someone else bemoaning his lack of discipline and love of bad food. In the early days, opinions fluctuated and varied as much as his weight.
“I’ve cut corners before every single one of my fights,” Brook concedes. “I’ve been speaking to an old friend of mine who was a bad kid growing up, Damon Hague, who boxed Carl Froch. I’ve been spending a lot of time with him. He found God in a big way and I’m not saying I’m going to church or anything, but I feel very spiritual at the moment. He’s at peace with himself because he gave it all he had. He might not have been good enough, but he can live at peace and live with himself.
“I can’t live at peace at this minute because I know what I’ve done between fights. I know I haven’t lived the boxing life one million per cent. I might say I have before fights, but I know in my heart that’s not the truth and I’m just saying it because I think I should be saying it.
“Before I leave the game I just want to live the life for once and give it everything so I know how good I am. If I do get beaten, at least I know I got beaten having given it everything. I’ll be able to live with myself then. Forget everybody else. It’s about how I feel when all this is over. I need to feel like I have given it my best. I need to feel at peace.
“I’m just going to give it my best and if I’m not good enough I can live with that.”
Conceding it could all go wrong is in itself is a sign of maturity. It also shows an awareness of Father Time and an acknowledgement of his shortcomings, inspired no doubt by a couple of punishing losses, the first against Gennady Golovkin in 2016 and the second against Errol Spence Jnr in 2017. Reality found Kell Brook, it found him in the most vicious and cruel of way, but it happened, there’s no going back, and it could end up being beneficial to his development, perhaps not as a fighter, but certainly as a human being.
“People obviously didn’t know what was really going on when they watched me on TV,” he says. “They just thought I was turning up in shape to look good. But I got by on my talent for years. I got away with my heart pushing me on even if my body wanted to give up. I’ve always wanted it and always got through it, but really and truthfully, I didn’t do any of it properly.
“For every fight I’ve always just been training to lose weight. This time I’ve been at the weight for a long time and everything else feels right. I feel like I’ve matured and am ready to hit 2020 with force.
“What I’ve done previously is look forward to holiday and what I’m going to eat and drink after the fight, but that’s not in my mind at all this time. I’m not thinking, Right, I’ve done my hard training, it’s time for a holiday. I’m thinking, This is it now. It’s 2020 now, I’m pushing on, and I want a fight against either a world champion or a meaningful fight after this one.”
Last year Brook didn’t box at all. There was a lot of talk of Amir Khan and just as much talk of retirement, but in the end neither of those things had any bearing on his 2019. He didn’t fight Khan – no surprises there – and he didn’t call it a day, either.
“It was very frustrating,” Brook says. “It was a bit of a rollercoaster for me mentally. I didn’t know what I was hunting for or what I was doing it for anymore. I was more or less just in the gym for no reason. I didn’t have a goal. I wanted to fight and if a big fight had come about I probably would have kicked into gear.
“The retirement stuff was serious. I felt like if I wasn’t getting the fights to excite me I would hang them up. What else could I have done?
“But that’s behind me now and I feel reborn. I feel like this is a complete and utter new me. I’ve never had this in my whole career. I’ve never experienced it this joy and this excitement. I’m looking forward to performing and I’m looking forward to the future.”
When dealing with the subject of retirement, there are some boxers for whom the prospect seems a scarier proposition than others. Brook, certainly, based on his history of ill-discipline, is one boxer you would be concerned about when the time comes.
This is because peace rarely finds its way to a maverick talent. Chaos, instead, is what drives them. It makes them special and separates them from the rest. It gives them an edge. They thrive on it. Yet it goes, it fades into an eerie quiet, the moment the lights go out and the mundanity of a regular life becomes their new normal.
“I would have struggled (with retirement),” Brook says. “I was talking to Darren Barker about this the other week. I’ve had a little taste of it as well. When you’re not flavour of the month you have a little time on your hands, but I had no direction and had no goal. I was waking up and just twiddling my thumbs. I didn’t know what to do with my day.
“When it finally comes to a complete halt, I’ll have something in place. A fighter needs that. They need something there, like property investment or training and managing fighters. You need a purpose. You need somebody who needs you. If you don’t, you won’t have any reason to get up in the morning. If you’ve got nothing to drive you in the morning, you’ll go absolutely insane.”
Brook knows this now, having sampled the feeling last year. Moreover, he knows other things. He knows, for instance, he has failed to properly prepare for fights, and that he has taken fights at the wrong time, and that he has taken fights at the wrong weight, and that he has taken plenty for granted. But now, in 2020, he is learning from his own mistakes and encouraging others to learn from them, too.
At 33, he is the elder statesman of the Wincobank gym he has inhabited since he was a child; a gym now home to youngsters who idolise Kell Brook the way he once idolised ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed. Certain duties come with this position and Brook is more than happy to carry them out.
“I’d like to give back to the game,” he says. “Even when I finish training now, I’m helping out with the kids. There’s an amateur show tomorrow (January 30), and I’m talking to three or four of the amateurs who are on the show and explaining certain things to them and you can see them holding on to every single word I say. It gives me so much joy inside seeing that. They’re looking up to me because I’ve been there and done that. I’ve been through it all and got the T-shirt. When I’m passing that knowledge on and you’re seeing that excitement, it’s a great feeling.
“I was with a young fighter a couple of weeks ago and he didn’t have any boxing boots, so I gave him a new pair of boxing boots. I was talking to him and he said this guy he was boxing he had boxed before and got beat. I rarely go to any amateur shows, but I went to that one and when he saw that I was there I could tell that he was trying to impress me. He listened to what I told him before the fight and he actually won the fight.
“That, for me, was better than any amount of money. The joy on the guy’s face will stay with me. Because he never smiles, this kid. But when he got his hands raised, he had his big smile on his face. It warmed my heart.”
On Saturday night, Brook returns to the ring and to Sheffield and will be studied like homework by the young amateurs he has spent recent months teaching and inspiring at the Wincobank gym. They, like everyone else, will be hoping to see him return to form, show some of the magic of old, and put in a performance that not only signals a year away from the ring has revived the local hero but also teases the possibility of him once again regaining his status as a world champion. They want to see Brook’s hand raised. They want to see his face look the same as it did when entering the ring. The hope, too, is to see a smile on it.
There will be nerves, he admits. He also says the pressure ahead of this fight is as significant as any he has ever had. But he has made friends with nerves and pressure, having fought better opponents than Mark DeLuca in much bigger fights, and understands that the moment a fighter no longer experiences nerves ahead of battle they have already subconsciously made that transition from boxer to civilian. In feeling something, anything, Brook believes he still has questions that need answering, and so on the journey goes.
“I’ve gained more patience, ring craft (over the years),” he says. “I feel that I’m fitter. I feel that I’m faster, but people will say, ‘How can you be faster at 33?’ All I can say is tune in and see. See what I’ve got left.
“I’ll also see what I’ve got left. It might be all well and good doing what I’m doing in the gym every day, but this conversation will mean absolutely nothing if I get in there and I just haven’t got it no more. If that happens, it’s time to call it a day, isn’t it? I don’t believe that will happen, though. I believe you will see something special. The real Kell Brook is going to turn up.
“But you’ll be listening to me talk about having a year out and being 33 and thinking, Yeah, but can it actually be done? Is he telling the truth? You’re going to think like that. You have to.”
Though he still wants one, Kell Brook, 38-2 (26), is no longer fighting for world titles, nor for money, the driving force, he says, behind the final phase of rival Amir Khan’s career. Instead, these days Brook is focused only on peace – finding it, experiencing it, embracing it, holding on to it. It has been slippery and elusive, Wincobank levels of elusive, but now seems to be creeping closer. Aware of its importance, he can see it. He can almost touch it.
Then again, by virtue of him accepting both victory and defeat and knowing neither of these outcomes will ultimately define his life, Kell Brook might already have found it.