INSIDE Newbridge, South Wales’ tin can of a boxing gym, former Commonwealth champion and British title challenger Bradley Pryce became a man. He was surrounded by heavy bags, shaken from thudding punches, and carefully evaded snaked skipping ropes left abandoned on the damaged floor. It was an education, an employment and a place of worship, led by an Italian musician who became the trainer of multiple world champions.
“Sugar Sweet” Pryce would fight, and handily beat, some of Britain’s best domestic fighters. But he would also lose, falling short of world titles and cash windfalls. He risked his health, fighting on far too long in search of regular income, ultimately cheating Boxing Board-mandated eye tests in his quest to keep the lights on. It wasn’t all smooth sailing.
Now, speaking to Boxing News about life after boxing, Pryce remembers burning the candle at both ends, life under the tutelage of the legendary Enzo Calzaghe, and the very moment he became one of boxing’s ageing acid tests.
We’d previously spoken on the phone almost eight years ago, when Bradley called to cancel his Sky TV. I tried to convince him to stay with the company, throwing stacked offers in his direction, delighted that a fighter had trickled through the switchboard.
“I’m actually working at the Sky building in Cardiff, funnily enough – so it’s free for me now,” laughs Pryce, attempting to remember our brief exchange in hopes of humouring me. “I’m working in security at the minute, so I’m front of house, basically sat down at a big desk and kept away from people. I don’t really come across people too much throughout the day – I just have to keep my distance. I always have the mask on [due to Coronavirus], staying as safe as possible.”
Coming to terms with retirement was a struggle for Bradley, but even growing up he’d endured his fair share of battles. He was one of three, mixed-race boys living in a single-parent household in the Welsh Valleys, only seeing his Jamaican father on some weekends. It was on those weekends that his dad would introduce the youngest of the Pryce trio to boxing, encouraging him to ditch his preferred karate gi.
At age 10, he would follow in the footsteps of his brothers Byron and Delroy, setting foot in the late Enzo Calzaghe’s gym: “My first interest in sport was always karate, so I didn’t want to box at all. I saw my brothers going there through the week and my dad would pay a big interest in them, when maybe he didn’t pay the same interest to me. I guess I started boxing for his attention a little bit more, and it just turned out I was pretty good.
“Growing up, we’d get called names, because there was that element of racism in the 80s. We were the only black family living in the Valleys at the time. My brothers, they kind of paved the way for me. They were street fighting all the time people were calling us names but I managed to avoid most of that. They had that fighting nature built inside of them so they would keep shielding me from it all.
The former Welsh Area champion continued, “My mum wasn’t working at the time. She was just focused on bringing us kids up, she was the father as well, you know? I can’t fault her and she kept us active and made sure we were focused on other things. I guess my first memory of boxing would be watching the big fights down at my dad’s house on the weekends; Mike Tyson, and stuff like that.
“As amateurs, all three of us boxed in the British finals at one stage and I think we made history with that achievement. We were all top boxers but a lot of people would say I was probably third best of the siblings. I had to go on and prove them wrong, and thankfully I did that.”
Despite establishing himself as one of the top amateurs in Wales, Pryce was in the company of undefeated British great Joe Calzaghe, one of the world’s hottest professional prospects at that time. Watching Calzaghe’s continued success inspired the youngest of the Pryce brothers and it was effectively what led to his own eventful 19-year professional career. His brothers had turned pro slightly earlier, as had close friend and former world champion Gavin Rees so Pryce decided to follow suit in 1999.
Now 39 years old, he looked back at his relationship with Enzo Calzaghe, describing him as the “only trainer he truly felt a connection with”. Others would take Bradley under their wing, including Tony Borg and former stablemate Gary Lockett, but it just wasn’t the same. The Italian was a disciplinarian, but his fighters responded to those demands. His young boxers wanted to work hard for him, a father-figure and a man who truly believed in their potential.
“Enzo was just a naturally good coach. When I had my first fight, he had taken over the gym permanently and considering he had no boxing background, he was just a top, top trainer. He pushed us all, we were one of the best gyms in the country. It was a lot of shouting, I guess [that made us work hard]. A lot of shouting from Enzo and the tellings off, but he treated every boxer in the gym like his own children,” Pryce said.
“We all stuck at it and we shared that dedication. I think that’s what left some of us over the years. I had quite a few slaps round the chops when he was on pads, you know? You had to get stuff right or else you were getting those pads on the face. He was an intense trainer because he wanted perfection. If he didn’t get it, you were going to be told about it.”
In his first three years as a professional, Pryce compiled a healthy record of 16-0 with 10 wins arriving before the final bell. He captured the lightly regarded WBO inter-continental title at lightweight, aged 20, beating Jason Hall over 12 rounds in Cardiff, 2001. A defence of that belt against South Africa’s Lucky Sambo and victories in Glasgow and London followed, before the wheels came spinning off.
Pryce had started dabbling with alcohol shortly after turning professional, a habit he’s never quite grown out of. The first defeat of Bradley’s professional career came against Ted Bami, but it also kicked off a terrible fall from grace, crashing out with four losses from his next six contests.
“I didn’t know anything about Ted Bami. Not until the weigh-in the day before. I knew I didn’t train properly for it – I’ve always had that issue. I like to party a bit too much, I guess. That didn’t change throughout my career and I assumed at the time that I had an easy fight. I saw him and I thought, ‘Wow.’ He was built like a brick s***house!”
Pryce reflected on that first loss, saying, “I thought maybe I should have trained a bit better, but nevertheless I knew I could pick up the win. I came unstuck. I got tagged and that showed me that I wasn’t indestructible. I just wanted to bounce back after that. All throughout my career, it was my dedication [that was the problem]. I was never 100 per cent dedicated.
“I would say the partying started early in my career and it never really changed to be honest. I was able to go into training camp, but then switch back into party mode. That probably continued when I was picking up titles and it just went to my head a bit. I was going out to clubs all the time, I was getting treated a bit differently. You think you’re a superstar already, and that’s just continued, I think.
“It was a big issue – I couldn’t see it. I thought, ‘Right, I can’t do that again’. That was after the Bami defeat and I knew I couldn’t keep getting away with it. But it never changed. After every fight you would have seen me in a nightclub partying, and that’s how it always went.
“I still drink. Like I said, to me it wasn’t an issue. It wasn’t like I needed a drink, I just liked to have one. I’m quite a quiet guy, I don’t really socialise with many people. So, I guess [I drink] to become someone else. I’m a bit chattier and a bit more sociable, having a laugh. I live quite a reclusive lifestyle. It’s under control now, it’s never been a serious issue, it’s just something I like to do in my own time.”
The Welshman’s career became a yo-yo. It was often unpredictable and scraped itself from the floor in order to achieve once again. Even when capturing the Commonwealth super-welterweight title, he was returning directly from a unanimous decision loss to Michael Jennings for the British welterweight title (his second attempt to win that particular Lord Lonsdale belt).
Pryce was the fighter you could never rule out, because you never knew which version of “Sugar Sweet” would slip through the ropes. His reign as Commonwealth champion served him with his best memories, beating notable fighters such as Ossie Duran, Anthony Small and Martin Concepcion. The Valleys fighter held the belt for almost exactly three years, defending it successfully six times before suffering defeat inside two rounds at the hands of Lancashire’s Matthew Hall.
Boxing became something of a mystery to Bradley, battling to retain his relevance and struggling to dig deep between fights. Surprise victories over fringe challengers should have opened doors for him, but instead, he found himself dragged kicking and screaming into the away corner, with no other way to make ends meet.
“I couldn’t get my head around that, to be fair. I was boxing Danny Butler, as the away fighter, in my own home town. I knew from that stage that it was over,” Pryce admitted. “I had been chucked to the wolves. I knew my career was changing.
“I got the win over Patrick Mendy when nobody thought I would, then I was looking to step down in weight, but I was told the only option of a fight was against Billy Joe Saunders. I was a ‘yes’ man then, so I took the fight. The career was over – the motivation was gone.
“After that it was just a case of fighting, earning money, partying a little – that’s how it went. The Chris Eubank [Jnr] fight, I got a call a few days before the fight. I was down at my mate’s house and he would give me the odd bit of pad work, but I wasn’t even in a gym, or properly training. I was training in my friend’s front living room. I got the phone call and took my friend over to Ireland. I tried to get him in the corner, then I got a bit of a telling off for having him there.”
Pryce’s last five fights came against solid domestic competition including Zach Parker, Scott Fitzgerald and Luke Keeler. But he should never have been in the ring. His eyes were dangerously impaired, yet he continued passing medicals and gambling with his health until as recently as two years ago. Was it stupid? Yes, Bradley openly admits that. He just didn’t know how to do anything else – boxing’s cliched old adage.
“I was playing football for the local team and the ball was in the air, but it wouldn’t drop where I thought it was gonna drop. It was a lot further away. I had to stop playing football then and I never knew what it was. It’s a squint and I wear glasses now, even though I don’t need them. I wear them just to make myself feel a bit better. People look at me and I’ve got my eye turning out, I’m very conscious of it. I guess it’s due to punches. The eye muscles aren’t as strong as they were, you know?”
Expecting a baby with his girlfriend, the fighter who frequented Welsh tabloids with stories of partying and ‘bad boy’ antics now seems settled. He spoke honestly about his doubts on returning to the sport in any capacity, fearing he may be exiled after speaking out in recent years about slipping through the board’s medical net. Pryce told me he wanted to be remembered as a tough, strong, fit fighter. He acknowledged that he could have achieved more, but has made peace with his bad habits.
Strangely, he seems more at ease discussing his career now – after its disappointing and dangerous conclusion – than he did that afternoon when attempting to change his television subscription, while preparing for fights with Saunders and Eubank Jnr. He laughed, remembering Enzo giving him those cuffs round the ear, and spoke with fondness when recalling those all-action Commonwealth title defences.
It seems his distance from boxing has allowed him to truly appreciate those achievements. Maybe it’s safer for him, after years of clinging on, to keep the sport at arms’ length.