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Bradley Saunders and the wrong path

Bradley Saunders
Amateur standout Bradley Saunders found solace in fighting but failed to make the grade as a professional after injuries left him with nowhere to go. The most formidable opponent of his entire life was waiting for him, writes Craig Scott

“RIGHT, let’s go my friend,” former GB Olympian and now-retired professional Bradley Saunders  muttered nervously when talking to Boxing News. A deep breath followed from the other end of his crackled, international line while he is in lockdown in Spain — then he went silent for a heartbeat to regain his composure before telling his entire story.

Fighting isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s there for the lost, the underprivileged and those with a chip on both shoulders. The County Durham favourite fits the bill, now he was finally prepared to lift the lid on the darkest periods of his tumultuous life. Our call resulted in a second chat with his mother, Tracey Saunders. A call that was charged with pride and emotion as she relived the difficult experiences that shaped their family.

Bradley, now 34-years old, never made the transition from sterling amateur to successful professional, but many still consider him one of Britain’s finest boxing talents. He captured an astonishing 16 national amateur titles, winning medals at major tournaments including; the World Amateur Championships (Bronze in Chicago, 2007), the European Championships (Gold in Odense, 2009) and the Commonwealth Games (Silver in Delhi, 2010).

The damaged hand that now grips his phone — proven and punished during his chosen discipline of more than 20 years — has always had other uses. It spent its early days separating constant bickering and physical altercations between his parents, before being moved into his grandmother’s house. Both Tracey and his father, Jeff, had served time in jail with a young Bradley left visiting on the weekends. But you probably haven’t heard that story. After boxing had packed up and left him two years ago, those fists would clutch pint glasses and bottles of his chosen poison, drinking weekends away and drowning in denial. Finding purpose wasn’t easy with a hole in his heart.

It’s been a while since Saunders has spoken with boxing’s media, he spent his time marching on as one of three partners running a successful recruitment firm, securing contracts and spanning different continents. He raved about the group’s progression, explaining the comfort of stable income after sport. “I’ve always been a provider and I thought: ‘What do I do if somebody takes that away from me?” he asked. “I never had any other option until now. It’s life changing to say the least. We’ve just signed a contract in Holland. We have one in Iraq, one in Norway and another one in Dubai. It’s massive.”

It was the two-year hiatus with sporadic social media updates and spells of silence that the amateur star wanted to clear up; it was also an untold story of the alcohol and accompanying anxiety. It has been eating away at him — keeping him up at night. That recent dark period, now firmly in Saunders’ rear-view mirror, wasn’t his first. He had been reading Sugar Ray Leonard’s written feature on alcoholism before we spoke, reflecting on his own addictive personality.

After hanging up his gloves for good in May 2018, life after boxing seemed desolate. He hadn’t done anything else since he started earning money in his early teens, fighting on Team GB’s podium squad and travelling the world with his tax-free pocket money. It was during one of those squad sessions that Saunders opened up on his troubled childhood, often brushed under the carpet during media coverage of his career.

“I must have been young, because I wasn’t long on Team GB — I was picked out because of the way I was acting,” Bradley explained, replaying the conversation. “They asked me: ‘What’s wrong with you? Where do you live?’ I said that I lived with my nan and that set alarm bells ringing. They asked about my mam, so I told them she was locked up, and me dad was too. Next minute I found myself sitting in a classroom, talking about controlling the controllable, etcetera. I had a mental health coach, the lot.

“It didn’t really make any sense to me, depression and stuff like that,” he added. “I’ve never really had anybody for myself. I’ve had a lot of depression. I used to say that I wasn’t depressed, but I realise it now. I’d always been the kind of guy to talk to people about their own depression, but when it came to my own, it felt different.

“I spent some of my weekends as a kid visiting my mam and dad when they were locked up. It hasn’t made me a bad person, but I guess from a mental health side of things it probably didn’t help. I thought I was mentally strong, but when it’s just you, yourself, and you’ve got nobody to ask questions to, you’re really on your own. The worst thing about people is that we don’t admit these things. I can admit it now. I know where I’ve went wrong.”

Bradley’s mother, Tracey, was stuck in Gran Canaria during the current global pandemic. She is now proudly working with England Boxing after acting as South Durham ABC’s secretary for years — raising her family while surrounded by the sport. The friendly matriarch told me of life in the Saunders’ household in Stockton-On-Tees, where domestic abuse was rife. She had been a woman pushed to her limit, punished for her blind loyalty and dragged to breaking point. That was 23 years ago, and she had suffered the consequences for her actions, missing out on time with Bradley who would visit every other weekend. However, the pair remained incredibly close throughout.

It was boxing that distracted Bradley and his younger brother during those difficult early years. Jeff Saunders, named after the boys’ father, is also an unbeaten professional signed to management giants MTK Global. Inactivity has plagued him recently after fighting his way to a British title eliminator in 2017. His big brother hopes that Jeff can catch a break after turning over and after debuting five years ago.

“I’ll be straight with you, I stayed amateur too long myself,” Bradley admitted, himself a veteran of 266 fights. “I had my injuries, but boxing becomes a business — it’s not a sport. I’ve always been in the sport, all my life. I travelled the world. I enjoyed it then, you just went out and did your best. In the amateurs, the best had to fight the best. If you wanted to win competitions, you fought everybody. The best meet in the final and that’s it.

“When I was a kid, we used to fight two or three times in one day. You can’t do that anymore. It’s a lot, against world-class opposition. I wouldn’t be fighting Joe Bloggs; I was fighting some Cuban or Kazakh, some Russian or something. I was in Team GB with James DeGale, Billy Joe Saunders, Joe Murray, Kal Yafai, and David Price. It was absolutely brilliant. There were some real characters on that squad. It was a great laugh.

“Then when I turned professional, I wasn’t really into it. Then my eyes went. People would have retired with my hand [injuries], but I was good enough to know how to adapt. When my eyes went, I used to always blame the hands. I didn’t want people knowing it was my eyes in case I was banned from boxing. It was stupidity on my behalf, getting in the ring and fighting. But I knew nothing else. I didn’t think I could do anything else.”

Bradley Saunders eventually inked his first professional contract with Frank Warren, debuting against durable away-fighter Jason Nesbitt (w rsf 3 in February 2012). Five fights within the first 12 months of his professional career rewarded him with three stoppage victories and two on the judges’ scorecards. An eight-month lay-off stunted his momentum, though, and Saunders never managed to reignite that early propulsion.

The highlight of his professional career was capturing the WBO Intercontinental title, when campaigning at super-lightweight, knocking out Ville Piispanen in Newcastle’s Metro Radio Arena in June 2014. Then came the infamous bout with the notoriously erratic Frenchman, Renald Garrido. Saunders made headlines after he was disqualified for deliberately head-butting his opponent. Both hands were broken in the opening rounds, and his heart was soon to follow.

“Professional boxing is so, so different,” he admitted. “There’s loads of politics. If you haven’t got a good management team, you’ll get nowhere in the sport. If you find yourself floating about, trying, you won’t get anywhere. It’s not about who’s the best at boxing. I used to think: ‘Why am I not getting these fights?’ These kids were good on paper, but I knew I could beat them. The best don’t fight the best. I thought: ‘I’m just p**sing in the wind here’.”

The anticipated return of the 2008 Beijing Olympian featured on a Matchroom Boxing show in Newcastle, signalling the beginning and the end of his brief renaissance. A first round stoppage win over journeyman Casey Blair, nearly three years ago, would be Bradley’s last fight. Those in attendance chanted his name, spilled beer on him during his ring-walk, and celebrated with his family. It was the last time they would share those experiences together.

Saunders, 13-1 (10), confessed: “I lost something that had been with me for my whole life. Somebody took something away from me and I can’t get it back. I wanted everything back, but I couldn’t have it. Then what do you do? I just hit the drink. I was trying to hide everything with drink. The last two years, I’ve went down the wrong path.

“I’ve been thinking about things and I’m definitely coming out at the other side. I don’t regret anything, but for the last two years I’ve been an absolute dickhead. I’m 34 years old now, so two years out of 34 isn’t too bad. This time last year, I would have been in the pub right now. I don’t drink as much anymore, just now and then, but a lot less. Some of the stuff I was doing then, you really can’t even mention. I know if I start drinking, I’m not stopping. I’m better off not doing it because I’ll go and have one the next day — the ‘hair of the dog’. My mindset now is to stay away from it as long as I can. If I fall off the wagon, then bam! I’ve got an addictive personality. You’d go home and I’d still be out there drinking. Over the last two years, when anyone asked me to drink, it was always ‘Yes’. But I’m in a much better place now.”

Scott Heavey/Getty Images

It is two years since Saunders and boxing parted ways on bad terms, but a return to the sport seems inevitable. From eight years old, he based himself in gyms up and down the United Kingdom, so when asked whether he was considering a potential future in coaching, Bradley explained his plan. He wants to take a solid, five-year sabbatical from boxing, before committing himself to the development of the North East’s next generation of talent. But he’ll be back — what else is there?

“As soon as I know I’m financially sound and everything is okay with the company, then I’m going to get involved with boxing again, 100 per cent,” he declared. “I couldn’t think of anything better. Living the life I did when I was young, bringing these kids up and teaching them what I know, there’s nothing better. I was boxing, boxing, boxing. I just wanted it out of my head for a little bit. In another two years, I’ll be a coach —  I promise you that.”

He spoke of his excitement at getting back to England to spend time with his wife, teen sweetheart and confidante Stephanie, and their young son, Leyton. We discussed the prospect of Leyton taking up boxing and fighting competitively, which Bradley sheepishly dismissed. He’d seen enough of the gruelling sport to know there were easier ways to make a living. Safer ways.

“I’m just a council estate boy, aren’t I? Most fighters are dragged up, but I’ve achieved most of my goals. I’ve fought in the Olympics, not many people can say that, they’re just used to watching them on the telly. It’s my proudest moment. I’ve beaten three former-Olympic champions. People can only dream of what I’ve done. I’m more than happy, and I’m pretty content.

“Everybody likes a winner, don’t they? I remember Sergio Martinez, he was talking about coming into the dressing room after he’d lost to Miguel Cotto. He was talking about how many missed calls he had then, compared to when he was a winner. That story is so true for me now.”

The next chapter of Bradley Saunders’ story is perilous to predict. Growing up witnessing constant tension between his parents frequently spilling over, moving in with his grandmother after resulting issues in the family home and cursed by injuries when moving into boxing’s paid ranks — it’s been a struggle just to make it this far.

The bottle never cures depression. He understands that now. The man who stared into the eyes of 280 opponents, each poised to attack with clenched fists and taut knuckles, suffered his most significant defeat in a battle with himself. But this will be his greatest comeback.

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