ONLY last year Britain’s lightweight boxers, those with Olympic aspirations at least, were forced to move up three kilos, after the division’s limits for Tokyo 2020 were changed to 63kgs. Thomas Hodgson, Mikey McDonagh and Calum French have all had to move up as they now look to challenge current incumbent Luke McCormack.
In the later weeks of 2019 the three challengers were in action in international tournaments. Hodgson competed at the Liventsev Memorial in Minsk, Belarus, though he lost a unanimous decision to the host nation boxer, Artur Tuniyeu, in the quarter-final. Wales’ McDonagh went to the Tammer tournament in Finland. He reached the semi-final but Brazil’s Wanderson Oliveira halted him in their second round. French brought home a bronze medal from the Golden Gloves tournament in Serbia. There he unanimously outscored the host nation’s Marko Cvetanovic. In the semi-final however Cuba’s Yoangel Moya edged him out on split points verdict.
All of them will have to adjust to this new reality. With the old lightweight and light-welterweight divisions essentially being merged, they find themselves now in the world’s most competitive division.
For Calum French the shift is perhaps even crueller. He was the country’s leading boxer at 60kgs. The Olympics for him was in touching distance. The dream was tantalisingly close but now he has to restart in a whole new division. Even winning selection to box at the first Olympic qualifier will be hard, especially so as he’ll be vying for the GB spot with clubmates from his home gym, both Luke McCormack and Thomas Hodgson are Birtley boxers like French.
“It’s the top of the tree,” Calum said looking forward to the Olympics. “The top level. It’s probably higher level than any of the pros are. We boxed in the WSBs [the World Series of Boxing, a quasi professional format], which is a bit of a taster for the pros. I had five WSBs and won four.”
His only loss in that set up was away from home, in the semi-final, against the Kazakh in Kazakhstan.
“I had experience boxing longer fights against killers not journeyman. These kids that we’re boxing in sports halls in Uzbekistan somewhere, these are trained killers these, not these journeymen out of the woodwork sort of thing. We’ve had experience fighting against people who have had to fight for the clothes on their back, they’ve had to fight for the scran in their belly. It’s all good pedigree, it’s all good experience.”
He still had an insight into what pro boxing could be like for him, when he boxed in the World Series of Boxing in his Gateshead hometown. “It was some experience that. Like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my life to be honest. I think it held about 3,000, the sports hall that we boxed in in Gateshead, sold it out. It was an amazing night. Cannot explain it, the atmosphere, the buzz that everyone was on, the noise and the results at the end of it. We whitewashed the Croatians 5-0 so the result at the end of it was quality as well,” he said.
However hard his passage to an Olympics might be, he isn’t tempted to immediately throw in his lot with professional boxing in the immediate future. “We’ll see what happens, obviously time will tell. We’ve got the Commonwealths in Birmingham in two years’ time and then obviously the Olympics in Paris after the next one so we’ll see what happens. We’ll take every day as it comes. Just enjoy the process really. I’m enjoying everything I’m doing at the minute,” French said. “I’d be 28 [in Paris 2024]. So it is a bit late. But because of the life I live, I’m not really about the drink, I don’t smoke, I eat clean and that. I think you hit your peak, you can sustain sort of your peak performance for longer. Everyone says your peak’s 26 whereas if you haven’t smoked and haven’t drank your entire life maybe you can sustain it. Look at Joe Joyce, 32 or something now, he’s just turned pro and been fast tracked straight into it. If it turns out I have to stay on for another cycle then that might be the case. If it’s not and I do go to the Olympics then more of a steady route through the pros.”
“There’s been talk of staying on for another cycle,” he continues. “Obviously if I go to the Olympics, maybe it might be that push to turn pro because there’s not much else you can do apart from the Olympics.
“I’ve had that experience on the international stage now. If I don’t end up going to the Olympics, I could take that into another cycle, when my face has been seen by the officials, they know who I am. It’s influence if they’ve seen your face before. You’ve been in other international competitions, they tend to watch what you’re doing a bit more… It’s how it works, isn’t it? Subconsciously watching the person that you’ve seen before, watching their work because you’ve seen their face.”
French understands all too well though the impact that success at an Olympic Games could have on his future career. “You’re sort of set, moving on to the next level, the pro scene and that,” he reflected. “Just look forward to everything that’s coming.”
But first he’ll focus on each step of his progression, the training, competing with his British rivals and boxing in international tournament. “Taking it as it comes really,” he says, “and I’m enjoying the process.”