AS SNOW falls from the sky, glistening like shattered diamonds, Edinburgh’s Craig McEwan is reminded of warmer climates and fonder memories. It doesn’t seem long ago he was being pestered daily by a zestful Manny Pacquiao in Hollywood, with the legendary Filipino fighter crowned in a tartan, ‘See you, Jimmy’ hat and attempting his version of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.
But it’s been long enough for many of British boxing’s most dedicated fans to almost entirely forget what should have been an exceptional career. It’s been too long for Craig.
McEwan, 23-4-2 (12), spoke to Boxing News from the Capital on a winter’s evening, as the United Kingdom finds itself in the midst of a gruelling fight with the Covid-19 pandemic, which seems to be forever clinging on, spoiling, and doing enough to make it to the corner and receive instructions to further torment the nation.
It was a chat we’d been meaning to have for a couple of years, and as McEwan’s gym is currently closed due to tough, national restrictions, there was no excuse for further delay. It’s been almost five years since his last fight in Motherwell, but boxing has never been far away. Even now he speaks about sparring and the retired fighter’s recurring, incessant need for “one more fight.”
“I always say, ‘I’ve got one more in me,’ even now, I’m always active and sparring with the lads, just messing about. The physical training was the part of boxing I really hated; the press ups, the sit ups, all of that stuff; the running. Sparring was the key for me, so I’d just spar all the time. I still think I’m in good shape, but it’d have to be at a certain level to get myself up for coming back. I’m talking myself into it and talking myself out of it at the same time.”
Given his introduction to boxing at such a young age through his father, gym owner and former fighter Rab, nothing else would have the chance of stealing Craig’s attention: “It’s just all I knew. I just boxed. I was in the gym every single day, we used to spar, actually I used to spar my dad. It’s just natural, it’s just all I know and that didn’t really bother me.
“I was too young to fight officially, but my dad would take me along to boxing shows in Scotland, just in case somebody had pulled out. We’d be there, I’d have my kit and if anybody pulled out my dad would just shout out, ‘My boy will fight.’ He didn’t know what size or weight these boys were, we didn’t care, we just wanted to get involved.
The stories McEwan tells of father and son at events across the country are like excerpts from a bleak indie film. Rab would get there early, set up the ring, fight somebody of equal stature and then help dismantle it afterwards. Craig recalled winning a fight at a young age, and when slipping out between the frayed ropes, his old man was tapping his shoulder, looking to borrow a mouthpiece for an unscheduled bout of his own.
“I can remember fighting Ricky Burns on a Friday in Motherwell,” McEwan explained, “I was matched on the Sunday to fight a different guy. I beat Burns on the Friday, and then we both pulled up on Sunday and the guy’s like ‘Wait a minute, you boxed on Friday? Did you two not box each other?’ Ricky said, ‘That was my brother.’ I ended up getting pulled and Ricky could still fight. That’s just what it was like back then.”
There’s barely a GPS advanced enough to track McEwan’s amateur miles, but he is among Scotland’s more experienced fighters. He estimates 378 amateur bouts, representing his country at countless international tournaments, winning at least 10 gold medals, and continuously fighting the best in the world. It all culminated in securing a bronze medal at the 2002 Commonwealth games, before making the decision to turn professional.
The Wester Hailes-native decided to roll the dice but travelling Stateside in search of his own Rocky story wasn’t entirely unfounded: “At the end of my amateur career, I was lottery funded, so I had money to go abroad for warm weather training. There was a category for it, and I had to use it before it ran out. I thought, ‘Where can I go? They said I could go wherever I want,’ so I thought, ‘Alright, let’s go to LA.’
“I’d known about Freddie Roach for years. I remembered the Steve Collins fight against Chris Eubank, that was a big fight, they used to say he was hypnotised and everything. I just knocked the Wild Card door when we got there, and said, ‘Look, I’m over here for training.’ It was just rough and ready; it was really tough. I caught the bug and thought, this is where I belong. I was sparring, and Freddie said ‘Look, I want to be your manager.’
“The minute I came back from the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, we packed up what money we had in the bank and we just went for it. I chapped Freddie’s door again and it just started from there. Sally [McEwan’s wife] got a job, she was working for a lady as a live-in nanny, so I could live there as well and train.
“Freddie said to me one day, ‘Right, I’ve got a deal with Top Rank, we’re going to go with them,’ because he knows Bob Arum well. Golden Boy were trying to sign Manny at that time; they gave him a private jet with money in a suitcase or something. So, I signed with Golden Boy, and they said, ‘Look we’ll give you a car, an apartment, money in the bank and your first fight is in two weeks’ time in Las Vegas.’ I thought, ‘Is this really happening?’”
Standing over the fallen George Nicholas Montalvo in the MGM Grand, McEwan felt reality give him a pinch, winning his debut inside one round. Names like Marco Antonio Barrera and Israel Vazquez headlined that evening, but the youngster from Scotland began feeling like a superstar Stateside.
His professional career went to plan for the next four years, amassing 18 wins, with nine stoppages, and featuring on bills in Vegas, Tucson, and Quebec City. He was sharing the gym with some of the best fighters on the planet, making friends with Vanes Martirosyan, who couldn’t speak highly enough of his Scottish stablemate.
Life was good – but it was surreal at times, and as he approached the biggest fights of his career, Craig was lucky enough to be working side-by-side with generational talent and Filipino icon, Manny Pacquiao: “I knew him when he had nothing; he was fighting – he was still Manny Pacquiao – but he had nothing. He was one of the boys, just training. We used to train alongside him, and we’d run, but man, he could really run.
“He was really good with everybody; he was a prankster; he was hyper all the time. There was a Thai restaurant underneath the gym, and he used to go in there but at the start I remember this place was really run down. You wouldn’t feed your dog in there. But Manny started going there and they revamped the whole place, they had a TV on the wall, a karaoke machine. So, after training, everybody would be there, Manny would feed them all, he’d put the karaoke on like, ‘Sing us a song, Craig.’ At times I was like, ‘Nah, people are taking advantage of you here, Manny.’ But he wouldn’t care. He’d just be throwing water over people, playing pranks again.”
Pacquaio, still fighting and beating some of the best in the world, had an unshakeable bond with the pair’s head trainer, Freddie Roach. At times, so did McEwan. But things started to change following his seesaw battle with Danny Perez – a fight that he barely edged on points but was expected to win comfortably. Craig’s preparation for the fight was far from ideal, having his son Cameron and marrying his wife, Sally. But Roach didn’t care for sentiment; he cared for hard work.
“I went in there and he [Perez] just battered me. Every punch was a knockout shot; it was just bang, right to the soles of my feet. It was a fight where he would hit me with one big shot, then I was hitting him with four or five. So, I was beating him to the punch but every shot he hit me with, it was hurting me. Freddie gave me a proper row at the end saying this couldn’t happen again, that if I took any more of these fights I’d have to retire. So, I was a bit upset. ‘You can’t play this game, it’s not easy,’ he said. That was the beginning of the end, I think.
“Amir Khan came over [to LA], Freddie was starting to get busier, James Toney was there and loads of people needed him. So, for wee Craig McEwan who’s up and coming, there’s not a big pot of money for Freddie. After that fight, I came into the gym and I asked Freddie, ‘What are we doing today? What’s the plan?’ And he’s like ‘Ah, just go home.’ I thought, ‘Okay, this is the end, this is how it all finishes.’ I sat there, and I still trained, I just did my own thing. Freddie, he was still my friend, you know. There wasn’t any animosity or anything – he just had other things on his mind.”
Roach and McEwan’s split came immediately before his defining fight. Standing in the corner opposite was Irishman Andy Lee, a student of Emanuel Steward and the Kronk Gym, Detroit. Both men were peers; both had left home after stellar amateur careers that promised fame and fortune, to gatecrash the American Dream. Only one could prosper, and it seemed for most of the bout that it would be the Edinburgh-native, until he was stopped dramatically in the final round.
When asked if he still thinks about his fight with Lee, a future world champion, trainer and analyst, McEwan’s reply was sincere: “It keeps me awake at night, yeah. It bothers me. I knew it was over then. The bubble had burst; after that, things started to go a bit distant. I know Freddie was busy with Manny and Amir.”
A stoppage loss to former sparring partner and future WBO titlist Peter Quillin followed, and McEwan’s career lost most of its meaning. He managed to find just four wins from his last eight contests and ‘retired’ in 2016. Promised fights with John Ryder and potential contracts with Eddie Hearn or Lou DiBella never materialised.
Overall, Craig admits he should have done more, but his résumé still impresses those who walk through the doors of his Edinburgh gym, and his ambition can never be faulted. Boxing promised him so much, and he took the sport at its word. Hundreds of fights, thousands of miles and everything slipped away when the bigger names came calling. But he has his family, his four beautiful kids and loyal wife, and those memories of sharing time with the greatest of our era.
“I’ve sparred with the best in the world, Bernard Hopkins, Shane Mosley, Ronald ‘Winky’ Wright, Gennady Golovkin, Canelo Alvarez, the list goes on. In my career, I trained alongside Manny Pacquiao; there’s not many people that can say that. I was undefeated in America, 19 fights, I fought in Vegas five times, there’s things like that. But I’ve not really done anything, I suppose. There’s no point dwelling on it now, I’ve just got to be honest and say, ‘Well, I tried my best.’”