WHEN Craig Woodruff lifted the Welsh title above his head in February 2013, the Newport native had no idea he would wait 3,305 days until he held another belt in celebration.
Nine years ago, the lightweight’s domination of a game Tony Pace headlined a small hall show in his home city and extended his record to respectable 4-1 (1). Woodruff hinted at his potential as a future British contender and he soon had the Celtic title in sights. In September 2013, that belt would be up for grabs.
An added incentive was the opponent – Mitch Buckland. A slick southpaw who had previously handed Woodruff his only defeat as a professional over four rounds the year before. In the return, Woodruff narrowed the gap but failed to close it, and Buckland prevailed again over 10 rounds.
No stranger to occupying away corners, Woodruff’s debut came against Poland’s Konrad Dąbrowski, a European junior medallist, and his third win against Leeds’ heavier Carl Johanneson, an ex-British champion in the last of his 39 fights. However, what followed the second loss to Buckland almost ended his career.
Six months of inactivity followed before he accepted a last-minute call to face rising prospect Martin J Ward and it resulted in his only stoppage defeat. Four months after the early shower, he took another short-notice opportunity against 2012 Olympic gold medallist Luke Campbell. Woodruff, who had less than 40 amateur contests (that included a win over a young Joe Cordina), performed well but was beaten again.
He’d boxed under the guidance of ex-British champion Steve Sims for the last time. He’d lost three fights in a row and outsiders wondered if the youngster’s race had been run at just 22 years old. The rumours, which are always aplenty in boxing, weren’t promising. Above-average purses for facing Ward and Campbell provided a quick financial fix but left his career in tatters.
In Woodruff’s next fight in 2016, his clenched left fist put a man on the floor and made blood pour from his mouth. It was on a five-a-side football field during a match between Alway FC and Grove United.
An exchange of heavy tackles led to pushing and then Woodruff’s opposite number began throwing punches. By the time the boxer was ready to respond, a peacemaker was in the way and accidently on the end of his reply.
“The other player with who you were involved responded by throwing some punches in your direction but they didn’t really connect,” said Judge Christopher Vosper in summary. “You then took a fighting stance towards the player and punched him. The injured person, however, was not the other player but another man who came forward simple to act as peacemaker to break up the squabble.”
Instant apologies didn’t suffice or fix the broken jaw – that needed surgery and two metal plates. Such was the seriousness of the injury, the victim wasn’t able to eat solid food for six weeks. Woodruff pleaded guilty to inflicting grievous bodily harm at Cardiff Crown Court but was spared prison with a 45-week sentence suspended for two years. Judge Vosper ordered rehabilitation activities, 70 hours of unpaid work and a £2,500 payment in compensation to the victim.
Boxing was way off Woodruff’s radar and even if it had been his target, the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBoC) wouldn’t license him due to his conviction.
Woodruff, now a father, was left to focus on his family. Working in retail for Wilkos, it wasn’t until he crossed paths with the memory of Newport’s most famous puncher that he gave serious thought to resurrecting his own career.
★ ★ ★
Often a cruiserweight masquerading as a heavyweight, David Pearce won Welsh and British titles and challenged for the European title to proudly put his city on the map. His British title win was the last 15-rounder scheduled in the country, though he needed only nine rounds to gain revenge over Swansea’s Neville Meade in 1983. “I did it for Newport,” Pearce famoulsy proclaimed in his post-fight interview.
In the years to come, the squat six-foot “Bomber” agreed to face both Leon Spinks, a former world champion, and Buster Douglas, a future world champion, before the bouts fell through. Pearce, whose scheduled fight with Spinks was set to be for a WBA cruiserweight title, saw his career crumble when an MRI scan picked up a cyst on his brain. The abnormality meant he was medically retired in 1985 at just 24 years old. A lengthy, albeit unsuccessful, legal process would then take up too much of his time and money.
The inevitable, ill-fated and questionably sanctioned comeback in Michigan, USA ended in a knockout defeat six years later. David, originally a steelworker by trade, immediately re-retired but would only live another 11 years, many of them spent battling with epilepsy before he died from Sudden Adult Death Syndrome (SADS) in 2000. Pearce was part of a large family with six of the seven brothers becoming professional boxers. More than 2,000 people attended the funeral. The turnout demonstrated the affection afforded to the Peace family from their hometown.
Sixteen years later, Luke Pearce dreamed of Newport honouring his uncle who ran up and across the city’s iconic transporter bridge during his training camps. The Royal Air Force (RAF) Commissioned Officer was determined to cement the heavyweight’s memory, which was well-thought of locally but without the wider profile it deserved. Luke visioned a legacy that lasted as long as the Grade-II listed structure David so often scaled over the River Usk.
The nephew’s campaign for a life-size bronze statue was a success and galvanised the community to fund-raise £61,000. The statue was unveiled on the banks of the River Usk to a few hundred people in 2018. Not only did the BBC produce a documentary, it led to the formation of the ‘Welsh Rocky’ charity to help create opportunities for all sorts of sportspeople in Newport. The Mayor of Newport later named it as his dedicated charity of the year, levelling the playing field for its beneficiaries.
“I want to thank all of my family for supporting me. They haven’t seen me, y’know. This has taken over my life but I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” beamed an emotional Luke as he stood at the steps of the statue as it gleamed in the sun.
“This is for everyone in this crowd today. This statue is for you. David once said, ‘I did it for Newport’ and do you know what? The committee did it for all of you today.”
It was during the campaign that Woodruff offered to help fundraise for Pearce and so began his journey back into the ring. With Pearce and friend Johan Berendjy serving as co-trainers, Richie Garner was brought onboard as manager and they worked to bring Woodruff back after four years in boxing’s wastelands.
The goal, they promised themselves, was another British title for Newport.
★ ★ ★
“Everything I done before, I done it on a week’s notice,” confessed Woodruff. “Eight days for Luke Campbell, that was just making weight. I never used to go to the gym. I just used to fight and not train.
“A lot of people said I can do this and I can do that. I owe it to them and my family to do it properly. If I make it, happy days. If I don’t, at least I can say I tried.”
Six victories followed. Two defeats – a disputed decision to Kieran Gething for the Welsh title and a clear points loss to Gary Cully – occurred up at super-lightweight. Woodruff and his team accepted both reverses as lessons but never a sign to give up on their mission.
March 2022 and Ronnie Clark didn’t care for Woodruff’s fairy tale. He was on his own journey, with pit-stops at prisons and hospitals along the way. Clark bounced on the spot during the Master of Ceremonies’ pre-fight announcements, before seamlessly sliding his legs akimbo to complete the splits as his introduction reached its climax. It was the Scotsman’s final pre-fight signal that he hadn’t travelled more than 450 miles to Penarth to make up the numbers.
In the first Celtic title fight on Welsh soil since 2015, Woodruff produced the most disciplined and professional performance of his career. He used his height and longer levers to remain a step ahead and built a lead that Clark, naturally a super-featherweight, couldn’t bridge. Now 37, “The Shark” was perhaps without the bite of his earlier years but still possessed the smarts and Woodruff remained wise to his tricks.
It wasn’t perfect. It was messy at times and Clark rallied at others. But Woodruff won and won well. He’s now one step away from the British title and firmly following in the footsteps of Newport’s finest fistic heroes.
“That’s a huge sporting triumph for the city, especially within boxing, and that’s redemption for Craig,” said Luke Pearce, wiping the sweat from his brow just like on the day his uncle’s statue was unveiled. Luke boxed in the military, then served as a coach and official in the amateur code, yet none of those experiences matched the meaning of this night.
“He fought a fantastic fighter in Mitch Buckland [for the Celtic title in 2013]. We were there ringside. Then he was gone. I was told by two ex-professional boxers, ‘He’s finished in the game and he’ll never do anything.’ But they don’t know me and my belief in Craig.”
★ ★ ★
Johnny Basham became Newport’s first British champion in 1915 before he moved up from welterweight to repeat the feat again at middleweight in 1921. Nowadays, parts of the city are a very different place to what Basham would’ve known.
Woodruff’s home patch of Alway is an inner-city area that’s home to around 8,000 people. Almost every socio-economic measure available puts Alway’s deprived population at a disadvantage compared to peers in Newport and other parts of Wales. It’s so plagued with anti-social behaviour that it was effectively a no-go zone for the council’s public transport in 2021. Those types of inequalities are why manager Richie Garner is so proud of his boxer.
“It’s an incredible journey,” said Garner afterwards. “This is the reason it’s so important to me. With the greatest of respect to Craig, he’s not a kid with problems. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t do drugs. He’s a good kid with a family. He comes from a deprived area. When you see Craig, who lives for the people around him and has a wonderful family, you want to see him do something to better his situation. Craig has done this for family, his kids and the community.”
“Smiler”, as Woodruff is ironically nicknamed, is already a success in the context of his background. He remains a man of few words and doesn’t express many emotions in interviews; it’s in the ring where he comes alive. However, there are a few subjects that help to divert the 29-year-old from his usually deadpan disposition: his following and his family.
“They’re not my friends, my fans or my followers – that’s my family,” he said. “I’ve known everyone in that crowd since I was a baby. That’s blood to me.
“It’s a belt I can give to my children [Kelsey and Mason], it’s for them. I’ve had it a lot tougher than others. I’m not going to complain, but it’s not what I set out for.”
Prior to facing Clark, the BBBoC mandated Woodruff as challenger for the upcoming vacant British title fight between countryman Gavin Gwynne and Liverpool’s Luke Willis. The winner of their 15 April meeting in London must defend against Woodruff within 90 days, hence the raised eyebrows when it was announced he’d risk his mandatory position against Clark. But nobody needed to worry.
No longer ill-prepared or being thrown to the wolves, the belief of Woodruff’s team has helped him to invest in himself to the point that he stands on the brink of his promised land, a point Pearce openly ponders.
“In terms of who we would face, we’ve been up against it all the way. We’ve taken him from 86th to sixth in Britain [according to BoxRec] and now he’s Celtic champion. We’ve had to do it the hard way.
“When you talk about the story of Craig Woodruff, it’s massive for my family and the city of Newport.”