AT a time when a working-class sport revered for its ability to reveal the truth has never seemed so disingenuous, the departure of Doncaster’s Dave Allen, a heavyweight both painfully and perfectly honest, feels a bit like a death in the family.
Still just 28 years of age, Allen announced his retirement in November following several cancelled fights and just one completed fight – a victory – since being badly beaten by David Price in July 2019. He retired with a professional record of 18-5-2 (15), but was, in the end, about more than statistics and achieved more, both in terms of wealth and popularity, than most would have expected when he turned pro in 2012.
There have of course been many down-to-earth working-class heroes in boxing over the years, yet what I think made the ‘White Rhino’ special was that he came along during an era when the emphasis seemed to be on moving away from that kind of boxer in favour of boxers offering personas and an illusion, with failings and insecurities concealed rather than embraced. Allen was, in that sense, an anomaly. That and a breath of fresh air.
No, he was never close to becoming the best heavyweight in Britain, much less the world, but never did Allen suggest that was within reach, either. Nor did he ever say he was fit when he wasn’t fit. Nor did he ever say he was ‘living his best life’ when stuck in bed struggling beneath the weight of his own mind. Instead, he was candid, often uncomfortably so, and knew his USP was relatability and his beauty marks warts.
“I’ve been so much happier,” Allen said of his retirement. “It’s so stressful, boxing. I was never a great trainer but getting out of bed in the morning was getting harder and harder.
“From March to September I was on fire. But then in September I tore my hamstring running and went to spar (Oleksandr) Usyk with one leg. I practically got stopped over there sparring and I just thought enough was enough.
“I know I’m only 28 but in terms of boxing I am a very old 28. I had a lot of sparring and some hard fights. More than that, you have the other side of boxing: the disappointments. I had the [Christian] Hammer fight fall through and the [Christopher] Lovejoy fight fall through. I was then going to box in November and they were going to pay me 10 times less than I would have got for fighting Lovejoy. I just added it all up and realised I don’t need it anymore. Financially, I’m not a millionaire by any means, but I don’t need it anymore. I wanted to get out while I was still safe and that’s not something I have regretted once since.”
If there is a criticism levelled at Dave Allen it tends to be that he didn’t give boxing his all and didn’t treat it with the respect it requires and deserves. Yet one could argue there are plenty of other fighters, bigger names and greater talents, who take the same approach as him only tell you otherwise. At least with Allen, for better or worse, you had an idea when he was trying and an idea when he wasn’t. Usually, he let you know.
“I didn’t really train at all for the David Price fight,” he said. “If I couldn’t take the game seriously when I know if I beat David Price I would fight [Alexander] Povetkin and then be one fight away from fighting Anthony Joshua, when was I ever going to take it seriously?
“It’s just not in me. People would say, ‘David, you’re so strong and tough and can punch, you could be a top contender if you gave it your all.’ But that means nothing if you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning to train and you don’t want to diet. That’s very important and I didn’t have it. It’s like saying to Amir Khan, ‘Why can’t you hold a punch at world level, Amir?’ Or it’s the same as saying to Tyrone Nurse, ‘Why aren’t you a knockout puncher when you’re such a great boxer?’ Some people just don’t have certain attributes. I didn’t have the discipline. Why didn’t I like to train? Why didn’t I like to diet? Why am I f**king lunatic who goes missing for a couple of weeks at a time? I don’t really know. All I know is I can’t change who I am. Yeah, it’s a shame. I wish I had what other fighters have, but I don’t.
“Before the Jason Gavern fight (in 2016), I was in the casino until 5 am. Then I took beers back to the hotel and saw Kell Brook at the bottom of the lift. He goes, ‘What are you doing? You’re boxing tomorrow.’
“I could not change. I have no regrets at all. If I could do it all again, I would do it all the same.”
After beating Lucas Browne, a former WBA titleholder, in April 2019, Allen spoke confidently about landing an unlikely world title shot and believed his popularity among UK fans, as well as his improving form, would get him in the mix by the end of that year. However, a reality check was quick to arrive in the form of David Price’s jab and stiff right hand, which interrupted Allen’s stride at the second hurdle and left Allen remembering only the first three rounds of their fight.
“I knew I hadn’t prepared properly but I still thought, right until the day of the fight, that I would be able to beat him,” said Allen, who watched the fight back for the first time only recently. “I thought he would fold after a few rounds.
“But then, on the day of the fight, I had this realisation, and it hit me all at once. This voice in my head said, ‘David Price ain’t bad, you know. He’s a world-class boxer. Of course he has frailties but he’s good.’ My mind was playing tricks on me all day and I wasn’t my usual self. By the time the ring walks came, I was resigned to losing.”
Retired on his stool after 10 rounds, Allen was stopped for the third time in his pro career, suffered two concussions on his spine, and was taken to hospital. He knew then he was not a world heavyweight title challenger in the making. He knew then it was for the best if he retired.
“After the Price fight, I should have retired,” he said. “That was the most financially secure I have been in my life. I didn’t need to box again. But I also didn’t want my career to end on a stretcher. If I ended it there, I would have regretted ending it with me leaving the venue in an ambulance.
“In the days after it I was sad. I had a girlfriend at the time and she ended up leaving me. Sponsors left me not long after as well. But it was a big wake-up call for me really. I was in a little bubble at that point. I thought I was going to be a superstar. Then it all came crashing down. It was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. I’d not changed or anything, but I needed bringing back down to earth a bit.
“I had loads of opportunities to box last year but none of them came through and I thought maybe there was a reason for that. I’m not a religious man or a spiritual man or anything like that, but someone was telling me something here and the message was that I shouldn’t be boxing. The six or seven times I should have boxed something came up and stopped me. The Lovejoy pullout was the last thing that made me realise someone really doesn’t want me to box. I then got coronavirus the week before I was supposed to box in November and was really ill. I just said to Eddie [Hearn, promoter], ‘I’m done with this game, mate. I’m not enjoying it at all.’”
If he was being led by signs, the biggest one of all arrived in the immediate aftermath of the Price fight when Allen, a man renowned for his resilience and stubbornness, had to confront the scariest realisation of them all.
“When I was younger, I thought I could get hit with anything,” he said. “I thought, I’m a young man, I’m fresh, it won’t bother me. But after the Price fight, I thought, I’m 27 years old. I’m not 21 or 22 anymore. After the Price fight, I was scared to fight again. I was scared to spar. I was scared to get hit. I body spar now, that’s all I ever do. If I came back, you’d never see me get hit in the head again. I’m more conscious now of the damage because I’m at a point in my life where I’m getting older and I want to one day have kids. Losing the Price fight made me miss out on a lot of money but it also made me mature and become smarter.”
As is so often the case when a boxer retires, the question of whether Dave Allen overachieved or underachieved will generate mixed answers. Some will say he had the natural talent and toughness to go further than he did, whereas others will say, given his ill-discipline and unpredictability, it is a miracle he made as much impact on the sport as he did.
“For my ability, I think I underachieved massively,” Allen said. “I got on to the Great Britain amateur squad after just 10 bouts and was a national amateur champion within a year of boxing.
“As a pro, I beat Lucas Browne and Nick Webb. I beat some decent fighters and was competitive with some good fighters without even training. I took [Tony] Yoka 10 rounds, [Dillian] Whyte 10 rounds, and [Luis] Ortiz seven. When I boxed Luis Ortiz, I’d done three gym sessions in about four months. The attitude I needed to take me to the top level, I didn’t have. So, in terms of where I managed to get, I overachieved.”
The idea of Dave Allen as overachiever was never clearer than the night he headlined the O2 Arena against Lucas Browne in 2019. That night Allen was not only roared to victory by an army of disciples but managed to extract grudging respect from even his most ardent detractors for the way he finished a respected contender in the third round.
“The Browne night was the biggest one because it was a good win,” said Allen. “I see people saying Browne was no good but Browne beating [Ruslan] Chagaev showed he was very good. I’m not saying I beat the same Browne who beat Chagaev but I beat a good version of him and I did it while headlining at the O2 Arena. I’m just a kid from a council house in Doncaster and so headlining a place like that is a greater achievement, for me, than even winning the fight. I was so proud to go from the upbringing I had, which wasn’t easy, and being a shy kid, to then headlining in London, which is a four-hour drive away, with 10,000 people all screaming my name. It was the biggest thing I ever did.”
In terms of things he misses, it will come as no surprise to hear ring walks rank high on the list and trips to the gym, combined with the guilt of not following a diet, are right at the bottom. It is just as unsurprising to hear how receptive Allen would be to a return should he receive an offer tempting enough.
“I always say to Eddie [Hearn], ‘If the money’s right and the fight’s right, you’ll get me back,’” he said. “I’m not retiring due to medical reasons. I’m fit enough to fight. I always have been. I can definitely still fight. The [Oleksandr] Usyk sparring was going well for me but in the last 30 seconds I got clipped. Before that I was in the form of my life. I was giving him a lot to think about. Around September and October time I would have fancied myself with anyone in the world outside the top 10. So, there’s plenty left in the tank.
“The temptation will always be there, I’m sure, and if the right offer came, I’d be back. I’m not sitting here telling you I’ll never come back. With a bit of a rest, and some time away, you never know. But it would take something a bit spectacular.”
His immediate future will be spent training and managing other boxers and doing various bits of media work. In fact, on the day we speak Allen received his British Boxing Board of Control manager’s licence, otherwise known as permission to right some of the wrongs he witnessed during his own pro career.
“I looked at how British boxing is run and I thought, You know what, some managers take 25 per cent and that needs to change,” Allen said. “There are a few things I think are wrong with British boxing and that’s one of them. That’s why I wanted to become a manager and do a better job than them and take zero per cent under a certain amount and then take a small per cent over that amount. Hopefully I can lead the way there and others will have to follow suit.”
Already following Allen’s lead is 18-year-old Danny Murrell, a boxer who made his professional debut last November. Murrell is a super-welterweight Allen has been training and nurturing for years and is someone who has helped Allen as much as Allen has helped him.
“The best thing I ever did was take Danny Murrell on,” Allen said, ‘because it gave me that bit of responsibility. I have to look after someone other than myself. I have to be here for him. If I’m managing fighters and training fighters, I can’t go missing. That was a big factor in me getting my licence.
“Whenever I used to go to Board meetings about my discipline, they would say to me, ‘David, you’re a role model for the youth,’ and I used to think, What are you on about? Who cares what I do? But the older I get the more I realise that people do like me and I did do well at boxing and some people do look up to me. I really am trying to be a good role model and, with that, you can’t afford to go off the rails. I still have bad days, yeah, but I try to deal with them in a better way than I did in the past.”
Though the “White Rhino” may have gone, Dave Allen has perhaps never been more present than he is right now.