THERE comes a time in every fighter’s career when he realises his best days are behind him. Usually it manifests physically, and more often than not, it leads to defeat. For Matt Skelton, though, it was a little different. It happened en route to one of the best wins of his career, and during a performance in which he looked as physically formidable as ever.
What Father Time had blunted in Skelton was not his reflexes, durability or strength, but rather his killer instinct.
“I could see he was hurt,” says Skelton of Paolo Vidoz, whom he stopped in a December 2008 European heavyweight title challenge. “He didn’t want to be there. I was looking at him in his corner between rounds and he couldn’t breathe properly. His head was slumping down. I’d broken him, but his pride made him carry on.”
Vidoz had been ground down by Skelton’s trademark unrelenting aggression and was in survival mode by the ninth round. Physically exhausted and mentally demoralised, the Italian appeared ready for the taking, but instead Skelton held back and implored referee Robin Dolpierre to intervene. He did not, but Vidoz’s corner pulled their man out before the 10th.
“I was thinking about Chris Eubank and Michael Watson and imagining what it must feel like to know you’ve done that [inflicted life-changing injuries] to another human being,” says Skelton. “So, I started calling for the referee to stop the fight. The doctor thanked me after the fight for my compassion. That’s when I thought to myself ‘you should get out of boxing’. I shouldn’t have been concerned for his wellbeing.”
He fought on, but Skelton identifies that as the tipping point of his career, when he crossed over to the wrong side of the hill, on the wrong side of 40. He’d scored one of his finest results and won a prestigious championship, but it was his last notable success. Skelton would lose his next three contests and then transition from world-ranked contender to gatekeeper.
If the final chapter of Skelton’s boxing career sounds familiar, its early acts were more unconventional.
Most boxing stories begin with the pro debut, or the amateur career. But for Skelton, there was no amateur career, and his pro debut didn’t come until his story was more than half told. Because, while the “Bedford Bear” is better known to many for his run through the heavyweight boxing ranks – and for running over many who inhabited them – this only came after a long and distinguished career in muay Thai and kickboxing. Those sports, plus a brief flirtation with MMA, combined for almost 60 bouts before Skelton even threw his first punch under Queensberry rules.
“I was 33-0 as a Thai boxer and had won a couple of world titles,” he says, “but I wasn’t making massive money. Then [coach and manager] Nigel [Howlett] told me about K1 in Japan and said, ‘We’ve got to get you on that; you could actually make a living.’
“We sent DVDs and a couple of months later they said they wanted me to fight Sam Greco. I looked at his record and thought ‘woah, this is a tough one’ [Greco had won a WKA muay Thai world title and numerous karate championships], but we went over there [to Yokohama in April 1998].
“Three days before our fight, he pulled out with a back injury, so they offered me Jan ‘The Giant’ Nortje. He was 6’11”, so he lived up to his nickname! But I said yeah, I’ll fight him – I’m here now and I want to make some money.”
Skelton won on a third-round stoppage and impressed both the crowd and the K1 promoters.
“They offered me a contract for four to six fights a year. I grabbed it with both hands,” he says.
Skelton was for the next three years a regular K1 fixture and a star in Japan. His record would not be as spotless as that which he’d compiled in muay Thai, but he was fighting in elite class. He would beat big names such as Ray Sefo, Gary Turner and Nortje a second time, and suffer setbacks to the likes of Peter Aerts, Jerome LeBanner and Ernesto Hoost.
But while it came four years before Skelton switched to boxing, it was the first defeat of his kickboxing career that would lead to the change.
“I ended up fighting Greco and I lost [on points in September 1998],” he says. “It was the first time I’d ever lost and I was reflecting on why did I lose that fight.
“It was because there were no real heavyweights [in British kickboxing]. In my gym, the heaviest guy was 14st [Skelton would typically scale around the 18st mark]. There was no one with my strength; I was just walking them down.
“I started going to boxing gyms for heavyweight sparring. I was going regularly to Kevin Sanders’ gym in Peterborough, where I was sparring Derek McCafferty and I was thinking ‘how can he generate so much power from such a short distance?’
“It’s because Thai boxing is fought at a distance, up on your toes. You don’t plant your feet.
“After every session, as I was driving home, I was thinking ‘why did that happen? Next time I’ll match him’. I got better and better and it got to the stage I was dominating him.
“Then Derek was supposed to go to Blackpool to spar Mathew Ellis, but he couldn’t go, so they asked me and I said ‘of course’. At the time I’d had no [boxing] fights. Ellis was getting ready for a fight and he was going heavy on me, but I dominated him.
“After two days his dad said they didn’t want me to spar him anymore; he said, ‘You’ll break his spirit’. They still paid me, though, and his dad said ‘I really think you should turn pro. How old are you?’ I said 34. He said, ‘At least give it a try. You could win a Southern Area title’.”
Skelton would win a lot more than that. He switched to boxing, making a low-key but winning debut in September 2002 in the ‘away’ corner of a small hall show, and then surging to an English title within a year. This was followed by British and Commonwealth belts that he fiercely contested with the likes of Danny Williams and Michael Sprott, before that European apogee against Vidoz, via a ‘world title’ shot in 2008.
“Sometimes I feel sad about that fight,” says Skelton of his spirited WBA title challenge to Ruslan Chagaev in Germany. “But then I tell myself ‘Matt, some of the greatest names in the sport have fought for that belt.’ It’s just I could have given a better account of myself”.
In truth, Skelton did much better than many had expected, pushing Chagaev to a decision that was mathematically clear but physically competitive.
“I knew I’d have to stop this guy; I wouldn’t get the decision,” says Skelton, “and I was thinking the referee had it in for me. He was threatening to disqualify me for pulling [Chagaev] in and leaning on him. But I was just using my strength and he was coming in low.
“But halfway through, Chagaev changed his style, wouldn’t let me use my strength, and I’m thinking ‘this guy is a quality fighter’. Then in round 11 he hit me in the solar plexus and I remember thinking ‘no, I’m not going down… am I?’ [He didn’t].
“I just tried to have a war but yeah, he did enough to get the decision. Maybe I lacked a bit of self-belief; maybe I was overawed, thinking this guy was an Olympian, a world champion, undefeated.”
It’s strange to hear Skelton talk of being overawed. His own reputation was based on having no respect for the reputations of others – he always fought hard, he always fought his own fight and usually he got the win through sheer attrition. There was none of the vulnerability or unpredictability that characterised his big domestic rivals of the time – Williams, Sprott and Audley Harrison.
With the exception of Skelton v Harrison, those four heavyweights all won and lost against each other through the 2000s in what was one of the more entertaining eras of British heavyweight boxing.
That Skelton was in that mix is the perfect retort to those who question if he should have switched to boxing earlier.
“It was the perfect time,” he says. “If I’d come along earlier, I might have had to face Mike Tyson! But there was Danny Williams, Sprott, Audley and several top guys all fighting, and I was part of that. The TV did huge numbers and the money was up there.”
Other recognisable victims on Skelton’s ledger include Michael Holden, Julius Francis, Bob Mirovic, Keith Long, Fabio Moli, Mark Krence and John McDermott, whom he beat in 79 seconds in 2005 – the fastest-ever finish in a British heavyweight title fight.
But while Skelton insists “I don’t live with regrets”, the 55-year-old can’t help but wonder how he might have fit in to today’s heavyweight picture.
“AJ [Anthony Joshua], Tyson Fury, Deontay Wilder, [Oleksandr] Usyk – what a great time for heavyweight boxing; the scene is fabulous,” he says. “I wish I was a part of it.”
The closest he got to it was a thumping at the hands of a young Joshua in 2014 in what was AJ’s seventh pro bout, and Skelton’s last. By then he was 47 and offered little more than a big name for Joshua to decorate his early résumé with.
He gave it a solid try – didn’t he always? – but it went exactly the way you’d expect when matching a rising star with an ageing, inactive ex-champ. Skelton was stopped in two rounds.
“That was it for me,” he says. “I didn’t want to do it anymore, didn’t want to become a joke. I still had my faculties, my speech wasn’t slurred. Of course, I still loved the sport and could have carried on, but I had to be realistic. Enough’s enough.”
He’d given more than enough – and he continues to do so. Since retiring, Skelton has set up a boxing gym and busied himself with charity work. The gym is a small, no-frills affair in Bedford called Ring & Road Fitness – a “spit and sawdust gym”, as he calls it.
“We do some boxing technique, fitness, some white collar, a bit of MMA. It’s old school, it’s not making loads of money, but it’s a community thing, and that’s important.”
As is Skelton’s charity work for the Amicus Trust, which helps the homeless and those at risk of homelessness.
“[After boxing] I did NVQs in health and social care,” he says. “I’d done a few talks in prisons, with gang members and young offenders. Then my sister, who’s a housing manager with Amicus, said come and work with us.
“I thought that sounded like my kind of remit. I get to help the homeless, offenders, veterans, young people with drug-related issues; get them rehomed, help them move on and become independent, get them into society. I look after a nine-bedroom property housing ex-servicemen. It can be quite challenging, but it’s rewarding.”
In other words, Skelton again found himself concerned for the wellbeing of others. But, unlike that night against Vidoz, when he realised such concern marked a turning point in his fighting life, it can only be a positive.
Vidoz was able to fight another day, thanks to Skelton’s compassion. Now, many others can say the same, too.