THERE are precious few happy endings in boxing, and sometimes the saddest stories are those of unfulfilled potential. But Gary Cornish, whose career was cut short a year ago at just 31, has come to terms with his fate.
Last summer, the Inverness heavyweight was deep into training for a formidable assignment against touted Croatian Filip Hrgovic when he got the phone call that all fighters dread. He had failed a brain scan, and the British Boxing Board of Control would not renew his licence.
“I was absolutely devastated,” says Cornish. “I’d been training three times a day. I was super fit; everyone was saying how shredded I looked. I was happy and everything was going right. I was going to win that [Hrgovic] fight. He’s a very good prospect but I wouldn’t have taken it if I didn’t believe I’d beat him.”
What he also didn’t believe, at least at first, was the result of the routine MRI scan that scuppered not only the Hrgovic clash but his whole career.
“I felt amazing. I’d just been sparring with Alexander Povetkin in Russia and they were impressed with me. I was unbelievably fit, I had no health problems whatsoever,” says Cornish. “The doctors [who performed the initial scan] said it might not even have been an injury, it was just a ‘variation’ on my previous result. It wasn’t a diagnosis as such, it was just that something had changed. They said it could happen to anybody, but as I was a boxer, it was a risk.
“We sought second opinions. We went to London, to Glasgow, to Germany. [Promoter] Sam [Kynoch] went above and beyond the call of duty to do all he could to help me. I went to a psychologist and passed his test [a behavioural exam to detect brain trauma]. I thought this would give me the green light, but the Board still said no. The scan I had in Dusseldorf was clear. I could have boxed on a German licence, but I wanted to fight in Britain. So I had to respect the [British] Board’s decision. And those boys [Maxim Dadashev and Hugo Santillan] died recently [after suffering brain injuries in fights]. You’ve got to respect that. One hundred percent, your life is on the line.”
A combination of understanding the Board had his best interests at heart, and that he had perhaps already overachieved in a 25-2 (13) career, have helped Cornish to accept what happened.
“I never even intended to be a boxer,” he says. “I just took it up to improve my fitness for football.”
Cornish played one season as a striker for Highland League side Brora Rangers before turning his competitive attentions to his newfound passion. He had just nine amateur bouts – winning them all – before turning pro, mainly because there wasn’t a great deal of competition for a 6ft 7in amateur super-heavyweight in Britain’s northernmost city.
“I was supposed to have a box-off with a guy from Glasgow for the Scottish spot in the  Commonwealth Games,” he says. “I called my mate from work [as a joiner] and told him not to pick me up anymore as I wanted to cycle to work to get fit. The first day I did that, I fell off my bike and snapped my wrist! So I couldn’t go to the Commonwealths, and I couldn’t wait another four years, especially as I was getting so few fights.”
Cornish made a four-year, 21-bout unbeaten start to his pro career, and was matched with Anthony Joshua in 2015 in a vacant Commonwealth title fight.
Despite his handsome pro stats, it was a massive step up in class for Cornish, who had largely boxed little-known opposition on untelevised cards. It was no surprise, then, when the “Highlander” was bombed out inside a round by a man who was already on his way to becoming one of the world’s biggest boxing stars. Cornish is pragmatic about his maiden defeat, although feels he got his tactics wrong on the night.
“The plan was to box him, to take him into the later rounds,” he says. “But the whole experience was surreal, boxing on Sky Sports, the build-up, watching Dillian Whyte on the undercard in my dressing room and then suddenly, geez, I’m on next! I got in the ring and something switched in my head and I said to my coaches [Paul Geddes and Andrew Young], ‘I’m going for him.’ They told me to stick to the plan, but…”
Ninety-seven seconds later, Cornish was left contemplating the first defeat of his boxing life.
“It was gutting, really hard to take,” he says. “I’d taken time off work, trained for I don’t know how many weeks. The camp couldn’t have gone better and all my sparring partners said I had a chance. I just wish I could have given a better account of myself. But it was one of life’s best learning curves and I had to take the chance.”
The Joshua fight will be what most casual fans remember Cornish for, although he later became the first Scottish heavyweight to challenge for the British title, when he pushed Sam Sexton close in a creditable 2017 effort. After Sexton, Cornish linked up with a new coach in Liam Foy, and felt this was a turning point. He looked sharp in stopping David Howe in January 2018 – in what would turn out to be his last fight – and was looking forward to Hrgovic and beyond.
“I was being offered unbelievable fights,” he says. “Hrgovic was for a WBC rating [via the International title], I was offered Luis Ortiz in America, there was even talk of me fighting Tyson Fury in his comeback.”
Ultimately, though, all he ended up with was a lot of what-ifs, but he is still involved in the sport.
“I was a bit lost for a while,” he says. “But then Sam [Kynoch] offered me an ambassador role, which is to unearth talent in northern Scotland. I’ve got one lad called Luca Micheletti about to go pro and there’s lots of good boxers up here. If I can use my experience to help them get to the top, that would be brilliant.”
As we talk in a hotel lobby, Cornish frequently greets, or is greeted by, passersby. He is, after all, a local celebrity, and if that is to be his lot, he is OK with it.
“I was never looking to be a famous name,” he says. “I just love boxing. I miss the buzz you get from fighting, and having goals and focus, but I’ve moved on. If you let it get to you, you’ll never be happy.”