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How numerous tragedies inside the ring and out inspired Kevin Sanders to be a better man

kevin sanders
Nick Potts/Action Images
A fighter died under the watch of trainer Kevin Sanders and changed him forever, writes Declan Warrington

AMID the then-irresistible David Price’s final second-round assault on the poker-faced Matt Skelton in 2012, it was the experienced figure of Kevin Sanders who dismissed the protests from his own corner to rescue his ageing fighter.

Without Sanders’ intervention the vulnerable-but-proud Skelton, then 45, would ultimately have been left with little choice but to fight on against a once-ruthless heavyweight, and one unquestionably in possession of remarkably heavy hands.

Even the disappointment of defeat did little to affect the trainer’s conviction once they had returned to the run-down Aintree hotel at which they were staying. Sanders – as by then those who had accompanied Skelton in anticipation of a triumphant evening had realised – had made the correct call, and did so without wavering because of the tragedies he had witnessed from both positions of success and defeat.

Sanders takes Matt Skelton on the pads Action Images/Andrew Couldridge

If his work, as with his life, has largely been fulfilling, it has also been testing in equal measure. Gerald McClellan’s demise after his fight with the Sanders-trained Nigel Benn may have been widely documented; less known was the death of Robert Wangila under his watch, and the wider struggles that befell him when losing his baby daughter aged only five weeks.

From the moment, at four years old, he and his three siblings were put into a Blackpool orphanage by their parents – “my father told me one day I’d understand but I still don’t” – Sanders had started on the individual path that ultimately led to his admirable career.

While being bullied at school he was invited to the local YMCA to take his first steps into the sport he immediately relished, leading to a visit to Brian London’s local gym, where aged 13 a heavyweight “bully” knocked Sanders out, and one he persevered with when at 16, and emotionally independent, he joined and boxed in the RAF.

“I got my head down and became a cook,” the 61-year-old Sanders told Boxing News. “I got in the Air Force boxing team at RAF Halton. I spent six years there; I absolutely loved it.

“I learned a lot about respect. I still used to call referees ‘Sir’. I came out at 22 because I’d been boxing, and had bad ribs and couldn’t lift heavy kettles, etc, I was only eight-and-a-half, nine stone. This sergeant kept rabbiting on, so I chinned him, and got 120 days at [a military prison in] Colchester and ‘Goodbye, Mr Sanders’.

“I came out on the Wednesday and had a job on the Thursday, cooking in a nightclub called La Scala in Peterborough – they couldn’t just kick you out, they had to house you, and they housed me in Peterborough.

“I started training [other fighters] at the Focus Youth Club. I then tried turning pro [as a fighter]. I was a featherweight; I got battered three times and thought ‘I’m not good enough for this’, so I just got out of it. In the services you were protected within a squad and had a proper trainer; this was like a rat race.”

It was at that point, owing to the loss of his five-week old daughter Daniella to cot death, that the darkest period of Sanders’ life began. He regularly drank to such excess that his weight quickly swelled to near 20-stone (280lbs), and his inner despair meant him taking a further role as an “arsehole” of a doorman, until boxing once again gave him the direction he had lost.

“I was in a bad place; I started drinking badly,” explains the trainer, today a father of six. “Instead of just cooking, I’d then go and stand on the door and try and stick me chest out a bit. You stand on the door and it’s ‘I’m invincible’. You look back and think ‘What a t**t’. I was an absolute f**king arsehole. You look back – it doesn’t make you feel better. It just didn’t work – I wasn’t in the right place until my brother-in-law said ‘Get down this gym and have a look at the boys down there’.

“I started at the bottom, cleaning the buckets, sweeping the canvasses; I sat and watched the padwork, the sparring; when I left I used to clean up, take notes. I lost all the weight again. The two gym owners split, and I opened my gym [the Kevin Sanders Boxing Gym] in town, and it went from there.”

From running his modest gym and co-promoting local bills with, among others, Mickey Duff, Sanders’ reputation began to grow, presenting him with the chance to take his “hero”, Lloyd Honeyghan, on the pads.

“About six weeks later, I got this phone call out of the blue from him saying ‘I’ve got this fight – do you want to train me?’ He’d beaten [Donald] Curry. He was on his way down, but we brought him back and he had nine or 10 fights with me, beating Mickey Hughes when everyone thought he’d get knocked out.

“I learned so much. His discipline – people used to speak to him and he’d tell them to f**k off. ‘I’m here to train, not to talk about what I did last night, pal’. He was very professional with everything – bang on time with his runs. If I wasn’t there at 4am, he’d be gone. I think I did like him, but he was very hard to work with. I learned from that, and he prepared me for working with bigger people, because he was a name; it let you in the door.”

Among those “bigger people” Sanders – largely dividing his time between Peterborough and Liverpool – gradually trained were Kevin Lueshing, Shea Neary, Matthew Ellis and Gary Lockett, but the most significant he ever encountered was the late, great Eddie Futch, the trainer he considers the finest of all time, who like so many influenced him more than any other, and whose methods he returns to to this day.

“If I earned a few quid, I’d take myself off to Vegas, and go and sit in the gyms,” he says of a period that began in the late 1980s, by which point his second marriage had started to unravel. “Get involved training the kids. Even though it was illegal I started working out there, because you could stay for three months, go, come back. I did that for quite a few years.

“Eddie Futch could tell you where someone was going to be in two moves. It was just amazing. He’d sit on the ring and say ‘In two steps’ time there’ll be a right hand on that chin’, and he was bang on right.

“He was a genius – and Thell Torrence, absolutely the same. Look at the good trainers today – Freddie Roach, Thell Torrence, [Montell’s brother] Tim Griffin – protégés of Eddie Futch. He’s one of the most amazing men I’ve ever met in my life – I’m privileged to have met him. It was his calmness. Anybody who was anybody would want to talk to Eddie Futch. He was very approachable; an amazing man.”

It was his time in the US that then contributed to Sanders training Paraguay’s Juan Carlos Gimenez for his defeat by Benn, and far more significantly the connection being made that meant him being recruited to prepare “The Dark Destroyer” for the seminal 1995 night when the best of the once-great McClellan was left in the ring – little over six months after Kenyan Olympic gold medallist Wangila’s traumatic death.

“Wangila had an eliminator for the world title [in Las Vegas against David Gonzalez] at The Aladdin,” says Sanders. “He boxed really, really well, and then in the ninth got hit with a shot and went down. When he came back to the corner, I should have pulled him out, but if he’d have won the next round he’d have won the fight.

“My inexperience; I sent him out, and then bang. He died, 48 hours later, with a blood clot on the brain. It was a big, big learning curve. I still carry it round – which is why when it happened to McClellan [see below] it killed me.

“I don’t think anything prepares you to lose your own child, but it was very, very close to that. When he’s in your care and you’re the chief second, all of those things go through your mind. If it happened again today I’d definitely have pulled him out. You search your soul. ‘Did I do the right thing?’”

By Sanders’ admission the Wangila tragedy then contributed to his permanent return to England, where the lengthy and rewarding association with Skelton began, and where with his third wife, Vivienne – with whom he recently bought a retirement property in southeast Spain – he remains.

Kevin Sanders
Sanders spent 13 years alongside Skelton Action Images/Ryan Browne

“The best times were perhaps the 13 years I was with Matt Skelton; Benn was at the tail-end by then,” he says. “Initially all Matt wanted was to speed up his hands for K1, and then it was ‘How far could I get if I turned pro?’. ‘You might get a southern area title’.

“He won the English, the British, Commonwealth, European and WBU heavyweight titles, and also fought for the WBA.

“From not having a boxing background he achieved everything, and never got any praise for it. For 13 years he gave his heart on his sleeve; I’m very proud of that.”

ON BENN-MCCLELLAN

“I got slated by quite a few who said I wasn’t experienced enough [to train Benn for such a fight],” Sanders recalls of his defining night as a trainer. “It was a big ask, but I knew quite a bit about Gerald McClellan, and was quite confident Nigel would beat him because of his style. Nigel was the biggest star in boxing at the time; I felt under pressure, so I was in constant communication with Thell Torrance about the correct training methods, and he’d put my mind at ease.

“Nigel only did nine rounds of sparring for that fight; the rest was padwork with me – he had it in his head he was doing it his way. We had a good relationship but it was business – we didn’t socialise. I’ve never socialised with boxers – I’ve always tried to keep that distance. He was ferocious – some of black eyes I used to come out with; I used to get busted up – but I was a lot younger and enjoyed every minute.

“[Benn-McClellan] was a massive part of my life. I’d seen McClellan loads of times in the gym [alongside Julian Jackson, Mike McCallum and more], and said, ‘He’s going to put you on your arse, Nigel, but when you get up you’re going to beat him, because he’s going to be so shocked that you got up’. McClellan only ever trained for eight rounds, because he knocked everybody out; he never trained properly. We never mentioned ‘Gerald McClellan’ in the gym; he was always called ‘The Opponent’.

“I just knew Nigel was going to win; he had so much belief. But nobody gave him a chance.

“I went into McClellan’s [pre-fight] changing room and he’d done his own bandages. Those with him didn’t have a fucking clue.

“The atmosphere was amazing; I’d never experienced one like that in my life, whether it was excitement or fear. There was a lot of dodgy people there, but on the night I didn’t mix with them.

“I knew Nigel had too big a pair of bollocks not to get hit, and he went to war. We were very lucky [not to be counted out] with the first-round knockdown, truth be known. Then from the fourth round you could see McClellan was drastically wrong with his breathing, his blowing, his blinking, and they just let him carry on.

“You could see him deteriorating – his left hand dropping. When Nigel [first] put him down it wasn’t a massively powerful punch, and the second knockdown; you could see why he wasn’t going to get up. Me and Dennie Mancini were worried for him; we could see something was wrong.

“[Post-fight] I’d been worried about Nigel; I then heard about McClellan on the news the next day. I was gutted for him.

“The doctor who looked after him that night now lives opposite me.

“I’ve never seen a fight like it. That night changed my life.”

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