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In the Shadows: Paul Appleby finds peace in retirement

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 30: Liam Walsh (L) of England and Paul Appleby of Scotland exchange blows during the Commonwealth Super Featherwight Title Fight held at York Hall on September 30, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Former British champion Paul Appleby is no longer a boxer and he’s never been happier, writes Craig Scott

AS the wind whistles between the crooked, pastille-coloured cottages on South Queensferry’s main street, there’s often more tourists than locals occupying its cobbled paths. The unassuming little town, just to the west of Edinburgh, sits under the shadow of the hulking Forth Road Bridge; keeping itself to itself. 

It’s a quiet pocket of Scotland’s east coast, and it plays home to one of the country’s best, forgotten boxers. Over six years since his last professional contest – spending almost all of them removed from the sport’s relentless media – Paul Appleby, 19-6 (11), spoke candidly to Boxing News about civilian life, success and living without regrets. 

But where had he been since suffering his final defeat to countryman, Scott Cardle? Had boxing swallowed him whole? Many suffer in retirement – but thankfully, and probably surprisingly to some, that wasn’t the case for Appleby. 

“I’ve been doing scaffolding for over five years now,” explained the laid back, 32-year old former British champion. “Since I retired, I’ve been doing this for work. I got married. We bought our house in South Queensferry and I’ve just been spending time with my wife.   

“I’m quiet, so I don’t like all of that social media stuff. I used to check Twitter for boxing updates, but I haven’t even been on that for about a year. I’m just grafting away – there’s nothing much else for it. I’m running, keeping myself fit… just incase,” he laughed, demonstrating a fighter’s seemingly inability to say ‘never’.  

But it was all tongue-in-cheek. Life has been good to the Applebys in recent years; it’s been filled with holidays and socialising.  

Despite disappearing from boxing’s periphery, it’s easy to forget just how young Appleby was when he became a popular, local prospect. He talked about his introduction to the sport in East Craigs as a plucky 8-year old, looking up to his Uncle Billy, a seasoned amateur with over 100 bouts (including multiple with Scottish boxing legend, Ken Buchanan).  

Paul would triumph unexpectedly at the Four Nations amateur tournament aged 16, but explained his decision to turn professional was premature with the benefit of hindsight: “I should have stayed amateur for another couple of years, I’d say. I could have tried to get to the Commonwealths or something. It’s always better if you win a gold medal at one of those games – you get a better deal, it’s better for your profile.

“I never had too many amateur fights, because I turned pro when I was 18. I only had about 50, but it was a lot busier than fighting professionally was. It’s completely different. It’s just such a hard game, professional boxing. It’s a lot of pressure for the boxers selling tickets and training for fights. Making weight was hard; the fighting without head guards, those smaller gloves meant your hands used to feel everything.

“I got a lot more attention, because I was stopping people and hurting people early as a pro. I was just trying to be exciting. You should always look to try and stop these journeymen, just to get your name out there. If you can stop those guys, people start talking about you and I’d always try and look good.”

Appleby debuted in January 2006, stopping Graeme Higginson in Glasgow and introducing himself to the Scottish boxing audience, who were hungry for the next great hope. Fighting journeyman to allow a smoother transition from amateur to professional can often result in dull, educational points victories on the small hall scene – but that wasn’t the case for the Edinburgh man.  

In less than five months, he’d stopped all four of his professional opponents, boxing in Kircaldy, Hartlepool and Birmingham. The Mecca of British boxing would follow as he graced Bethnal Green’s York Hall twice, and Appleby was hurtling towards meaningful contests.   

Before long, and after collecting 11 wins with eight stoppages, he was fighting to become the youngest ever-British featherweight champion. Standing in his way was infamous, durable Greenock fighter John Simpson, defending his title for the third time in a bid to win it outright in Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall.   

“He’s a warrior, wee John,” Appleby proclaimed, full of respect. “I was absolutely buzzing for the fight – I trained my arse off for that chance. I knew I had to be really fit to beat John. You had to fight every second of every round against him; he just keeps coming forward. I thought I’d won the fight, I knew it was close, but I thought I’d won it by two or three. What a fight. It was great.”  

Appleby’s hand was raised – aged only 20 – and he travelled back to Edinburgh with an ecstatic group of fans, draped in the red, white and blue of the coveted Lord Lonsdale belt. The pair would meet again four years down the line, but we’ll come to that. It was evident they had forged a bond over blood spilt on both occasions.  

“John’s just a good guy. I was talking about him the other day actually, because that was his third defence against me – in our first fight. If he won it, he kept the British title. I beat him, but after that, he went to Belfast and beat Martin Lindsay on his home patch; now that was another great fight.”  

The newly crowned champion struggled with motivation in the fights that followed, admitting, “It’s a good and a bad thing to win it that young, because sometimes you don’t know what to do. You’re 20 years old, you’ve won the British title, you think, ‘What is going on?’ It’s hard.

“I didn’t train as hard as I should have for a couple of fights after that. It was maybe just underestimating my opponents. I was so young, I was kinda over-confident, and a little bit cocky probably. Once you win something, you should train even harder because there’s always someone chasing after you, waiting to take it from you.”  

That hungry challenger’s mentality was presented in the form of an unknown and dangerous African boxer, Joseph Laryea. Braehead’s Indoor Arena was jam-packed for Ricky Burns’ maiden defence of his new world title, beating Norway’s Andreas Evensen in the main event. But Ghana’s Laryea would upset the patriotic home crowd with a rugged, split-decision victory. It was this fight that signalled the beginning and the end of Appleby’s career at world level.  

He had suffered injuries long before his WBO final eliminator that evening, damaging his hands in fights with Martin Lindsay and Esham Pickering. His entry into top tier boxing was rushed, as the benefactor of an unexpected Scottish world champion in Coatbridge’s Burns.   

Coming from the crooked streets of East Craigs, and zigzagging between the slanted cottages of South Queensferry, Paul would always have a good go – but that doesn’t mean he was in the right frame of mind to capitalise on his greatest opportunity.   

“That was my second loss,” Appleby explained, “It’s hard to say which one was worse, because they were just as bad as each other. I knew before that if I beat Laryea I would have had my shot at the world title. I could feel it slipping away; I was trying my best to get back into the fight and I actually hurt him in the first round with a body shot; he bent over, hurt. But I couldn’t hurt him after that.   

“I haven’t watched that fight in years – I don’t like watching it. Maybe I should, but from what I remember I lost the fight by a distance. His jab was good; I just couldn’t get inside him all night. He was awkward and that was the first time I’d been cut. It’s a weird feeling, but then you get used to it. Blood was running into my eye and I think he cut me twice.

“I never trained for about a month after Laryea. Obviously my hand was still damaged and it did get a little bit better, but that March it was still sore. I just had to get my mind right and keep going; I knew I couldn’t give up. I had to try again.”

After that fight, Appleby would shake hands with wins and losses, never quite emerging at the top of the domestic pile, despite staging wars of his own on multiple occasions. I’d recently interviewed Prince Arron, the former British light-middleweight champion, who remarked, “That fight between Appleby and Liam Walsh was insane!” and it was. But it didn’t end the right way, and once again, Edinburgh’s talented boxer left unfulfilled.  

Boxing quickly drifted. Fights were interesting, sure, Paul was a fighter. But it wasn’t quite the same. He continued nonetheless, beating the talented Stephen Ormond on another visit to Glasgow’s Braehead Arena, before facing his old foe, John Simpson in a rematch that he lost in six rounds.   

What followed would surely signal the end of his professional, prize fighting career, right? But it didn’t. It couldn’t. Despite cautionary, worried glances from the woman who’d supported him and provided stability, Appleby would trundle towards further torture.   

“It was a bit brutal that one, aye. I just remember struggling to make the weight. Nothing went right that day or the day before, either. It was a bad, bad night. I think it was the first time I had actually been knocked out; I can’t really remember the fight to be honest. I was in hospital for a few days after that and they said it was bad dehydration and stuff like that. You have all these people losing their lives nowadays, so it was lucky.”  

Appleby continued, “My wife didn’t want me to fight again. But I couldn’t turn my back on it – I just wanted to keep going. She supported me for years after that, I wasn’t bringing in any money at all because I was out of the ring for a year-and-a-half, but she’s always been there. I think some guys have too many fights; they go on a bit too long. I got out on time, so I’m not too bad. I was still young when I retired. I’m only 32 now. The comeback is on!”

Tumbleweed almost creeps across the screen, and eventually laughter is heard, echoing from the other side of the phone. It’s been over six years since his last fight and the comeback is firmly on ice.   

It felt good watching Paul in his prime via YouTube, toppling Simpson back in the day, and listening to his recollections, aware he hadn’t suffered much at the hands of an unforgiving sport. Sure, that second fight with the Greenock “warrior” had caused concern, with many at ringside prematurely reporting brain damage. But he was here to tell the tale. And he sounded healthy, and content.  

“You miss the buzz that comes with fighting, training and winning. I’m just lucky I’ve got an amazing wife, and now we can actually afford to go on holidays, because we couldn’t do that when I was boxing. She’s a marketing and PR manager for an American company, and I’m busy scaffolding in Edinburgh. The days aren’t too bad, it’s normally 8-4 and sometimes you’ll get away early. I’ve got a good boss and he loves boxing, so that’s all we talk about.   

“I was always a bit luckier not getting depression and stuff like that, but it is very hard. You just want to fight. That’s the sad thing about boxing; it’s a business at the end of the day. It’s weird because even before you go out to fight, you’re thinking, ‘I wonder how many people are out there supporting me?’ I don’t know; it’s just tough. It’s a lot of pressure.”

It certainly is…

The sun sets on South Queensferry, over-flowing with its own, Scottish culture. British champion Paul Appleby lives there – unassuming – carrying on with his own endeavours. And if his neighbours locally don’t recognise or remember him, boxing always will.   

Another warrior, but this time finished at a young age with his faculties intact. That’s a cause for celebration, beyond pride and senseless, dented longevity. Appleby bowed out without fanfare, but he’s never been happier.  

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