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Inside a professional debut

Ryan Woolridge
Late on Sunday evening, after a long wait for the doctors and an impromptu party, a 20-year-old made his professional debut in Walsall. Steve Bunce was there

IN Walsall last Sunday, the medics went missing, one fighter fell over at a swimming pool, one had Covid, one vanished and still the show went on. Three local fighters sold the tickets and that added to the intimacy. Well, that and a long delay in a venue with bars as bookends and fans desperate for a good time, a laugh, a dance and a fight. They seem to get everything they wanted. It was that type of day and night. The medics arrived, the first bell finally edged ever closer and sectioned off near the toilets and the bar, the three losers were gathered in a huddle behind a flimsy screen. They finished the night with one win and two defeats on points and that is not a bad return.

In a room behind the bar, the three winners shared a space. Ryan Woolridge sold over 140 tickets and his people were waiting and singing and happy. It was his professional debut, just 20 and looking a lot younger and fresher. He looked like a choirboy, a tall one and one with his fists bandaged and an eager look on his face. In the room at the back, the noise out front was a steady hum. The wait continued for the medics to arrive.

Ryan was calm. His mother and father were outside on the tables, walking and talking. His mum, Jo, had taken her shoes off long before her boy entered the ring for his first pro fight. How is he? I asked her. “He’s not nervous, he can’t wait,” she replied. That was true at about 4.30pm but by about 6.30pm, he was getting a bit edgier.

Behind the temporary wall in the other dressing room, I found Kearon Thomas. He was relaxed, a veteran of 16 fights, a man of 32 and in a tricky position. He was the opponent. “Yeah, I know Ryan,” he said. “He’s a nice lad, I’ve seen him in the gym.”

Kearon, like Ryan, was on home soil and that should always be a concern when an opponent is arranged for a kid making his debut. Kearon was not going to hide in the ring, not going to run – he was not going to make his night easy. There was a lot of pride, the type of detail that the raw statistics blissfully ignore. “He will know he’s been in a fight,” Kearon added.

Ryan put his gloves on before the first bell of the first fight. He was third; out went Andy Owen and he was beaten by Hungarian veteran and notable hardman, Norbert Szekeres. Next, another debutant, Ethan Collins, won over four rounds against Paul Cummings. It was Ryan’s turn next.

“He’s exactly how I want him,” said Peter Hickenbottom, the coach at the Great Wyrley club; Ryan was just 14 when he had walked through Peter’s door at the club. “He was made for the pro game; he lost a lot of tight decisions because of his style,” Hickenbottom added.

Kearon was in the ring first to a few pantomime boos. He actually pointed at and nodded to a few of the people on Ryan’s six tables. They all knew each other.

Ryan took the walk to the ring and it was a very intimate walk. “I could see all the faces and hear their voices,” he said. If he had been on at 6pm in a big arena, he would have had no idea that about 140 of his friends and family were hollering, screaming, welling up and taking deep breaths to calm their nerves. Those fans on those tables lived every second of the four rounds; they threw every punch and took every punch. It was exhausting standing near them. And a lot of fun. Kearon was, as expected, running solo.

Ryan was smiling in the ring, bouncing in his new boots as Hickenbottom removed the bright new gown. Nobody was sitting down. Kearon looked over at one point and smiled and then the bell sounded. Ryan was relaxed, he was not joking. He refused to get involved, refused to fight Kearon’s fight and stuck to a sensible jab. It was polished; during the last few weeks I have watched far too many highly-rated prospects follow their opponents all over the ring, throwing dumb punches in hope and all the time the men in front of them were happy. Ryan boxed, he used his feet and brains. It was a smart debut.

Kearon Thomas lost for the 15thtime.

“He was talking to me, telling me ‘stand and have a fight’,” Ryan said when he was back in the dressing room area. “I ignored him. I just stuck to my boxing.” Ryan’s hands were sore, he seemed a bit shocked by that. It’s what happens when you hit a hard, hard man like Kearon for four rounds. 

Kearon walked in, a bit bruised, but not damaged and started to laugh. “I was trying everything to get him to stop moving and fight – he was not having it. I couldn’t outbox him. “C’mon Ryan, let’s have a fight’, I kept saying, but he ignored me.” It was a wonderful exchange.

“Where you all going now?” Kearon asked. “The Beacon” Ryan replied. “OK, see you there.” You can’t invent this stuff, mad.

I followed Kearon out of the area and asked him about Ryan. He was impressed with his calm, his patience. Kearon is right. Ryan is very tall, the strength will come, the calm is natural. 

Kearon Thomas fights again in Cardiff in two weeks. Ryan Woolridge wants to be out soon and promoter, Errol Johnson, will make sure that happens. Ryan’s fans went off, happy and some shoeless for a Sunday night to remember at the Beacon. Ryan went to the celebration but he never drinks. “Boxing is my life, that’s it really,” he said as he left.

The debut was over.

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