IT’S now more than 12 months since I first met James Branch. During that time, the fledgling prizefighter has won his first five fights. Things may not have gone quite so smoothly as anticipated – many of James’ opponents have shown a marked reluctance to fold under pressure. But the young cruiserweight can afford to feel satisfied with his end-of-term report in the paid ranks – particularly as he has just recorded his first stoppage: a two-round blowout of the Czech Republic’s Jan Hrazdira.
“I’ve been a professional for a year now and it’s all gone good so far,” James informs me from his living room in Hainault, London. “If you’d have told me when I turned pro that I’d be 5 and 0 – it’s what you dream about. I’m still unbeaten and I’ve had some good fights. I’ve had a couple of tests already and I’ve learned a lot in the past year.”
The year in question has been a blur for the fighter. If it is at all possible, James is even more cocky and confident than the young man I first encountered during last year’s heatwave. What does he now remember of his induction into the pros?
“The first time my dad took me down the Peacock Gym,” smiles James. “It was during the Christmas period and I remember my dad introducing me to my trainer, Martin Bowers. My dad and Martin hadn’t seen each other in years. There was so much excitement – it was like a new challenge ahead. I’d been in the amateurs a long time doing tournaments. This was a whole new chapter in my life.”
Was he nervous?
“Not really. When I first went down there I didn’t even have my training gear with me. It was good to see other professional boxers in action. To get the feel of a professional gym. I was only used to amateur gyms.
“I suppose I was a little nervous to go in there and meet new people, but I wouldn’t say I was overawed at all. I knew that I probably had more experience than some of the pros there.
“In my first training session with Martin he beasted me. The boys said he does it when you first start with him to see what you’re all about. I was doing loads of rounds, press-ups… I still remember it – I thought I was dead. We did all this work before we even started punching. And obviously you’re there to show your boxing skills. And I was worried that when it came to it I wouldn’t even be able to throw a punch!”
The regular training sessions have brought about a startling physical transformation in the boxer. Whereas James initially looked to this writer as if he could comfortably make the light-heavyweight limit, there is now no doubt whatsoever that he is a genuine, authentic cruiserweight.
“Yeah, I’m walking around a lot bigger than I used to,” says the boxer.
Does that mean training has become easier for him?
“Not really. It’s always hard because you’re pushing yourself to your optimum limit and striving for more. In all the years I’ve been doing it, it’s never got any easier.”
“And if you were to compare yourself with the James Branch of a year ago?” I ask.
“I’m a lot stronger now and a lot bigger,” says James. “And I’ve developed in a lot of ways, even mentally I’ve learned a lot. I wouldn’t fight differently but I’d just be stronger.”
“He’s made more progress than I thought he’d make,” agrees James’ ex-boxer father, who has just entered the room. “The fights he’s had have probably been tougher than we expected. He’s learned a lot more in these fights than I could ever have imagined.
“He’s grown a lot as a professional boxer. He understands the sport more now. The business side as well. James is a target, as he was as an amateur. The fourth fight was a tough one. But at some point you’ve got to start to man up and say: ‘This is it! This is what it’s all about! I’ve come for the challenge and I’m gonna do it!’”
Like his son, James Snr is never backwards in coming forward, whether inside or outside the ring. It’s a trait which apparently is part of the Branch gene pool.
“We speak every day about boxing and training,” reveals the older man. “I’ve seen James grow. As a professional, if you train every day it doesn’t automatically mean that you’re going to get better. Sometimes it knocks you back a bit because your muscles are tired all the time and you start to do this thing called ‘fighting tired’, which I’ve been on to James about. It’s all about understanding your body and understanding yourself.
“It’s all new to him but from a year ago mentally and physically he’s a stronger man. He’s grown slightly in height and he’s grown outwards. People don’t realise that he’s still growing.”
Another aspect of the modern fight game that the young fighter was unprepared for is the amount of effort that that must be expended in order to raise that all important public profile. When he isn’t building up his muscles James can often be found working hard to build up his social media presence.
“I never used to really believe in social media,” he says. “but I think it’s very, very important. I still think I don’t do enough social media stuff as it is. But it must be working because I’m recognised a lot more now. When I go to shows I’m pulled up a lot. I signed my first autograph the other day. Somebody asked me to sign their bag in the gym.
How did that feel?
“I thought he was taking the piss! I looked at him and I went to start laughing!”
Just before his fight with Hrazdira, James received some unexpected news: “My trainer got contacted by Mairis Briedis,” he tells me. “He’s one of the top cruiserweights in the world. Briedis wants me to be one of his sparring partners for his next fight. What an honour. I can’t believe they knew who I was!”
“That’s fantastic,” I tell the boxer. “It’s a brilliant opportunity for you to see just how good you are.”
“I’ll bash him, don’t worry!” laughs James.