WHAT does one of Britain’s brightest young boxing prospects do to relax when the sweat and toil is over for the day and he’s basking in the glow of having just registered his very first knockout as a pro?
“I was just playing FIFA on my Xbox,” grins James Branch as he sits in his bedroom surrounded by the sound of giggling which is emanating from two of his best mates. There is a carnival atmosphere in the room.
Daniel Vale is perched at one end of the sofa. He has known James since they were both 11 and shares with his friend the almost supernatural inability to ever stop his lips from moving. Chris Hinson, on the other hand, keeps a stoic silence; he has known James since they were both 16 and has obviously long since given up on ever being able to make any kind of meaningful contribution to the relentless verbal sparring. Because when James and Daniel get talking it’s clear that persistence is futile.
“I went to school with James,” remembers Daniel. “Even then he was non-stop. Exactly the same as he is now. Bobbing and weaving up the corridors he was.”
“Did he get into fights?” I ask.
“Nah… Not really. He kept himself to himself. He did what he needed to do…”
“Could you ever see him having a future as a professional athlete?”
“Well… He was a bit chunky back then. So it was a bit hard to believe,” says Daniel to a chorus of guffaws. “But he’s always been good at what he does. He’s proved it obviously with his record.”
Was he was one of the best at sport at school?”
“No… Honestly. I was the worst athlete. I always finished last,” butts in James. “I was useless at everything. The truth is I ain’t really the most athletic person. My trainer Martin Bowers says it as well. I can’t really do a press-up and I can just about run down the road. But I’m alright at boxing.”
“It’s a natural gift,” announces Chris from his corner of the sofa, finally able to squeeze a couple of words in.
The three of them live about 20 minutes apart and have supported their friend from the very beginning of his career. They’ve followed James’ progress through the amateur ranks and been to all five of his professional fights.
“He costs us a small fortune,” Daniel mock winces, regaining control of the conversation once more “The first time I saw James would have been York Hall in the amateurs in 2015…”
“That was when I boxed the current Southern Area Cruiserweight Champion, Daniel Mendes. I beat him!” clarifies the boxer.
“We visit him at the Peacock gym as much as we possibly can,” continues Dan. “We make sure he’s running, make sure he’s training. Otherwise we don’t know – he might be at home!”
“How does it feel when you see James lose?” I chip in.
“It’s the worst… It’s horrible…” replies Dan. “We’ve only seen him lose as an amateur – it’s gut wrenching!
“And they’re never going to see me lose again!” interjects his friend.
“We’ll cross that bridge…” Chris drones drily.
“We know how much it means to him and how hard he works for it,” says Daniel. “When we see him win it makes it so much more special. Some fights you’re absolutely petrified. But sometimes you go there and there’s not a nerve in the world. In his last fight in Stevenage I didn’t feel any nerves whatsoever.”
There is a momentary lapse in the merriment. I seize the opportunity to discuss the young boxer’s recent knockout win.
“I still go with the same philosophy,” insists James. “I don’t think a knockout’s such a big deal.”
“But you’re not Joe Public,” I say. “If Mike Tyson’s first 19 fights had been points decisions, for example, he would probably have never made such a name for himself.”
“Of course I understand that,” the young boxer reluctantly agrees. “Because you’re selling yourself to the public. The everyday audience wants to see blood and gore. They’re more interested in seeing somebody get knocked out.
“But yes, you’re right. The knockout’s gone down well. A lot of people have come up to me and talked about it. But they’re a lot more bothered about it than I am.”
“When you hit your opponent could you tell it was a knockout punch? I’ve heard many boxers say that as soon as they connected they knew that it was.”
“To be honest it was a shock,” reveals James. “I was surprised to see him hit the floor. When the count got to about ‘six’ he got back to his feet but I knew the fight was over. You can see by someone’s face. They wince… They lose interest… Their body language changes… I knew it was over.
“I didn’t really feel anything. The shot I hit him with wasn’t really the type of shot to knock you out. It was a clever shot. A body shot. A short, sharp blow to the solar plexus. That type of punch don’t hit you straight away. It ain’t until you take a deep breath that you realise you can’t get the oxygen in. Then they drop.”
“Is success changing James at all?” I ask, turning to his two friends.
“No he’s always been big-headed,” smiles Daniel. “It can’t get any bigger. He’s always been super confident and I think that’s one of the enticing things about him. He’s so happy and confident.”
“Confidence is a stain you can’t wipe off,” Chris suddenly announces dourly with exaggerated gravitas. It’s obviously a phrase he been giving some thought to. The room once more erupts into laughter.
“He’s been saying this to the geezer at the dry cleaner’s for years,” giggles Daniel.
James Branch gets another opportunity to make an opponent drop when he fights for the sixth time in September.