“IT made me numb. I honestly thought my career was dead.”

James “Jazza” Dickens’ sturdy optimism was absent in the days after the Liverpool man lost his cherished British title to Thomas Ward in the spring of 2017. Now on the verge of high-profile opportunities if he can defeat Ryan Walsh in the final of MTK’s featherweight Golden Contract tournament, Dickens can now recall the darkest period of his career from a more positive standpoint. The featherweight admits that his removal from title class was the springboard for change.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do as I’d only ever been a fighter,” reveals a slightly out of breath Dickens to Boxing News as he winds down from another strenuous session at Derry Mathews’ Liverpool gym. “Coming home from Leeds that night I was silent all the way and even when I got home to my family, I had no idea what to say. The British title meant I was always relevant and that I had something that other fighters wanted, but without it I felt empty. Having nothing to defend meant that I wasn’t in demand for promoters anymore and that’s a very hard place for a fighter to be.” 

With an immediate rematch discussed, some hope remained for Dickens, but when that contest never materialised, drastic alterations were repeatedly made by the Merseyside man. Paul Stevenson, Dickens’ pro trainer from day one, was removed from the corner, and there was a move to Miami where Dickens impressed locals at the famous 5th Street gym. 

“I’d had a good run at the Everton Red Triangle gym and I’m grateful for everything they done for me there, but my career had to come first. I travelled to America with my dad and done well when I was Florida and there was several chances out there for me. I was sparring with world class fighters, sharing a house with great prospects from Cuba, and there was people in the sport wanting to manage and promote me.” 

With an American dream very much on his horizon, Dickens’ career was navigated in an altogether different direction following a chance conversation with Thomas Stalker. While sparring Jono Carroll in Marbella, Dickens was presented with the possibility of facing Australia’s Nathaniel May as a headliner in his own city. It was a fight that Dickens could not turn down and he justified the decision to take it as he emerged victorious via a wide points decision. 

“I owe a lot to Stalker as that fight really got me back out there. My confidence didn’t half shoot up around this time because I had the likes of Jono and Lee Selby always asking me for sparring so even if there wasn’t any promoters willing to take a chance on me, it meant a lot to me that world class fighter saw enough in me to know that I could help them in camp. I felt in a great place from all the sparring I was doing and now that I had a good win over May, it felt like I was getting somewhere again.” 

With Dickens now able to call on the likes of Georgie Vaughan, Mathews, and MTK for training and advisory issues, his team was further bolstered in 2019 with Tony Bellew acquiring the role as Dickens’ manager. The former WBC cruiserweight champion is always on hand for a number of fighters from his home city, and it was that dedication that persuaded Dickens to reach out to one of his fighting heroes. 

“’Bomber’s’ always been inspiring to me, but it was when I seen him in the changing room with Craig Glover that I knew I wanted him to look after me. You could see how much it meant to him and he had this way of just saying the right things at the right time. I was flying off just overhearing it so can you imagine how Glover must’ve felt. Since working with him it’s been perfect. He’s always there for me and I feel so blessed to have the likes of him doing so much for me.” 

Now the leader of a squad he’s evidently delighted with, Dickens feels adequately prepared to erase the mistakes of past title level showdowns and claim glory against Norfolk’s vastly experienced Walsh.

Five years older than Dickens at 34, Walsh is just as acutely aware as his opponent regarding what’s at stake. “This is do or die,” Walsh said. “The delay has meant we’ve had more time to look at Jazza, and we’ve been lucky enough to get good sparring in to mimic different aspects of him.

Jazza Dickens
Scott Rawsthorne/MTK Global

“Even with everything going on over the last few months, I never got out of the swing of things. I was always running in the morning or evening, and training throughout the day, so it hasn’t affected me and I’m more than ready.”

Dickens’ crusade to the final of the Golden Contract competition has seen him dispose of Carlos Ramos and betting favourite, Leigh Wood, but there is one more road to cross in the shape of Walsh, which can help Dickens progress to a lucrative five-fight promotional deal.

“I respect all my opponents because I share a ring with them, but that goes up a bit more when I think about Ryan Walsh,” Dickens explained. “He’s a fighter I have a lot of time for because he doesn’t really open his mouth about opponents and he’s a good family man who performs in the ring to help them. He’s standing in the way of dreams that I’ve had since I was a little boy and that’s why I have to win. I’ve told Boxing News before that my goal was always to be world champion and that’s not changed. It may have been out of reach a few years ago, but it’ll be closer than ever when I get in the ring with Walsh.”

MTK’s tournaments are at the business end

Featherweight final
James ‘Jazza’ Dickens v Ryan Walsh (all over 10 rounds)
BN Pick: Walsh to eke out a very close points win.

Super-lightweight final
Ohara Davies v Tyrone McKenna
BN Pick: Davies to overcome a spirited effort from McKenna.

Light-heavyweight semi-final
Serge Michel v Liam Conroy
BN Pick: Michel should have too much for Conroy.

When: Wednesday September 30
Where: Production Park Studios, South Kirkby

Watch: Live on Sky Sports

Light-heavyweight semi-final
Ricards Botolniks v Hosea Burton
BN Pick: Burton to grind down Botolniks late.

When: Saturday September 26
Where: Studio 69, Riga, Latvia
Watch: Live on IFLTV