IT’S November 2009, a callous winter is on the way and Scott Lawton is ecstatic. A one-sided upset victory over Derry Mathews would elevate the Stoke stalwart towards a shot at European honours. His congested dressing room is one jammed with elation and merriment, but across the corridor at Staffordshire’s Fenton Manor Sports Complex is a British boxing bombshell as the loser reflects on his fourth inside-schedule loss in his last five outings.

Two years earlier, Mathews dreamt of being Liverpool’s next boxing superstar. A marauding wave of amateur talent had seen England’s North West transformed into a boxing core. The newly developed Echo Arena was the canvas where the city’s fight artists would paint their masterpieces, and Mathews was fast establishing a stunning gallery with impressive performances over respected competitors such as Stephen Foster Jnr, John Simpson, and Matthew Marsh. This magical period seemed a galaxy away this autumn night though, as Lawton ripped through the popular Scouser, forcing a sensible intervention from third man, Robert Chalmers, in the sixth round.

With his head down, resting in his tender hands, Mathews only raises it to acknowledge the occasional condolences from the various figures who evade security to make it inside the solemn dressing room. Sporting only his fight uniform, and t-shirt adorned with multiple sponsors, the former Salisbury ABC starlet accepts his career is over. A bitter pill to swallow, Mathews washes it down with water provided by long-term mentor, Georgie Vaughan. It seemed the right decision back then.

On March 12, the aforementioned Echo Arena will play host to Terry Flanagan’s second defence of his WBO lightweight title against the man who surrendered his boxing career six years ago. Boxing seldom delivers happy endings. Those who are thrown into the dark face an enormous task to find the light to lead them back. Mathews somehow found it, but it was an almighty struggle getting there.

“Georgie told me to spew it and he knows me better than anyone,” Mathews reveals to Boxing News. “He literally put his arms around me and congratulated me on what I had achieved and told me that was that. He spoke about beating Foster and winning the [WBU] world title in Manchester and other great nights we had together and it was hurting him as much as it was hurting me. The bottom line of it all, without being disrespectful towards Scott Lawton, because I think the world of Scott, was basically packing in because I couldn’t beat fighters like Scott. Georgie said the same, he was like, ‘If this kid is doing that to you then think what will happen on a bigger stage.’ He was absolutely bang on and that was that. I retired there and then and it was a decision I was honestly happy with.”

Despite making a premature exodus from the only occupation he’d excelled at, boxing wasn’t quite ready to shake hands with Mathews and say goodbye. Community initiatives meant Liverpool’s “Golden Boy” would spend vast quantities of time within the city’s gyms providing expertise to the region’s vulnerable children via the Derry Mathews Boxing Academy. Mathews couldn’t stay away, and was around the game on a daily basis like a drunk aiming for sobriety yet seeking refuge in his local drinking hole. Nine months passed and the itch was eventually scratched as retirement became a sabbatical and the comeback was confirmed. The next instalment of Mathews’ career struck a cold fear into those close to him. They had no idea what type of journey they were about to embark on.

“Some people told me I was mad to retire and maybe a break was just what I needed,” reflects Mathews. “It needed to be fresh and I needed new ideas, so I spoke with those close to me and some different things were changed. I went to Salford and trained with Oliver Harrison for a bit and he showed me a thing or two. More time was spent with sports psychologists and I also went up in weight as well. The dieting and struggle when I was at featherweight was absolutely unreal at times. I was always performing okay in spars and training but when the fights arrived I was slow and it was a big factor in why I went on that losing streak. The local paper had doubts about my comeback too but I had to start from scratch and rebuild slowly. Oliver gave me that chance and it pretty much went from there.”

Stage two of Mathews’ professional adventure began low key in Salford leisure centres. Perhaps a tad unfashionable and a million miles from what Mathews had become accustomed to, it was only a temporary measure as glimpses of what once was a polished repertoire slowly began to emerge. Revenge wins over Lawton and Mongolian menace Choi Tseveenpurev provided some closure for Mathews, but it was belts that he craved, and he was given a fantastic opportunity in January 2012 when promoter Steven Vaughan brought over classy Italian Emiliano Marsili for a minor (IBO) world title. The outcome almost brought another retirement as Mathews, bruised and lacerated, was well beaten after seven brutal sessions. Instead, Mathews opted for change.

“Danny Vaughan is one of my closest friends and I got in touch with him for a chat immediately after the fight and it was like the old days again. He told me to get up to Scotland where he was now based and I was a on a train in a matter of days. Him and Georgie had practically gloved me since my first day as a pro, and our time away had done us both the world of good as we’d both kept learning and improving and now we were bringing it all back together. He told me I could still win plenty of titles and he said there was a lot left for me to achieve. Days before I’d just been battered by Marsili and had already told people I had plans to retire, but Danny put a stop to that and I couldn’t be more grateful, especially considering what’s happened since.”

A blistering rivalry with Manchester’s Anthony Crolla, which saw Mathews score a stunning upset stoppage win on enemy territory in April 2012, delivered the prestigious Lonsdale lightweight strap nine years after handing back his beloved Salisbury vest. The pair battled to an entertaining draw 11 months later. Highlight reel stoppages over Yorkshire pair Tommy Coyle and Curtis Woodhouse followed and solidified Mathews’ credentials as one of British boxing’s most reliable entertainers, but 2013 ended on a sour note with the Merseysider falling well short against Ireland’s Stephen Ormond.

Since that setback, Mathews, no stranger to rebuilding, has responded yet again, and last time out against Canada’s Tony Luis, displayed his world-class aspirations as he captured Interim WBA honours with a gutsy points win. The Panamanian-based outfit failed to deliver a title shot, so when a chance against previous Prizefighter foe, Terry Flanagan, for the Mancunian’s WBO belt, emerged, Mathews grabbed it with both hands.

“It was a little bit frustrating with the WBA because they wanted me to fight Ismael Barroso when I was already Interim champion, when that’s not usually the case. If a fight straight off between me and the full champion could’ve been made then I would’ve took it no problem, but I’m not taking part in a semi-final when there’s a chance to play in the final already. The Flanagan fight was offered and after speaking with my team, we decided it was the right fight and there was no way I could turn it down. Terry has done brilliant recently but his Prizefighter win [w pts 3] over me will have no significance on the outcome here.”

The bout Mathews refers to took place in October 2012 when a star-studded field participated in the Matchroom tournament. Mathews was eliminated at the penultimate stage by Flanagan but insists the fight was not fought on a level playing field: “It’s a miracle I was even allowed to fight against Terry to be honest. The fight before I was cut all over the place and literally spent the time between fights banged up getting the cut worked on. I wasn’t fresh, I wasn’t warmed up, but I still managed to get in there and put in three hard rounds against a fresh, unbeaten kid who had a straightforward fight in the quarter-final. Things are different now and you’ll see that on the night.”

Mathews, often outspoken, struggles to find the words to signify the importance of what lies ahead. With his ledger currently standing at 49 fights, it’s almost poetic that his half century battle is for the world crown. In a career that has seen title fights at English, British, Commonwealth, European and fringe world level, Mathews is now mere weeks away from completing the set and realising a moment that seemed near impossible six years ago as he travelled home from Stoke an embarrassed man, who was terrified of what the future may hold.

This article was originally published in February 4 issue of Boxing News magazine

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