MARTIN J. WARD danced round the ring. Light on his feet, in the familiar green and gold vest of Repton Boxing Club. He paced round his prey, handling him with an easy swagger. The 2010 ABA finals were a memorable night at York Hall. Future Commonwealth Games gold medallist Antony Fowler walked cheerily though his opponent, Dudley O’Shaughnessy and Glenn Foot engaged in an absolute thriller, future Olympic bronze medallist Anthony Ogogo and Hosea Burton engaged in an absolute stinker, a certain Anthony Joshua won his first senior amateur title, but on the night the buzz was about 18 year old featherweight, Martin Ward. He boxed Ryan Farrag, the man who’d defeated future Olympic gold medallist Luke Campbell in their semi-final, beating the Everton Red Triangle boxer 18-3 and in the process looked a sure fire winner. I was certain we were looking at someone going all the way. I thought it would be easy for him. I was wrong.

Martin was a fraction of an inch from qualifying for the Olympic Games. Literally. Boxing out in Azerbaijan at the 2011 World championships, the first qualification event for London 2012, Ward was boxing Brazil’s Robson Conceicao. Victory would win him a place at the Games. Martin was ahead by a point, boxing with professional moves. But he leant too far forward. The referee handed him a public warning for ducking too low, a penalty worth two points. It lost Ward the bout. If he’d bent forward only a fraction less he’d have been an Olympian. He never got another chance.

In amateur boxing everything can hinge on the smallest of details. That decision sent Ward in a different direction. He turned professional in 2012. He’s fought through 15 professional bouts but the going has been tough. He’s drawn two of those, one a technical decision after a clash of heads with Ian Bailey left him cut and the other a hard fought scrap with Maxi Hughes. He rectified that in a rematch last year.

“It’s a tough game. Everybody’s tough. Journeymen put in there for a few rounds, they’re all tough geezers. You look at them, they’ve all got war wounds. They’re proper roughhouse geezers. But listen – you learn. You live and learn. Everything you do in the gym and do on fight night, everything, it’s all a learning experience. You’ve just got to bring it all on board and when you step up the levels, just bring it on,” Ward said.

Martin Ward

It has been a harder than expected road to follow. “You learn a lot more, not even about fighting but about yourself,” he tells Boxing News.

“You learn a lot about yourself in pro boxing, you really do because I think it’s a lot harder game than the amateur game. It a lot more mentally…” he pauses before continuing, “it affects you a lot more mentally. You’ve got to be strong minded at all times.”

It’s a grind training for professional boxing. It can become lonely, isolated. Pain and paranoia can creep in. “There’s a lot more going on,” Martin says. “An average camp is like 12 weeks. You’re in camp for 12 weeks training and getting your body in tip top shape and you’ve got to stay strong at all times and you’ve got to stay positive. Then you get little niggles and stuff, little injuries… You’ve just got to stay positive.

“It’s silly little things. You’ve got to stay strong. Strong minded and keep on believing in yourself at all times, which I do. I’ve got full belief in my abilities and obviously I do work hard. I should get out what I’m putting in.”

As difficult as making it as a professional boxer is, Ward is a talent. However he came frighteningly close to losing it all. In the wrong place at the wrong time, he was caught up in a shooting. The bullet hit him in the chest. “You think to yourself it could have been another couple of inches the wrong way, I couldn’t be standing here right now interviewing you because of where I was shot, to the chest and that. It’s just one of those things and I’ve learned a lot about myself. Even in my body, my body heals so quick. You think, ‘Jesus Christ, I’m like Superman.’ I was punching before I knew it. I think it was a couple of weeks after I got the bullet removed, a few weeks I was wandering back in the gym, just watching the boys train, where I was bored and had nothing else to do with myself – because I’m a busy guy,” he laughed. “And then I started just punching with one hand, my good hand, then a couple of days later I was dying to start chucking it again and then before I knew it I was hitting the pads and then back in there sparring and stuff. It was all a big learning curve. I know I’m a tough minded boy. I’m a strong minded kid.

“I was doing a lot of physio [on the shoulder] and a lot of strength and conditioning on the left side because obviously it was weak for a while and I just kept on building and I kept on working. But now it’s absolutely fine.”

The scar has healed. But the bullet has left a mark. “The mental side of thing,” Martin explains, “it’s made me stronger more than anything else, what happened to me. It’s one of those things where you learn about your own self and you learn how you really are. You can do anything. I can do anything. I literally believe I can do anything. Listen, I got shot, I was back in the ring in no time and fighting and I knocked out a geezer. My comeback was a big lump as well, Ben Wager.

“He’s a good solid operator he was, I ended up getting him out of there in the last round.”

Ward has moved on since. He now holds the WBC International super-featherweight title, a minor belt, yes, but one that has been fought over by modern legends like Manny Pacquiao, Eric Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera and more. “There’s been some big names,” he grinned. But he wants to work his way up the rankings this year and target major silverware.

Ward has had plenty to process. To unwind he rides horses through the countryside. “It’s all relaxing. A pretty chilled out spot. I’ve got a cart, race horses, my brother races them, he’s got a stableyard full of race horses,” he said. “You can switch off from everything going round the countryside.”

But he feels most at home in the gym. “It’s the good life, I call it the good life. I feel good,” he says. “Even as a kid I loved fighting. I loved being in the gym. Listen you get out of life what you put into it.

Martin Ward

“People just watch it, two geezers in there, punching the s*** out of each other in all fairness, and there’s a lot more to it. It’s people’s lives in there at the end of the day. I just live for it. I love fighting, love it, absolutely love it. Love the gym, love living the life. Really do love living the life.”

Being shot through the chest has made more passionate about his boxing. The fear that he could have lost it haunts him. “It makes me more determined to get to where I know I will go. It makes me more determined,” he said. “You hear all these cheesy sayings, ‘setbacks are made for comebacks’ and blah, blah, blah. But it’s one of them ones where I matured. I was a boy when I got shot, a few years ago. I’m 24 now, I was 21 at the time but I’ve definitely matured into a young man from it. I’ve learned a lot about myself and about other people and my family and stuff. So it was a big learning curve in my life. It just gives you more desire and more grit, ready to push on and do what you’ve got to do.”

Perhaps that, the grit, is the final component he needs. He had all the skills ever since he was an amateur. Now the power is coming too. He crushed Mario Pisanti in his last fight. “I was fighting at elite level as an amateur all over the world but in a 10 round fight you’ve got to be rough and ready and keeping your shape for 10 or 12 rounds. You’ve got to be a hard man really, you’ve got to be a rough, hard man. I’ve only really got that in the last 18 months. I can feel the punch power and just the general strength. I can push and bully other super-featherweights around the ring,” he explains. “When we’re stepping up and hopefully be pushing on for big titles you’ll soon see that.”

And he promises, “I’m a strong minded kid and I know what I’ve got to do and I know what road I’m heading down anyways.”