ROCK and roll and boxing aren’t natural bedfellows. Late nights and excess don’t tend to fit in to the spartan lifestyle boxers need to lead. There are, however, one or two transferable skills. A good drummer gets the most out of everyone around him and as long as he does his job the riffs and the runs all find their place. Everything comes together. Consistency is key. If the beat is too quick, too slow, or under-rehearsed, everything falls apart. A good drummer doesn’t attract much attention but everybody spots a bad one. Maybe it shouldn’t come as a major surprise that Michael Jennings is making waves as a boxing trainer.
“The music got my nerves going more,” said Jennings who as well as holding the British welter crown and boxing for a world title, played drums in The Shoks, an indie/punk band who were good enough to support Ian Brown during one of his solo tours. “In boxing I was pretty able but in drumming I weren’t the greatest and if you mess up on stage and there are a few thousand people there you can tell straight away. I felt a bit of pressure. I got better as I went but at the start it was pretty bad.
“Independence is a big thing too. You’ve got four limbs and they’re all doing different things at different times. Your brain has got to be switched on all the time. That’s the hardest thing about drumming. Obviously there’s the timing too but that comes.
“You’re the driver behind it all.”
For years, Jennings and his brother, Dave, who was a guitarist in The Shoks, have been grinding away quietly at their gym in Chorley, Lancashire. Since opening the gym with the intention of focusing solely on amateurs, the Jennings brothers’ whole approach has been based on doing their job properly, making sure they lay down solid foundations and letting their fighters provide the attention grabbing flourishes. A chance meeting with cruiserweight stalwart Matty Askin eventually resulted in a British title and convinced the Jennings brothers to throw open their doors to professional fighters. They now oversee a booming stable which includes the talented Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Cullen, Mark Heffron and Mark Jeffers.
“The main thing we seem to be doing is improving them. That’s what I want. One thing I wouldn’t like to happen is for a lad to come to us from another gym and then to leave,” Jennings said. “We’ve never really had that. They’ve come to us and stopped to the end. At the start when one of the amateur kids left us we’d be absolutely gutted. It just happens, lads come and go and you get used to it. With the professionals – because the lads know exactly what they need – they seem to stay. They enjoy it because they realise they’re getting what they need.
“When we get lads coming to the gym, we just work on basic things. I have a picture in my head and decide that if this fighter does this, he could be very good. Nine times out of ten it’s not complicated things that improve fighters, it’s the tiny things. Those tiny things make a bigger picture.
“I seem to be able to see those tiny things and pick up on them quickly. When you point it out to the lads it’s like a revelation to them. It’s something so simple that I think anybody could spot.
“I keep saying to our Dave, ‘It’s common sense this.’ He’s always telling me it isn’t. It’s like reading a book to me. I just wonder, ‘Why isn’t anybody else seeing that?’”
There are few sports where first impressions can be as deceptive as boxing. It takes an educated eye to quickly figure out what a fighter needs and is capable of. Jennings might put it down to ‘common sense’ but that would be downplaying the years he has spent boxing against some of the best fighters of his era, watching world class fighters in the gym and listening to some of the best trainers Britain has produced.
If the famous rule is correct and it does indeed take 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in any particular field, Jennings passed that mark a long time ago.
“When I boxed Jimmy Vincent for instance, before the fight I’d boxed him about a thousand times in my own mind,” Jennings remembered. “Some people might think I was over-thinking it but I wasn’t. I wasn’t worrying about what he was going to do. I was thinking, ‘If he throws a jab, I’ll do this. If he throws a right hand, I’ll do that.’ I just planted it in my mind. I would try and do that for each fight. Sometimes it doesn’t work. I learned so much from being in there with Miguel Cotto. I watched him hundreds of times before we fought. What the elite level fighters have got is elite level timing and accuracy. They’ll make you miss by a split second. They know when they’re at their perfect range to attack and when they’re in danger.”
A few weeks ago, the fighters from Jennings’ Gym posed for the seemingly obligatory post training group photo. The snap drew the equally obligatory comments from people describing how good the sparring must be and offering to buy tickets to watch it. For anybody who knows the fighters in the group, the first thought that flashed through the mind should have been: ‘The sparring must be horrendous.’ Not only are Fitzgerald, Heffron, Cullen, Jeffers and others all around the same age and weight, they all fight with bad intentions and are ultra-competitive. Not a shot will go unanswered. Iron may well sharpen iron but it takes a skilled metal worker and a delicate touch to temper and harden the raw material.
“I don’t like watching them spar each other. It’s horrible,” Jennings said. “It’s not nice to see. We either do light technique with them or body sparring. They’re all quite big punchers and the last thing you want is them knocking s**t out of each other. Some people might have taken advantage of having those lads in the gym and the next thing you know they’re failing brain scans. I don’t enjoy watching them spar anyway. “The lads are all hard b*****ds. A lot of the time when I do have them doing bits of sparring I jump in with them and sort of referee it. I tell them to hold back a bit but it’s great to have them all in, especially when you want to work technique or work on defence because they’re all pretty evenly matched.”
As his fighters seem set to become fixtures at the top of the domestic rankings, Jennings will be appearing in more high profile corners but he will concentrate on setting the rhythm and making sure that everything comes together. As long as they follow Jennings’ lead, his fighters will thrive at centre stage.
“It’s all set up. We just have to make sure the lads keep coming in the gym and keep improving. They’ve got a good lifestyle. They come to the gym, run, eat well and they’re healthy. Who wouldn’t want that lifestyle?” he said. “Some of them moan and say they need a day off. Well I’ll tell you what, have a day off and go and do a 12-hour shift in a factory. You’d soon wanna be back in the gym.”