I REMEMBER when the fight was signed, as clear as day. I’d just got back from my stablemate Lee Purdy’s fight with Devon Alexander, having been in his corner in Atlantic City. My mum was graduating to become a midwife’s assistant and we were up the South Bank in London. We went to her graduation and, after walking over one of the Thames bridges, I was going for a drink and something to eat with my close family. The phone rang and it was my promoter, Eddie Hearn. Everyone looked over as they wondered if it would be the fight announcement or, worse, a call to say it wasn’t going to happen. I waited outside as they went in and Eddie said it was all signed and done. It became a double celebration.
I’d known Daniel Geale years before and our careers kind of paralleled, except that he won a world title before me. He’d won the welterweight gold at the 2002 Commonwealth Games and I’d won the light-welter. You always keep one eye on your rivals and I always fancied I could beat him. I was happy it was in Atlantic City as I wanted redemption in that place, it was one up against me after I lost to Sergio Martinez there in 2011.
We started camp at my trainer Tony Sims’ old gym in Hainault. It was a fantastic camp, I did virtually no running and I did a lot of work on the trampoline. Two weeks before the fight we went to Jersey City and I did a few sprints. We found a good gym out in New Jersey, where I sparred Ossie Duran. The area was quiet, not as manic as nearby New York. It was me, Tony, [assistant coach] Marl Seltzer and my brother Lee. Everything went so well.
During a 14-week training camp, I was confident for 13 weeks and six days. But the day of the fight, I don’t know why, I got this wave of doubt, it was horrible. I sat in the hotel room thinking, ‘What is going on?’ Also, in the changing room I was tapping my midsection for some reason and it felt really tender. I thought, ‘I don’t really want to get hit with a good body shot.’ When I went to the toilet, my team persuaded the MC, Michael Buffer to say, ‘And the new…’
By the ring entrance was a big group of my friends so I was hearing a lot of cheering and chanting for me. I didn’t feel that far away from home. His entrance featured a guy playing a didgeridoo and that rattled me, it made me really angry and aggressive, I think it did more for me than him.
The opening round was a huge surprise to be honest. Our game plan was for me to box-fight him, be clever, operate on the front foot but use smart boxing and my handspeed. But Geale was deceptively awkward, quick on his feet and able to get out of range by a fraction, so I was falling short a little bit. He was slippery on his feet and after that round we then decided to go hell for leather, turn it into a fight. I had to be in front of him, letting shots go.
From then until the sixth round, I remember thinking I was winning. The adopted game plan was working, and I kept going back to the whole reason for this, to dedicate that fight to Gary, my younger brother and fellow boxer who had died due to a car crash in 2006.
Then the sixth round happened. I’d been hurt once before by a body shot. It was in Canada when I met Larry Sharpe in my 18th pro fight; I didn’t go down but the shot stayed with me the entire fight. Against Geale, we both went for a shot when we were close in, my body was exposed and he landed a fantastic left to the body. Instantly my breath was taken away and then it was just excruciating pain. I was on the floor and you know how people say your life flashes in front of your eyes? It was a bit like that and the longest nine-and-a-half seconds of my life. I was struggling with my breath and thinking about my daughter Scarlett – my son Charlie wasn’t born until 2014 – my goals and, ultimately, my brother. I thought, ‘I cannot stay down, it’s not fair, this is not what I’m about.’ It was the most valuable half-second ever. I got up and the referee was asking if I was okay. I tried to respond but I couldn’t talk and when the words finally came out they were in a high, squeaky, winded voice. Then I was in pure survival mode for the rest of the round. Geale is a great finisher and he was swarming me with shots. It was a tough period to endure but I got to the end of the round.
I got back to the corner and Tony said, ‘Are you okay?’ and I apologised straight away. The rounds directly after the sixth were probably my best, the seventh my best of all. I was on the front foot, boxing better, getting my range better.
I’d got my eye in and my feet moving. It was all coming together but I had it in the back of my mind that I didn’t want to go down again, I knew I couldn’t afford it.
At the end of the 11th, Tony and I had put our hands up and thought I just had to survive. At the final bell, me and Tony were over the moon. We knew the fight was close and that my opponent’s promoter was staging the show, but I was the one forcing the pace. Eddie Hearn got in the ring and said, ‘This is close, I don’t know how they’ll score it out here,’ which put us in a bit of doubt.
But I’d had that instant gut feeling that I’d done enough. My brother Lee had seen Michael Buffer’s scorecard just before the announcement and on the footage you can see him run over to my family with a big, cheeky smile, then he started panicking in case he’d got it wrong.
Then the announcement came that I’d won Geale’s IBF title by split decision. They’re the moments you dream of: Buffer announcing you the winner in a world title fight in America. Perfect. I was very emotional, crying my eyes out, but they weren’t all tears of joy. Part of me was sad because I had made it my life’s work to win the world title for my brother and I had achieved it that night so I was thinking, ‘What can I do for my brother now?’
I don’t think I was at my peak physically for that fight. I’d changed the way I trained and I was as fit as ever, but I was struggling with injuries, my elbows were really bad, really sore at the time. But, saying that, I wouldn’t have had the same experience a couple of years before.