WHEN Darren Barker, then Tony Sims’ leading fighter, fought Sergio Martinez in Atlantic City in 2011, it was John Ryder – a promising middleweight with a record that then stood at 5-0 – who rescued Barker’s preparations when they were most under threat.
“We trained in Canada,” Sims recalled. “We had two sparring partners, and neither one of them turned up. I remember ringing him up and saying, ‘John, I’m sticking you on the plane today, ‘cause we’re bang in trouble for sparring’. He flew 10 hours to Toronto, got off the plane, come in, and [sparred] eight rounds, and that just showed what kind of a fighter he is. From looking at them early days you could always see the potential.”
Twelve years on Barker and Martinez have long retired, and Anthony Joshua has come and gone from Sims’ gym, but the relationship between Ryder, his trainer and his promoters Matchroom has endured, and on Saturday in Guadalajara – against Saul “Canelo” Alvarez – Ryder and the close-knit team around him will finally have their day in the sun.
“John was in the gym in Hainault the first time I walked in, with [former trainer] Colin Lake,” said Eddie Hearn. “Those two were very close, and that was a team, and Tony had him in the gym and always helped out, and over time you saw John move over to Tony, and not change his style but add so much – he used to just be an inside fighter. Tony changed the way he boxed and got him boxing and moving, and still with the same ability to fight on the inside.
“[Ryder’s] done it completely the hard way. Without the Olympic gold medals; without the big fanbase to start his career that people have, and he’s just grafted. Especially after defeats that were unjustified – the way he’s built himself in this position, he’s been fantastic.”
The first of those defeats came against Billy Joe Saunders in 2013. Saunders has since lost so convincingly to Alvarez that he might never fight again, and yet Ryder – who deserved a draw that night when as the underdog he first went the 12-round distance – has repeatedly responded to the setbacks he has encountered, and through doing so progressed to earning a career-high purse against the world’s leading fighter on an occasion unlike any even Alvarez has known.
“They put us in the away dressing room with all the away fighters and journeymen,” said Sims of the Queensberry Promotions bill on which Ryder – a Matchroom fighter when the rivalry between Queensberry and Matchroom had just again turned toxic – lost for the first time. “We had a normal peg to hang our clothes on. But that was his first 12-rounder. I thought it was a draw and we pushed hard for the return. Billy Joe always said that until Canelo, John was his hardest fight.”
“I think we ended up fighting at gone midnight so I’d weighed in way too early,” recalled Ryder, 34. “It was all experience but now all these fights on, after plenty of 12-rounders against world-level opposition I’m ready to go.”
In Sims and his conditioner Dan Lawrence there exists a tight bond between Ryder and those around him – one that foregoes the cheerleading and backslapping so rife among so many of his rivals, and that means that he is content that, on Saturday, Alvarez will be the draw. A demonstration of their team ethic also lies in Ryder and Joe Cordina sharing a flat in the build-up to Cordina’s victory over Shavkat Rakhimov; Conor Benn joined Ryder’s final preparations in Los Angeles and is in Guadalajara; as a group they work to give the relevant fighter their total support.
A fighter with a more fragile ego would not have responded so positively to the injustice of that first defeat in the way he has others – including that in 2015 against Nick Blackwell, before his move to 168lbs. In the final days before his biggest night interest in Ryder from media outside of Britain has been minimal, and he also had to listen to the patronising and self-important Mauricio Sulaiman declaring that he could “trust” the judges like the sycophantic power broker wants to see anything other than Alvarez win.
“We’re a real family,” said Ryder. “A real unit, and to see [Cordina] go there and put on a display no one really expected from Joe; tough it out; ride out the storms and just really be destructive in there was a great performance. We come away all buzzing and happy to get into the next fight week.”
“This has been an ongoing process that’s a bit of a personal mission because of how Tony feels about him and how long we’ve worked with John,” said Hearn of a fighter whose career was revived by beating Adam Etches in 2017 on a non-Matchroom bill. “Maybe years ago he didn’t quite have the profile to get those big opportunities [years ago Hearn also didn’t also promote Alvarez]. He’s dedicated his whole life to the sport and on Saturday he’s on the biggest stage of all.”
In the month after Martinez stopped the accomplished Barker, Alvarez – who succeeded Floyd Mayweather at the top of his sport – stopped Kermit Cintron to further his already respected reputation.
Twelve years on at Guadalajara’s Akron Stadium on the occasion of Cinco de Mayo weekend, the 32-year-old Alvarez will fight in his home city for the first time in 12 years – returning as the world’s fifth highest-paid athlete, and against an unpretentious opponent relishing his overdue day in the sun.