ON this day 23-years ago in his native Sheffield, at the Pinegrove Country Club, 22-year-old Clinton Woods, boxing as a super-middleweight, punched for pay for the very first time. Woods, who had a tough childhood and was an admitted tearaway, would go on to achieve plenty, even surpassing his own goals. Yet the future British, Commonwealth, European and world champion started with little or no fanfare and boxed in humble surroundings.
After a six-round points win over Dave Proctor, Clinton would box regularly, winning 18 more bouts between his debut and December of 1997, before losing on points to Dave Starie (a man Clinton would years later call the toughest man he had ever sparred) in a Commonwealth super-middleweight title challenge in March of 1998. Moving up in weight to the more natural and comfortable light-heavyweight division – a weight class Woods would fight in for the remainder of his career – Woods would not lose again for well over four years.
One year after moving up seven-pounds, Woods would claim, in one night, the Commonwealth, British and European titles. Facing Leeds’ Crawford Ashley in Manchester, Woods scored the biggest win of his by now 22 fight career. Scoring an 8th-round TKO, Woods really saw his boxing reach its potential. The win over Ashley resonates all these years later, as Clinton explained to Boxing News a year or so ago:
“No-one hit me harder than Crawford Ashley,” Clinton says. “I needed a nose operation years after that fight, and it’s likely he caused the damage! He hit me hard in the first-round and it was like, crunch! I thought then, ‘I’m out of my depth here.’ But I think I fought him at the right time. He was a good technical boxer.”
Now a respected champion, Woods would defend the Commonwealth and European crowns, the highlight during this period being a 9th-round stoppage over the capable Norwegian, Ole Klemetsen, a former IBF light-heavyweight title challenger. It wasn’t long after this April 2000 win that Woods would launch his own assault on a world title. Good wins over Ali Forbes, for the WBC International title, and Yawe Davis, in a WBC eliminator, earned Woods a shot at the sublime and at the time reigning pound-for-pound king Roy Jones Junior. Clinton showed real heart in September of 2002, in his first fight in America (but far from his last U.S adventure) but he was outclassed by Jones, who was then at his peak.
Being pulled out by his corner at the conclusion of the sixth-round, Woods had nothing to be ashamed of. Today, Clinton has the following to say on his maiden world title attempt:
“I have no real regrets, but I sometimes wish the fight had taken place years later, and in a state that did drug taking [tests],” Woods says interestingly.
Moving on, Woods picked up three decent wins, before seeing himself again go for gold. This time, in November of 2003, Woods faced the seasoned “Road Warrior,” Glen Johnson, for the vacant IBF belt. The two boxed a 12-round draw most experts felt Johnson should have won and a three-fight rivalry was born. Woods was comprehensively beaten on points in the return fight three months later, but, amazingly, Woods’ best days remained ahead of him.
Immediately after the loss to Johnson, Woods boxed and defeated tough Australian Jason DeLisle in an IBF eliminator. Woods was decked for a flash knockdown in the very first round, yet he roared back to get the 12th-round stoppage win. Then came a fight with Detroit’s unbeaten Rico Hoye, a future star in the opinion of some. Expected to be blown away by the man who was coming off wins over Richard Hall and Montell Griffin, Woods instead turned the tables and burst Hoye’s bubble with a 5th-round TKO win that saw him grab the vacant IBF championship. Today, Clinton feels he never got the credit he should have done for the March 2005 win over Hoye:
“I’d have to say, the night I beat Hoye was the best win of my career,” Woods says. “He was knocking everyone out in America and he was the next big thing. If I’d been Joe Calzaghe, or a fighter who made a lot of noise, my win would have been seen as the biggest thing for a British fighter. He [Hoye] was similar to Jeff Lacy, as in the next big thing, and I smashed him up. I was a quiet kid and I just got the job done. I should have made more noise.”
The win in Rotherham was nevertheless a huge deal for Woods and his loyal fans, and a highly impressive string of retentions followed for the man who only got into boxing in the first place so as to get rid of his beer belly.
A points win over the tough and durable Julio Cesar Gonzalez marked defence number-one, followed by a return win over DeLisle, a win coming inside six rounds. Then came the rubber-match with Johnson and a great fight. Fighting in Bolton, the two rivals went to war in a thriller that was ultra-close on the cards after 12 gripping rounds. Woods was deservedly awarded the decision, much to the chagrin of Johnson.
Today, Clinton calls the September 2006 fight the toughest of his entire career:
“Just watch a tape of that fight, it was a real war,” Woods says when looking back. “He was so strong and Glen Johnson was at his very best then – he knocked out Roy Jones after that fight and he beat Antonio Tarver. We both had good chins and we just went back and forth. Our styles just gelled really well.”
After a repeat points win over Gonzalez, in a far harder fight than the first, Woods would again travel to America; for what he today calls the worst night of his career. Woods met former undisputed light-heavyweight king and “Rocky Balboa” star Antonio Tarver in Tampa, Florida in April of 2008. Performing disappointingly, Woods was widely out-pointed over 12 largely listless and unimpressive rounds.
Years later, and Woods still gets angry talking about a fight he is sure he should and could have won:
“I should have pulled out of that fight, that’s the gospel truth,” Clinton says. “My training was so bad for that fight – if anyone really knew! I’d pulled my back and I had to get picked up by a van from my house to the therapy table, where the pain was so bad it just destroyed me. On top of that, my sparring partners were a joke. That fight is the only time where I knew walking out I was going to lose. I had nothing in the tank. I was shocking that night!”
As much as the loss to Tarver hurt, Woods was not quite ready to retire yet. Having the good fortune to box yet another title eliminator, again for the IBF title, Woods out-pointed Elvir Muriqi on Valentine’s Day of 2009. Setting up a shot at new terror Tavoris Cloud, for the vacant strap, the fight going down in Hollywood, Florida, Woods saw his granite chin once again refuse to let him down. Cloud won a wide decision, yet Woods had gone out fighting, his career finally at its honourable end.
Woods may never have enjoyed the fame or the celebrity of a Joe Calzaghe or a Ricky Hatton, yet as far as British boxing goes, the Sheffield Man of Steel more than made his mark on the sport.
All these years later, and Clinton, now aged 45 and with a fine 42-5-1 (25) career behind him, can look back on his debut of 23-years ago this very day:
“[I was] sitting in the changing room, thinking, what the hell am I doing this for,” Clinton says when looking back at his thoughts ahead of his first professional bout. “But the buzz was as big as for any [fight] I had in my career. They’re good memories. Thanks for remanding me. Where has the time gone!”