THERE is a sense of trepidation when you phone a former fighter. Are they going to sound punchy and force you to confront what they did for a living? Are they skint with no real means of making and retaining money? Will they sound like they’ve been out on the piss for days, weeks or even months?
You are right back to using them as a means rather than an end. If you get thirty minutes or more you get your four pages and your byline. Then the article has to go to some dark places, as that is what sells, so you have to peel back the layers and interrogate people about stuff you wouldn’t even ask your family members about. Sometimes, though, you end up pleasantly surprised as you find that someone has found some inner-peace post-boxing.
Frankie Gavin (26-4, 15 KOs) had it all. He was our first amateur World champion after beating Roman Amanov, handing Aleksei Tischchenko his first loss in over four years and outpointing Domenico Valentino in the final back in 2007. He was expected to do great things as a professional. However, and despite fighting for a world title against IBF welterweight belt-holder Kell Brook in May 2015, Gavin never hit the heights expected of him when he turned professional under a dark cloud caused by his failure to make the lightweight limit for the Beijing Games in 2008.
The two-time ABA lightweight champion spent years under the yolk of a philosophy that told young fighters they had to starve themselves down to the weight and cut out water. It was crude, archaic nonsense, but Gavin told Boxing News that he always struggled to get his head around making weight. He missed the weight against Sam Eggington and Kerman Lejarraga (who stopped him in eight and four rounds respectively), so people said he didn’t train or try hard enough. In truth, the advice was there, he just didn’t understand the science yet he is now 34 and training fighters himself at his first club, Hall Green ABC, alongside Tom Cheny, Lewis Carroll and Dav Tully. He hopes others can learn from his mistakes.
“You’ve got Kerry [Kayes] telling you that you can eat six meals a day and lose weight, so I’m thinking: ‘F**k off!’” he said. “I just couldn’t get the belief in it. I didn’t think that you could lose weight unless you were starving all the time. Some of the things I did to make weight, if you had to do them yourself you wouldn’t think: ‘Nah, he’s not disciplined enough’. People said I had no determination, but there were times when I was starving myself.
“I once ran 70 miles on the week of a fight and had one meal a day thinking I could make weight that way. It was a lack of a belief, a lack of knowledge. When I was on it there wasn’t a lack of anything. People can say I was ‘Funtime Frankie’, but I did train hard.”
If you have ever been in the company of a fighter who is ‘Dead at the weight’ then you know how hard it is to shift those final few pounds. There is nothing left to give. Gavin hit that point at the most crucial point of his career. He had talent to burn yet it was burning calories that caused him problems.
“I really believed I’d have won an Olympic medal at light-welter,” he said. “I was beating everyone. I won the World’s in November. The Olympics were in the August and I was killing myself to make the weight. [His former amateur and professional trainer] Tom [Chaney] got me down to 61 before we went out. I wasn’t breaking 64 before that. I wasn’t even thinking about my opponents. I didn’t care. It was all about making weight. It was all I thought about.”
A photo of Gavin sprawled out on the floor next to an empty pizza box hit Twitter a few years ago. It amplified the idea that he was on it all the time, even during training, yet Gavin’s career is a study in what happens when you ask a fighter to campaign at an unnatural weight. The human body can only take so much.
“The things I did was shocking,” he admitted. “I didn’t make the weight for Eggington. I took it when I was about 14 stone and had to get down to welterweight. I remember them calling me to the scales and I could barely stand up. My brother got me to the scales. I am surprised I passed the doctor’s test. I had to sit down for a half hour afterwards.
“I’ve seen fighters amateur and pro who can barely get to the scales after trying to make weight and I wonder how it still happens. I’m surprised no one says: ‘He can’t fight like that, cancel the fight.’ I’m drilling that knowledge into fighters now as a trainer. I’ve made those mistakes. They know I’ve developed the knowledge and they know I want them to avoid making the mistakes that I made.”
Gavin went from being a young lad from a single parent family — his mum worked three jobs to put food on the table — to being handed large amounts of money. Most fighters live a boom and bust lifestyle. How do you go from no money to more money then to no money again and plan for the future? We can talk personal responsibility until the cows come home yet we are asking people to prepare for the day when the crowd no longer cheers and money dries up.
“When you stop boxing, people do not care in the slightest,” he said. “When you stop winning you don’t get calls like this anymore. I don’t want to say I stayed amateur for too long as I achieved a hell of a lot for someone who came from where I did. My mum brought me and my brother up by herself. All of a sudden I’m having money chucked at me and it was like: ‘Here you go, Frankie, turn up for this and there is some money in it for you’.”
Phil Berger’s book Punch Lines is one of the greatest books of all-time. Berger wrote that he once went on a shopping trip with Leon Spinks after he defeated Muhammad Ali. The newly-minted champion looked at an expensive car and said: “This mother**ker is mine — I’m buying.” Boxing throws a lot at you at a young age. Then you throw it back out there without thinking about the future, perhaps because you know that your next job might be your last.
“I remember me and Kevin Mitchell had a photoshoot organised by Frank [Warren] and I got seven-grand for it. Things were getting thrown my way. I’d never had that money before so next thing you know I’m not even looking at the prices of things when I was shopping. I’d be like: ‘I’ll have that, that and that.’ My life changed. I know what matters in life now. If I could go back would I change some stuff? Yes, I would, but I’ve had a good life and a good career. I didn’t get as far as people thought I’d get yet I own a Lonsdale Belt outright. I also boxed for a world title, which is the pinnacle for any fighter.”
At one point, Gavin’s career was motoring along nicely; he beat Junior Witter for the British title in 2012 and then won the belt outright courtesy of victories over Jason Welborn, Denton Vassell and David Barnes. A split-decision loss to Leonard Bundu for the European title was the beginning of the end. A world title shot came yet it wasn’t part of the original plan. Gavin even forced it through despite knowing Brook was all wrong for him.
“I was the one who got the fight,” he said. “I texted Eddie [Hearn] to ask if Kell would fight me as the number two contender. Eddie texted me back to say that Kell had said ‘Yes’. Then it just got sorted. Brook was just bigger than me and had the style to beat me. I’d sparred him and knew that. I just knew I had a chance to fight for a world title and was still technically very good. You never know. You just have to take it when it comes. I wouldn’t want to be talking to you now saying I never had a world title shot.”
“I shouldn’t have left Frank Warren,” he added. “If I’d have stayed with him my career could have gone a different path. Don’t get me wrong, Eddie is a great promoter, he just wasn’t the one for me. I got the feeling that Frank had a soft spot for me. If I had to deal with anything I’d deal with him directly. If I wanted something I’d go straight to Frank and nine times out of 10 I’d get it. With Frank, there is no bulls**t.”
After the Brook loss his form plummeted. Gavin admitted that once he lost to Brook the passion dissipated. He was still a fighter, and he had to work, but the thrill was gone and it was gone for good.
“I just did it to make a living as a boxer rather than because I wanted to do it. I was just boxing to be a boxer, not because I loved it. Now when the lads and girls in the gym are winning fights it feels like I’m winning them again.
“I’m lucky because I’ve still got my faculties intact. I speak to some ex-boxers and they struggle to string a sentence together. You give everything to boxing and some get nothing back. I had too much of a winning mentality to slip into an opponent role, though. I would only take a fight if I thought I could get the win.”
Gavin also had to deal with personal issues that would floor most people. He didn’t parley his full amateur potential into his pro career yet he still achieved big things in the paid ranks. Fighters live lives that we can only dream about. Then they have to come back to reality. You can’t turn back time. Frankie, though, is in a rare position, as he can look back with fondness on what he achieved.
“I had some massive personal issues,” he said. “They changed everything. It all happened just before the [Curtis] Woodhouse fight so I was drinking a week before that one. I was all over the place. I should have never boxed that night. I remember walking out and had a moment where I seriously thought about walking back to the dressing room. It had all got to me mentally. I still don’t know what stopped me walking back to the dressing room.
“You get one or two boxers who make it. As an amateur, I was once one of the first or second pound-for-pound at the one time. I was still getting the bus to the gym until I was 20. I’d have to walk or run there when I was younger. My mum was a single parent doing three jobs. I don’t look back on them as hard times. They were good times and we helped each other.”
Boxing is a bitchy, backbiting business, especially in the pro game. Gavin is now firmly ensconced in the unpaid ranks as a trainer and enjoys passing his knowledge on.
“Some people will sit in a room with someone then start slagging them off the moment they walk out of it,” he said. “I used to tell my mates that those types of people will do the exact same thing to you once you leave the room. You’re getting that same slagging so don’t even comment on it. Some people aren’t happy with what they have got, and that makes them paranoid.
“I’m in a very good place now. I know as a coach that I’m always going to be learning. I am dedicated to this craft and I believe I will get there. It is nice to be back in the club with Tom. Now I’ve grown up our relationship has gone from father figure to an older brother figure. I’m my own man. I’ve got my kids and I see them all the time. I’ve got a partner. I’m mentally happy. Life couldn’t be better right now.”