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‘Retiring from being a fighter was giving up a part of myself.’ Chris Evangelou on his strange path to Hollywood

Chris Evangelou
In his own words Chris Evangelou reflects on the path that's led him through boxing to acting in Guy Ritchie's latest film alongside Colin Farrell

I GREW up in a boxing family but I didn’t step foot in a boxing club until I was 17. My eldest brother, Preston, trained with Carlton Warren and Gary Mason, so he had good mentors. I used to watch him when he boxed in Brixton, so it was a bit like ‘monkey see, monkey do’. I first went to the gym after I had an argument outside my college. Although it wasn’t a fight, I didn’t deal with the confrontation very well, so I decided I wanted to learn to box – not so I could fight, but just so I could have the confidence to handle myself.

My main highlight as an amateur was winning the ABA Novices in 2006. I was behind on points in the three fights leading up to the final against Amir Unsworth, but I always came back and won. At the time, I used to think my style was better suited to the pros, but looking back now, it was obviously good for the amateurs because I won so many times. I only lost on bad decisions against home fighters. I was a clean, crisp counterpuncher, but I didn’t come forward enough. If I could go back in time I’d add a bit more aggression and pressure to my approach. Going into the professional game, my footwork, speed and elusiveness were the best things I took with me. You do have to take more punishment in the pros, but my footwork got me out of trouble a lot of times.

The best advice I’d give to an up-and-coming pro is to not let your fans or the people around you pressure you into taking fights too early. You do your job and let your manager do his – don’t listen to the rest. I took on unnecessary pressure in my career. For my third fight I sold 1,000 tickets at Alexandra Palace and knocked the guy out in under a minute, then everyone wanted to see me boxing for titles. It makes you start thinking, ‘Yeah man, I want a title!’ Looking back now, I’d tell my younger self to calm down and get 15 fights under your belt against people who can help you gain experience.

There’s a big gap between six-rounders and title fights over 10 rounds. There’s a lot of pressure – anything can happen in those 30 minutes under those hot, bright lights, so you need to be prepared for anything and can’t rush into it too quickly. I was under a lot of pressure because of the amount of tickets I sold, which resulted in higher expectations. But you need to be mature and strong-minded. If Floyd Mayweather had fought everyone he was asked to, he wouldn’t have ended up unbeaten, he wouldn’t have ended up as rich as he is and he would’ve sustained much more punishment.

My first loss [to Danny Connor in a Southern Area super-lightweight title fight in 2012] was one of the biggest turning points in my career. It was a controversial decision – most people watching gave it to me by a landslide. I came out unscathed but he was resilient. I should’ve pressured him more and threw the kitchen sink at him, but having an injured right hand was a thorn in my side throughout my career. That night, [promoter] Eddie Hearn walked over to Darren Hamilton’s manager at ringside and said that he wanted me to fight Hamilton for the British title next. It’s painful to know that I could’ve fought for the British title had I won. Every drop in the water has a ripple effect. I lost confidence after losing.

I still look back on my career with positivity though – definitely. It was a pleasure and a privilege to box on Sky Sports. How many fighters get to say that? I should’ve been more cautious and patient, as a boxing career is a marathon, not a sprint. You losing a fight doesn’t change anyone else’s life. They won’t be crying over your loss, but you will be. You taking the fight that everyone else tells you to won’t affect them if you lose. It’s your career and no one else’s.

The decision to retire wasn’t made overnight. It was a fire fading out. It was a very hard decision because everyone knew me as ‘Chris Evangelou, the fighter’, so by giving that up I was giving up a part of myself. It’s in my blood. It’s a part of me. Nothing comes close in life to having your hand raised after a fight, so giving that up was a very tough thing to do.

I started experiencing mental health problems during the last couple of years of my boxing career. I was struggling with injuries, which sent my mental health spiralling downwards. When I lost to Connor, I felt disheartened. I felt like I let myself down and, even worse, I felt like I let other people down. I loathed myself for that, but really I hadn’t let anyone down at all. When I first walked away from boxing things got worse. I felt like I was losing my identity. It felt like breaking a pearl necklace – all the pearls scattered everywhere and I had no control. You need to have a goal to aim for. You need to have a light at the end of the tunnel, otherwise you’re in complete darkness.

I’ve always been a showman. I was a talkative kid – really active and a little bit naughty! My first memory of acting was in my church. I did sketches with a biblical theme behind them to make people laugh. I always wanted to be an actor growing up, but when I stepped into the gym for the first time, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is cool.’ I liked the fact that I was making my dad proud by being a good boxer too.

When I was 17 going on 18, I was boxing and acting at the same time. One day I had a spar and I was really sluggish. I didn’t perform well because I’d had an acting job the day before and they’d kept me there for 14 hours. I had to decide between the two – either acting or boxing. I’m an all-or-nothing type of person. As boxing is a young man’s sport, I decided to put acting on the shelf. I didn’t do another acting job for 10 years while I focused on boxing.

The first thing I did where I felt like a proper actor was my first commercial for Samsung. I couldn’t believe it when my agent called to tell me that I’d got the part. They sent me to Prague and I got paid good money for the first time. It was a big deal for me.

The biggest thing I’ve done is Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen. To be a part of something so big was special to me. I actually had a character. I wasn’t just ‘gang member No. 4’. I was ‘Primetime’ and I was an integral part of the film because I was the catalyst for why so many things go wrong in the plot. It was such a proud moment for me because I was at the bottom of the ladder in the acting profession. With my boxing career just finished, it was a comfort to know that I’d made the right decision. I was proud of myself.

Landing the role was organic. It was exactly how any actor would be cast in any film. I did well in the audition, then walked out and forgot all about it, which is common because sometimes you don’t even hear back. A few weeks later, I was getting my hair cut and my agent rang me to say that I’d got the role! I got really emotional about it. I called my girlfriend and she started crying. It felt like I’d won the lottery.

One scene takes hours to set up on a film set, so you get a lot of downtime. I was there with Colin Farrell and he told me all about how he got his big break in Tigerland. I had an opportunity to literally pick the brain of a Hollywood star. It’s like having a sit-down with Oscar De La Hoya as a boxer and being able to ask them anything and get the blueprint. Colin gave me a lot of encouragement. He said you’re in this big film, so just carry on acting, just keep going. When he said that to me, it was an amazing feeling.

Shadow Boxer, although not a big Hollywood film, is my proudest achievement so far because it was something that I produced. It began as two A4 pages of thoughts and scribbles from my mind and then turned into an epic short film, starring my friend and mentor, Game of Thrones actor James Cosmo. It’s based on personal experiences during my life and boxing career, so it’ll always be close to my heart.

At the moment, I’m working on getting my O1 visa, which allows you to act in America. It’s my plan to go to Los Angeles later this year, not necessarily to live but to cast my net wider. Even if you’re there for just a month, you’ll network so much more than you could in London. Everyone in L.A. seems to be connected to the industry somehow. You’re more likely to meet people who can help you there.

As an actor, you have a type. When people look at me, a Caucasian who has black curly hair, I get typecast as an English gangster or Latino, a fighter, athlete or tough guy, so all my fitness training is geared towards that. I tend to get sporty roles, so I have to work on my body and look my best. That’s why I’ve been weight training.

One of the main similarities I’ve noticed between being a boxer and being an actor is that you need to have the confidence to say to yourself that you can do this – when you go into the ring or into the casting room. Dedication and discipline are also important. As an actor you need to go to classes and workshops, just like a boxer has to go to the gym. You have to train in both and make improvements all the time. You can’t be lazy. No one’s going to come along and say, ‘Here’s your title’ or ‘here’s your next big role.’

In boxing, you need to sacrifice your time. You can’t go on holiday with the lads or have a normal Christmas like everyone else. I always say that boxing is a prison where you hold the key. As an actor, it’s different. You also need to sacrifice your time but it’s more loose. You can enjoy your time off more. In three years, I managed to get in a Guy Ritchie film and that’s because of my dedication and sacrifices. I do something every single day to advance my acting career.

What do I miss about boxing? I miss the excitement and the thrill of being in the ring and winning a fight – that feeling of knowing that I’m comfortably better than the other guy and can show off my skills. After winning a fight I’d get calls and texts from people who wanted to congratulate me. It was the most amazing feeling. But I absolutely don’t miss the dieting – not at all! Never, ever do I want to have to make weight ever again!

I’ve had some people ask me to get back involved in boxing in other capacities. I do train boxers – amateur and pro – for their fights. I’d consider fighting again for a charity event, but not competitively. Maybe if Justin Bieber called me out, then I would!

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