IT is a Friday evening and Steve Maylett is leaning on his car in the Ancoats sun, one eye constantly peering through the front door of his gym where his group of fighters are skipping. The lads from the locksmith’s unit next door are unloading their vans and the latest batch of apartment blocks that have started to spring up in the area stand half-built and empty, the workmen having gone for the weekend.
“I’ll do it again with one of those lads,” said Maylett, whose job never seems to stop. “I’ll bring one of them through. It’s always hard work to get to British title level but if they do get there and win that, they’ll just go on.”
Maylett isn’t watching his stable of professional fighters. He is talking about his 11 and 12-year-old amateurs. Taking an unknown, unfancied kid from his first skills bout to the top of the world might sound like a fantasy but it isn’t a daunting prospect for Maylett. He knows exactly what it will take. As he said, he has done similar before.
There is a small dog-eared photograph on the wall in the gym. It shows a teenage Maylett and an impossibly young-looking Terry Flanagan joking around. Taken before everybody carried a camera around in their pocket, Flanagan looks no older than the youngsters Maylett is watching skip. A few years later, Maylett would stand back and proudly watch his friend get chaired around the ring after training him to become the first ever Englishman to win a sanctioning body lightweight title. Together they would win the British title, defend the WBO belt five times and take part in the World Boxing Super Series.
Flanagan is waiting for a phonecall tempting enough to entice him back into the lightweight mix, but for Maylett the work he unknowingly began years ago continues. “I was schooled quite well by my amateur coach, Sean Rafferty. You don’t notice it at the time because you’re young, into boxing and don’t realise how good your coach is but looking back now he taught us the fundamentals,” Maylett told BN. “You stretched before the session and then afterwards, when you just wanted to get home and have your tea. You’re a teenage lad and might think that you could catch the last hour with the lads on the estate but you had to do everything right. From footwork up, he taught us what we needed to go on and be a good all-round boxer, not a fighter. A boxer.
“I loved it. I trained hard as anything and treated my amateur fights like world title fights. That was probably a bit too much but that’s what I was like. I was a winner. I never really thought too much about being a pro. I trained with them for a while and when I was about 19 I went and trained at Champs Camp with Michael Brodie for a few months. I trained hard and was sparring some of the pros there and I think if somebody would have asked if I fancied going pro at the time I might have had a go, but it never came.
“I had my last amateur fight at about 21 and I stopped boxing, but about a year later I started coaching Terry and Karl Place in the amateurs. I did a year or 18 months with them and became a pro coach at 24.”
The following morning, the professionals begin to arrive. It doesn’t matter how many times you walk into The Finest Gym – ego and arrogance have no place here, the gym is named after the popular local band Maylett’s dad played drums in – the words leave your mouth automatically. “Warm in here, innit?” In winter, the wall-mounted heater is a blessing. On a warm summer’s day it is a curse. Today it is Michael McKinson’s turn to step into the sauna. The unbeaten welterweight has made the trip north to get in some sparring with Jack Rafferty and The Finest’s latest member, Sam Maxwell.
Rafferty is robust and aggressive, Maxwell was an international class amateur and Liam Taylor is a heavy-handed box fighter. Featherweight prospect Zak Miller is probably the fighter closest in style to Flanagan but there is more variety in the gym than some may imagine.
The way the world is these days everything has to be black or white and once people have pigeonholed you, it is very hard to escape those perceptions. Flanagan’s instantly recognisable footwork means that the term ‘a Steve Maylett fighter’ is used whenever one of his boxers gets up on their toes and uses their feet. It is clearly intended as a compliment but it must be a source of frustration that some haven’t yet grasped that much, much more goes into a creating ‘a Steve Maylett fighter’. It’s not simply a case of improving their footwork.
“Yeah, people probably just thought it was Terry’s style to be honest,” said Maylett. “He was one of the first fighters I had, so they probably thought that was how he had always boxed. That wasn’t the case. It took years and years of building. Even when I go back and watch old videos and tapes I can see where we had learned new stuff. I’ll watch a video a year later on and he’ll be using different punches or he might have improved his right hook or not be giving up as much ground because he’s got physically stronger. He’s been built into the style everybody has seen. It sort of was my style but before everybody got to know us, they probably just thought that was the way he boxed.
“The styles are there. I look at them and think, ‘What’s their best way of going forward as a fighter?’ It could be anything. It’s whatever I feel is gonna get the best out of them in the gym and it certainly doesn’t have to be Terry Flanagan-style footwork, because his footwork is one in a million anyway. It’s something that I teach because you’re on your feet for 12 rounds if you wanna win titles.”
The internet is full of padwork videos and it isn’t too hard to find a fighter practicing lengthy arcade game style combinations that will never be used under live fire. Maylett’s take on padwork may characterise the mentality needed to succeed in the gym better than anything else. The pace steadily increases and once one phase is mastered another is added. If a front foot strays an inch too close, or an angle isn’t cut properly, the routine starts again. Watching, there is a sense that as much as he is trying to perfect the fighters’ technique, Maylett is desperate to get better and better himself.
Blessed with something of a photographic memory, Maylett can make his way over to the gym’s digital recorder and automatically stop the video on a single frame of an eight-round spar where one of his fighters’ shapes was perfect or where they came out of an exchange with poor balance. At normal speed the moments initially pass in a blur but, over time, the eyes become accustomed to noticing the tiny details and intricacies that go into making the fighters from the gym so hard to beat. “We set these standards right from the beginning,” he said. “The first training session I did with Terry was on New Year’s Day at 5.30 in the morning. I woke him up and took him running. I was lucky really. A lot of it was guesswork in the beginning, but I guessed a lot of it right. I just knew that if I was gonna do it I had to do it properly.
“My favourite part, believe it or not, is in the gym. I’ve had some great nights and big wins and we’ve won things that were goals when we were young and only dreaming but my favourite part of boxing is in the gym and teaching them stuff. That feeling when you start thinking, ‘He’s never gonna get this’ and then you see them start to use it in sparring and it adds another dimension to them as a fighter. That’s the part I love. Probably more than the wins sometimes.”
There have been plenty of wins. Maylett could probably count the losses his fighters have suffered on one hand but as well-respected as the gym is inside the sport, to those on the outside the only real advertisement for the work they were doing came when Flanagan’s feet flashed across the canvas.
His coronation as a belt-holder came just two miles away from the gym, his friends cascading down the banked track of the city’s velodrome after he beat Jose Zepeda. His demolition of a confident Diego Magdaleno happened just a few hundred yards away at the Manchester Arena. After every major win, rather than screaming and shouting about the success, Maylett would quietly retreat back into the gym and the cramped changing rooms of the small hall circuit and continue the work.
If a fighter doesn’t really begin to fulfil their potential until they understand what they are doing and why they are doing it, the same can be said of a trainer. Starting at the very bottom has allowed Maylett an unhindered view of the sport and given him a clear opinion on how things should be done. Some of the most valuable qualities a trainer can possess – like the awareness that a plan needs changing and the confidence to rip it up and start again – can only be learned through experience.
“We had Karl Place, Tez, Kallum De’Ath and Dale Coyne at first. Dale was the first fighter I started working a different style with,” Maylett remembered. “Dale had talent but was getting caught too much. He was too open and too square on the ropes. I knew going forward it wouldn’t work for him. You can’t stand on the ropes on fight night and take punches with small gloves on. I adapted his style and it was something that was new to me. He would have his hands up high, blocking so I took them away from him so he had to move his head and feet more and become dominant with his front hand to control people and slow them down.
“It took a lot of thought. It wasn’t an overnight thing. I was going home after sparring sometimes and sitting there frustrated. I just wasn’t happy even though a lot of people might have been. I was seeing the bigger picture, I was seeing three years down the line. One day I decided to do it. It seemed to work for Dale and things just progressed then. He transformed massively. It was a big shame that he didn’t go on and fulfil what he could have done but I feel like I learned a lot from working with him [Coyne retired with a 14-0 record].
“I still think even the work I did with Karl Place has stood me in good stead to be the coach I am today. I learned a lot from Karl and Karl learned a lot from me. I think he also helped Terry get to where he has.
“The losses hit me hard,” he continued. “I wouldn’t say they knock my confidence but it’s a horrible feeling. The losses hurt but I never dwelled on a win either. Two weeks down the line I won’t be rewatching the tapes and thinking ‘Wow, wasn’t that great?’ Once it’s done, it’s done and you get on with it and see what is fired at us next. You just have to keep your motivation, no matter what.”
Motivation certainly won’t be a problem for the rest of the year. Sam Maxwell’s delayed shot at the British and Commonwealth super-lightweight titles is due to happen this weekend and Liam Taylor is waiting for a date for his mandatory shot at European welterweight champion, David Avanesyan. The fights will be tough but each will enter the ring knowing that the man in their corner has put as much into their preparation as they have. “They just have to want it as much as me.” Maylett once told me on the phone. You can almost imagine what he said after putting the phone down. “If you’re going to do something, do it properly.”