WHEN people describe boxing as the loneliest sport on earth they are usually referring to tough moments in the ring when there is nobody there to help or the deeply personal moments before and after a fight when a boxer is left alone with only their thoughts. They aren’t talking about car journeys.
“I had to drive about two hours on my own from Manchester to Newark. That was hard work by itself because I didn’t know exactly what I was going there for. I was going to an unknown place and didn’t really know what would happen. All I knew was that it was going to be intense and that I was going to have to spar a pro. It was nerve wracking.” Curtis Gargano was on his way to his manager Carl Greaves’ gym for an appointment with a Midlands Area Council representative.
Obtaining a professional boxing licence isn’t simply a case of filling in a form and attaching a couple of passport sized photographs. The application process begins the first time an ambitious hopeful steps foot in a gym and only officially ends when the first bell sounds to signal the start of their debut but for decades, some applicants had one extra hurdle to overcome. The trial bout. With his mind set on becoming a journeyman, that’s where Gargano was headed.
“They were always something that anybody who had a very limited amateur background would be asked to do,” General Secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control, Robert Smith, told Boxing News. “Also, if somebody has had a previous career but has been out of the ring for a long time then you might want to see what their physical state is.
“Back when I was boxing myself they would do them so we’re going back a long time here but they were generally for those people who had no amateur background or competitive boxing experience at all. We’d send a board inspector or an area council member to the gym to watch somebody and satisfy themselves that the applicant could look after themselves. After that they could carry on with their licence application.
“I think people involved in the sport liked it. I certainly think it was a good idea. Unfortunately because of insurance issues we had to stop it and amend what we do. You’re never going to replicate a contest and you can give a licence to somebody who’s done a gym assessment or a spar in the gym and when you look at their first fight you ask yourself how they got that licence because ultimately it’s a different thing altogether, but it was a good thing.”
The bouts weren’t action movie-esque scenarios where two men are locked in a room and one eventually leaves, professional boxing licence triumphantly grasped in a gloved hand. The boxers wore full sparring gear and in some cases knew each other well but it was the prize on offer which separated them from any other sparring session.
After a brief exercise circuit and a big adrenaline dump, for the few in attendance it was time for the main event. Four rounds of sparring for the approval of a British Boxing Board of Control representative. In the blue corner, weighing an unspecified number of pounds, stood a BBB of C licence holder. His opponent in the red corner, with a record of zero wins and zero losses, a very nervous inexperienced applicant.
“The scariest thing is that it might mean you can never become a pro. It was so much pressure. There was nobody else in the gym apart from this inspector watching everything I did,” said Gargano who was so self-absorbed that he can’t remember the name of the man who stood in the opposite corner that day. “My ideal weight should have been 12st 10lbs but I think I was 14st 2lbs. I’d come down from 16st to get to that. I was really nervous. They put me on the bags first and they absolutely blitzed me. They put me on the pads after that and drilled me. Then they put me in with a good kid and I think we did four rounds. Luckily he was a bit lighter than me – well, obviously he was lighter than me – but I remember him saying that he wanted me to look good. I was really blowing to be honest though.”
If you have taken a driving test you will know the feeling of rising tension as you begin overthinking the things you have spent months – or in some cases, years – drilling to the point where they become instinctive. The clutch pedal becomes heavier and heavier. Mirror checks become more regular and deliberate and the return trip to the test centre is made with one eye on the road and the other searching the examiner’s clipboard for major and minor faults.
In gyms around the country, prospective professionals would feel their way through the four rounds. Hoping to impress but desperate to avoid the mistake which would lead to a tick being placed in the ‘Unsatisfactory’ box on the inspector’s checklist.
“They told me there and then, ‘I can’t pass you.’ I was nearly crying. I walked away and I was a bit embarrassed but heartbroken. It wasn’t my boxing, it was my weight,” Gargano remembered. “To be perfectly honest with you, the best thing the Board could have done for me that day was to turn me down. I remember getting out of the ring and telling them that I was desperate to fight and become a journeyman to help my family. A lot of people try to go pro to become a champion. It was a different story with me. I just wanted to get to work and earn some money.
“I think they were definitely a lot stricter with me because of that. They knew I wasn’t going to be a champion and would be on the road as a journeyman so they probably wanted to be extra sure I could defend myself.”
The tests weren’t reserved for those with modest ambitions. A few months ago Jordan Thompson found himself at the epicentre of a Las Vegas mega fight as his size and ability earned him a place in Tyson Fury’s training set-up for his rematch with Deontay Wilder. Five years earlier, the unbeaten cruiserweight made the same lonely journey that Gargano had. Thompson is a talented athlete but his white collar background meant that the Central Area Council decided to have a closer look at him.
“I remember [my trainer] Lee Beard telling me on the way there, ‘You do know people fail this? It isn’t going to be easy. If you don’t do good enough they’ll tell you that you can’t have a licence.’ I was thinking to myself, ‘Surely not. That can’t happen.’ I sparred Vijender Singh. It was at Northside Boxing Gym. It was high pressure but I wasn’t nervous, I just treated is as a spar,” remembered Thompson, who probably coasted through his driving test.
“I love performing and I love the pressure. I think I’ve been like that all my life. I thrive on it. I remember after it was all finished the official telling me that I had scored the highest that anybody had ever scored. I was buzzing with that.
“Vijender was a big super-middle but he was a tough as they come. I hit that boy with some big shots and he never took a step back. Even in that spar there weren’t any niceties. We were going for it, it wasn’t just a move around. It was a good laugh. There was a good vibe and energy in the gym and I have good memories of it. It was fun.”
Selecting the right man for the right job is one of the most important skills in boxing. Glyn Rhodes has seen everything during a life spent in the sport and the Sheffield trainer’s reputation ensured that his gym became a regular venue for the trial bouts. Over the years there may have been the odd well engineered move around between friends and gym mates but there was nothing choreographed about the trials Rhodes helped arranged.
“I always used to make sure the guy who was in with the applicant didn’t treat it as a sparring session,” Rhodes said. “I didn’t tell him to put it on him but I wanted them to treat it a bit more seriously. I wanted them to show whether the kid had it in him to become a professional boxer.
“I’m one of these that used to see some boxers and think, ‘Bloody hell. How has he ever got a licence?’ Those trial bouts weren’t a bad thing. It was as near to the real thing as you’re gonna get. Does he stand up? Does he look the part? Does he know how to throw a jab? How does he react if he takes one on the chin? We can all look good on pads and shadowboxing but until you actually get a crack on the chin, you don’t know how you’re going to react. I don’t care who you are.”
To some, the whole affair may sound like a formality but the boxers taking part in these trial bouts couldn’t fall back on experience gained in high level amateur contests and the knowledge that their dream was within grasp added to the tension. Failing to achieve the dreams you have long held is one thing but being denied the opportunity to even try is another altogether.
“I can’t remember any names but we had a couple of kids go to pieces,” Rhodes said. “I remember one kid came in and he wanted to be a boxer more for his ego than anything. He was 30 odd years old and just wanted to have a go. I thought, ‘Fair enough. You aren’t going into it to become a world champion like some kids think.’ He was just a boxing fan who wanted to have a go. He hadn’t been training at a proper gym it was more of a fitness type place. When he came to a proper boxing gym I think he was a little bit intimidated walking in to start with. He got in and sparred and when he got out he said, ‘It’s not what I thought.’ I take my hat off to the kid. He had a go and realised it wasn’t what he wanted. It’s far better to do that than waste his money on medical and then find out it wasn’t for him after one fight.”
Gargano persevered. Four weeks later he returned to Newark and made the trip home to Manchester with better news. He may not have managed to win any of his 52 professional fights but can take pride in the fact that he conquered his nerves and performed well enough to follow in the footsteps of his father, well known journeyman Des Gargano, and earn a licence. He and Thompson were two of the last boxers to take part in the trial bouts. A few years ago, the modern claim culture meant that Smith had to reluctantly call time on a practice that was actually designed to safeguard its participants by ensuring they were capable of surviving in a dangerous industry.
“It was all down to insurance ultimately,” he said. “After the discussions I had with insurance companies in regards to it, it was impractical to carry on unfortunately. They told us we needed to have ambulances and anaesthetists there in case there was an injury. We looked at lots and lots of different alternatives and the best we could come up with was the gym assessment. It’s not perfect but it does give you an idea of what somebody has been doing.
“We send our officials – usually two of them – to a local gym where the boxers are training and watch them workout on the bags and pads and see how they train. You get an idea of whether somebody can look after themselves properly and aren’t going to get too hurt. We aren’t expecting to see future world champions or British champions – even area champions – but you get an idea of whether they can look after themselves or not.
“I have to say, personally, that I’m disappointed. I think you get a better gauge of what somebody is capable of by seeing them sparring. We tried to keep it going but we just couldn’t. It was a good thing, we can’t do it anymore, so we’ve bought something in as near as we possibly can to it.”
BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
When boxing does eventually return, it is inevitable that the first events will take place with only a smattering of spectators. There aren’t many moments of comfort in professional boxing but performing behind closed doors removes all of the factors that help desensitise a fighter to the situation at hand and distract from the true nature of what is about to happen.
A dressing room normally filled with jokes and encouragement from supportive teammates will be much emptier and there will be no ego-boosting ring walk. The business will be stripped back to the bare bones fighting another man for money. It is a situation which some fighters may find to easier to adapt to than others.
The lack of fans will also drastically reduce the amount of money in the pot and make it difficult to secure platforms for the sport’s bigger names. Promising young fighters like Thompson will be in demand. Although fighting a live opponent on television is a world away from the trial bout he came through, he relished having to perform under intense pressure and would love to do it again.
“I can 100 per cent say I’d miss the X-Factor and entertainment factor of all the stuff that goes with a fight because that’s who I am. At the same time I kind of think that I’d relish the idea of being locked behind closed doors with my opponent and having a fight,” he said. “I think that would be pretty special to be honest. That really is the art of war isn’t it? Two people having an honest conversation. It would take a different mindset and you’d have to approach it in a different way and it might not hit you until you were actually behind the doors. It really is fight or flight. You know what? I’d love it.
“I think the people who are only used to boxing on the big events – even amateurs who have a really good pedigree – might find it hard. I came from unlicensed and small halls so I’m sort of used to small crowds. It wouldn’t be that different for me.
“I think it would do boxing a lot of good. The sport hasn’t really got that much traction. There aren’t a lot of boxing purists who watch every single show. At a time like this when there isn’t any other sport on, if you showed fights behind closed doors I think it’d bring new fans to boxing and bring the sport on as a whole. It’d only benefit the sport.”