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The Class of 2008

Action Images/Brandon Malone
GB had a ground-breaking team at Beijing 2008. John Dennen caught up with them all a decade after their Olympic Games

TIME varies its pace. Two minutes is an eternity, when that round dictates your future. And 10 years, before you know it, is suddenly gone. “It’s mad to think it was 10 years. It’s scary how quick them 10 years have gone,” says David Price, the Beijing 2008 super-heavyweight. Success in Olympic sport matters. The team’s funding depended on it. The medals won by Audley Harrison in 2000 and Amir Khan in 2004 were crucial steps along the way to ensuring the well-funded, successful GB boxing team the country has today. But Beijing 2008 was a breakthrough moment. Khan had been the only member of the boxing team at the previous Olympic Games. In contrast by 2008 Terry Edwards’ squad qualified eight boxers for the tournament in Beijing. Three of those athletes would win medals, lead by James DeGale who won middleweight gold on August 23 2008.

DeGale looks back on the journey to the gold medal

“He got in the clinch, he put his head on my chest and he bit me. He bit me.”

The GB team for the 2008 Olympics Action Images

Boxing in an Olympic final, against the leading Cuban at the highest level, the last thing you expect is to be bitten. “The ref didn’t know what was happening,” DeGale reflected. “He was frustrated, [Emilio Correa], I was getting points, jab, jab, back hand, moving, moving.”

DeGale hadn’t come into this tournament tipped for gold. The stars of the team were David Price and Frankie Gavin, the latter Britain’s first World amateur champion. In his innermost thoughts, the Harlesden boxer had hoped to bag a bronze medal. When he saw the draw, he feared he wouldn’t even be able to manage that.

But something changed along the way. In the last 16, in the contest just before DeGale’s bout, Kazakhstan’s Bakhtiyar Artayev upset Matvey Korobov, the hot favourite at middleweight. DeGale suddenly thought, “Yes, I could beat Artayev. It’s weird how we work… I’m confident then.”

Even though Artayev was a welterweight gold medallist from the previous Olympics and had defeated DeGale in the past, the Londoner was sure he could take their quarter-final. In fact DeGale had previously lost to all his opponents in the quarter-final, semi-final and the final. But he got it right when it counted. “Prior to the Olympics, Emilio Correa beat me twice, Darren Sutherland beat me four times and Artayev beat me once,” DeGale said. “You’ve got to be on form. The draw has to be right. You have to have a little bit of luck with the judging and all that. Everything was just right for me. That couple of weeks of competition everything just fell into place and everything was perfect.”

He is full of admiration for Darren Sutherland, his semi-final opponent. The Irishman died tragically later in 2009. “As a pro, he would have made it,” James said.

DeGale had realised his dream against Correa in the final. “It was a scrappy fight, it wasn’t the best to watch but it was entertaining because it was [close] all the way through. I was up one point, he was up one point, all the way through it was back and forth, back and forth,” he said. “The team spirit being a part of team GB, it was a fantastic experience and that will live with me for the rest of my life. To go to the Olympic Games and win the Olympic gold medal, going down in history with the likes of Muhammad Ali, Lennox Lewis, Oscar De La Hoya, Pernell Whitaker, it’s just, no one could ever take that away from you.”

It was a shock to come back feted for the achievement. “I struggled a little bit. I struggled with the media,” he said. “I was a 22-year-old boy, shoved in the limelight, cameras in my face, Olympic champion, I didn’t know what was happening. Now I can deal with it a lot better. I’m a man, I’ve done it for 10 years.”

James DeGale represented his country as an amateur and a pro

He would also become Britain’s first Olympic boxing gold medallist to become a professional world champion.

Three of eight go on to become world champion

That ’08 team has produced three professional world champions. As well as DeGale, Billy Joe Saunders and Kal Yafai have both scaled the heights of the pro sport, the former winning the WBO middleweight crown, the latter taking the WBA super-flyweight belt.

Kal Yafai
Yafai was one of the Beijing Olympians to become a professional world champion Matchroom/Lawrence Lustig

For Yafai it’s been a long, steady climb to the top of the sport. Still only 29 years old, he was just a teenager when he qualified for Beijing 2008.

“Because I was so young, I was basically sent to the qualifying tournaments for the Beijing Olympics for experience because I was more the 2012 target. Then I just qualified,” Kal said.

He won his Olympic place at a tournament in Italy at the same time as DeGale. They celebrated the feat by spending all night on MySpace and MSN, the social media of the time.

The Games in China, particularly the Athletes Village, with free food, a 24-hour McDonald’s, arcades, were another world. “It was mad. It was brilliant,” he remembered. “The team spirit was brilliant. There were times when it could be havoc. With them kind of characters, especially with the likes of Billy Joe who’s just hilarious, we had a lot of fun. But when it came to putting the work in and grafting, we did it.”

Yafai had the misfortune of being drawn against the Cuban, Andry Laffita, in his first bout. “He was able to switch it up on the biggest stage. He was experienced, he was in his 30s as well,” Kal said. But being part of that GB team was still a formative experience for him. “I knew how talented they were. I think it helped bring me along because I was only young. It made me mature quicker,” Yafai noted.

Nowadays amateur boxing for elite men is more similar to the pros, contested without headguards over three three-minute rounds on a 10-point must scoring system. But then it was four-twos with computer scoring and so made for a much harder transition to professional boxing.

For Billy Joe Saunders it was a formative experience too. “I was 18 years old at the Olympics. A lot of people didn’t think I was going to qualify. I really had to fight for my spot because there was a good boxer called Neil Perkins on the Olympic team, he was tipped to go. I pipped him to the post in the second qualifier and I went to the Olympic Games and I haven’t looked back since. I feel that if I had won the Olympic Games, then I don’t think that I would have actually become world champion,” Billy Joe said. “I had plenty and bundles and bags of talent to win the competition. I could have been a bit more grown up about it, it was like a big funfair to me, looking around and sightseeing and going to the Olympic Village.”

His defeat, to Cuba’s Carlos Banteux, in China taught him a valuable lesson. “It was a big wake up call when I got beat there. The silver medallist and the gold medallist boxed in the final, the Cuban and the Kazakh [Bakhyt Sarsekbayev]. I actually beat both of them nine weeks before the Olympics in the Strandja Cup,” he said. “I came away from [Beijing] and I thought about the Olympics every single night until I won the world title. That’s the only time I could let it actually go.”

He never wanted to lose again, and hasn’t yet. “I never wanted to go to bed feeling like that again. It was tears going to sleep and on that plane ride home thinking I’m a loser. So much was expected of me and I let everyone down in my own head. That didn’t leave me until I won the world title,” Saunders said.

Billy Joe was the subject of a bizarre controversy when the ABA announced, mid Olympics, seemingly to destabilise the GB boxing team, that he’d be suspended for a disciplinary infraction that had taken place months prior. He was happy to leave the politics of amateur boxing behind when he turned pro.

“[With Terry Edwards] I found out straightaway it was his way or the highway, which again was very, very good for me. Because I needed that sort of trainer and the full squad did. I don’t think the ABA actually liked that,” Saunders said. “I feel they were very jealous of Terry Edwards’ success. I just had that feeling.”

He sighed, “For your country and everything else you want everything to be spot on.”

The intense pressure of Olympic competition revealed

At the World championships the year before the Beijing Olympics both Joe Murray and Bradley Saunders had won bronze medals, rare feats for British boxers. They went into the Games with high expectations.

Ahead of the tournament Bradley had beaten the reigning light-welterweight champion Manus Boonjumnong (in an amateur career that also included wins over other Olympic gold medallists Daniyar Yeleussinov and Aleksei Tishchenko as well). But in the two minutes of his first round with Alexis Vastine, everything changed for him. Panic started to set in. “I shouldn’t have been down. I should have been up,” he said. “If I was up that first round then he would have to start chasing me.

“I was just playing catch up after that.”

Bradley Saunders
Bradley Saunders found it harder to adapt to pro boxing Action Images

Saunders did eventually turn professional. He looked good in his early bouts but ultimately struggled with injury and frustration, retiring with a 13-1 record. “I always wish I had just stopped [as an] amateur. It is a lot different as a professional. You’ve got to train a lot harder, away from your family a lot more, sparring’s a lot longer and it’s a lot lonelier. It’s a lonely sport anyway, obviously you fight by yourself. But as a professional you’re not part of a team as such,” he said.

It’s the Olympic team that he remembers. “We had a scream as kids growing up, travelling the world and getting paid to do so,” he said. “We’ve been everywhere, everywhere round the world, there’s not many countries we haven’t been to as kids growing up, it’s going to be the best memories of my life.”

Life as a professional boxer has not been easy for Joe Murray either. Most recently he lost a British title challenge to Lewis Ritson inside a round and is now waiting for another opportunity. Back in 2008 he knew well the value of an Olympic medal. They had all seen Amir Khan become a superstar four years earlier.

Murray though met the host nation’s Gu Yu in his opening contest. “It was a close fight, he got the nod. He showed he was a good fighter,” Joe reflected. “He got the decision, it was a probably a blessing for me in disguise.

“I’d have to come back out and I’d have been straight in a sweatsuit with no food or drink having to make weight again. These were the limits we were pushing ourselves to try and be the best at our sport.”

He had pushed his body to the edge just to get to that bout. “Going into the Olympics I was struggling making weight, I collapsed,” Murray recalled. “I was in the dorm in Chinese Taipei, I was making weight, I got off the bed too fast, I went dead dizzy and I just collapsed. I fell downwards like a building, I fell on top of my legs and ripped all the ligaments in the knee.

Joe Murray
Joe Murray treasures his Olympic memories Action Images

But Murray made sure he got there. He went with Tony Jeffries to the spectacular Opening Ceremony. It was a special moment. “I don’t think you could buy anything like that or do anything like that. I think it was one of the highlights of getting to the Olympics,” Murray said.

‘It was the best thing that ever happened to us’

TONY Jeffries was one of the success stories to come out of Beijing. He did well to win a bronze medal, losing his light-heavyweight semi-final to Ireland Ken Egan. He turned pro with much anticipation but would struggle, hand injuries ultimately ended his career after just 10 bouts.

“The high just stops. That’s what it was like when I retired from boxing. I wasn’t getting that high anymore. It just stopped and then I realised I was never, ever going to reach the high of standing on the Olympic podium again. In life I was never going to reach that high again,” he says.

Tony Jeffries has found peace after boxing Action Images

But if he under-achieved as a pro, he has been remarkably successful after boxing. Jeffries set up two thriving gyms in Los Angeles and is now based in America. He said of the Olympics adventure, “It was the best thing that happened to us.”

His fellow bronze medallist, David Price is still fighting. His professional career could and should have gone a very different course. Yet he suffered stoppage defeats to Tony Thompson and Erkan Teper, both of whom failed drug tests and Price struggled to recapture momentum.

His Olympics began well. Drawn against the Russian, Islam Timurziev, a star in the division, Price, the captain of the GB team, knocked him out. “I remember Joe Murray having a little go at me because I showed a little negativity to my draw, I was supposed to be leading by example but I couldn’t hide my disappointment. It’s back against the wall time, try and get the job done. Which I did,” David remembered. But that “was like my gold medal match. It was that much of a high to come down from it and get back up again, I found it difficult.”

He reached the semi-final where eventual champion Roberto Cammarelle stopped Price in two. “It haunted me, trying to figure out what went wrong,” he said. “Probably until I won the British title, then I kind of let it go. It took a long time to even come to terms with getting the bronze because I was that disappointed.” But he adds, “10 years now. F**king hell. I’d love to do it again, with this mindset and go and enjoy it properly.”

David Price
David Price has had a trying professional career Action Images

Gavin’s disappointment

DAVID Price wasn’t the only boxer in China to experience bitter disappointment. Frankie Gavin, the star of the team, just couldn’t make the weight. He did not box in Beijing. “That was a big blow to team morale as well because he was World champion at the time,” Price recalls.

Frankie explains, “I just grew. I went to three tournaments at the weight above, I won the gold medal in all three of them, I was boxer of the tournament in all three of them. I beat the number two in the world twice at light-welterweight and I would have beat the number one.

“It didn’t backfire because I won the World title, it still backfired because I didn’t get to go to the Olympics.”

Frankie Gavin
Frankie Gavin was Britain’s first amateur world champion Action Images

The experience stayed with him beyond that. “When I stopped killing myself and starving the weight didn’t come off as much. I’ve done things wrong,” he says. “It is what it is.

“I’ve got to make the most of what I’ve got left.”

But for all of them, they have a special bond. “We’re old friends, we grew up together like old school friends. Most of that team came up from the Juniors together,” Gavin said. “We were all there the whole way. It’s mad when you look now where some of us have gone, where some of us haven’t gone.”

Jeffries, who was ringside to watch Kal Yafai’s latest world title fight, echoes the sentiment, “I’m really proud of them all. James DeGale has done well. David Price has done well, he gets criticised off lots of idiots, he’s done amazing. Everyone’s done really well. Billy Joe Saunders is another one, smashed it. We had a really, really good team. Frankie Gavin, he qualified but never went to the Olympics, he’s been on a bit of a rollercoaster. Bradley Saunders retired but then he had bad hands. I know Joe Murray lost to Ritson, we got three world champions [as pros]. That’s amazing, that really is,” he said.

“It doesn’t feel long ago at all,” he concludes.

“The time’s went by so fast.”

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