THE end is never expected. A fighter, especially one who has enjoyed success, wants to keep going. The determination, which drove them through the hard years of their career, spurs them forward. It will encourage them to continue on regardless. But reality has to bite.
After losing to Sean “Masher” Dodd, Thomas Stalker knew it was over.
“I said before the fight if he beats me I won’t fight again, because I still say now that he’s not the best fighter. So to beat me what does that make me?” Stalker tells Boxing News. “I looked at myself in the mirror and I thought I’m not going to get past British level, European level. I’m not going to be in a fight for a world title. I don’t think I was good enough to fight for a world title. So I thought why take the punches? When there’s life after boxing.”
“I was thinking before the fight there’s no way he’ll beat me. But when I was in there it was a close fight and he was just nicking the rounds. I thought I was doing better than what I was doing and I was losing. He beat me, he was the better man, the better man beat me. I still say for ‘Masher’ Dodd to beat you, that just sums up my career,” he added. “In Liverpool, he’s from Birkenhead. It was lucky I moved to bloody Marbella because it would have been hard!”
His management company MTK were also offering him a role as a scout. He took it. “I looked at myself in the mirror after that fight I thought I’m only going to keep taking the punches for what? To be a British champion? Because that’s all I was going to be. I don’t think I was going to do much more. I thought I’d keep my health. I’ve got four kids, I’ve got a good family, I’ve got a good job. That’s why I decided to go that way,” he explained.
It is still a hard admission for a proud man to make. He had never expected to find himself in this position, finishing with a record spotted with draws to Tommy Carus and Craig Evans, and losses to Jack Catterall as well as Evans and Dodd.
Stalker was not a world beater as pro. He had been though an amateur. There was a time when he was Britain’s most decorated amateur boxer, with medals from the World and European championships as well as the Commonwealth Games. In 2010 he was a key part of Rob McCracken’s GB team. His success at the European championships of that year represented a turning point for that new-look squad. “When I beat [Domenico] Valentino I got out the ring I was crying with emotion, because I knew I beat the World champion,” Stalker said. “I’d done it.”
He also defeated boxers who would go on to become hugely successful professionals. Stalker handed Jeff Horn a one-sided drubbing at the Gee Bee tournament in Finland. “I beat him 21-4 or something. If someone had said seven years later he’s going to fight Pacquiao and become a world champion I would have gone what?! Do you know what I mean?” Stalker says with a smile.
Josh Taylor, a unified super-lightweight world champion now, is probably the best boxer in Britain right now and the finest in his division. Stalker beat him twice, in the Commonwealth Games final and edging him out in the first GB championships in Liverpool. “He was winning going into the last round,” Stalker recalled of that one. “I knew back then he was going to go on and do big things, Josh, the way he had that pro style and all that. He’s a great fighter.
“I am proud of him.”
Stalker credits the success of that London 2012 team to the structure Rob McCracken put in place as performance director. But there was also a remarkable constellation of talent in that squad. At the time though Stalker, the captain, was a leading figure of the team. His room-mates back then were Anthony Joshua and Callum Smith, elite world champions now but back then Stalker was ahead of them in the amateur game. “I should have made them more cups of tea!” he laughs.
“You can never look at other people’s paths and say that could have been me. Everyone’s on their own path,” he adds. “You can never compare yourself to anyone. Everyone’s on their own journey in life.”
His progress through boxing has brought him a long way. “16 years ago I was robbing cars,” he reflects. He went from there to captaining the GB team, no mean feat. But of all his disappointments, the London 2012 defeat still remains the most acute. “The only loss that hurt me more than anything was the Olympics, getting beat by a point for a medal. That kills me to this day,” he said.
After that, he could not bring himself to do it all again. He couldn’t face it, even though GB offered him the chance to develop into a coach if he stayed for the next Olympics. “I couldn’t have done another four year cycle and go through the whole competitions and everything. [I thought] I can’t do that again,” he said. “Looking back if I’d done another cycle I don’t think I’d be in the position I’m at now.
“Turned pro, it still worked out for me in a better way. I’ve experienced that. I’m at a stage in my life where I’m pushing on to do good things with all the fighters coming through. I have got a good eye for it because I’ve seen it all.”
He has experienced the different sides of professional boxing. When he turned pro he got the star treatment. He headlined his debut show, ‘Stalker and The Prizefighters’ if you remember that 2013 bill at York Hall, with Audley Harrison in a heavyweight Prizefighter tournament on the undercard.
“Eddie Hearn gave me the big dressing room. In the other room, all the heavyweights were in there, Audley Harrison as well, all in one room warming up. I had the big one. But that’s just boxing. When you’re the star attraction it’s all for you. But when you’re not doing so well… That’s what I say to fighters, it’s alright when you’re doing well and everything’s going good, but then boxing if you lose, I think when you do lose, take a defeat, you do need a good team behind you to get you back where you’re going. Pro boxing’s a business. So if you don’t sell tickets, you’ve got to be a superstar,” he said.
Stalker also worked with promoter Frank Warren, the other major promoter in the UK. He was well looked after. His first stumbling block was a crushing defeat to Jack Catterall but that was a match he chose himself. “The story with Jack, I’d done a lot of sparring with him before it. I chose to fight him over Chris Jenkins. They said box Chris Jenkins for the British [title] or Catterall for the WBO [European], I thought I’ll get a world ranking and go that way. I thought it would be an easier fight because I done a lot of sparring with him. [In the fight] he was hitting me with the jab in the first round and I thought f****** hell. But he’s gone on to do good things,” Tom said. “Losing for the first time to Jack, when you get beat it’s a hard sport. I had a good following, I always sold good tickets, even when I got beat. I had real good, strong support. But selling the tickets, it’s hard.”
There’s the stinging criticism, that frequently descends to abuse, which boxers now have to endure from social media. But worst of all Stalker was having to confront new limitations. He was not what he had imagined himself to be. The taxing fights to follow reinforced that unwelcome understanding. “It gets you down. Going from being one of the best fighters in the world, going and turning pro and not have that and it’s not nice,” he said ruefully. “I had three good fights with Evans and then the ‘Masher’ Dodd thing was probably the icing on the cake.”
It had to end but he is still trying to work out why. “I can’t put my finger on it, all I can say is in all my fights I’ve trained as hard as I could. I was always dedicated and I lived the life,” he says. “Maybe I was just a three-round fighter. Basically I think I was. I was fit, I could do the rounds. Something just wasn’t right.”
“I just couldn’t put my finger on it why I couldn’t do it in the pros. I was fit, I had a decent enough chin, I had my amateur background. I don’t know what it was. I don’t know if it was my concentration over the rounds. Three rounds, you’re throwing punches, that was great for me because I’m a hyper person anyway. You’ve got think a lot more in the pros,” he continued.
‘Maybe I was just a three-round fighter. I think I was. I was fit, I could do the rounds. Something just wasn’t right’
“You’ve got to think and you’ve got to mix it up, it’s more like chess. I think over nine minutes I was one of the best in the world. In the pros it was a different sport. I found out first-hand that it’s a different sport.”
He resisted the temptation to attempt a final, farewell fight. In boxing there can always be one last time. “If I’d have had one more fight I’d have thought I’ve still got it,” he says. “I won’t make excuses for not doing well as a pro. That was my own fault. I couldn’t do it in the pros. I’ll always be in good fights, because I’m not a big puncher I’d be in hard fights all the time. After the ‘Masher’ Dodd fight, the next day I went to put money in the bank, I couldn’t think, I was concussed. It took me a couple of days [to get back to normal]. I honestly believe if I carried on boxing another two years I’d be punchy. I’m dozy anyway.
“It’s only now you look back on it and think frigging hell I definitely made the right choice.”
His consolation is that he gave it his all. “At least I’ve had a good go. I can say, you know what, I tried my best in the pros but it didn’t really quite work out. Like Josh Taylor, there are a lot of good fighters who became world champions who I beat in the amateurs. If I wouldn’t have turned pro [I’d have thought] I could be a world champion. It hasn’t quite worked out,” he said. “All you can ever say to yourself is I tried.”
“I’ve been there and done it,” he concluded. “It’s nice to sit here as a scout and look at the future.”