Feature | Jun 19 2019

Tommy Philbin: ‘Do speak up. Take all the help you can get. Help will make you better’

Tommy Philbin remembers Connor Law and reflects on his own struggles. He speaks to George Storr
Tommy Philbin
Action Images

UNDEFEATED champion Tommy Philbin has been boxing since he was a nine years old, competing in over 100 amateur bouts before taking to the pro ranks. But he’s facing a fiercer opponent than any he’s met in the ring. The Edinburgh man has been coping with depression and now is back on the campaign trail with his sights firmly set on a British title.

He’s been forced out of the sport twice by his mental health. The first hiatus came in 2017, surprisingly after the Scot’s career best win. Philbin claimed the Celtic super middleweight title in a barnstorming 10 round bout against Rhys Pagan and then disappeared from the sport for almost a year. The newly crowned Celtic champ returned in June 2018. He stopped Dominic Landgraf in a round, and then went missing again, for a whole year this time.

“I was already diagnosed with depression and all that stuff,” said Philbin. “Then I fought Landgraf at the Hydro when Josh [Taylor] fought Victor Postol. That was my first fight for nearly a year then. After that fight, and after my fight with Pagan, I was thinking things will kick off from here, my career will kick start, but it never did. That really got to me as well.

Tommy Philbin
Tommy Philbin boxing Kelvin Young Action Images/Reuters/Peter Cziborra

“Before I fought Pagan, that was when it was really starting, in that fight leading up to the Pagan fight. But I didn’t really know what it was.”

During a turbulent couple of years, Philbin has been hospitalised as a result of his depression. The lifestyle he lived in order to box was, he says, a major contributor to that dangerous mental state.

“I’ve got a mortgage, I’ve got a family. I can’t live off boxers’ wages because it’s peanuts really,” said the Scot. “For what you do you’re getting paid nothing, at my level anyway. Obviously at a higher level it’s different.

“What I got paid for a 10 week camp and then the fight, I walk away with more than that from two months in my work.

The reality is that boxers who compete and also work a day job don’t just have two professions, they have three. All of which are stressful. They work, they box and then, once every few months, they have to become astute, charismatic salesmen, in order to shift tickets.

“So you’re working, you’re training, you’ve got families to look after, so sometimes you’re not in touch with people. You haven’t spoken to your friends for a while and then when you do speak to them, it’s ‘do you want to buy tickets?’ and they’re like ‘Oh aye? You only get in touch when you want me to buy something off you?’ But that’s unfortunately how it is. You have to sell tickets in this game.”

Recently the boxing public received a sharp reminder of just how dangerous mental health issues can be. Connor Law took his own life after tweeting, just days before, that friends were helping him through “a tough time”.

“He mentioned it to me, just wee bits,” said Philbin, “not in any great detail, about having a bit of a struggle himself, but I never ever expected this and to be honest I’m a bit heartbroken about it. I was only sparring him a few weeks ago and he seemed alright, but…” He tailed off, understandably emotional.

For Tommy Philbin there is some light visible at the end of the tunnel. He goes into his second bout of 2019 on Saturday (June 22) and, while a boxer’s lifestyle may have contributed to the issues in first place, the routine of boxing training has been part of making things better.

A big step in Tommy’s recovery was admitting that he needed help. “There really is nothing to be embarrassed about,” Philbin said. “I mean, if you broke your leg you wouldn’t be boxing. If you broke your arm you wouldn’t be boxing. The only thing is, is it’s not visible. People say, ‘Why have you not been boxing?’ and they can’t see anything wrong with you so they don’t understand. People shouldn’t be embarrassed. Just speak up. Take all the help you can get. Help will make you better. Have good people by your side and aye, do stuff that makes you happy.”

Looking forwards, Tommy has big ambitions and has been talking about winning a Lonsdale belt for years. That fire of ambition still burns bright. Philbin said, “[Zach] Parker for the British. That’s the fight I want. I reckon I’ve got the beating of Parker and I just want a British title. Name a more beautiful belt in boxing? I can’t. I’d look at it on my mantle-piece every day.” It “still bugs” Philbin too that his countryman Rhys Pagan got a shot at the WBO European belt, against Lerrone Richards, just a month after suffering defeat to Philbin. Many would argue Philbin should have had the shot. He certainly does.

‘I can’t live off boxers’ wages because it’s peanuts really. For what you do you’re getting paid nothing, at my level anyway’

The Edinburgh man listed Richards as a potential future opponent though and believes an all-Scottish clash against his friend, David Brophy, could sell well to Scottish boxing fans.

With the tragedy of Connor Law in mind, it’s uplifting to see a fighter like Philbin, who’s been open about his own mental health, speaking with positivity and ambition and stepping back into the ring. His advice rings true too. “Just take all the help you can get,” he says. “I can be good today but tomorrow I could be really bad. It’s just there’s plenty of help out there, I always say that to people.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal feelings or mental health problems, there is advice and support out thereIn the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, 24 hours a day. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org