Upon first inspection, super-featherweight boxer Martin J Ward has much in common with many fellow Irish travellers. He spent his childhood alternating between caravans and houses, England and Ireland, left secondary school three years early to start working and, from a very young age, cultivated an affinity with boxing. So far, so reinforcing of stereotypes.
Now a mature 27, Ward lives in a plush apartment with his partner of eight years and is both unmarried and childless, rare freedoms enjoyed by a man of his age in the Travelling community. Ward is influenced far more by his family than the wider group, however, and they have always encouraged him to go his own way. So has trainer Tony Sims, with whom Ward has worked for over a decade and enjoys a close relationship.
“He’d always drill into my head small things that stuck with me,” Ward tells me over the phone from his flat in Grays, where he resides with Hannah, a beautician. “He thought it was mental that all travellers got married young but I did too; it’s ridiculous really but it’s what some of them believe. Tony had a big influence on what direction I was going in, he would always know how to get to you psychologically. My family supported me in boxing, but my mum and dad, they are a bit like, ‘It’s the 21st century now, enjoy yourself, do your own thing.’”
Martin’s parents were huge boxing fans long before he and his two brothers first donned a pair of gloves. During a period when the family were living in Dublin, the pair sat ringside enthralled by Prince Naseem Hamed as he decimated Mexican warhorse Manuel Medina. Oldest sibling, Bobby, was the first to fight and Martin, four years younger, would trail in his wake, watching him at various gyms. He started at London’s famous Repton club, aged seven, and never really looked back, even when Bobby, the last Englishman to defeat Amir Khan in the amateurs, and their younger, eminently talented brother Johnny, both fell by the wayside.
“I was brought up around boxing,” he recalls, warmly. “I was born in Leeds, my mum and dad used to travel about; one brother was born in London, one in Manchester, and my older sister Roseanna in Dublin. We settled in Brentwood when I was around 10 years old and my other sister, Isabella, was born seven years after me.
“When I was born they were living in a trailer, we had a house in Ireland but travelled about in trailers; I’ve lived in houses quite a lot in my life. I’d been to a lot of different schools until we stayed in Brentwood and me dad bought land; we’ve stayed here ever since. Mum and dad have a house, but in summer time we’d go out in caravans.
“I left school after Year 8. I was decent at boxing and was working with my dad; for young travelling boys it’s about leaving and earning a few quid. I pushed work to one side when I got more serious about boxing. I always thought that’d be the one but as a young travelling boy you have to go out and earn money as well and I was never lazy, just thinking I was gonna make it. I used to do ground working, block paving, me dad’s done it all his life. I know what I’m doing.
“Bobby started off boxing in Ireland, then we moved over to England, went to Repton. He got beat by Amir Khan by a split on a club show, then beat Khan in the Schoolboy finals. Bobby got married very young, 17 or 18, like most travelling people, and a couple of years later was having kids. He couldn’t do it all and provide for his family. Johnny got to 38-0, won Schoolboys, Golden Gloves etc, got to about 15 and the diet was killing him coz he’s quite a big lad and he didn’t enjoy it. He had all the talent in the world but not the discipline, and as soon as he got big enough to say he’d had enough, he said it; he’s quite a strong-minded boy. Bobby runs a building business now, Johnny owns properties and does well for himself. Johnny was basically like a wild child, a bit of a nutcase, but he was probably the best of us all. I’m a little bit more level-headed, but I always wanted to reach the top.”
Martin had initially followed Bobby to Repton but after a two-year sojourn in Ireland, joined Dagenham upon the family’s return. He felt comfortable there and represented Dagenham for his first three amateur bouts but when the now-teenage Bobby wanted to accelerate his own progress back at the decorated Bethnal Green association, Martin was brought along for the ride, initially not altogether happily.
“At Dagenham I was in me comfort zone, I didn’t like Repton at the start,” Ward reflects. “But I came round, loved it and then there was no getting me away. All the trainers and a lot of the travelling boys there… all the dads could watch the sparring and I used to like that. Repton had a really big, high ring so you’d literally have to hang on the ring to see kids finish; you could be waiting 45 minutes for a spar sometimes and all the champions on the side of this ring… it really was brilliant, being amongst them used to get me better.”
Ward joined the GB Development squad not long after he began working with Sims. After winning a raft of junior titles and international medals, he was called up and spent Thursday-Sunday, every other week, in Sheffield. The supposed ‘off’ weekends were spent with Sims at a thriving pro facility local to Martin’s home. He enjoyed the best of both worlds, a dynamic only enhanced when he graduated to the Podium squad in 2009. Now training every Monday-Thursday with the national team coaches under new Performance Director Rob McCracken, Ward was able to learn the pro tips and tricks under the head honcho’s good friend, Sims, every weekend.
“The Podium squad was a lot more heavy duty, like a job basically,” he recalls. “You would live in Sheffield and train as an athlete. I got picked to go to the Beijing Olympics just to watch; it was me for England, Fred Evans for Wales and Rocky Wright for Scotland. I loved it, thinking, ‘This is what I do it all for and one day it’ll be me.’
“Tony Burns at Repton loved me being up there as I was representing Repton. When I’d come back down he’d smile like a Cheshire cat when I was sparring. I was staying sharp and fit at all times; living the life. I also loved training with Tony Sims as an amateur, I loved the pro style, the shoulder rolling and blocking. I used to get warned a bit for rolling me head in international tournaments, I’d be bobbing and weaving like a pro and the referees would tell me off quite a lot, but I couldn’t wait to go pro with Tony.”
Ironically, that rapid acquisition of the pro style would lead, indirectly, to his turning over with Sims and Matchroom. At the 2011 World Championships, Ward was leading his opponent Robson Conceição, by a point with mere seconds to go. The winner would get the dubious distinction of meeting Vasyl Lomachenko in the quarter-finals but, more importantly to a 20-year-old who had long dreamed of representing his country at the Olympics, they would also secure their passage to the following year’s London showcase. Nearing the end of the bout, Ward was docked two points for using one of his pro-style moves – ducking low – and suffered the heartbreak of a pivotal setback.
His family comforted him as best they could and, when it became clear he would not be going to another qualifier, Martin decided to push on in a new direction. Ward won his first six pro fights, barely breaking a sweat in the process, before a disastrous incident, albeit one that could have been far worse, temporarily derailed the journey. In August 2013 Ward and brother Johnny were both shot after a “neighbour dispute” on a Traveller site in Essex. Johnny was caught in the thigh, while Martin, the aspiring boxer, felt the shoulder blade shatter on his left, jabbing arm. Miraculously, Ward was back training in weeks and returned to the ring, still winning, in less than four months. Galvanised rather than broken by the incident, Ward went on to secure a British title outright and add Commonwealth and European belts, all within the next four years.
“I’ve had a couple of good nights,” he says, understating a wonderful run. “Winning the British title was a big thing for me and winning it outright was special too. The performance I put in against Andy Townend [w rsf 8] was good. To win it outright against Anthony Cacace [w pts 12, July 2017] was nice but I think people started taking a bit more notice of me when I knocked out Juli Giner [w KO 6, in December] for the vacant European title. In saying that the rematch with Maxi Hughes [ w rtd 5 in 2015] was a big step too. We had a draw then I fought him near his hometown straight after, which was a big psychological thing. I had a couple of tricky British title defences, I had styles that weren’t the easiest to look good against; Ronnie Clark, Hughes and Cacace were all southpaws, quite tricky kids and styles didn’t really gel. I just had to get the ‘W’. Giner was a stocky, orthodox fighter who I thought would walk onto everything, so I had a platform to show I could do more.”
Just when everything was going right again, it suddenly went wrong. Facing twice-beaten James Tennyson in May, with the winner likely to secure a world title shot, Ward dropped his opponent in the dying embers of the second round, but could not close the show and was himself decked twice in the fifth and finished off. As Tennyson prepared to challenge IBF king Tevin Farmer on October 20, Ward found his own ambitions, or at least the timescale for their being achieved, needing to be reassessed.
“The defeat never sunk in during the first few weeks,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘It’s happened now, what can I do?’ Obviously it hurt me. I went on holiday with Hannah, and I couldn’t enjoy myself whatsoever. We came back and it really did sink in; it was literally horrible for two months after that. I was all over the place, I didn’t know what I was doing. As soon as I got back in the gym, the last month has been so much better, I’m more determined. Hopefully it will turn out to be a blessing in disguise and it never happens again. I’ve always been determined but I think it's realising how much it means to you when it’s taken away from you for a while; it’s focused me.”
Ward has always lived to the beat of his own drum with boxing and his family being the two reliable constants. Now, as he rebuilds for the arduous journey ahead, starting with a comeback bout on October 27 at the Copper Box in London, he needs both more than ever.