Robin Dupre

Boxing, me and Robin Dupre

Published On Wednesday, October 3, 2018By Danny Flexen

Robin Dupre speaks to Danny Flexen about dyslexia, bodies beautiful and opponent Chris Billam Smith

It was December 2014 and Christmas beckoned. I was neither calm nor bright, however. Embracing a rare opportunity to attend a small-hall show purely as a fan, I attacked the VIP bar in Southwark with a relish that reflected the gluttony typical of the festive period. By the time 5-0 Dagenham cruiserweight Robin Dupre emerged for his four-rounder against plucky journeyman Mitch Mitchell, I was ever so slightly inebriated. My companion, whose inhibitions had dropped further than my own, was becoming increasingly vocal so when I decided I had the gameplan to guide Dupre to a fabulous victory, my whispered words of wisdom were swiftly – and loudly – relayed to the man himself. He acknowledged the sage advice throughout and, following a hard-fought 40-37 win, my masterplan having presumably proved pivotal, Dupre thanked us both for the support, before we all went on to enjoy a merry Christmas.

Alcohol aside, I am not entirely sure what made Dupre, undefeated back then, the cause I chose to champion that night. With a pale, fleshy torso and long hair made straggly by the sweat of battle, Dupre boasted a certain earnestness and humility that was – and remains – endearing. If I’d have known then, however, even half of his tumultuous backstory, I might have gone the whole hog, joined Dupre’s corner and pushed him all the way to a stoppage.

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> Growing up in East Ham as an undiagnosed dyslexic before the condition was widely understood, Dupre unsurprisingly struggled in formal education. His parents’ separation only exacerbated Robin’s difficulty at school and the second eldest of six siblings was sent to a dedicated behavioural unit, where life skills and self-respect were prioritised above algebra and iambic pentameter.

“It was a last-resort school,” he reflects. Dupre is candid and perfectly amiable but delivers his light, Essex-inflected words at a hundred miles per hour, one-sentence questions are frequently met by two-page answers. “I can’t read or write but I was shy of telling people at my old school and the teachers didn’t know how to handle it. I would try to explain but I felt they were making fun of me even if they weren’t. You would misbehave, end up in detention, meet other naughty kids there, and then you’d be bunking off together, getting into fights. I’m not proud of it.

“I had no guidance at home, no boundaries. My parents split, I stayed with my dad at first then went back and forward between them. It was a really hard time, my only older brother is disabled so I would be the one to take care of things. When you get home from school and someone sits you down to explain the rights and wrongs of life, I never had that. I was in a crew, I was always fighting on the street.”

Confused and prone to lashing out, Dupre was in need of a helping hand. He found several at the unit, spending three-month placements occupying different roles, from gardening to bricklaying, and talking with young, relatable mentors who were not permitted to be addressed as ‘Sir’. The idea was to endow the pupils with vocational training but also a sense of purpose, a concept that ultimately worked on Dupre, though perhaps not via the route its founders envisaged.

“When I was younger I wanted to be a WWF wrestler,” he chuckles, a little self-consciously, before revealing the truly shameful secret. “I actually went to a wrestling school in Canning Town and finding out just how fake it was really upset me. It was very hard and a fantastic experience, I really appreciate what the wrestlers go through, but it didn’t give me the pride I was looking for.

“I saw the first Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield fight as a kid and it stuck in my mind; I thought, ‘I might do a bit of boxing one day.’ When I said this as a teenager, I was told to speak to one of the mentors at the school, Finbar, who was also a trainer at Leyton [now County ABC], and it took off from there.

“I absolutely love boxing, it’s done wonders for me and saved me in so many different ways. It had that discipline, taught me how to behave and I couldn’t get in trouble, coz Finbar would know about it, so I had to behave at school, I couldn’t get arrested."

Boxing instilled the self-esteem and crucially the discipline Dupre craved. He represented Leyton as a Junior amateur, before moving further east to Dagenham at 18 when girlfriend Roxanne fell pregnant with their daughter, Mercedes, now 13 and combining streetwise skills learned from her father with the more conventional education he failed to complete.

Robin’s senior career at Dagenham under Mark Patrick saw him win the London finals and fall only to eventual national finalist, and the winner a year later, Greg Bridet. Dupre would lose again a fortnight later, in altogether stranger circumstances. Invited by the Repton head coach, Tony Burns, to don their famous green vest in Ireland against a local team, Dupre assumed the venerable trainer knew he was a heavyweight, having watched him fall to Bridet, so was stunned to be confronted by a super-heavy opponent on the Emerald Isle. Dupre nonetheless took the match, was, he believes, robbed of the decision and, with a young child to support and having toiled as a labourer alongside his chimney sweep father, among other jobs, deemed the time right to turn pro and make some decent money after a 45-bout unpaid tenure.

Now 31, running his own gym, Art of Boxing in Romford, and 13-1 (1) as a pro, Dupre has additional time to dedicate to his craft. After spells with former Commonwealth champion Chris Okoh, Dereck Grainger and Nigel Carroll, the Londoner is now back with Patrick, who got the best out of him in the Dagenham glory days and will hope the old magic remains potent. Their relatively recent reunion will need to bear fruit rapidly, as Dupre will meet 6-0 Shane McGuigan-helmed puncher Chris Billam Smith on October 13 in Bethnal Green, and their 10-rounder could be Robin’s latest last chance.

Carroll was in the corner for Dupre’s only pro defeat to date, a six-round stoppage against Luke Watkins in what had been a competitive contest for the vacant Commonwealth belt, last October. Dupre’s slick skills and deft movement proved superior early on but his energy stores emptied as the bigger, stronger Swindon man gradually imposed his will. He refuses to make excuses for the result though his disappointing performance, he says, was partly due to problems in preparing under the ailing Carroll.

“He fell ill with liver cancer and before the Watkins fight I didn’t train much,” Dupre recalls, his speech slowing for the first time, appropriate to the subject at hand. “He was in a really bad way at the time, he was having a lot of operations and I stayed with him as long as possible, but I wasn’t training enough.

“Watching it back, I wish I had kept it long, when I got too close to him that’s when he started landing big shots. He was a lot fitter than I was and I just ran out of steam. I learned from it. This fight’s a 10-rounder, and I’ve been sparring loads more.

“Luke Watkins was the better fighter on the night but there are things I could have done differently leading up to it, but Nigel just wasn’t well and he ain’t gonna get well…”

The tough call to leave Carroll, although as sadly inevitable as his friend’s deterioration, clearly still bothers Dupre. He is a loyal man, a reliable provider and not someone who abandons commitments lightly. He and Roxanne, a professional carer, have been together for 15 years and with both grafting to provide the best possible life for themselves and Mercedes, they have chosen not to add to their little family as yet. Robin finds having a teenage daughter sufficiently challenging, expressing a proud but beleaguered tone familiar to many fathers of girls.

“It’s murder, she’s so funny,” he tells me. “The three of us have got a Whatsapp group, she put up a picture of the trainers she wants for Christmas, they’re 400-or-something pound! I said, ‘You never know what Santa might bring you,’ and she said, ‘I hope Santa brings me an iPhone as well’; she’s absolutely bonkers. She’s tall as well, 5ft 10ins, taller than my missus [and only two inches shorter than her father]. It’s like living with another adult.

“She’s very smart, she gets in trouble a little bit but not too much and she can read and write very well; she actually laughs at me and helps me out! I’m very proud of her. What I lack in certain things that I can’t do, I make up for in other situations; whenever I’ve needed something I’ve managed to sort it out. I get by.”

Getting by is the dominant philosophy for this longtime survivor. He still cannot write particularly expansively and reading remains a trial. Dupre dodges forms, including contracts, if at all possible, and asks friends and family to help him when avoidance is not an option. Unabashed regarding his limitations, inside and outside the ring, Dupre is admirably open about his dyslexia and the way in which it compromises his everyday existence.

He is less forthcoming about the other significant handicap he strives to overcome. Since he was a teenager, critics have commented negatively upon Dupre’s physique, which is, for a professional boxer, undefined – podgy, if we’re being particularly unkind. The uninitiated presume he is a lazy trainer who could, if equipped with the necessary dedication, lose 25lbs and compete on a more balanced playing field against similarly sized rivals at light-heavyweight. In the past, Dupre has hinted at an underlying reason for his unathletic appearance, but I have to persuade him, at length, to elaborate.

“I have problems with my metabolism being slow, with my thyroxine [hormone], but I don’t like to talk about it because people will be like, ‘That old chestnut, a thyroid problem!’” he laughs, but with a sombre undertone. “I’d love to fight guys of a similar size but it’s never gonna happen; I’ve been on every diet going. I’m not using it as an excuse, my weight’s gone down really good this time. I’d try to get down if there was another weight in between cruiser and light-heavy.

“The questions and criticism about my weight, I’ve had it for years. As an amateur I remember a guy I beat saying afterwards he didn’t think I’d be that good coz I’m quite fat. I thought, ‘You prick, you’ll get another slap in a minute.’ Never judge a book by its cover.”

But so-called experts will, nonetheless, especially as Dupre’s latest tough task sees him up against the tall, rather more sculpted Billam Smith. Not a huge ticket seller, and having languished on smaller shows against journeyman opposition for the majority of his career as a result, Dupre found his lack of high-level experience exposed to an extent against Watkins. Matured by the reverse and in a better place both physically and mentally, Dupre nevertheless enters as an underdog against the young, touted ‘house’ fighter.

Billam Smith is certainly talented but Dupre has shown throughout his life that he is a man who can get things done when it really matters. Who needs to read the writing on the wall when you can break down the door instead?