A defining characteristic of many former British fighters is the almost startling frankness with which they are willing to reflect on their careers.
“I was never the most skilful boxer,” Ricky Boylan claims, having finally retired in August 2019. “Although I had sheer hard work and determination, for whatever I lacked.”
A slightly uncharitable self-assessment, perhaps, given that that the Carshalton native was a former Southern Area super-lightweight champion and retired with a respectable record of 15-3, but it is important to note that boxers are not generally beholden to taking it easy on themselves; or their opponents, for that matter. Indeed, boxing is a sport that demands the total opposite: pushing yourself to the very limit, in order to achieve maximum results. In boxing, complacency, it can be argued, is the number-one enemy. Whatever the case, being complacent in boxing is infinitely riskier than being complacent in other sports. Self-congratulatory preening, therefore, is usually restricted to pay-per-view villains playing a persona. And their promoters.
32-year-old Boylan, who fought from 2010 to 2016, winning the coveted Southern Area title in just his 10th professional fight against Tony Owen in 2013, is also known for his compelling, closely-fought contests against Danny ‘Cassius’ Connor and Tyler Goodjohn. Like many others, he speaks forcefully about the transformative benefits of boxing and how it was integral to his personal development. “It gives you self-confidence; teaching patience, respect and so many more things that are helpful in life. The discipline you learn from boxing can be applied to almost anything. Certain things do not come easy; you have to work hard to get those things and achieve certain goals. Boxing teaches you that.”
How then, was he introduced to boxing? “My dad used to box, but never asked me to try it, or took me to the gym. I lived about a five-minute walk away from Rose-Hill Amateur-Boxing Club, and that’s where I started, aged 12-years-old. I knew one or two of my school friends that trained there: I went along one day, and that was that, I loved it. I always had lots of energy, and started channelling that through boxing.”
Boxing has a seemingly ‘marmite’ nature; the instant and inherent love for the sport is another factor that often quickly separates boxers from their sporting counterparts and lends credence to the somewhat hackneyed notion that a fighting mentality is something that is born, as opposed to being made.
“I was at Rose-Hill ABC for a couple of years, where I had six bouts, before moving to Earlsfield ABC under the guidance of Sid Khan,” he explained.
When asked about his most formative boxing influences, Boylan mentions legendary world champions Ricky Hatton and Joe Calzaghe. “In terms of my favourite boxers, growing up, I absolutely loved watching them on a Saturday night with my Dad. They were definitely my favourites from the British boxing scene, but my all-time favourites are Sugar Ray Leonard and Roy Jones Junior. Absolutely class.” However, Boylan is similarly quick to highlight the manner in which his amateur coaching shaped him not only as a professional, but as a man. “Sid Khan was one of my biggest influences, growing up. He instantly gained our respect from his persona and mannerisms. He is the hardest man in the world to please, or get a ‘well done’ from, at least, but we would all do our very best. If anyone knows Sid Khan, they will know exactly what I'm on about.”
“I was generally a front-foot fighter. I was mentally very strong, always very fit, and had a very good work-ethic,” Boylan adds, when asked further to describe himself and his fighting style. “But I frequently switched off. I would lose concentration. I would stand in the middle of the ring and scrap. I loved to get involved.” Indeed, this exact quality – this strange love of the battle – is something that will always be unfathomable to non-boxers, even to those who are devoted fans of the sport. Savouring the spectacle from the outside is one thing, but actually participating is another matter entirely. The prospect of exchanging punches with an opponent is more daunting than exhilarating, you would have thought, for ordinary people, but ultimately there is nothing ordinary about boxers whatsoever.
This thrill-seeking, competitive quality is probably one of the many reasons why some fighters find it particularly challenging to hang up the gloves, let alone stay retired. In terms of retiring and then making comebacks, boxers are more notorious than rock-and-roll musicians. Does Ricky Boylan also ever suffer from itchy knuckles? “Everybody is different,” the two-time English title challenger is keen to emphasise. “But retirement is really, really tough for so many; myself included. I still miss boxing dearly, but there also comes a time when you realise that it’s over. As a boxer, you have a routine and a purpose, every single day, and that’s generally been the case for most fighters since they were kids. Effectively, it’s all they have ever known.”
Boylan elaborates further on the difficulties of retired life. “(When fighting) Everything you do, throughout your day, has a reason. Waking up, being in camp, checking your weight, going running or training, eating breakfast, resting up for the training session or sparring in the evening, having lunch, and then training again. Once us fighters have to admit to ourselves that the competitive side to it is all over, we feel slightly lost,” he explains, rather poignantly. “Well, I did, anyway. We don’t necessarily go for that run, we don’t necessarily need to lose that weight, we don’t necessarily have to be as fit as we did when we were competing. There’s no real purpose or nothing to train towards like there was when competing.”
Boylan also criticises the sport’s authorities, for their relative apathy towards retired fighters. He’s definitely not the only one; his sentiments on this topic have been echoed numerous times by fighters before him. “It’s something that I feel strongly about. I definitely feel there should be more help available from the British Boxing Board of Control, for fighters, once they have retired. You’re literally a forgotten man once you stop paying your license fees, and when your services aren’t required anymore.”
Nevertheless, Boylan maintains that British boxing itself is in a thoroughly healthy position. The two heavyweight titleholders are Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua, someone who Boylan has shared a card with on multiple occasions. When asked to assess what would probably be the biggest fight in British boxing history, Boylan delivers a characteristically thoughtful and considered response.
“They’re both really likeable characters. I was lucky enough to be boxing on several of Anthony Joshua’s undercards, after I’d first signed with Matchroom. I’ve said the same for the last five years, when people first started mentioning the possibility of those two fighting. I’ve always believed Fury’s boxing ability and movement will be too much for Joshua; although, in my opinion, Joshua is getting better and better with every fight. People forget that Joshua has only been boxing for twelve years or so, as opposed to Fury’s twenty-five or so years boxing. Joshua won an Olympic gold-medal after four years in the sport, which is crazy. He was crowned heavyweight champion of the world, after just nine years boxing. As I said, though, I think Fury’s nimbleness and movement will see him through; it won’t allow Joshua to set his feet, to land that big shot he might probably need. Experience plays a big part in boxing.”
Heavyweight is unquestionably one of boxing’s most lucrative divisions, and the fact that two British fighters possess all the belts between them, surely means that a historic encounter for the undisputed championship is inevitable in the near future. Nevertheless, exciting new talents are consistently emerging throughout the country, across all weight categories. “There’s a few, in terms of up-and-coming prospects. I actually watched a show the other night and there was one fighter from Sheffield who really stood out for me, and that was Donte Dixon. I really liked his style. There’s also Sunny Edwards, Joe Cordina and Lee McGregor. British boxing is really thriving, although Covid-19 is stalling things at the moment.”
Boylan is hopeful that the current crop of British hopefuls will fully realise their potential and make the most out of their career, winning as much money and attaining as many championships as they can. “I really hate to see wasted talent,” he confesses. “That’s upsetting to me. There’s nothing worse.” The obvious question that follows is, in a sport laden with such stories, why does he feel so strongly about underachieving? “I think the reason is because I always envied the skill of more talented fighters. It’s so sad when people have natural talent and they’re not capitalising on it, when others would do anything to be in their shoes, and making something of that gift.”
“I would always give my absolute everything in every training session; sometimes pushing my body too hard,” he explains. “Although, I learned something very valuable from Jamie Moore, towards the end of my career, about the importance of rest and recovery. Unfortunately, giving it my all just wasn’t enough for me to progress further in my career.” Once again, it could be said that Boylan is being too harsh on himself, here, but the overall point still remains.
Boylan offers an intriguing insight into the importance of skill and will, and how diligent preparation is absolutely necessary to succeed in boxing. “If you want to win titles over the championship rounds, for example,” he says, “You have to up your training by increasing the amount of rounds of sparring or your mileage on the roads. Basically, you have to train your arse off. Although, there are some naturally gifted fighters who may not have to work as hard as others, because their skillset will help them through; but only to a certain degree.”
Boylan specifically mentions Frankie Gomez as an example of someone who hasn’t, in his opinion, fulfilled his promise. Gomez, Golden-Boy’s welterweight prospect, went AWOL a couple of years ago, after comprehensively outpointing Mauricio Herrera. Formerly trained by Freddie Roach, the 28 year-old Californian has not fought since May 2016. Meanwhile, boxing fans have been speculating on his whereabouts, while pictures of an overweight man, purportedly Gomez, have surfaced online. It is a story that evidently hits home with Boylan.
“It’s sad to see,” he says, of the Gomez situation. “Maybe he doesn’t realise his own potential, and what he could achieve. Maybe he does. Either way, it’s a shame. There’s plenty of others who would do anything to have his talent. If he applied himself and had the motivation, he could go right to the very top. “I hope I'm not talking out of turn,” Boylan adds, not wanting to be too presumptuous. “But going by what I've read on a few forums regarding Frankie, he’s now several stone overweight, and basically doing nothing with his natural gift for boxing; that's upsetting to me.”
In boxing, it would be reasonable to suggest that the ecstasy of victory and agony of defeat are unlike any other sport. It is no wonder, then, that boxing and mental health are so inextricably intertwined; in an ultra-competitive athletic context entailing immense pressure to succeed and win titles, some will naturally succumb to that pressure. For every fighter contented with their career, there is another toiling in the darkness of despair. Indeed, there have unfortunately been numerous well-documented cases of the latter in recent years. At the same time, there have been heartening redemption stories and remarkable turnarounds, from zero to hero; something which Boylan acknowledged, using the example of Fury, the WBC heavyweight world champion.
“Whilst we’re on the subject of Tyson Fury, what an inspiration he should be to the likes of Frankie Gomez,” Boylan says. “He himself was about 10-stone overweight, after a few years out of the sport. He was really unhappy in himself, abusing his body with drink and drugs on a daily basis, and now just look what he’s gone on to achieve, again. He’s now the WBC heavyweight champion of the world and won every belt possible, at the elite level of the sport. But it’s not just the boxing side of things,” Boylan emphasises. “I’ve read his books and he just generally appears to be so much happier in himself, again, which far outweighs the importance of anything boxing-related. Kudos to Tyson Fury; it’s inspirational for all fighters, seeing things like that.”
As for his own future plans and aspirations, Boylan reveals, interestingly, “I actually applied to be a professional referee, roughly a year ago; although the current Covid-19 situation has put things on hold with that, as they have not been holding any courses,” Regarding the prospect of training or managing fighters, Boylan says, “I’d love to train fighters, but it’s really time-consuming. I have a fiancée, and two young children, of which my eldest, Tommy Boylan, is a talented amateur boxer himself. Managing fighters is something I have thought about, but possibly later on in life; who knows? I suppose at the end of the day, I’ll always be involved in the sport, one way or another: whether it just be training myself, training in the gyms with fighters, helping out the amateurs or even being an official for the BBBofC.”
Discussion returns, once again, to Frankie Gomez. It is clear that it’s a situation that saddens Boylan, as well as many other boxing fans. The Carshalton man is currently trying to contact Gomez; he has also expressed his desire to actually help the former fighter from East LA. How? “In all honesty, I don’t really know,” Boylan admits. “I would just like to know that he's doing okay, as he's had a long absence from the sport. I don't know him personally, and don’t know anyone that does,” Boylan says, reiterating his desire not to be too presumptuous in his approach. “So, there might be more serious reasons that we don't know about, as to why he's not actually boxing or training, anymore. Fingers crossed, there’s not, but who knows?”
What next? “Initially, providing all is well with Frankie, then I guess I would just try and talk to him, and check that he’s alright. Maybe, I would see if there is anything I could help with, from the UK, and most importantly, make sure he understands his potential. I’m sure that he probably might take some motivating, but I’ll try my best to get him thinking straight; I want to inspire him to commit and dedicate himself properly to the sport, so he can give boxing one last shot. He’s still only 28 years-old, he’s unbeaten, and was on the cusp of some big fights before his absence. He’s supposedly more than held his own with elite-level fighters in sparring, mixing it with people like Manny Pacquiao, and he was previously trained by world-class coaches like Abel Sanchez, Freddie Roach and Marvin Somodio.”
It’s impossible to not think that if more people had Boylan’s mentality – looking out for one another and motivating one another – the world would be an infinitely better place. “Let’s hope this reaches Frankie, one way or another,” Boylan says. “So, he thinks to himself, ‘Why’s this silly British guy trying to track me down?’ Then he realises the reason why: because he’s talented, and he could be on the verge of earning some life-changing money, if he applies himself, properly. As I said at the start, I hate to see wasted talent. I really hate it.”