By Mark Turley
What do an ex-con single parent, a guy who spent the first six years of his life in a wheelchair, a Jamaican born ladies' man and a recently retired alcoholic have in common? Not much, on the face of it, other than the fact that they have all earned a living as ‘journeymen’ on the UK boxing circuit.
The role of the journeyman fighter is widely misunderstood. These men lose for a living – but on the inside of the circuit, they're figures of respect, not shame. For journeymen, losing is an art – and a lucrative one at that.
Boxing as frequently as once a week, for around a grand a time, journeymen earn their money by being used as opponents, often at very short notice, for young prospects. In other words, they fight the lads who sell tickets, the future stars of boxing who are earmarked for title bouts and glory.
Those who back these young prospects want returns on their investment, which will only come with belts and television fights. To get there, according to West London manager Mickey Helliet, who handles a stable of more than eighty fighters, you need “a solid, unbeaten record.”
Opponents are therefore required to provide a particular service. Essentially, a journeyman who wants to get rebooked regularly needs to make a decent fight of it, put up some kind of show for the crowd – and lose.
East London’s Johnny Greaves, who racked up a hundred fight record (of which he won only four) in six years, while drinking heavily, smoking 20 a day and working full-time as a painter and decorator, had been around professional boxers since childhood.
He was under no illusions from the beginning. Yet the point was driven home in his eleventh fight. Having lost his first ten, including defeats to three future British champions, he made a statement by knocking out Latvian Sergejs Rozakmens in the first round in Newark.
The win did him few favours. “I had a couple of fights already booked after that,” Johnny said. “But the phone just stopped ringing. All of a sudden they saw me as a risk. So after those I was out of work for a month, whereas when I was losing every week, I was in demand. That’s how it goes.”
Despite the blip, Greaves fought to regain his reputation and soon became known as the go-to guy for promoters suffering late pullouts from bouts in the welterweight and light-welter divisions.
Greaves recalled how he once even took a fight an hour and a quarter before it was due to start. He was at the famous York Hall, in Bethnal Green, as cornerman for his friend, Jody Meikle and was approached by a panic stricken promoter. “Johnny, what weight are you now?” He rasped. “About ten stone three,” came the reply. “That’ll do, wanna fight tonight?” No sooner had the question been asked than Greaves phoned his wife to prepare his kit, jumped on the train from Bethnal Green to his home in East Ham and was back in the venue ten minutes before first bell. The show was saved.
Johnny now trains his own crop of fighters out of the Peacock Gym in London, after receiving his managers license.
34-year-old Kristian Laight, from Nuneaton in the Midlands, a defensive wizard who tucks chin behind shoulder guard like a tortoise in a shell, has lost 180 of his 196 contests so far. In his eleven year career he has perfected the journeyman modus operandi – stay competitive, don’t get hurt, don’t win – into a fine art.
Known in the game as ‘Mr Reliable’, rare is the week when he is not boxing his way to a points defeat somewhere. “I want the other guy to get wild.” Kristian explained. “Then he telegraphs everything and I see it all coming. So I’ll call him a pussy, tell him he hits like a girl, anything I can think of. The ring is like my office. I go to work there. Most of the time it’s easy.”
Laight’s manager, Jon Pegg says, “I get young lads in my gym in Birmingham laughing at Kris because of his record. I tell them straight – you’re not as good as him. You’re not good enough to do what he does. People don’t appreciate his ability.”
As Pegg suggests, many journeymen have skills that belie the stats in their losses columns. To take fights at the drop of a hat against ambitious, highly trained fighters, show them around the ring and stay out of harm’s way, requires levels of mental and physical dexterity that could often be employed at the other end of the business.
Max Maxwell, for example, a Caribbean Lothario who retired from the ring this summer, began his career as Midlands Area champ and knocked out recent world title challenger Brian Rose. For various reasons he then took a swerve onto the journeyman route and began boxing every week, losing 33 fights on the bounce – most just after climbing out of bed with a lady-friend.
The standard fight-game refrain of abstaining from sex before a contest doesn’t apply to journeymen – “if it did, we’d all be born again virgins,” one remarked.
Losing with such regularity raises obvious questions about the authenticity of bouts on the lower rungs of the boxing circuit. It also takes its toll on the journeymen. Daniel Thorpe grew up sparring with Prince Naseem Hamed and once knocked down two-weight world champion Ricky Burns, but retired with a record of 23 wins from 139 bouts. He admits that throughout his journeyman career he struggled with an inner conflict: “Sometimes I accepted the losses. At other times I felt like giving it a go and seeing what I could do. The money’s great as a journeyman, but it can be tough, mentally.”
Others take different approaches to the role. Each journeyman has his own way of coping. Brentwood’s ‘Rockin’ Robin Deakin, recently ridiculed as ‘Britain’s Worst Boxer’ by the tabloids, refused to take on the mantle of the crafty spoiler and simply went to war with those he traded blows with. This sadly led to the curtailment of his career, after his 49th successive loss and the suspension of his licence by the Board in 2012.
A true battler, born with severe deformities of the lower legs and in a wheelchair until the age of 6, Deakin is now lobbying for the reinstatement of his British eligibility. He hopes to fight again by October under the Goodwin promotional banner.
Scunthorpe’s Jody Meikle meets the challenge by befuddling his opponents with slapstick. He kisses them on the cheek or pats them on the bum in a clinch, leans on the ropes mid-round to chat to the audience, makes faces and offers his chin for a free shot. Like some sort of malevolent comedy act, Meikle is the only fighter in UK boxing history to have been deducted points during a bout for the official reason of ‘excessive clowning’ (against Tobias Webb in Swansea in 2012).
A devoted and tender single father, unfortunately in prison since May, Jody once remarked, “I know I’m not the best boxer in the world. I’ve got a good chin and that’s about it. But I’m the best at taking the piss – people enjoy that.”
Looking beneath the surface of British boxing’s titles and pay per view glamour is a bit like opening the front page of your wife’s secret diary. A host of fascinating and incriminating tales are revealed, some of which make for awkward reading. Most intriguing of all are those of the journeymen, professional sportsman who for various reasons, have chosen to lose.
Mark Turley’s book, Journeymen, the other side of the boxing business, a new perspective on the noble art, is published by Pitch Publishing on September 18th. It is available for pre-order on Amazon.co.uk now.