2014’s last big night of action saw the neon names of some stellar Welterweights on the billboards of Las Vegas on Saturday. Keith Thurman, Tim Bradley, European champion Leonard Bundu – they were all in town, dragging entourages of various sizes around with them, holding press conferences, posing for pics with fans. Foremost among the 147 pounders jockeying for pole position to fight Floyd-Mayweather, in British eyes at least, was Bolton’s Amir Khan and the ‘King’ did not disappoint. His highly disciplined performance and virtual shut-out of former IBF world champ Devon Alexander befitted his star billing. He made a tough fight look easy.
It has been much publicised already that as Amir skipped in and out of range, tormenting Alexander with those rapid-fire fists, executing star trainer Virgil Hunter’s game-plan perfectly, he wore a pair of shorts worth more than the average man’s car. Threaded through with spun gold the garment was apparently valued at £30,000. Khan’s total purse for his night’s work, in a non-title contest, was approaching three quarters of a million. This is life at the top end of the fight game, where fortunes are made and all-too-often squandered, where sky-high living and flamboyance are part of the routine.
Exciting as glamour and glitz can be, I’ve always felt more at home at the other end of the business, where egos and pay-cheques are smaller. As Amir’s people ramp up their efforts to encourage Money May to put their boy on billionaires row, boxing goes on, some of it almost out of the public eye – shows with a few hundred spectators and no TV cameras. This weekend there are two cards in England, one of which will take place a 13 mile drive down the A666 from Amir Khan’s home town, at the Lancashire County Cricket club in Greater Manchester.
On that particular show this Sunday, a notable occasion will occur although it’s unlikely to draw more than a ripple of attention. It involves another welterweight, but one polar opposite to King Khan or One-Time Thurman. The fighter in question is not likely to be swapping blows with Mayweather or Pacquiao any time soon and has just turned 41. In fact, he’s a grandfather. He drives a Mini and lives in Birmingham with Samantha, his partner of 16 years. When not fighting or training he can be found doing forklift and warehouse work or regular shifts on the bins. His name is Jason Nesbitt.
Jason will be fighting Liverpool’s Tommy Carus, a 22 year old with a 6-2 record, over four threes or six twos. He will be paid somewhere in the region of £800 and if the script is followed by everyone involved, he will probably lose on points. None of this would be particularly remarkable – it’s the sort of thing Jason and others like him do most weekends, after all – were it not for one thing. It will be Nesbitt’s 200th, yes 200th contest.
Jason Nesbitt (right) takes on current English Welterweight champ Ahmet Patterson at the York Hall in 2010. Photo by Phil Sharkey
Those uninitiated in the business of small-hall boxing may raise an eyebrow upon learning that thus far, of his 199 bouts, he has won only 10. Such is the life of a journeyman as Jason is happy to explain.
“This is how it works.” He says softly. “I ain’t mentioning no names, but behind closed doors, before we go out there, I get a quiet word in my ear. ‘Jase, you’ve got to take it easy. This lad’s sold six grand’s worth of tickets so we can’t have him losing. If you go out there and knock him out or stop him, then I promise you, you’re not getting any fights. You’re not going to hear anything for at least a couple of months.”
“They know that at the end of the day that I’m experienced and I’ll ride these kids around the ring. I’ll take them the distance, whatever they want but most of the time I will walk into a show and as soon as I go in I get a manager or trainer coming up to me going, ‘ Oh you’re boxing my lad tonight, he’s only young, just take him the distance, take him around, show him the ropes.’ And that’s basically what I do to earn my money in boxing.”
Jason is a straightforward guy with a warm smile and shining eyes, but there’s a real steeliness about him too, as there is with most proper fighting men. He’s not someone you’d want to get on the wrong side of and the calmness he exudes in early middle-age was not always a feature of his character. His start in life was chaotic and unsettled. After being placed in a traumatic care situation from the age of two he found himself with persistent difficulties at school and on the streets. Jason was viewed as a problem child.
Myself and Jason in Eastside City Park in Birmingham earlier this year. My daughter, Libby is sitting on his knee.
“I was a rough lad. I was in and out of units and key centres and boarding schools.” He recalls. “I was always getting expelled. I even got expelled from infants school. I was always fighting.”
A violent youth, he could easily have gone down the road of crime and prison, but found his way to boxing through a friend at the age of 18. Nesbitt quickly made a reputation for himself as a hard-hitting amateur, winning 38 of 40 unpaid bouts. At 25 he turned pro under the tutelage of manager Norman ‘Nobby’ Nobbs. A nightclub bouncer with a daily stall at a local fruit and veg market, Nobbs called his team of boxers ‘Losers Unlimited’ and claimed to be able to provide an opponent for any fighter, at any weight, on thirty minutes notice. Like most young pros, at that stage Jason had limited knowledge of the game and didn’t fully realise that he was signing up to cover a particular corner of the market.
So began a fifteen year journey of taking fights against ticket selling prospects on their home shows, often on very short notice, understanding that if he wanted the work to keep coming he couldn’t let his hands go too freely. It’s not been easy. There have been periods of self-doubt and anger, countless home decisions from referees, the absorption of verbal abuse from ignorant fans, problems with the Board. It can get to you. The journeyman path is not for the weak of character.
Jason can really bang with his right hand. 7 of his 10 victories have come via KO or TKO and he has given many other opponents something to remember him by. Matt Teague, a former super-featherweight from Grimsby, acknowledges that Nesbitt hit him harder than anyone else he fought. Naturally, Jason sometimes wonders what he could have done if given free rein, but away fighters who repeatedly blast out ticket sellers don’t get phone calls. This is the game. And once the game has handed you your place, it’s tough to change it.
“The reality is” he says, “in an honest boxing world, where I was free to fight how I want and the officials weren’t biased I would easily have won more than half my fights. People in the game know that. But look, at the beginning I just wanted to turn pro, do a bit of training and see where it went. I didn’t have any particular ambition. I just wanted to fight. I knew I could get paid to fight and for me, that was perfect. The honest truth is I don’t regret my career. Not a bit. I’m happy as I am. Maybe that says something about me, I don’t know.”
While some may find the journeyman mentality confusing, 200 bouts is an incredible achievement that precious few pros of the modern era will reach. 50 is unusual for a title fighter. The legendary Peter Buckley got to 300 before retiring in 2008. Nuneaton’s Kristian Laight may manage the same, currently on 206 and still clocking them up. Nesbitt is about to join the two of them in an elite club and in many ways this is a career landmark comparable to winning belts. To go in week after week with ambitious young lads trying to take your head off, show them around the ring and stay out of harm’s way requires considerable savvy and skill. Qualities that Nesbitt has developed in abundance. And Jason says he has no intentions of retiring just yet.
His eyes light up. “The one thing I love is my boxing.” He says. “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings. And she’s still too busy eating!”
This Sunday it is likely that Tommy Carus in the home corner will have his hand raised by the referee, but in reality there will be two winners in that ring. Jason has been aiming for the 200 target for a long time and once the fight is done he will be able to leave the arena, reflect on his journey from start to finish and be rightly proud of his accomplishments.
“I’ve been determined to get to 200.”He says. “If I can come from living in care and the terrible start in life that I had and have 200 professional fights, it shows all the kids in similar situations that you can achieve something.”
Maybe I’m sentimental, but for me that’s a lot closer to the true meaning of sport than a pair of thirty grand shorts.
Hopefully on Sunday he will come through unscathed, collect his earnings and get home early enough to have a celebratory drink with Samantha. Whatever happens from here, he will have achieved his goal.
Take a bow, Jason. Take a bow.
Mark Turley’s book ‘Journeymen, The Other Side of the Boxing Business” which features a chapter about the life and experiences of Jason Nesbitt, is available in kindle or hardback from bookshops and Amazon, now.