So you’ve had a few amateur or unlicensed scraps, maybe even both and you start dreaming of the MGM grand and Bentley Continentals? Like most sporting endeavours, boxing attracts young men with hope in their hearts, who believe that if they put in the work, they can one day be a great champion. To what extent is that naiive and what is the experience of turning professional actually like?
For the vast majority who arrive in the pro ranks without glittering amateur backgrounds and Olympic medals, the start of their careers can provide a serious reality check. In particular the need to personally sell tickets to friends and family can be a major psychological and emotionally strenuous barrier. Over the next two weeks Turley on Tuesday investigates what is known in the game as ‘turning over’.
Exploring the issue will be four men with first-hand experience. Jon Pegg runs the booming Eastside gym in Birmingham, managing and training fighters as diverse as top journeyman Kristian Laight or former British and Commonwealth light-welter champ Sam Eggington. Kevin Campion, meanwhile is head of boxing at Goodwin promotions and now acts as a matchmaker for Hayemaker promotions.
On the other side of the coin, Sam Stokes (26) and George Thomson (29) have both lived through the travails of building a career in the home corner. Stokes is a 6-0 middleweight boxing out of Basildon in Essex, while Thomson, from Stirling in Scotland, racked up exactly the same record at welterweight before retiring from the ring in 2014.
This week will give the views of the young fighters, while next week Pegg and Campion will provide a management perspective.
First up, what motivated both fighters to box for money?
GT – I started boxing around 16 simply as a means to lose weight, I was a typical fat kid. My first few fights were around catch weight heavyweight! As time went on I had a pretty decent amateur career, resulting in winning the Scottish Welterweight title and several international trips. I ultimately had nothing left to do as Amateur, I never managed to earn a Commonwealth games place so after a talk from my coaches it made sense to give the pro game a try. They were enthusiastic on starting a pro stable.
SS – I lost my brother when I was 10 and always had a lot of anger. I come from a big travelling family as well, although I grew up in a house. I was always scrapping so my Nan took me down to the boxing gym to channel my aggression. I boxed about 15 times as an amateur, then ended up going into unlicensed boxing when I was 18. I boxed 11 times unlicensed on the IBA circuit and won all of them, then was approached by a manager and asked if I wanted to turn over. I didn’t really have any knowledge of the game, but accepted straight away. In the unlicensed game, they’re happy if you do 50 tickets. I don’t think this guy knew anything about me and that’s something I’ve learned – that a lot of managers who sign young lads on ticket deals do so without even seeing them fight.
So what exactly is a ‘ticket deal’ and what does that mean? Were you told anything about boxing business?
GT – I had been given a general idea in regards to match ups and shows but even then I was pretty ignorant, really. I paid more attention to the glamorous side of it. My pro debut was on a small dinner show and the money I earned from that fight was probably the only full pay packet I received. I was lucky to have a great backing from my local village and they organised an event to raise money for my medical. The second fight was where reality hit home. I was placed on the bill for another show to fill in for someone pulling out of that show and so was only a cheap sticker placed over the real poster. It was a nightmare for me mentally to try and sell tickets and I had no system in place for organising who I sold them to and how many I sold. Ultimately I paid large sums of my own money to accommodate any tickets I had lost, due to losing track of who I had given them to. By my third fight, despite some help from a few friends I was finding it difficult to sell large numbers of tickets without putting in some of my own money to fill in my mind what was a good ticket quota.
SS – A lot of managers only care about whether you can sell a few tickets. It’s not about ability in the ring. My first manager said to me, “I can see you know how to look after yourself” to make it sound like he appreciated me as a fighter, but it wasn’t true. He’d never seen me box! I signed the contract and at the time I was boxing far heavier than I do now. I used to box at 15 stone when I was unlicensed, I didn’t have a coach and I trained myself. So I got in touch with Frank Greaves at the Peacock gym and he worked wonders with me. All the fights I won in my early career it was thanks to Frank. He got me working with high hands and a nice jab and it was just what I needed.
My manager had previously handled Johnny Nelson and Dennis Andries so I thought he’d be a good guy to work with, but before my debut he spoke to me and said, “If I put you on this bill, how many tickets do you think you would do?” It wasn’t about my opponent or my boxing or anything like that, just the tickets. He ended up getting me a slot on a Mickey Helliet promoted show at the Camden Centre. I really tried and moved £4000 worth of tickets. I was on last, at about midnight and obviously I was nervous. Although I had done my best with the tickets, some people had been slow to pay, its always the way and all through the evening, as I waited for my ringwalk, my manager kept coming in the dressing room saying, “have you got all the money yet, has everyone paid you? Can I collect the money?” It was all he was bothered about. It did my head in. At the end of it all I ended up with about £600, after he had taken his cut and I paid Frank.
So what do both fighters think of managers and the business side of boxing in general?
GT – I was managed by one man who managed many boxers. As far as I’m concerned I was just another horse in the stable, I wasn’t producing massive amounts of tickets so I always felt like an afterthought with shows. In the end I chucked it in due to my stress levels. I am quite introverted as a person and so the whole ticket-selling aspect was draining to me mentally. When you’re training twice a day and doing a stressful job (George is an electrician) where you need to be on the ball, adding in worrying about how many tickets you’ve sold and need to sell, instead of who your opponent is quite a bad place to be. Things got worse for me after my third fight, I fought a guy (Billy Smith) and soon afterwards he sadly passed away. I couldn’t get what happened to him out of my head. Every boxer will tell you they feel a connection with their opponents no matter how small. On top of that despite winning all my fights I was always first on the bill and usually not even a feature on the poster. My support had to travel to come to see me and when you’re paying upwards £40 for a ticket and they might miss you fighting it’s a bit of an insult. All of it was affecting my health outside the ring too much by the end.
SS – I didn’t understand why I had to pay for my opponent, a house fee and a manager’s fee. It all ate into my money so much. You end up with fuck all and you’re putting your life on the line. Blokes don’t mess around in the pros and you can get hurt in there. I travelled home after my debut thinking, “is this professional boxing?” It didn’t seem worth it. My girlfriend was pregnant and things were difficult in general. My manager wanted me to box again soon after and I told him my head wasn’t right and he called me a bottler. Fortunately, I had people at the gym I could turn to, because without their support it would have been very hard. My manager never came to watch me train and he never really spoke to me about boxing, it was just tickets and money, that was it. I love the sport but I hate the business.
My second fight I didn’t earn any money for myself, although I sold 70 tickets and my third fight was exactly the same. At that point I had it out with him and said I didn’t feel he was looking after me, I was just making money for him and asked for my contract back. At first he wouldn’t give it, but I told him I would never box for him again and that was that. Eventually he agreed and I became a free agent, signed for Steve Goodwin and since then I’ve been much happier. Steve’s a good man and he’s helping me to progress my career. For the first time, I feel like a proper professional.
And finally, is there any advice that you would give to young amateurs thinking of turning pro?
GT – Make sure you have a good backing behind you and a dedicated following. Preferably a following who don’t mind paying for what can be an expensive night out if you take in the price of a ticket and drinks at the venue.
SS – You have to look out because there are a lot of sharks around. There is one guy very active in the south east who expects fighters to sell a minimum of 80 tickets for a fight and if they don’t, they have to put their own money in. Home corner boxers are actually paying to get a fight. That’s not what you dream of when you’re a kid!
My book ‘Journeymen, the other side of the boxing business’ was longlisted for William Hill Sports book of the year and named one of the sports books of the year by The Guardian. It is still available from all usual outlets.
Please listen to this excellent and very topical podcast about the darker side of boxing, featuring interviews with Ryan Rhodes, Paul ‘silky’ Jones, Glyn Rhodes MBE and Jerome Wilson.