Boxing journeymen: sport's biggest losers or unappreciated artists?
"Turn up, fight, lose, get paid, happy days." Johnny Greaves
Meet the men who fight when nobody is watching; men who fight in nightclubs, social centres and town halls; men who fight when the headline acts are still asleep in their hotel rooms; men who teach the kids the ropes, make boxing work and losing look like an art form.
On Saturday at the Chase Leisure Centre in Cannock, Kristian Laight fought his 200th professional contest. Having lost on points to debutant Kieran McLaren, Laight's record now reads: nine wins, seven draws and 184 defeats. Laight's manager, Jon Pegg, calls him a "defensive master". He is not being ironic.
"People who know the game understand," says the 34-year-old Nuneaton boxer, who made his pro debut in 2003, losing on points. "People who don't know the game see all these losses on my record and think I'm rubbish. It does annoy me."
Birmingham's Peter Buckley retired in 2008, having lost 256 of his 300 pro fights. Buckley's record says he won 32 but he believes he won many more than that. But this isn't a fantasy world of cigar-smoking managers in trilby hats and trench coats making threats in dimly lit dressing rooms. This is a world of mysterious and brutal pragmatism.
"Nobody ever came to me and told me to take a dive," says Buckley, who fought world champions Naseem Hamed and Duke McKenzie twice each. "But I did have trainers say to me: 'Just have a move-about tonight, the kid's sold a lot of tickets.' I was a professional loser, that's what I got paid to do."
Most of the kids who sell a lot of tickets are the 'prospects' - amateur champions recently turned over, boxers who competed at Commonwealth Games and Olympics. Other ticket-sellers might not be as talented but are promoters' friends because they have a shtick or a lot of friends to sell tickets to. The only friend a journeyman boxer has is himself.
"If I fought a kid who was unbeaten in 10 fights and he had a bad night the referee sometimes thought, 'the kid's a bit off tonight', and gave him the decision," says Buckley. "People used to say to me: 'Why did you let them get away with that?' But I had a lot of respect for referees, they were just doing their job."
Johnny Greaves hung up his gloves last September after winning his 100th fight. He lost 96 of the previous 99. But for Greaves, boxing was only ever a business.
"Promoters need ticket-sellers to survive," says Londoner Greaves. "The referees know this, the judges know this, the trainers, managers and boxers know this. So if it's anywhere near close against a ticket-seller, it's not going to go your way.
"Have a real go against some of these up and coming boys, don't play to the script, and the phone isn't going to go the following week. Upset people's plans and stop them making money and you're not going to get any work.
"My record says I won four fights but it was more like 34. But I didn't turn pro to get pats on the back, I only ever turned pro to put food down my family's necks. I lost and I lost well and that's the way boxing works."
Losing well means knowing every trick in the book. So while ignorant onlookers might see a bum labouring to yet another defeat, those in the know will see a craftsman at work, passing on his skills to an apprentice.
"The lads starting out, they all learnt something from me," says Greaves. "They needed rounds so you couldn't just go in there and get bashed up. I was capable of taking their best and giving them the rounds they needed to get better.
"I'd teach them movement and how to survive. But I'd also get hired by promoters because I'd talk to their fighters, rough them up with my shoulder, punch them in the spuds. A young fighter needs to taste every aspect of the game and promoters knew I wasn't going to give their boys an easy night."
Greaves admits he dreamt of winning titles as a kid but only ever considered losing as a pro. "I'm a realist and it's always been about a pound note for me," says Greaves. "I could have got a few wins under my belt and started looking towards titles, but that doesn't pan out for 99.9% of boxers that turn pro."
Buckley was actually a decent amateur, losing only four of 54 fights. In his early days as a pro he won Midlands Area titles at two different weights and fought for a fringe world title. But after his 17th paid fight, when he was stopped by McKenzie in 1991, Buckley knew that it was a journeyman's life for him.
|Peter Buckley||Kristian Laight||Johnny Greaves||Robin Deakin||Combined|
|Fights: 300||Fights: 200||Fights: 100||Fights: 52||Fights: 652|
|Lost: 256||Lost: 184||Lost: 96||Lost: 51||Lost: 587|
|Drew: 12||Drew: 7||Drew: 0||Drew: 0||Drew: 19|
|Won: 32||Won: 9||Won: 4||Won: 1||Won: 46|
"After the first McKenzie fight, which I seriously thought I was going to win, I realised I wasn't at that level," says Buckley. "I also injured my shoulder early in my career but instead of taking six months off I carried on fighting.
"I soon found out that when you're fighting away from home, the odds are stacked against you. So instead of fighting for three minutes of every round, I learnt to fight for a minute and a half and tie my opponent up.
"I was getting the same money whether I won, lost or drew, so why would I have a hard fight for eight rounds when I can walk around for three rounds, fight for two, and then walk around for another three rounds?"
It is not unusual for a journeyman (or 'opponent', as they are often called) to fight three times in a month, but if they get stopped they receive an automatic 28-day suspension. Get stopped too often and a journeyman will find himself hauled in front of the suits from the British Boxing Board of Control. Journeymen who don't lose well don't last too long.
Robin Deakin won his first fight as a pro before losing 49 in a row and having his licence revoked in 2012. Deakin, who was born with a club foot and spent much of the first six years of his life in a wheelchair, came to fight but took too many punches and got knocked over far too often.
"I was fighting the best with one or two days' notice and I had a go," says the Crawley boxer, who has fought twice on a German permit but hopes the British Board will give his licence back.
"But I've had what I loved taken away from me and I won't give up. With the right management, the right training, I can bring Rocky Balboa's story to life."
The Board's general secretary Robert Smith has other ideas. "It's a very difficult decision to take away a man's livelihood," says Smith. "But Robin shouldn't be boxing. He had a go and took too much punishment."
Suggest that boxing is in any way bent and Smith becomes indignant. "You name me a boxer who's lost on points and doesn't think they've been robbed," he says. "British referees and judges are some of the best in the world."
But Neil Bowers, a matchmaker for Eddie Hearn's Matchroom promotional outfit, says journeymen often get rough decisions, albeit for sincere reasons.
"Johnny Greaves is a very honest man," says Bowers. "I always made a point of phoning him after he'd boxed to ask him how he got on. Sometimes he'd say: 'Neil, I got beat fair and square, the other kid was too good for me.' But other times he'd say: 'I lost but I got robbed.'
"But boxing's not bent. When you're in the away corner, you've got to win convincingly. Referees and judges are human and are influenced by the noise of the crowd, which is why the home fighter will almost always get the decision."
Bowers is intimate with the workings of journeymen fighters and knows that men such as the gung-ho and idealistic Deakin are mercifully rare.
"They like seeing how well they can do against prospects," says Bowers. "That's where they get their job satisfaction from. And they do everything they can to get through a fight, regardless of how dangerous the man in front of him is. Because it's all about the money and they want to be fighting again next week.
"Boxing is an art form and journeymen have got it off to a tee. They know how not to get stopped or knocked out. And the best journeymen stay close, so they don't get cut or bruised. If Peter Buckley took a shot on the chin early in a fight, he'd go into survival mode. That's not bent, that's just clever."
The life of a journeyman might sound like a melancholy existence - all that losing must cast shadows on the soul. But able to pull in £1000 for a fight - maybe more if the opponent is a top-notch prospect - they can earn a decent living, especially if they combine boxing with a day job. And without these tough men who have gloves, will travel, there would be no boxing.
"I've been sitting in the house and had promoters phone me up from Ireland," says Buckley, nicknamed 'The Professor'. "I've driven straight to the airport, booked up a flight, flown over, fought and come back the next morning. There were plenty of times I'd been out partying the night before but my fitness got me through it.
"Whereas prospects might box six times a year and the top guys two or three, with two-month training camps, I'd always have to be ready to box. Every morning I'd get up and my tracksuit would be at the end of my bed and I'd have my kit bag packed, just in case. That was my routine for 18 years."
The shortest notice Greaves took a fight was 50 minutes. "I was meant to be working someone's corner at the York Hall [in East London]," says Greaves. "A promoter came running up to me and said: 'What are you weighing?' I said: 'About 10st 3lb.' And he said: 'Someone's dropped out, do you want to fight?'
"I jumped straight on the train, my missus met me at the station with my shorts and boots, I got back to the York Hall and was on about 10 minutes after that. I lost on points, easy night's work. Other times I sparred in the morning, got home, cracked open a tin of lager, got the call at 3pm and was in the ring at 6."
After Greaves's final fight, he cried his eyes out. Partly because he'd won, but mainly because there was no more losing to be done. "Winning? I can take it or leave it," says Greaves, who juggled boxing with painting and decorating, training fighters with his brother and being a dad.
"Winning wouldn't have paid my bills for long and it's better to lose and go home to your house knowing your gas and electric bills have been paid."
As for Laight, known as 'Mr Reliable', he's booked to fight again on Saturday, again on 7 November and might fight in between. He just doesn't know yet.
"As long as I keep passing my brain scans, I'll keep cracking on and doing the business," says Laight. "I still love being in that ring, I just feel better in there. But it's also about using the game as the game uses you."