Journeymen are crucial to both a rising boxer’s ring education and to a promoter’s balance sheet, but have boxing fans become sick and tired of mismatches? Oliver Fennell investigates.
NAEEM ALI. Dale Arrowsmith. Taka Bembere. Elvis Dube.
Jordan Ellison. MJ Hall. Lee Hallett. Callum Ide.
Ricky Leach. Michael Mooney. Jake Pollard. Jamie Quinn.
Darryl Sharp. Carl Turney. Lewis van Poetsch. Phil Williams.
Names – just a few names – that any regular reader of Boxing News will recognise, for they appear on these pages dozens of times a year, sometimes every week.
But this is not a fond familiarity. If you see these names, there is little reason to pay attention, for you can be almost assured of what happened in their fights.
In all likelihood, they will have lost. More often than not, they will have lasted the distance, but rarely winning a round. BN’s small hall reporters struggle to find anything new to say when home fighters beat journeymen by margins of 40-36 or 60-54 in almost every contest on a card.
Pulling a recent issue (July 7) of Boxing News from my archives at random tells the story. In one week, eight British shows combine for 55 contests. Of these, 47 feature a boxer with a losing record, and some of the stats are truly dreadful: Ten wins from 86 contests, six from 99, three in 85, two in 96… a solitary success from 25 bouts, from 33 or 49… precisely zero victories in careers stretching to 14 fights, or 18, or 36.
Most, if not all, of these loss columns will have been extended since. In that week, only two of the 47 boxers with losing records scored a win. Of the remaining 45, 39 went the distance. But that is not an indication of competitive matchmaking. The “away” boxer failed to win a single round in 33 of those distance fights (one eight-rounder, 15 sixes and 23 fours).
Nor does this mathematical dominance necessarily demonstrate the excellence of the “home” fighter. No, these wide margins more typically suggest the loser did not even attempt to win. Instead, their goal would have been to last the distance, get paid, go home, and do the same in a week or a fortnight’s time. The venue and the opponent will change, but the strategy will not.
Seamus Devlin boxed 36 times in his first year as a pro – a British record. This was despite winning only one of them – or perhaps because of that. He insists this is not for lack of trying – at least sometimes.
“What I’ve seen, the thinking among most journeymen is that it’s just a job,” he says. “Me, I don’t look at it like that. It’s a sport to me. Sometimes after losing a hard fight, I feel like s**t, my pride is hurt – I wouldn’t feel like that if I didn’t see it as a sport.
“I had a spell when I had three fights of the night back to back [all in July]. They were crackers. One was a draw and I should have won another of them. But it caught up with me, having those hard fights and being in the gym as well.
“Fighting so regularly, it’s hard. So, no, I don’t always try to win. If he’s on it, firing on all cylinders, and I’m flat, maybe I’ve struggled with the weight, I might have to be a big negative just to get through [to the final bell]. But I don’t take the easy way out. If I wanted to do that, I’d just take a knee.”
So, if it is a sport to Devlin, and he does try to win if he believes there’s a chance he can, is it not demoralising to have done so only once in nearly 40 contests?
“No, this game is psychological,” says the Padiham super-middleweight. “The best analogy I can think of is from Band Of Brothers, when one soldier tells another: ‘The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead.’ In boxing, if you have no fear of losing, you won’t feel that nervous energy.
“I meet people and they find out I’m a boxer and they ask what my record is. They don’t laugh or scoff – they admire the fact I step in the ring – but they don’t understand the business side precedes the sporting side of it, so they must think ‘he can’t be that clever!’. But it doesn’t bother me.”
And it is, ultimately, that business side which dictates what decisions are made, even for a man who insists he’s in it for the sport.
“I know my lane and I stay in it,” says Devlin. “I was 33 when I turned pro, so I had to be realistic. I was never going to be a British champion, I was always going to be on the road, so this is the best option to make a living for my family.
“I’m out this week and two weeks after that, and I’ve got an idea what I’m doing through to October. When you fight so regularly, self-preservation has to come top of the list. If you get cut, you can’t box, and if you get stopped, it’s a 28-day mandatory suspension. So, the priority is to get out unscathed.”
With a stoppage loss mandating a four-week pay freeze, it’s the worst thing that can happen to a professional journeyman.
Actually, no – the worst that can happen is he wins. Ruin a young fighter’s unbeaten record, or damage the reputation of a ticket-seller, and promoters might think twice before employing him again.
It might not be as explicit as gangsters passing envelopes under tables, but nevertheless there is a financial incentive to lose. Is that not essentially the same as fight-fixing?
“No, no, it’s not fight-fixing at all,” says Robert Smith, general secretary at the British Boxing Board of Control, “and I don’t like the term ‘journeymen’. They’ve been around since boxing began. Their role is to teach young boxers.
“Of course, we want everyone to have a go, but we realise some may just want to go the distance so they can box again next week. That’s not ideal, but they can look after themselves. When you see some who are less defensive-minded, they might have a go and get hurt. So, we have to get the balance right.
“But, yes, we are concerned about the one-sided nature of some of the bouts. If we feel someone’s not trying enough, we will bring them in with their manager or trainer to consider their performances and look at the nature of the defeats.
“And we’re doing more testing, more assessment, neuropsychological exams every year. We’re studying alzheimer’s, dementia, CTE. We’re ahead of the game compared to other sports.
“We are not concerned with results. We’re not matchmakers, we just want to make it as safe as we possibly can.”
Opinion is divided among BN readers, although if our letters page is any indication, more appear to be bored by the small hall scene than enthused by it.
Ted Scott kicked off the debate on July 28 with a blunt question: “Am I the only one who finds pages of small hall reports, where nearly every one of them ends 40-36 in favour of the home fighter, an absolute waste of time?”.
“It’s the same old thing every week,” wrote Alan Cheatle a week later. “Far too often, each fight is an undefeated local prospect versus a serial loser… They are tedious mismatches.”
Tom Pearson concurred: “I’ve subscribed for five years or so now,” he wrote on August 11. “The first year or two, I read every line of the small hall reports… Then over time I realised that the vast majority of it is local prospect or local ticket seller comfortably beating limited opponent. And it all got a bit dull and repetitive.”
But Stephen Reed on August 4 called our coverage of such shows “essential reading” and “the most important features in the magazine”.
“The 40-36 scorelines don’t always reflect the true nature of the bout,” he argued, “and it’s important to read between the lines of how hard the ‘away’ boxer pushed his or her opponent.”
It would be unrealistic to expect all contests to be 50-50 affairs, and small hall shows are constrained by tight budgets, so journeymen are crucial to both a rising boxer’s ring education and to a promoter’s balance sheet. They often save contests or even entire shows by stepping in at short notice when fights fall through. We all respect journeymen and their role, it’s just we’d like things to be a bit less predictable sometimes, whether we are a fan, a journalist – or even the “home” fighter.
“I’ve been in with eight journeymen,” says 11-1-1 Welsh middleweight champion Gerome Warburton, fresh off a 40-36 win over Jordan Grannum (6-99-4), “and only two of them gave me a decent fight. All the others did was survive like wounded animals. I do think the standard of some has been very poor. They’ve just been punchbags.
“I try to make it entertaining. It’s hard to tell your fans you’re boxing someone with a hundred losses. At the end of the day, you have to entertain the fans, but some of my fights have been poor [to watch].
“Sometimes, my opponents are paid more than me. Fifteen or sixteen hundred [pounds], while I’m only getting a grand, and I’m expected to hold back because they’re fighting next week? I don’t hold back for anybody. I’m here to do a job – you do yours. Don’t do it half-hearted!”
Warburton, from Colwyn Bay, believes it is this mentality of treating losing fights as services rendered, often with advance bookings, that leads some boxers to prioritise survival over victory.
“You look some of these guys up on BoxRec and they’ve got three or four fights booked after yours,” he says. “I don’t agree with this, fighting every week. They’re just looking past you to the next payday.
“I do respect journeymen, though. Without them, there would be no boxing, because most good boxers don’t want to fight each other. And you still have to take these fights seriously, because in boxing, one punch can change everything.”
Indeed it can. While we, and some readers, are complaining about repetitiveness and predictability, you truly never can take anything for granted in this sport.
A record that reads, for example, 2-23, tells you two things – one, that a win is highly unlikely, but two, that it can happen.
I was at a show in Manchester in August 2021 when such lightning struck. It was a nine-bout offering compiled entirely of home fighter vs journeyman fare. I was reporting for a newspaper, otherwise to be perfectly honest I wouldn’t have been there, and it was difficult to maintain my concentration levels and interest even when being paid to do so. One of the matches looked as predictable as the others: a ticket-selling local in a four-rounder against a serial loser.
But on that night, Irlam light-heavyweight Ryan Hibbert (1-12) went after the home fighter – well-supported Mancunian debutant Anthony Phythian – with visible intent, rocked him dramatically midway through the first round, and then went for the finish, flattening Phythian at the 2-11 mark.
Why was this so different?
“I just knew straight away I had his number,” says Hibbert.
“I knew him from the white collar days [both Hibbert and Phythian were unlicensed boxers prior to turning pro]. We were supposed to fight a few times, but never did, so when it happened, I just felt supremely confident, so I give it him.”
Does Hibbert usually try to win?
“I pick and choose which fights to go for it,” he says. “Sometimes I get matched pretty hard and it’s pretty much a conscious decision to just go the distance. I know in the first minute if I can’t win, so I use my experience, my ring savvy, ducking and diving, tie them up, dance around.”
The Phythian win came at a predictable cost, though. “I had my next fight cancelled because of that,” says Hibbert. “Word got round, especially the way I’d done him.
“I’ve known a few lads have three of four fights cancelled [after winning]. The promoters don’t want hard fights for their boxers.”
David McAllister, who promotes small hall shows in the north of Scotland, says such events don’t tend to attract discerning boxing fans; rather, most of the crowd is comprised of friends and family of the home fighter.
“It’s mostly people supporting their pals,” he says. “They want a night out, a few beers, and to cheer on their mate. They don’t know if an opponent’s got a hundred losses.”
Even so, McAllister understands they still want to be entertained, and so chooses his journeymen appropriately.
“We try to get the ones who comes and try, not just run away and pick up their wages,” he says. “I’m looking for ones who don’t often get stopped, who are durable, who are maybe a weight above my kid, who can teach my kid different things and can take some rounds off them.
“It’s no good when he’s just standing there not throwing punches. That’s no good to anyone, you’re not learning anything. I want my kid to know if he leaves his guard open, he’s going to get a right hand in his face.”
Some journeymen provide genuine tests and learning experiences. Others are more content to be paid-for record-padders. McAllister agrees the latter have become more common, and says the reason for this is two-fold – but both are related to money.
“The role of the journeyman isn’t what it used to be,” he says. “Boxers didn’t use to start out as journeymen. They would get a few wins but if, after a few losses, their ticket sales went down, they saw they could make more money as the away fighter – but they’d still come and have a real fight. Nowadays, boxers see how journeymen can often make more money than prospects, by boxing three or four times a month, and it’s their goal right from the start.
“Promoters have to take a lot of the blame, to be fair, by just focusing on ticket sales. Young kids come to them and say ‘I can sell 300-400 tickets’, but they can’t box, so they’re getting protected because of the tickets they sell.
“I’ve been at [other promoters’] shows and I’ve seen a journeyman sitting in his corner, laughing, telling his cornerman ‘If I hit this kid, he’s going to fold’. I’ve seen a journeyman holding a kid up with his left arm. I was at one fight that was just embarrassing; the kid was so nervous he wasn’t throwing punches, and the journeyman wasn’t throwing punches either because he didn’t want to win. When they’re trying [i]not to[i] win, it just makes a mockery of the sport.
“They [the promoters] don’t want to take a chance. But a defeat is not the be all and end all.”
Well, that depends which corner you’re in. For some, a defeat – or, more specifically, allowing yourself to be defeated – is what’s worth fighting for most of all.