Picture Courtesy of David Owen
World is not enough for KO-king Phillips
David Owen catches up with Swansea’s new world champion John Phillips to talk about where it all started, the reaction to his win and his plans for UFC glory
Not many people warrant the nickname ‘the white Mike Tyson’, but for Swansea’s new world champion John Phillips it’s a moniker that fits. With a predominantly boxing-based background the former five-time Welsh ABA champion boasts tremendous power in both hands. That was on show for the whole world to see at the end of February when the 30-year-old demolished BAMMA world middleweight champion Cheick Kone inside a round to bring the title to Wales.
“It hasn’t really sunk in to be honest,” said Phillips with a sheepish grin. “It doesn’t seem real. I was sitting watching TV the other night and I just started smiling to myself thinking ‘Christ I’m a world champion!’ The support was something else, totally unbelievable. I turned my phone off before the fight and when I switched it back on it literally took me two days to go through all the congratulations, messages and posts on Facebook, I couldn’t believe it. It’s been an amazing response from everyone back home.”
Phillips has recently relocated to Ireland, but the impact of what he’s achieved really hit home a few days after the fight when in a restaurant with his partner in his hometown of Swansea. “I went for some food with my fiancé and there were a few guys sitting on the table next to us,” he says. “They were talking about me and asking each other if they’d seen the knock-out. They didn’t realise I was sitting next to them… I was waiting to see if they said anything bad about me [laughs], but they were saying really good things. That was the first time it hit me that I’d achieved something big.”
Coming from a humble background on a council estate in Swansea, Phillips found MMA by accident after an invitation from former world boxing champion Enzo Maccarinelli to come down and do a little sparring with a few fighters who were preparing for an upcoming MMA show.
“Enzo asked me to go over and do some sparring with these cage fighters as I was then at a high level in the amateurs, having won the Welsh championship,” he remembers. “I went down and ended up knocking all of the fighters out in sparring. The promoter of the show was there watching and he came onto me straight away, nagging me to fight on his show. But I didn’t really know what cage fighting was, I was a boxer. I ended up agreeing and I knocked the guy out in the first round, leaving me thinking ‘this cage fighting is easy’.
“It all went from there, I just kept getting fights and knocking people out. But at the time my preparation was shocking, it was basically just me and my mate Mike training from a shed in the garden. As the opponents got better I obviously had to take training more seriously – it’s crazy looking back to where I was. Now I’m training every day with some of the best fighters in the world at one of the best gyms in the world in SBG Ireland. It’s all starting to pay off, this is just the beginning.”
It could all have been very different, though. The biggest night of Phillips’ life almost didn’t happen after he picked up a severe knee injury on the week of the fight. “I popped my knee out on the Monday in the gym,” he says. “It was totally gone and in my mind that was me out of the fight, I couldn’t see a way I would make the Saturday. I went home that night and iced it up, did nothing on the Tuesday, same on Wednesday, and it was only Thursday that I thought ‘yeah, I’m definitely fighting’. It still wasn’t right in the fight and if Kone had taken me down I could have been in trouble… but it didn’t get that far.”
Already known all over Europe for his knock-out power, Phillips is in no doubt that his move to Ireland to link up with one of the most in-demand coaches in the world of MMA, John Kavanagh, is what’s taken his career to the next level.
“John’s incredible,” he says. “He’s without doubt the most knowledgeable man I know. He literally lives in the gym, everything he does revolves around the sport, he eats, sleeps and breathes it. Since I arrived in Ireland he’s been brilliant with me, they’ve all welcomed me and made me feel like one of them.”
Mostly known for his knock-out power, Phillips’ stand-up skills have never been called into question. But some have queried whether he has the ground game to make it all the way, the scepticism based on defeats to Frank Trigg and Jesse Taylor who took him to the floor.
“People don’t realise what I can actually do”, says Phillips, keen to stress that he’s no ‘one-trick pony’. “I’m a 1st dan black belt in judo, purple belt in ju-jitsu and I’m also in the Welsh wrestling squad, so for people to say I’ve got no ground game… they have no idea how much I’ve progressed since joining SBG. I’ve learned so much in the short time I’ve been there, it’s crazy. The way I look at it, I’ve got at least another six really good years left in MMA. To think where I’ll be in terms of my ground game and what I’ll learn in that amount of time is scary.”
Phillips’ belief in his own potential was backed by the man who took Conor McGregor to the top of UFC, coach Kavanagh. “I’ve been working with John for a few months now and we’re still getting to know each other really, but it’s clear he has unreal amounts of potential,” said the Dublin-based trainer. “I hope I can help him achieve whatever goals he has.”
With the world title safely in his possession, calls have now come for Phillips to take a possible step up into the UFC, an ambition that the fighter is confident of achieving. “We could be looking at UFC in Rotterdam in May,” said Phillips. “It’s not a done deal, though… if that doesn’t come off I think I’ll be defending my title in June. Either way I’ll be fighting in the UFC at some point, that’s where everyone wants to be and, trust me, I’ll be there doing what I do… knocking people out!”
When Welsh heavyweights ruled the land
With heavyweights Tyson Fury, Anthony Joshua and David Haye driving Britain to the forefront of boxing’s marquee division, Sean Davies marks the anniversary of the last time Wales’ big men took the lead on the UK’s domestic stage
The 16 June marks the 10-year anniversary of what it’s fair to say was one of the more unusual nights in the history of the British heavyweight title. On that date in 2006, Pembroke’s Scott Gammer claimed a win over Mark Krence that made him the first Welshman to wear the premier Lonsdale Belt since David Pearce in 1984… but the strangeness of the evening was all about the venue, a glorified cowshed known as the Carmarthen Showground.
“The venue would never get passed these days, but it was so much fun,” recalls Gammer’s promoter Paul Boyce. “There were no facilities but we made it work, it was an amazing time.”
After a successful amateur career, Pembroke Dock-man Gammer was nearly 27 by the time he started his professional career in 2002. “I took [then Wales rugby coach] Graham Henry to Scott’s last amateur fight against Kevin Evans,” says Boyce. “I’d told Graham how good this boy was, but Scott was out of shape and lacking motivation and he lost. Graham said to me ‘are you sure about this fella, mate’ and I just said, ‘Yeah, he’ll be ok’.”
Sixteen undefeated fights between 2002 and 2006 proved the promoter right as Gammer began to build a formidable west Wales fan base who would arrive at his fights armed with inflatable hammers in tribute to their fighter’s nickname. Boyce’s challenge was to deliver the big fights at venues accessible to this support base and that suited Gammer’s preference for performing close to home.
“I was looking around for venues, they had to be within an hour of a hospital that had brain surgery facilities, such as Morriston in Swansea,” remembers Boyce. “I was driving back and fore to see Scott in Pembroke and I saw the Carmarthen Showground and thought ‘that’s the place’. Ron Davies, an ex-policeman, was running it. We just rolled our sleeves up and said ‘let’s do it’.”
Former Mike Tyson fall-guy Julius Francis was the first Gammer victim at the Showground in September 2005, a win that was followed by victory over Suren Kalachyan in London in December, leaving ‘the Hammer’ in line for his British title shot.
“The funny part was winning the purse bids,” says Boyce. “The fight was supposed to be against Matt Skelton and I thought that, if we were going to beat Matt, we needed to get him away from London and into Wales, as close to Scott’s Pembrokeshire base as we could. I knew that Sky were paying £63,000 for a Friday or Saturday night show and I thought that we might lose the purse bid to Frank Warren, so I bid £63,213 and we won. I was smiling but just thought ‘my god, what’ve I done, I’ve got
to find the money now!’ Julian James, a Port Talbot businessman, is a great friend of mine, I couldn’t have done it without him. But when I told him I’d bid over £63,000 he said ‘oh god, you’ve done it now’.
“As it happened Skelton pulled out, I don’t think he wanted the fight down in Wales. Mark Krence was the replacement opponent, a man Scott had beaten before, but we didn’t know if the Lonsdale Belt would be at stake. I didn’t think it’d be good for the sport to drag things out with a vacant title, so I spoke to the British Boxing Board of Control who agreed it would be better to have an active belt. I spoke to Scott and to Krence’s promoter Dennis Hobson about what we could do financially, and we got it arranged. It was a gamble and I lost a lot of money, but it was worth it to get the title.”
Boyce had hopes that some of the costs would be covered by a TV deal but – despite widespread Welsh media interest in Gammer’s title bid – the camera coverage never came. “I approached everyone for a television deal,” says Boyce. “S4C came close but we just couldn’t get a slot anywhere. I thought ‘someone must want to show a British heavyweight title fight that’s taking place in a cowshed in Carmarthen’!”
Preparing the venue was also something of a challenge. “I asked Ron if there were any changing rooms. He said ‘not really but there’s an attachment to the building’… they were smaller cowsheds! We put in some petition walls and got some hot and cold running water, then I spoke to [construction industry businessman] Mike Cuddy, who offered me some of the decontamination units they use to clean up when they’ve been stripping asbestos. I thought, great! We got a hog roast in, got a burger stand… it was exciting and fun and we got it done. A British heavyweight title in Carmarthen was a big event.”
The fight was rather more straightforward than the build-up, Gammer underlining his previous win over Krence with a ninth-round TKO, making him the seventh Welshman to hold the British heavyweight crown. That opened up major opportunities on the domestic scene, where Olympic star Audley Harrison was something of a swaying doorway controlling access to the world scene.
“Frank Warren offered £100,000 for Scott to fight Audley Harrison in London,” says Boyce. “I turned it down, I don’t know if that was right or wrong. Audley was obviously very dangerous when he wanted to be, it wasn’t an easy fight.”
Instead, the promoter chose a comfortable voluntary defence against Micky Steeds, a fight at Port Talbot’s Afan Lido that further built ‘the Hammer’s’ local fan base. “Scott had beaten Micky before and I knew that with his boxing skills he’d win that,” says Boyce. “I knew that after it there was a contract for a fight with Danny Williams. I’d spoken to Sky who said that if we stuck with them they could quickly give us two dates for voluntary defences after a win over Williams. I just thought that this was a better offer than the £100,000 for the Audley fight, I thought Scott would beat Danny.”
Harrison had hammered Williams inside three rounds in December 2006, so Boyce was confident in bringing the Tyson-conqueror down to Wales to face Gammer, with a 1,200-seat sell-out guaranteed at Neath’s Cwrt Herbert Sports Centre. But before that fight would happen, Harrison imploded against Michael Sprott with a third-round loss, while the enigmatic Williams had a major surprise in store for the Welsh team. Having been flabby and out of shape against Harrison, the challenger weighed in for the Gammer bout at 16st 4lbs, his lightest since he made his professional debut in 1995. “We had a shock on the scales,” says Boyce. “Danny had never been in that shape since his first professional fight. I don’t know why he did it for that fight, he hadn’t done it before and never did it again.”
Gammer, thinking he needed to bulk up to face Williams, came in at 17st 1lb, the heaviest weight he’d been, thereby throwing away his advantages in terms of speed and energy. “Scott hadn’t had the right sparring or preparation,” admits Boyce. “But there was nothing in it until Williams stopped him in the ninth.
“Scott lost heart after that. Against John McDermott… well, he made McDermott look like a world-beater. But he had his moments. Scott was such a talented kid, articulate and good looking… it was a shame really, he had a great boxing brain. He did well out of his career and he’s a great lad, he’s in scaffolding now, still in Pembroke. He missed the boat, but it was because he wouldn’t come out of west Wales. If he’d gone training and sparring in London he would have done even better. He says he wishes he’d listened, he admits that now.”
Buckland brothers battle for recognition and respect
While Gary and Mitch Buckland keep searching for the fights they deserve inside the ring, Graham Thomas learns of their struggles for respect outside it
Mitch Buckland has not adopted the self-styled ‘Gypsy King’ nickname of Tyson Fury – but he aims to win his own crown soon enough, along with pride for the Welsh traveller community. Buckland and his elder brother, Gary, grew up in Cardiff, but their roots are from a similar Irish travelling background to world heavyweight champion Fury.
Mitch, 22, is an unbeaten light-welterweight while Gary, 29, is a former British champion at super-featherweight. But both have always had their own fights to wage outside of the ring, which meant Mitch took more than a passing interest in the recent ‘gypsy boy’ row involving Wales rugby player Samson Lee. As well as revealing how modern sports stories can generate a global life of their own on social media, the dispute – which ended with a £20,000 fine and two-match ban for England player Joe Marler – also shone a light on attitudes towards a minority group that has always produced talented boxers.
“The rugby row was interesting,” says Mitch, considered one of Wales’ brightest prospects and who aims to follow his brother by winning a British title within the next 12 months. “The gypsy boy comment was meant as an insult. Why else would he say it? He didn’t say, ‘Oi, Welsh boy!’
“I think these things are slowly being taken notice of. Samson Lee might not have wanted any hassle, but if you’re on the receiving end it can feel embarrassing. When you walk into somewhere and they say no gypsies, then you feel pretty upset. They wouldn’t say to a black guy, ‘no blacks allowed in here’. I’m from a gypsy background, we use those words, but other people use them in a way to keep people down.
“Sometimes, I’ve been out with my missus and we’ve gone to a club where someone has said to us, ‘no gypsies allowed’. I’ve had a lot of hassle in the past. When my dad was younger he went to the bar and asked for a pint. They told him they didn’t serve gypsies. What they didn’t know was that my dad had a lawyer sitting next to him – they ended up suing the brewery. When you’ve caused no trouble and it’s just prejudice, it’s hard to take.
“Gypsies are sometimes known for liking unlicensed fighting, but I always wanted to get into a ring and be a professional. A lot of good boxers have come from a similar background to me, like Tyson Fury. I’m proud of my roots, it’s all I’ve ever known. I lived in a caravan for most of my life, although I now live in a house. That’s where I’m from, it’s who I am. My family have had people calling us names and it’s not nice, but we’re all human and all the same.”
Fighting his corner outside of the ring is something the younger Buckland has had to get used to in recent months as bouts inside the ropes have proved difficult to make.
“I’m at the time of my career where I’m finding it hard to get fights,” he says. “I just need to beat someone who is up there in order to get recognised. I was offered a fight on 1 April to fight on 30 April for the WBA Continental title against Robbie Davies Jr. He’s got a very good record ‒ 12 fights unbeaten with nine knock-outs. We said we’d take the fight, but their promoter got back to us the next day and said that the guy didn’t want to fight me. I think he felt I was a bit tricky for him, being a southpaw. I’m an awkward fighter and I know that guys don’t want to fight me. It’s hard to get fights.”
Brother Gary hasn’t fought since September when he suffered a fifth defeat in his last eight contests, a points loss to Sean Dodd. There were suggestions that he was ready to call it a day; he insists that’s not the case, although he intends to move back to super-featherweight, the division where he won his Lonsdale Belt against Gary Sykes in 2011.
“I’m back in training now and I’m hoping to fight again on 4 June,” says Gary. “My losses have all been at lightweight, so I’ll be going back to super-featherweight which suits me better. I’d like to win back a British title.”
Like the Selby brothers, Lee and Andrew, the Bucklands mix support for each other with a fierce sibling rivalry. Gary will train with Mitch for the younger brother’s next fight and has no doubts Mitch can outstrip his own achievements.
“A couple of years back Mitch sparred with Carl Frampton and, as he got out of the ring, Barry McGuigan said he had the ability to go on and be a world champion,” says Gary. “He’s fast and awkward and I think he’ll go on to become a European champion at the very least.”
Mitch – who has more recently sparred with Scott Quigg – remembers the McGuigan assessment. “That was lovely hear from someone who has been world champion and with his profile in the sport,” he says. “But I admit I get frustrated. I’ve got a family I need to feed. I work in the day and train at night and it can be hard to keep going. That’s why I need fights. I had a full-time job fitting windows, but I’ve given it up now to start full-time training again. When I give up work, I get no income at all, so it’s difficult.”
Mitch describes his training sessions with big brother Gary as ‘old school’, and admits that sometimes trainer Tony Borg has to step in to end a scrap that would otherwise go on until midnight. “When we get in the ring, we turn the clock off and do an hour non-stop,” he says. “We just get in there and do it – proper old school. I was nine years of age when I followed Gary into the gym. My brother was always a big inspiration for me. I followed him around, watched him train hard and become a British champion. It made me believe I can do it.
“I look at other brothers, like the Selby boys, and the fact that Lee has gone on to win a world title; it shows that brothers can push each other. Lee and Andrew are great guys and really get the best out of each other. Me and Gary are the same. He’ll be in my training camp for my next fight and it’s competitive. We push each other to the limit.”
The Bucklands have a third, middle brother, Bobby, who also boxed as an amateur. These days he lends only vocal support, as does Buckland senior, who Mitch reckons is their biggest fan. “My dad used to train, but he didn’t box in the ring,” he says. “He comes to watch all my fights and he’s the one who keeps us on track and keeps us straight. I want to fight for a British title within the next 12 months, that’s my plan. After that, I want to go further, I want to defend it and win it outright – do it properly, the old-fashioned way. Then, I want move on to better things.”
The Bucklands may not have hit the same heights as the Selbys yet, but Mitch is determined to be part of a rising scene. “There’s a good buzz in Welsh boxing at the moment,” he says. “It went quiet for a while after Joe Calzaghe, Enzo Maccarinelli and Nathan Cleverly. But Lee Selby has put it back up there and there are lots of good prospects coming through. I want to be part of that.”
Picture Courtesy of Sophie Merlo
The Fury-ous route to world domination
Sophie Merlo catches up with world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury’s uncle and trainer Peter to talk Klitschko, Joshua, Wilder and much, much more…
I get hold of Peter Fury just as news breaks of the 9 July rematch between his nephew, Tyson Fury, and Wladimir Klitschko.
“We’re very excited at getting it on,” says the trainer of the WBO and WBA world heavyweight champion. “Wladimir was willing to come to England, so there was no trouble getting him here. It just took a while to organise with things like the TV companies.”
Peter helped mastermind a performance that shook up the world when Tyson romped to a points victory over Klitschko, the second-longest reigning heavyweight champion in history, in Dusseldorf last November. But there’ll be no resting on laurels ahead of the return bout in Manchester.
“We have to anticipate what Wladimir is doing next and adjust accordingly,” says Peter. “My job is to make the plans and prepare Tyson, making sure he’s as focused as possible. When the bell goes it’s not about the fight immediately ahead, it’s about the preparation. My job is instilling in Tyson what to expect, how it can be and what can go wrong. It’s not about fear, it’s about intelligence and pure skill. A boxer with maximum skill who is a world-class athlete can negate the other man’s power. A good fight is like a game of chess… and when through those chess moves a fighter cannot land his shots, the preparation beforehand will have educated him in how to deal with it.”
Tyson received a lot of negative media following homophobic comments he made after the Klitschko triumph, and other incidents have built a very unique public persona. There’s video footage of him being a ring girl in between rounds on the Chris Eubank Jr v Nick Blackwell undercard, for example. Then there’s his infamous singing. While I personally think boxing needs more characters like him and find it highly entertaining, others may foolishly underestimate him for it.
“Tyson gets misquoted a lot, but he’s not really affected by it,” says Peter. “People like to play down what he’s achieved. Nobody expected him to win in Germany last year – all the promoters discounted him, apart from one. Yet Tyson wins and gets criticised for it! He needs to earn total respect. He won some respect in Dusseldorf and he’s about to cement this by showing that beating Klitschko was no fluke. People’s opinions of Tyson will turn around in July when they see this.”
So what of the man preparing Tyson for another epic showdown? Peter is from a travelling community and his first boxing-related memory was his father telling tales of his uncles journeying miles to go 30 or 40 rounds in fairground boxing booths.
“My father, although not a boxer himself, was always around boxing,” says Peter. “When I was six or seven I’d hang about various gyms with him as we travelled around the country, and I started doing padwork and bags at that age. I began sparring when I was 13 or 14.”
Peter had some amateur experience and just one professional fight, but a youthful marriage and an admitted lack of dedication meant his own career in the ring went no further. His highly controversial past is well documented; he spent 10 years inside for importing amphetamines, then a further two years for laundering money. He has always stayed involved in boxing, though, and his influence on other fighters is part of his own much larger story.
“Everyone I’ve ever met along the way, they all fit into the jigsaw of what and who I am,” says Peter. “I’ve sparred with many people over the years; I know what it’s like to have the family name at stake and to have to go into a field at 5am in the morning with bare knuckles and no referees, with my life on the line. I know what it’s like to train hard and be dedicated. All these people and all these experiences carved out what I am now.
“I believe in the Lord, I’m a God-fearing man and tell the truth. I always speak straight and have maximum respect for all. Tyson and all my sons have the same beliefs as I do. We thank God for everything we do and we do the best we can. Before each fight, I don’t pray a trite prayer like ‘please God let my fighter win’, it’s more like, ‘please God reward their hard work and let both fighters be safe’, because that’s all that really matters. My focus is on my family and their welfare, and living a peaceful life.”
Peter’s worked with other boxers in the past, but now only trains his family… although the world champion isn’t the only fighter in the Fury clan. Tyson’s 19-year-old brother, Young, and Peter’s son, Hughie, both fight professionally as heavyweights. Then there’s an up-and-coming nephew, 16-year-old Tommy, who’s still an amateur.
”When my family quit, I’ll probably quit,” says Peter, although that day looks to be some time away. “Hughie is only 21 and maturing all the time, he’s coming on and our plan is for him to fight for a world title around October 2017. Young Fury is taking time out at the moment, he’s met a nice girl and is enjoying life. But Tyson’s 27, and it’s his time now.”
‘His time’ looks likely to include a future showdown with Anthony Joshua, the new IBF heavyweight champion and the sporting world’s current sensation. “We’re hoping that Tyson will fight Joshua in October or November, after Klitscho,” says Peter. “It’ll be a super fight and Tyson can’t wait.”
Team Fury obviously don’t think too highly of the much-lauded Joshua, though, Tyson having reportedly lost £1,000 by betting on the man he claimed the title from, Charles Martin. The fallen ‘champion’ did, of course, only hold the belt because the IBF had stripped it from Tyson for choosing a Klitschko rematch over an unworthy mandatory challenger.
“Joshua’s not to blame [for the lost bet]… he can’t help people walking into his fist,” says Peter. “I don’t think Joshua is there yet, but the public wrongly believe he is. This isn’t about the title for Tyson. When Tyson takes back the IBF belt from Joshua that was robbed off him, he’ll throw it in the dustbin. He’ll vacate the title immediately because the belt is worn out and he has no respect for it. We’re giving boxing fans what they want, an all-English showdown. We’re going to concentrate on that before [WBC champion] Deontay Wilder – Klitschko, then Joshua, then Wilder, step by step.”