Learning to lose
by Neil Perkins
‘If you carry on you won’t end up getting hurt, you’ll be permanently damaged’
I still hear the words of my old trainer Paul Gough ringing through my ears. It was after what turned out to be my last competitive sparring session with a seasoned pro. The blood flooding out of my broken nose masked the hole on my chin that an uppercut had caused by pushing my teeth through my lip. This enabled me to spar a further two rounds, although I was aware what had happened I didn’t inform my trainer in the hope I could rectify my disastrous start to the spar. The hole required six stitches and caused some very awkward meetings when describing how the wound had occurred, especially when you are looking to promote boxing as a safe sport.
I had daddy issues, step dad issues and some other issues. Like many angry young men when I found my way into a boxing gym, I found somewhere to channel my energy. My formative years made me experience frustration, rage and anger that still flows through me to this day. Some people find god, I found boxing.
In my newfound church, like with any religious sect there is always a leader – that is what Paul Gough was to me. He taught, nurtured and developed my talents – not only making me a better boxer, but a better person.
The journey I had gone on to this point was remarkable in itself, somewhat of transformation from the boy who wouldn’t go on school trips because he didn’t like been away from home or who wouldn’t have his TB jab because he didn’t like needles – somewhat of an issue as a doctor has you laid back on a chair whilst stitching your face back together. If you were to ask friends from school is I would ever box, they would be surprised at the outcome – 21 amateur fights, 18 wins, 1 international call up (which I never took), 2 midlands titles and a national finalist. Considering I had two shoulder surgeries that kept me out for a combined 18 months my amateur career wasn’t too bad? I couldn’t deadlift 200kg, I wasn’t explosive, athletic or had natural movement – my asset was my determination – I think Paul Gough did a pretty good job? The pro journey although short lived was memorable, in hindsight I was in the wrong weight division, but I enjoyed my short career. Chief sparring partner for Big John Mcdermott for his fight with Tyson Fury – a fight most of the boxing world thought he won was an insightful 68 rounds where I earnt every penny. The ‘angry’ Cuban Mike ‘the rebel’ Perez who held 5 world junior amateur titles and accrued an impressive 358 wins out of 372 contests was keen to show the members and staff of Fighting Fit City Gym that he could knock me out in a 6-round spar. He unloaded that many shots on me in the first five of scheduled six rounds that he was knackered, and I started to push him back and won the last round. Mike called me the hardest man he’d ever sparred, a compliment I’ll take to the grave. I had the pleasure of meeting a gentleman and a miss understood character who I share a trait of not learning when to shut my mouth – Big Tyson Fury, a man who to this day still makes a beeline for me and shakes my hand and offers to buy me a drink at every boxing event I have seen him at since, he also tries starting a fight with security as he’s telling them I’m coming to sit ringside with him! And then there was the plethora of top class sparring partners I met whilst sparing with David Haye preparing him for his world title win against Nikoli Valuev – that is a book in itself.
My loss to Danny Hughes in Prizefighter was hard to take, the calibre of opponents who had detonated on my chin had never done that to me and the sensational knockout viewed by 6 million viewers was bad enough, but ‘Knockouts of 2009’ placing it at number three in knockouts of the year ensured it was re-run continually over the festive period for those that missed it. My desire for a return in 2011 ended in with a terrible spar to a novice amateur who pinged me from pillar to post, in 2012, I needed one last go. This time I threw myself into the deep end at open sparring at Eroll Johnson’s pro gym, no coach and self-trained I thought I’d see if I could exercise my demons. There I met Fraizer Clarke who on the first spar I got the better of. I’d like to think it was the nurturing I gave him, but the GB super heavyweight improved every time I made the trip over to Burton to ‘move around’ with him – he went from been the student to the master. Initially when I contacted Paul Gough after 3 months of secret training, he was impressed. As the plan for the plan of attack of five fights with the end goal of a British Cruiserweight title now in possession of Shane Mcphibin who I’d beat as an amateur and employed as a sparring partner as a pro. The reality was plane to see when I progressively moved up in levels that I would struggle to cope with that level of operator. My desire to win would ultimately be my downfall. Upon finishing the stitching, I asked the Doctor how long before I could spar again? I already had a date planned for my comeback.
My talk with Paul Gough was hard to take. Paul had seen me evolve, my setbacks and my triumphs. The inevitability for every boxer is that they will one day lose and if you stay at the gambling table too long, you’ll lose all of your winnings. Some losses your can bounce back from, they make you stronger and galvanise you, but the ultimate decision must be taken with a risk to reward ratio – in reality, I could have ended up damaged. Losing is something everyone fears, the moments of reflection at the end of a defeat is only bad in your mind – boxing teaches you to rely on you, yourself and I and the fear of ‘what might be’ is worse than the reality. Even with a hole in my face, I took solace in my attempted comeback of 2012, the journey was remarkable in itself. By facing your fears and tackling your demons head on you realise that nothing is as big as its reputation and you chop down any tree one swing at a time. By learning when to step away from the sport, you are not cowering away, you are simply looking for another tree to chop down or going back with a bigger axe, that is one of the lessons in life that the sweet science of boxing has given me.