By Terence Dooley
Anthony Farnell was a come forward brawler during his 37 fight career, 33-4 (20). ‘Arnie’, however, has adopted a laidback approach as a coach as he has to be the cool head in the corner when his fighters are out earning their corn.
Farnell’s brightest hope is Birmingham’s Frankie Gavin. ‘Funtime’ is a former World Amateur Championship gold medalist, the only British boxer to win this accolade, his pedigree is without doubt but there are fears over his temperament and commitment going into this Saturday’s WBO Inter-Continental welterweight title tussle against footballer-turned-boxer Curtis Woodhouse.
Gavin was contracted to make 144lbs only to reveal that he will not be able to safely make his way down to this poundage. The match is now set for the traditional 147lb limit, promoting a verbal hammering from Woodhouse, who has criticized the younger man on Internet forums, and cries of ‘foul play’ from one or two fans. This latest development has been read as an indicator of a lack of respect, with antecedent fears that Gavin will allow personal animosity to cloud his judgment.
Farnell, though, told the Main Event Radio Show that Gavin’s weight making for this fight had been unusually sluggish. Pointing out that he would be at fault if he forced Frankie to trim away the final few lbs to the detriment of his health. Anthony also feels that the pre-fight war of words will not impact on his charge’s ability to deliver a clinical win, a theme he continued when speaking to me ahead of the contest.
“He will be brilliant,” insisted Farnell to my question of whether Gavin will still be able to produce a sharp performance. “Curtis will bring the best out of Frankie because he’s asked for this fight and wants it. If he comes straight at Frankie then it is game over. I don’t see any way he can win, he can be as rough as he likes but he doesn’t know how rough Frankie can be. Frankie’s got a big heart and can be tough as well if you want it to go like that.”
Gavin’s last outing saw him register an anodyne point’s victory over Midlands rival Young Mutley at the O2 Arena on May 21st. Gavin lacked luster on the night, blaming his inability to fire on illness. Criticism poured forth only for Farnell to shoulder the burden of the Mutley misfire.
“I can understand people criticizing the performance because of the level that they expect Frankie to box at in every fight. People criticized because it wasn’t really the Frankie we know. But the criticism should come to me, really, because he shouldn’t have been fighting. That was a lesson for me, he fired in the gym but it is different being in the ring, the pressure is totally different.”
Adding, “He was coughing his guts up for a week after that fight. He won every round in my opinion and came through it. Now we’re moving onto this fight.”
Gavin has barely lost a round en route to a 10-0 (8) slate. However, the 25-year-old has a huge amount of expectation on his shoulders due to that stellar amateur career and a fluid defensive cadence that has seen some compare his style to Pernell Whitaker’s.
“I don’t think people have seen anything that Frankie has got. He wasn’t able to show it last time because Mutley didn’t want to commit and Frankie’s a natural counter puncher. Curtis will come at Frankie and make him look a million dollars,” reiterated Farnell.
“Every fight is tough, if you let Curtis get under your skin and mess you about then it is hard, I’ve got a lot of respect for him, he’s tough and strong, but if you use your skill against him then it is your fight.
“I don’t like looking forward and Frankie won’t make that mistake, either. I used to do that when I was fighting. I’d think, ‘I’ll just get past Takaloo and then fight Wayne Alexander’, but look what happened [Writer’s note: Farnell was stopped by Takaloo]. You can’t look too far in front.
“People who see Frankie in the gym know what he can do, he’s the best in the world talent-wise. I saw him come through the amateurs but when he came to the gym he was pulling back on his shots and was used to the amateur style. It is a different game – I don’t care what people say. After six months he was a totally different fighter. He was punching harder, better on his feet and using shoulder rolls to get body shots – Frankie looks better every day.”
Gavin’s inability to make the contracted weight for his face-off with Woodhouse has reawakened fears that the Birmingham boxer lacks the discipline needed to make it to the elite level. Concerns that first surfaced when he was sent home from the 2008 Olympic team when his weight stalled 3lbs outside the 60kg limit. Gavin had previously spoken to me about the circumstances surrounding the Olympics debacle, arguing that Team GB played a huge role in his failure to hit the stipulated limit.
This latest twist has caused one or two anoraks to become nervous, a lot of people have shown a lot of belief in Gavin and are now worried that the likeable stylist is in danger of not giving himself every opportunity to make the grade. Farnell does not share these concerns; he believes that his man will go all the way.
“I don’t get nervous or anything like that because I fought myself so know what it is about,” answers Anthony to my question of whether the weight situation has placed extra pressure on them. “If he wasn’t as good as I thought he’d be then maybe but I know how good he is.
“Frankie is a real prospect. The only person who can beat Frankie is Frankie. He looks really good in training. If he puts it all together then he’ll take Curtis out. It will be power mixed with speed with Curtis’s aggression bringing him onto the punches, which will end in a knockout as Frankie hits harder than people think.”
Woodhouse turned his back on pro football to forge a career in pugilism. Curtis has earned respect by doggedly sticking with the sport despite two defeats, against Jay Morris and Peter McDonagh respectively, as well as promotional upheavals to motor to 15-2 (10).
“I’ve got big time respect for him. But then again, and no disrespect to Curtis, he was coming to the end of his football career so he probably wasn’t on big money at the last few clubs,” mused Farnell.
“Boxing is a tough world. I think Curtis thinks he’s a bit of a hard case and he can bring that over. I used to think that but being tough on the streets is different to being a good boxer.
“It doesn’t matter how tough you are, you need to be able to have skills and a boxing game. Curtis is mainly a tough guy, like I was. If I were fighting someone like Frankie the only hope I’d have would be to drag him into a war and wear him out.
“Knowing Frankie, if you try to drag him into a war he can chose to box you or have a war with you and give more shots than he’d take because of his defence. You can block when there’s one or two shots coming at you but Frankie brings them in bunches, through the middle and to the body, and he is blocking all the time.”
Woodhouse called long and hard for the fight. Gavin seemed ambivalent at first, believing that the former Birmingham City FC player was Conference league to his Premiership class. Indeed, Frankie cut a frustrated figure at the presser announcing the bout, chiding Curtis and poking fun at his boxing style. Farnell told me that there was more to that infamous exchange than meets the eye.
He said, “It wasn’t the same as it looked from the outside. Before the cameras were on, Curtis was giving it the big one to Frankie, trying to rile him and disrespect him. Frankie was being quite normal but was being disrespected so he said what he had to say. Curtis said he was going to do this and that so I pointed out what happened to Curtis when he lost Peter McDonagh and what Frankie did to Peter [when he out-pointed him].
“Peter is a top lad, I’ve seen his fight with Curtis. Woodhouse said he was weight weakened but it wasn’t that, after two rounds he was getting out-boxed and Peter was handling him well.”
Ronnie Heffron also features on Liverpool’s ECHO Arena bill. Heffron, 5-0 (3), takes on Barrie Jones on Saturday; he kept his focus during a recent sparring session with Blackburn’s Ali Shah and has shown enough maturity already in his career to suggest he can go far.
“Ronnie is quiet but he has come on so much. You saw him there against Ali where he could have lost his head but he kept it together, he’s learning that you can’t just go in there blazing and looking to knock people out,” says Arnie, reflecting on Heffron’s February win over Kevin McCauley, a fight in which Ronnie tried too hard to register a stoppage.
“I think it was mainly down to the pressure of being live on Sky TV. I remember how it was for me at the start. In every interview you’d be going, ‘Erm, erm’, and there is pressure on to perform in fights. I think you can try too hard to impress. Now I think he’ll not bother thinking about knockouts and let them come.
“He sparred with Craig Watson for the [Lee] Purdy rematch. The rounds he does for a youngster is really impressive. Ronnie won’t stop coming forward looking for the knockout so I’ve calmed him down, told him to let them come and to get rounds in.”
The Bolton-based bludgeoner takes his job very seriously. Anthony told me that, “Some fighters don’t watch fights but I think they should. Ronnie is on Youtube all the time checking out Julio Chavez, Miguel Cotto, even guys like Mark Breland who have a totally different style but can still teach him things.”
He added, “Frankie always watches Pernell Whitaker. If you watch other fighters you will pick things up and then bring them into the gym to test them out before trying them in a fight.”
Commonwealth light-heavyweight kingpin Tony Bellew would have made for the hat trick had the Liverpudlian not left Farnell’s gym just after Christmas. ‘Bomber’ cited the commute between Liverpool and Manchester when explaining his decision. Making December’s Bellew versus Ovill McKenzie war – in which Bellew was dropped twice before winning in the eighth – the final fight of a partnership that began when Tony turned over in 2007.
“Tony was devastated to leave here but said it was a long drive,” confirmed Farnell. “It might have been that he wanted to be the one that was the main one in the gym because he was here from the start. Then other people started coming and maybe Tony felt pushed out – I don’t know but I wish him all the best.
“I don’t know if he’ll come out with his hands tucked up by the side of his head for the rematch but he just needs to be himself – not look for the knockout straight away, not force punches, just let them go. I’ve seen him knock people out in the gym left, right and centre when he’s not tense, when he loads up you can see his shots coming.
“If he loads up again then it will be a hard night. If he doesn’t think too much about what is coming back, even though McKenzie has knocked him down twice before, then he’ll keep it tight and land his punches.
“Tony has got the best jab of any light-heavyweight in the world, it is that good, but when he puts pressure on himself to bomb people out he neglects it a bit. When he’s on his jab he looks awesome.”
Bellew seemed to lose a lot of his natural effervescence during last September’s tepid decision win over awkward portsider Bob Ajisafe. Tony was dropped in the fourth, cut a frustrated figure and was harsh on himself when analyzing the victory; Farnell confirmed that his former fighter has the same pet hate as all orthodox boxers.
“Tony hates southpaw, he just hates them, he doesn’t like them one bit. Against Ajisafe, he got hit and put down but did well considering that we all know what southpaws are like and how awkward they can be. Tony thought too much about that,” he revealed.
“Every fighter wants to look good all the time so they start thinking about having to look good and put pressure on themselves. Tony is so good when he’s relaxed. I used to be able to box well in sparring but used to tense up in fights by looking for the knockout and forgetting my skills. That is what Tony has been doing but if he listens and gets behind that jab he’ll make this fight easy.
“Learn from the mistakes, don’t get tense, use a fast jab and the feet, take the centre of the ring and control the fight to stop Orville in eight rounds. If he goes to war he can end up on his back again like last time and will have to come through that to win.”
Now a firm member of the trainers’ union, slogan: ‘All work, no play, little pay’, Farnell insists that the coaching game is tough enough without constant fallouts and feuds. Telling me that mutual cooperation is essential as it helps you set up sparring sessions, exchange advice and push one another forward.
“All trainers should get on well. I get on with Bobby Rimmer, Billy Nelson is a friend of mine, Bob Shannon is great, I am in touch with Lee Beard, you’ve got Joe Pennington, Pat Barrett and Tommy McDonagh were down here with Scott Quigg recently – I get on with nearly everyone,” he smiled.
Farnell knows a thing or two about coaches, he learned under Brian Hughes MBE, Billy Graham and Oliver Harrison, three of Manchester’s finest. Farnell has remained on terms with Harrison and Graham despite the fact that he left Billy when he felt ‘The Preacher’ was not giving him enough of his time and energy due to Ricky Hatton’s rise to the top.
“You know what, Billy is a guy I miss, he’s a character,” recalled Farnell. “You don’t get his type in boxing often. He could be his own person but you know who he is and what you get. Billy is a belting fella with a lot of boxing knowledge. I hope he comes back. I hear he might get back into it with Kerry [Kayes] helping him so I hope that works out. Tell him to come down here and have a visit.”
Training is a double-time job, you could double your weekly time allowance and still have it all to do. The likes of Farnell make a commitment to the sport fully aware that they may not come out of it unscathed. Leading to one to one or two strange hobbies. Rimmer is a pigeon fancier, Shannon enjoys reading up on Native American folklore and Joe Gallagher is a closet X-Factor follower. How does Farnell unwind after a hard day at the gym?
“I’m a big magic fan,” laughed Farnell before showing off his levitation trick. “I’ve been into it for years, sleight of hand and all that. When I boxed I used to go to the local magic shop in town and spend time chatting about magic to relax. I like messing about with the tricks and having a laugh because boxing can be too serious at times.”
With a puff of stage smoke, a shout of “Hey presto” and a whirl of his cape he was gone, ready to reappear on our screens this Saturday night during Sky 1 and HD1’s broadcast of Warren’s bumper bill.
September 2010 interview with Frankie Gavin: http://www.boxingscene.com/frankie-gavin-he-britains-next-big-thing--31021
Remaining tickets, priced at £50, £80 and £100, are available on the Echo Arena Box Office on 0844 8000 400 or www.echoarena.com
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