By John Hargate
One of boxing’s enduring paradoxes is the transformation of the gentleman outside the ropes to the animal within them.
Two of boxing’s good guys meet tonight for the Southern Area lightweight title at the Camden Centre in Kings Cross, in what on paper is unquestionably the fight of the week. A few hours before Hopkins and Dawson cure insomnia in front of thousands of people in Atlantic City in their HBO-televised bout, Ben Murphy and Phil Gill will go to war in front of around 900 lucky and privileged boxing fans.
Promoter Mickey Helliet hasn’t been able to secure TV for the fight, which is a crying shame. Legendary matchmaker Don ‘War-a-Week’ Chagrin would no doubt have been happy to put his name - and moniker - to this one.
Thirty-two year old Ben ‘The Caveman’ Murphy, 8-5-1 (4), was within a whisker of snatching the British light-welterweight title from Ashley Theophane last time out, despite taking the fight at two days notice and being a natural lightweight. He battered Theophane around the ring for the first half of the bout before beginning to tire in the later rounds, eventually running out of steam and getting stopped in round11. The fight was his first 12 rounder.
Murphy has a training routine that includes beating himself with sticks, sleeping out in the woods, running barefoot on the stony beaches of Brighton and diving into the ice cold sea after his morning runs. He told me that he likes this part best in the midst of January. He smiled, but he was serious. Murphy is also accompanied to his fights by a mystery shaman known only as “The Author”. Murphy is one of the most exciting and interesting fighters in boxing, yet can hardly shift a ticket. Another paradox.
Murphy and Gill have both had around five weeks notice for this one and are in top shape. Murphy’s co-trainer Barry Smith told BoxingScene that the time had been invaluable. He said: “Between me and Johnny [Eames], we’ve worked on his technique a lot, sharpened him up, got him rolling and pulling back and doing everything right. He was too reliant on power but now he’s doing things off the jab instead of rushing in like a bull, head down.”
Barry confirmed Murphy had been sparring Dean Byrne, George Jupp and Michael Grant amongst others in the lead up to the fight.
I asked Barry what his take on Phil Gill was as an opponent. “He’s never been in Ben’s class. To beat Ben you’ve got to be strong as a lion. [Gill] is going to be places where he’s never been before. He’s going to have to take punches he’s never had to take before. I rate Ben Murphy a lot and I think he’d give anyone trouble in that lightweight division.”
Ben was delighted with his training camp. “I’m fully prepared and everything is perfect,” he explained. “It’s good, it’s a nice feeling to have. I feel very strong, I feel like my boxing ability is better than it ever has been before. The weight is perfect. I’m coming out of the gym still with energy. I kind of feel like I want to do more but obviously I’m saving it.”
I wondered how much Murphy has felt he has improved since joining Eames and Smith? “Quite a lot, like learning to relax and not loading up on every punch. Small adjustments - and that’s what really makes a difference,” he answered.
Would Murphy be able to show his improvements in the fight, I wondered, or would - like Tyson once famously remarked - the plan go out the window the first time he gets hit? “It’s always about showing my ability, for myself really,” said Murphy.
“It’s about being the best I can be. It’s not always just about winning, it’s about going out there and performing and really fulfilling my potential. I think this fight, more than any fight, has the ability for me to show my potential. No disrespect to Phil Gill but I don’t see him on the same level as Ashley Theophane or someone like that.”
He added: “Plus it’s at my own weight. My first one back was against Tony Owen after a year out. The guy was a tall southpaw, it’s always awkward, it’s always hard to look good in a fight like that. But I did what I had to do to get the win [Murphy stopped Owen in four brutal one-sided rounds]. Ashley Theophane, again, a very good, quality good boxer. I couldn’t really show a lot of what skill I have got, I could only go out there and try and out hustle him.”
I asked Ben if he thought he’d have too much power for Phil Gill? “I believe that. Just because I’ll be able to hit him, basically. I’ll be able to create openings. And no matter how tough you are, I don’t believe that you can take shots like that. You can’t. None of us are invincible. I think I’m going to be too strong for him. Again, I don’t want to disrespect his power, because you never know.”
“I’m hoping it’s the best Phil Gill we’ll ever see,” Ben added seriously. “That’s what I’m expecting.”
Unbeaten twenty-nine year old Phil Gill, 12-0-2 (2), trains at The Monster Gym in Cheshunt under the watchful eye of trainer Paul Rees. Known as “The Phil Gill Experience” by his fans, and coming to the ring decked out in purple robes, hair and beard, popular and gregarious Gill, like Murphy, is a thoroughly nice chap and a hard man inside the ring.
Gill jumped from six rounders to a ten in his last fight against Ibrar Riyaz and I wondered how he’d felt he’d adapted to the longer distance? “It was fine, I’ve got a good engine, I’m always fit,” he answered.
“Breezed the ten rounds really. I had a few more gears I could have gone and in that performance I wasn’t particularly well. I was a bit run down from work, suffering from a bit of exhaustion really. I had a 24hr breakdown recovery job so I was getting called out at all times and I was coming to the gym half asleep. I never had a great training camp. Mentally it was the toughest I’ve ever had, physically draining. Not because of what we were doing in the gym but because of my lifestyle out of the gym.
“This time round it has been a nice 9-5 job [fixing fork-lift trucks]. Obviously I’m still working but the ten rounds won’t be a problem. I’ve had a few days off this week. There’s no-one as determined as me, who’s going to go and work day in, day out, train, come back to the gym, train, and then to go to bed and go out again the next day. That’s what sets me aside from the rest.”
I took it that he was in great shape for this fight? “I wouldn’t make the weight if I wasn’t in great shape,” Phil explained. “I’ve fought up as high as 11st in the pro’s. In the amateurs I fought Anthony Ogogo - who’s just qualified for the Olympics. I’ve boxed [current English light-welterweight champion] Eric Ochieng as an amateur. If I haven’t trained hard and lived the life then I don’t make lightweight.”
I wondered if Phil felt this fight was coming at the right time for him? “It’s come too late,” he replied emphatically. “I was ready for this fight a year ago. This is a fight tailor made for me. He’s just going to stand in front of me and trade with me. He’s a lightweight. I’ve stood there and traded with middleweights. Again, in the amateurs with headguards and gloves, but they’re still hitting hard and they haven’t put a dent in me. Can he say the same? First time he stepped up to ten stone, he got beat. I’ve walked around at ten stone and not had dents put in me.”
With only the two stoppages on his record, I wondered if Phil had concerns over his power? “These journeymen, they’re in there week in week out and it’s their job not to get stopped. There’s no secret to it, I’ve boxed a lot of journeymen. And these guys, it’s their trade, they don’t get stopped. Unless you’re one of these people that are training full time and living the perfect life, you’re not going to stop a journeyman over four rounds. I’m not the biggest puncher out there but I’ve got a dig on me. The first person that came to fight with me got stopped in the first round. Anyone that comes to fight with me or comes to win, they’re going to get knocked out.”
How much would taking the title home mean? “When I turned pro, my dream was to win a Southern Area title. Anything beyond that we’ll sort that out after. Right now, from day one, Southern Area is what I want. That is my British title.”
I asked Phil if he intended to box Ben early, or if he was preparing for war from the opening bell? “I’m going to stand there in the middle and he’s going to stand there but he’s not going to overpower me,” Phil growled defiantly. “He stands square on. All you have to do is give him a nudge and he’ll go over. I’ll stand there in the middle and trade with him, because he’s not going to push me back.”
Unlike Murphy, Gill is a good ticket seller with a large and loyal fan base. “I’ll have a good support there definitely,” Gill enthused. “It’s amazing. They can get you through the tough parts of a fight. Again, it’s no secret, I got put down in my second fight as a pro [against Craig Dyer]. That was just a learning curve. It wasn’t that I was gone, or chinny or that I was wobbly, I just walked onto one.”
“And when I heard them all, I thought, ‘there’s no way, no matter how hard this guy hits me, he’s going to put me down again, he’s not going to do that.’ And it drove me on. I didn’t need the push because I’m so mentally tough anyway, nobody needs to get me up at five in the morning to go running before I do a ten hour day at work and then come to the gym. Every single one of them are like family to me, they’re my genuine fans, they’re not there for the night out.” Gill sat back and exhaled, fire in his eyes.
It’s going to be a bit special. Both men have an abundance of heart and fight like warriors. Get yourself a ticket anyway you can and get down there. You won’t regret it.