By John Evans
Christmas was cancelled in the Mathews household this year. Not that current English lightweight champion Derry is a modern day Scrooge, far from it. With a fight for the vacant IBO belt scheduled for January 20, Mathews was simply so eager to continue his impressive comeback that he chose to forego the traditional Christmas spent over indulging with family for one of physical hardship with only trainer Oliver Harrison and a gym full of like minded fighters for company.
“Obviously it’s been cancelled with my big fight coming up and I’ve had to concentrate on that. After the fight, me and my girlfriend will enjoy our Christmas,” says the 29-5-1 (15) Liverpudlian.
“Oliver’s been in right through as well as all the other lads. There are eight from our gym all on the card and we’ve also got Tony Dodson fighting for the Commonwealth title soon too so there’s been a good atmosphere. They’re a good bunch of lads so we’ve had a good craic.”
Hopefully Mathews will enjoy his late festivities as - if things go the way he hopes - 2012 may prove to be the most challenging year of his career so far. Although results at the very highest level may not show it, British boxing is going through a successful period and there are a number of divisions which contain mouth watering domestic match ups.
At lightweight, Mathews is competing alongside the likes of WBO interim champion Ricky Burns, Kevin Mitchell, his recent opponent European champion Gavin Rees (their fight ended in a technical draw after Mathews’ nose was broken following a fourth round clash of heads), recent world title challenger John Murray and rising star Anthony Crolla. The 28 year old is in no doubt that his is the toughest division of all.
“I think lightweight’s the best. When you look at the top six it’s frightening and any of us can go on to bigger and better things. I’ve just gotta take one fight at a time, get rid of this Italian and then sit down with Steven Vaughan and whoever else wants to sit down with me and plan the future from there.”
The Italian in question is Emiliano Marsili. Mathews was initially scheduled to face the unbeaten Alisher Rahimov but following the Uzbekistan born fights withdrawal, Mathews now faces the Italian lightweight champion at Liverpool’s Olympia on January 20th. Although his name may not carry the same weight as Rahimov’s, Marsili, 23-0-1(9), will provide a different kind of test and his counter punching southpaw style could prove a tricky one to solve. Although Mathews is by far the most accomplished opponent the 35 year old Italian has faced in his eight year professional career, he will also enter the ring with that prized intangible; The confidence of an unbeaten fighter.
“Yeah, I’m his biggest test. He’s an unbeaten southpaw which is gonna make things awkward but I’ve had good sparring thanks to Terry Flanagan whose been helping me out in the gym,” says Mathews. "He’s good to be fair. With Rahimov pulling out I was a bit gutted. It was his name more than anything. He’s ranked WBO number two, WBC number five and he’s a top fighter. He’s gone on to fight for the WBC title.
“He’s still a big opponent. It doesn’t get any easier! He’s a southpaw and I’m under a lot of pressure to perform in front of my home crowd but I’m looking forward to it.”
Speak to any of Oliver Harrison’s fighters and one thing which shines through is the total faith they place in their trainer. Without exception they praise Harrison’s ability to dissect a fighter and decipher a plan to beat him. World title challenger Martin Murray recently told this writer that he spent virtually no time watching Felix Sturm prior to their draw last December, preferring to concentrate fully on preparing to carry out whichever tactics Harrison chose for him. ‘Dirty’ is similarly confident in the man he credits with helping turn his career around following a troubled period of four stoppage defeats in five outings.
“I’m the same. I have loads of people telling me that they’ve seen him on Youtube but I just leave that to Oliver. I know within two rounds of watching somebody if I’m gonna beat them so I watch two rounds and then say to myself ‘I’ll leave it to Oliver now. I know I can beat this guy so I’ll let him do the game plan.’
“Oliver’s a world class coach. I don’t know why he’s only getting recognition now all of a sudden” he continues. “Even before I was with him I had respect for him as a trainer; just look what he did for Amir (Khan). He just needs to be given the opportunity.
“Training alongside Martin Murray has inspired us all in the gym and the game plan Oliver had for him to go over and fight Felix Sturm encourages us all because we know we’ve got the best coach out there at reading fights and putting together game plans. Not all of his fighters fight the same way. He lets you do your own thing and makes you feel good in yourself.”
Whilst the fighters in his stable may have different styles, one trademark of the boxers competing under Harrison’s banner is having the stamina and fitness to successfully carry out whichever tactics have been devised in the gym from bell to bell come fight time. Unsurprisingly, a large amount of the credit for this is once again placed at his trainer’s door.
“Oliver does that as well! Me and Martin Murray have a strength and conditioning coach called Martin Cullen who we go to three times a week at Total Fitness in Wigan. Apart from that it’s all down to Oliver in the gym. He gets you fit and I think it’s down to the sparring we do. We also do a lot of technique and tactical work. Some fighters go into fights over trained but Oliver will never let you over train because he knows that on fight night, you’ve still gotta have it in the tank to go and produce.”
Talk inevitably returns to the future and Mathews did receive one Christmas present when it was announced that the fight with Marsili will be screened by Boxnation. With the majority of his rivals also now fighting on the channel, an impressive performance will throw his name directly into the mix for the big fights he craves.
“Yeah, I think that’s the plan Steven Vaughan and Frank Warren have for me too, that’s why it’s on Boxnation. If I can shine - I know I’m gonna win but it’s how I win – then maybe I can get the opportunity to fight Ricky Burns. Ricky’s a personal friend, a good lad and I respect him but its business at the end of the day” says Mathews.
Burns isn’t the extent of Mathews’ ambitions though. The thought of a British lightweight version of the successful super middleweight ‘Super Six’ tournament is one which has piqued Mathews’ imagination for months and his excitement at the thought of mixing with the best on a consistent basis shows no sign of faltering any time soon.
“I’d jump at it. I’d do it for the fans in Britain really. I think they’d love it. Imagine the likes of me, Mitchell, Rees, Murray, Crolla and Burns in a super six? We all fight each other, get points for wins and KO’s and then the two at the top of the table fight in the final. I think it’d be brilliant.
“If Ricky Burns is gonna be crowned WBO world champion, I’ll have the IBO belt, Rees has the European title, Mitchell with the WBO interim title and Crolla holding the British title, it would be hard. It’d be very hard. Never say never!”