By Terence Dooley
Mark Tibbs found himself at a loose end when hanging up his boxing gloves in 1994. The son of legendary trainer Jimmy Tibbs, Mark took a time out to pursue an acting career, a move that took him to France, where he worked with actors and developed his interest in drama.
However, nothing came close to the theatre of professional boxing. Always a gym regular wherever his travels took him, Tibbs decided that his future lay in coaching, he joined forces with his father and the two now operate out of Johnny Eames' TKO Gymnasium.
“I went to America first, then Australia and Thailand, I trained a lot in those places as well as Spain and the Canary Islands. I did this for years then after ten (years) I'd had enough travelling,” explained Tibbs as he mused over his break from the sport.
“I visited a lot of gyms but I'll be honest, I was trying to find myself outside of boxing because it had been my life since I was a kid. I went away, found myself and came back with the passion – I can't get enough of boxing.”
“For sure, yeah,” said Mark when asked if working alongside his old man was a natural choice. “But you don't take things for granted. Being a young trainer in the game you can't take things lightly, even though I've actually been around the sport since I was a kid, so I work hard at what I do and am lucky that my dad's there so we can work in tandem.
“Working with my dad is like being in any working relationship. We're in it together as father and son so we have our ups and downs but we work well together, almost telepathic in that we know what the other needs.
“We're partners. I respect my dad so much. He's got world title experience and there are things we can pick up from each other, although he probably won't admit that because he's a proud man! I'm developing fighters myself with my dad's help and we're looking at bringing some good names through.”
Mark's post-boxing travels took him around the world, calling wherever he laid his gym bag his home. Tibbs revealed that his retirement came about by accident. By the time he realised that there was still an urge to achieve things as a pro the window of opportunity had slammed shut.
Tibbs, though, had a natural route into training after a life spent steeped in the sport. “When I retired myself at 25 I was a bit young to realise what I'd done – I thought I'd just taken a time out and not retired,” recalled the former top-level amateur.
“I always looked after myself but next thing you know I'm 35 and realised it was too late for me. I got a trainer's license as soon as I retired but didn't use it at first. To be honest I tried other things but could never settle down, I had this job, that job, even building work, and I was always connected to the gym no matter where I was.
“I'd watch the fighters training, know what shots they should be throwing and kept in that way. Then Billy Joe [Saunders] came on the scene and I thought, 'I can contribute here'. When my dad got Billy I knew what the young fighters were doing, had studied physiology and I upped my game in the strength and conditioning side. I also know about technique and skill because I've been involved with boxing all my life [Tibbs first laced up the gloves at the age of six].”
Saunders has motored to 10-0 (7); he fights for the Southern Area title against Gary Boulden this Saturday night. When asked what sets Saunders apart from the other skilled prospect, Tibbs bluntly declared that it all boils down to personal dedication and trust in the people around you.
“Billy does everything you ask of him, he shows trust in you. When a fighter does what you tell him then it tells you something. If a fighter wants to work with you then you are going to walk a nice path. You can develop things with Billy, if he doesn't agree then he'll speak up, we'll work it out and he has all the talent in the world to work with,” he opined.
Adding: “Every fight we work with him he picks up experience. His last one [against Norbert Szekeres] was one he could have taken the full distance at a good pace but he picked two perfect shots to take the guy out in a round.”
Kevin Mitchell also represents Team Tibbs; the Londoner let himself down when fighting Michael Katsidis for the WBO interim lightweight title at Upton Park in May 2010. Later admitting that personal problems had caused him to take his eyes from the prize going into the biggest challenge of his career.
Jimmy criticised the Dagenham boxer during the aftermath of the defeat. Kevin, though, knuckled down when given the opportunity to fight the then-undefeated John Murray in July, taking John's '0' after a thrilling battle before extolling the virtues of living the life.
“Listen, Kevin was in great shape, he gave us his life and soul for eight weeks,” Mark’s recollection of the Murray war. “We asked him to trust us, we told him what we needed and he dug and dug to make sure he was prepared. Kevin never grumbled, never moaned, he proved that if you study the game, work it without over-training and find that balance, because the key is balance, then you see that you are capable of.
“I'll be honest, there were doubts after Katsidis. Kevin had skipped a few things that he should have been doing. But I don't want to talk too much about that, the kid did a few things wrong, he put his hands up and took the flack then came back and proved himself. Kevin didn't play the game for Katsidis, he played it for Murray and look at the result.”
Murray travels to New York to take on WBA titlist Brandon Rios at Madison Square Garden on December 3rd. Mitchell had hoped to net the fight only for potential visa problems to nix the mooted meeting. There is every chance that Mitchell could return early in 2012 as long as the issues relating to police charges earlier this year are ironed out. Mark is certain that Murray and Mitchell are destined to entertain the fans again at some point.
“John Murray, what can I say – I love that kid,” he enthused. “Look at the way they both conducted themselves. Look at how hard they fought, how much respect there was and how they handled it. It makes a rematch fantastic if John can win the world title.
“Kevin's got his problems with going over to America – I won't go into them because I don't know much about it – but it would be great if they could do it for a world title. Kevin said to me, 'I want to win the world title and defend against Murray', but now it might happen the other way.”
“What I do with fighters is watch them spar, move, have a push around with them and see where their strengths and weaknesses are. With someone like Frankie [Gavin] you have God-given talent so you work with that but try to challenge him.”
These were Mark's thoughts on Frankie Gavin at the time of our interview, they came two weeks before Frankie's aborted showdown with Frank Haroche Horta and there is now every possibility that we may not see Gavin fight under the Tibbs after he walked away from the bout at a day’s notice with rumours of weight problems flying in from all angles.
Gavin joined the Tibbs after going close with Curtis Woodhouse in July, arguing that his personal life here in Manchester had become tangled to the point of distraction and that a change was needed. Frankie's decision drew a line under his working relationship with Anthony Farnell, who had guided Frankie from his pro début, and was to be the dawn of a new day.
Now, though, Frankie is facing an uncertain future, his personal problems, which have been well documented in the boxing press, threatening to undo a career that seemed destined to result in world honours.
Frank Warren's angry assertion to Boxing News that, “'Between him and Kevin Mitchell’, I said to Jimmy Tibbs, ‘what do you put in the water down there’”, when the story came to light brought into focus the fact that Gavin's decision wove a web of consequences. The Tibbs found themselves on Warren's lips for the wrong reasons. Dean Byrne stepped into Frankie's shoes, lost his '0' and is entering 2012 off the back of a stoppage and there are greater long-term concerns.
Consider, the London Games are almost upon us, if Gavin takes six months out to evaluate things he could come back to a changing boxing landscape, he may no longer be Britain’s most valuable former amateur talent and he could be bumped down the queue going into a crucial period. It is a worrying thought for those who believe, as I do, that Gavin has world class potential.
Still, no one could expect the 26-year-old to lace up the gloves last weekend if his mind was not on the job, a bit of a to-do is better than picking up an '0' and this reprieve should give Frankie the time needed to clear his mind and decide what his next move will be.
The assumption is that the Gavin-Tibbs axis will not survive this schism. Jimmy is not known for taking any prisoners when it comes to this type of thing, some believe that although Frankie had no choice but to leave Manchester behind, Farnell is the man to guide Gavin through his tough times.
The two share a close personal bond, in fighting terms they have the chemistry of the Ricky Hatton-Billy Graham partnership, which was built on mutual respect when at its peak, yet there are lots of things to consider when it comes to where Frankie prepares for his next fight as trainers take ultimate responsibility when things go wrong on the night. Also to mull over is that most cannot afford to train a fighter for 8-12 weeks only to see the bout, and therefore their recompense, go down the drain.
All in all, there is a lot to consider when weighing up Frankie's next move, for all the sympathy over his personal circumstances there are also the pragmatics of the sport to take into account. Boxing is a business; there is always another big thing in the pipeline. Gavin is in a unique position, he is well paid, has strong promotional backing and can have his pick of trainers, many fighters can only look on enviously at all the trappings of Gavin's career.
If you consider the list of people who have tried and in most cases still want to help Gavin get to the top – the Tibbs, Anthony Farnell, Frank Warren, Dean Powell and Kerry Kayes – you produce a who’s who of British boxing and a bunch of names that most fighters would love to work with.
You cannot pause life, we cannot ask fighters to fight throw personal problems yet there comes a point when the sport threatens to leave you behind, Gavin may be coming close to this crossroad.
Granted, fighters differ, for every Buster Douglas – who put aside the break up of his marriage and death of his mother to overcome Mike Tyson – there are a plethora of pugilists who cannot perform with distractions. The final word on Frankie's potential comes from Mark himself.
“You know what, I heard a lot about Frankie. I saw him fight in Upton Park [a win over Gavin Tait] and there's nothing he can't do, he is beautiful,” Mark's thoughts on Frankie's ability.
However, Tibbs also had the cautionary tale of the Mitchell-Katsidis debacle to fall back on as he closed out our chat with a reminder of the rigours of the sport.
“We can be in the gym with the fighters, we can work with them on what needs to be done but what they do in their private life is out of our control. These three guys – Billy, Kevin and Frankie – can go as far as they want to go depending on how hard they work at it,” he concluded.
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