By Terence Dooley
It is a common tale, a young amateur boxer discovers nightlife and booze, goes off the rails, does a bit of prison time and loses track of his boxing career. Fast forward a few decades and the boy has become a middle-aged man, he looks in the mirror and thinks about what could and should have been.
Martin Murray will not have to face this moment of realization and regret. The St Helens-based boxer is due to challenge Felix Sturm for the WBA middleweight title next week in an event that seemed a million miles away when Murray spent four stints in prison before turning pro after going off the rails for a few years.
A fight in a takeaway years earlier came back to haunt the youngster ahead of his final jail sentence. Murray had turned his life around in the interim period yet this final period inside seemed a massive setback on his road to glory.
“It was just down to stupid little things,” said Murray when reflecting on those troubled times. “I won the ABAs in 2004 (at welterweight) and everything was going right for me. I was boxing for England, everything was good then a stupid fight in a chippy from a few years before came up again.
“It had been me and mates having a fight with others. I had previous form so I was the one who got sent down. It spoiled things for me again. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to change. I knew what was happening to me and what I wanted to do about it because I had turned from what I do best in the past and had gone back to it.
“To be honest when all that other stuff was going on I wasn’t boxing at the time and that was the reason I got caught up with stupid things. I stopped, had a look at my life and was fed up with what was going on. Boxing was there for me so I went back to that.
“I met my girlfriend Gemma, we had two kids and you know in yourself what you need to do. You can get stuck in a rut and think that’s your life but I always wanted this success and if I win this fight it can help me and my family.
“No disrespect to them, but I know a few people who went down the road that leaves them thinking they could have done this or that. I didn’t want it to happen to me. I didn’t want to get to a stage where people were saying, ‘He could have been a good boxer’. ‘Could’ is no good. I didn’t care how hard it was to get to that higher level, I just decided to give it my best and that is all I’ve done since those days.”
Murray came out of prison with a fire under him; he turned professional in 2007 with promoter Steve Wood and trainer Oliver Harrison. Martin rose to prominence courtesy of a Prizefighter: The Middleweights tournament win in 2008. A switch to Hatton Promotions in 2009 really got the ball rolling, the Commonwealth, WBA Inter-Continental and British titles quickly followed.
“Things went really well,” he recalled. “Now I want to go over to Germany and make a statement. I’ve a hard task in front of me but there won’t be a shock as that is what I’ve prepared for.
“There’s been no bad talk because there’s no history between us. I’m grateful for the chance but that doesn’t stop me wanting to beat Sturm and put on a good show. I want what he’s got. If I take what he’s got life becomes better for me, my missus and my family. I look at boxing as my job. I’ve trained and worked for twelve hard rounds – it is tough to stop him.”
Murray’s shock crack at the WBA belt has galvanized his local community, created a buzz in Harrison’s gym and sparked a wave of goodwill from those in the boxing fraternity. Martin’s lonely, tough preparations have benefitted from this support. He said, “Everyone is buzzing. Not just my family, everyone in St Helens and around the country is backing me, it is brilliant.
“When I stop and think about where I am, I think about how I never thought I’d get this far in my career. That is nothing to do with a lack of self-belief or confidence and more because this is a massive step up that many don’t get to take. I could never have dreamed of a fight of this scale. Now it is here, this is why I do this and I want to reach my potential. That is what boxing was always about for me.
“I never wanted to get to thirty and forty and think, ‘I could have done this and that’, so I’ll know that at the end of this (my career) I’ll have reached a high level and given everything I’ve got. Now I want to take it one step further and bring the title home.”
Rumours of a Sturm fight surfaced the moment Matthew Macklin revealed that he would not be fighting a return with the Germany-based champion. Macklin ran Sturm close in Cologne on June 25. The Birmingham bruiser was deemed the victim of a robbery in many quarters.
‘Mack The Knife’ has used this perception to his advantage; he inked a deal with Lou DiBella and is now close to securing a match with consensus king Sergio Martinez. Macklin’s decision to walk away from the rematch left Murray in the frame and on tenterhooks.
“I was training for a fight in mid-October without a specific date,” Murray’s recollection. “Over a couple of weeks it was mentioned that it could get made. I didn’t think twice when asked if I would take it if it were. There wasn’t a shadow of a doubt. It was hard because I knew about it for two weeks but couldn’t tell anyone until the news was released by Sturm.”
The 29-year-old candidly admits that in an ideal world he would have met the likes of Macklin or Darren Barker ahead of a world title tilt. His British rivals, though, made it clear that they had left the domestic scene behind, leaving Murray without a make-or-break domestic showdown.
“Ideally if I’d have had a couple of more fights then I’d be more prepared because that is what experience does for you. It is a leap but we asked for this a long while so couldn’t not take it when the chance came,” he admitted.
“Macklin and Barker haven’t wanted anything to do with me so I would have been stupid not to take this fight. What would I have done had this not come up? I always wanted to go the WBA route because I won their Inter-Continental belt and have a high ranking.
“You’ve got this thing with the WBA where there’s different champions but in this division Sturm’s their main man so why not take the fight against him. Who in their right mind wouldn’t? I’ve always said I would step up to the next level and improve so I can’t lose in this fight. Obviously I can lose a decision but I’ve everything to gain. This will develop me as a fighter.
“I’m really confident of going over there and making that step up in class. Everything is against me but I know I can go there and win. Boxing is all about timing, the time is right for me to go over there and take him.”
Macklin’s narrow 115-113, 112-116, 112-116 loss sparked a wave of disapprobation, with many pointing to Germany’s history of dubious decisions and poor officiating when condemning the result. Murray, though, feels that claims of foul play were a kneejerk reaction to a tight verdict.
“I don’t know why people keep going on about a robbery, especially Macklin, because it was a close fight either way,” his verdict. “Fair enough, Macklin started fast but Sturm was better with his shots. The pressure thing with Macklin was a big thing, no one likes pressure – I don’t care what they say. We’ve worked on different tactics, using the way I fight but adding a few clever tactics that we think will work on Sturm.
“But people keep asking if Macklin showed me how the blueprint of how to beat Sturm, I’m not Macklin, I’m myself and will give anyone out there problems on my day with my style. Sturm better be prepared for twelve hard rounds.”
Murray’s a tank at the weight; standing at 6’, solidly built and well muscled. I took in his debut fight in September 2007 and thought at the time that he looked solid at 168lbs, his weight on the night. However, Martin disagrees with claims that he is a huge 160lber.
“I never look at myself as a big middleweight,” argued the 23-0 (10) contender. “I’m a natural middleweight. Sturm is bigger than anyone I’ve fought at the weight and I know he will be strong but I’m strong myself. We’re very similar in how we fight. I think he’ll be a bit cagey because of that and it will be different from the Macklin fight.”
Grumbles over the match up fail to take into account just how much stick Sturm, 36-2-1 (15), received after the struggle with Macklin. ‘Leonidas’ was unlikely to seek a fight with Martinez or Arthur Abraham making Murray, British, strong and with the initials MM, a logical choice – if Sturm does a job on Murray in front of a passionate crowd it will wipe away the memories of the Macklin fight. In fact, Sturm probably thinks he has brought over a straw man to be beaten up and dispatched ahead of a Christmas blowout.
“I think that is definitely what Sturm’s trying to do,” concurred Murray when asked if Felix is trying to cover over the cracks from his last outing. “He fought our top middleweight then said he underestimated him, had an off night, so he wants to put that right but Macklin asked for too much money and priced himself out (of a rematch).
“Sturm’s gone for another top British middleweight thinking it will help him put that one to bed. He said he underestimated Macklin so I think he’ll train like he never has before and I’ll get the best of him.”
Ricky Hatton believes in Murray, ‘The Hitman’ is no stranger to massive title fights. His experience is proving vital. “Ricky is coming over to Mannheim with me,” confirmed Murray.
“Ricky’s sound. It helps that he’s been there and done it himself. Ricky asks me how things are going, the advice he gives shows that he’s been there and done it. We’ll have it all covered. Oliver’s also experienced, world class and will not be bothered by anything.”
In order to net a win, Murray will have to give and take some lumps, a worrying thought given that he is due to marry a few days after the fight. Grab a W, though, and Martin will have the WBA belt as guest of honour at the top table.
“I will get married a few days after the fight,” he enthused. “It will be great if I’ve got the belt with me. I was due to meet up with my family a few days earlier as it is on a cruise so everyone else is flying out before me. I’ll catch them up after the fight.”
So it is a case of fight, win, briefly celebrate then hop from plane to plane until he is with his family and bride-to-be. What can go wrong? “That’s the plan,” he laughed. “But I’m not going to kid myself. It will be hard but I’m chomping at the bit. We’re counting down the days.”
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