By Terence Dooley
Richie Woodhall’s glittering amateur career suffered a real stroke of misfortune during the 1988 Olympic Games. Woodhall, who had sailed into the semi-finals, came up against mercurial American talent Roy Jones Junior as both men vied for a place in the final. Richie lost by a 5-0 margin; Jones went onto fight Park Si-Hun in the concluding contest; we all know what happened next, the judges awarded the fight to their countryman, who allegedly apologised to the stunned Jones. So, it was a bronze medal and back to the drawing board for Woodhall; silver for Jones; both men went onto become world champions.
However, Woodhall may have lost out to Jones in the ring but out of the ring the 42-year-old is leaving his former amateur rival behind. Jones is finding it hard to let go, he is dragging his legacy through the mud with each successive fight. Woodhall walked away after losing to Joe Calzaghe in 2000, he has since worked for the BBC, Setanta, and is currently training fighters out of his Birmingham-based gym. Richie has no regrets.
“The saddest part of professional boxing is the ring warriors who end up potless or turning to crime. That really saddens me. You can end up losing your money and your reputation. You need to put a bit back for when you’re not fighting so I was aware of that,” admitted Woodhall when speaking exclusively to BoxingScene.com.
Still, Jones is far from skint, and the American legend has a media career with HBO to fall back on, he fights on because he feels he has something to prove, as many faded fighters do – Woodhall never listened to the voice of temptation during his retirement.
“The BBC saved me from that,” he said when asked if he had harboured any hopes of a comeback. “They asked me to do some commentating then gave me a two-year contract. I was very lucky, very lucky, in that when I retired the beeb came onto boxing straight away. I was saved but can see why fighters come back. I was 33 and didn’t know any other life apart from boxing so when it comes to an end you have to find a job and all you’re used to is the gym, training and fighting.”
Woodhall won Commonwealth, European and a world title during his paid career yet that Olympic run holds a special place in his memory, especially when he recalls the calibre of fighter it took to remove him from the tournament.
“Obviously winning the [WBC super-middleweight] world title was big but the Olympics is also high up on the agenda,” revealed Woodhall, who has fond, if painful memories of his loss to Jones. “Roy won the boxer of the tournament award and was robbed in the final. Our fight didn’t all go his way, either, I won the second round – it was a brilliant experience.
“I learned a great deal from international boxing. That is why I realise how different it is from club boxing. When you box an international, you learn so much more. I learned a great deal boxing for England.”
Richie’s father, Len, instilled in his son a sense that hard work pays off; the young amateur analysed his own ability, took a look around the England team and decided that he needed to work harder than most in order to realise his dreams.
“I clearly wasn’t the most talented boxer in the England team”, admitted Richie, “there were guys with more talent, but I probably had the vital ingredients that every fighter needs: application, determinism and dedication. No one trained harder than I did. I was the type who was first in the gym and last out. Obviously, I had a bit of talent but my dedication was second-to-none.
“It was all about learning the fundamentals. Every fighter has to develop a good jab, no matter what your style or height. My old man drilled into me from an early age the fact that the jab is the most fundamental shot. My physique, I was a tall kid, helped me perfect the jab needed for my height and range.”
Indeed, the 1990 Commonwealth gold medal winner believes that the sweet science of the sport is often overlooked. “The art of boxing is to hit and not get hit and I concentrated on those aspects of the sport early,” he stressed.
“My jab was the key to a good amateur career and set me up to be a pro. Good jab, good movement and don’t get hit, that is the name of the game. It is important to develop those skills – I was still developing my own skills towards the end of my career.”
He added: “The amateur game is total sport, you travel all over the world representing your country and it is fantastic. When you sign those pro forms everything changes, it always does when money is involved. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did as an amateur. I still enjoyed boxing as a pro, I always enjoyed it, but it was different and for me it was always more about titles than money. I don’t know – there is just something more enjoyable about boxing as an amateur because it is more of a business as a pro.”
The plan had been to take part in the 1992 Games in Barcelona. Len Woodhall felt that his son would benefit from a weakened field, led by Cuba’s Juan Carlos Lemus (who went onto win the gold medal), and would net either silver or gold in the tournament.
However, Richie was earning £70 a week as a landscape gardener at the time so a massive post-Commonwealth Games offer from a local business man, Keith Partridge, turned out to be too good to turn down. Partridge bunged £45,000 into a plastic bag and approached Woodhall; the boxer turned to his father for advice, Len told his son to go for it.
Richie soon attracted the interest of Mickey Duff, the veteran promoter bought Partridge out after Woodhall’s sixth win – a win over Nigel Moore in 1991 – and Richie was pitched in for the Commonwealth middleweight title two fights later. Woodhall passed his first big test with flying colours, hammering Vito Gaudiosi to defeat by 1:01 of round one.
“I was finding it quite easy boxing these guys who were far less talented than I was. But I soon realised that these guys in the pros are hard as nails, you’d keep on hitting them and they’d keep on coming. The lads certainly didn’t have my skills but they were much tougher than what I’d been used to,” he revealed.
“I linked up with Mickey Duff, he saw my talent early and put me up for the Commonwealth title after only eight fights by making a fight against Gaudiosi, a kid who was the champion of Australia. I saw one tape of him and said, ‘Yeah, no problem.’
“You were a bit in awe of someone like Mickey because he was one of the biggest promoters out there so for him to take an interest in me was a feather in the cap. I got on well with Mickey. The thing about professional boxing is that it is a ticket selling business. I remember one of the last conversations I had with Mickey came when he called me up for something and his next question was, ‘How’s the tickets going?’, because that was his game as a promoter. I did well on tickets and always had good support in Telford so everything was Ok.”
Certainly, Woodhall’s fanatical hometown fans helped him get through some sticky moments during his 29-fight career, especially during an EBU title fight with Silvio Branco.
“My support was strong from the word go. I won Olympic bronze and Commonwealth gold as an amateur so I had the support from my first pro fight. When I got the shot at Branco for the European crown we packed the Telford Ice Rink out,” recalled the Woodside-born boxer.
“It was probably the toughest fight of my career. I knocked him out in nine but he was a real tough nut was Branco. I came through and my support was fantastic for that fight.”
An agonising wait followed as Woodhall tried to secure a bout with WBC middleweight titlist Keith Holmes. Woodhall went into the challenge three weeks after having had surgery on his right elbow and on the back of a nine month layoff. Duff later denied knowledge of Woodhall’s surgery; he insisted that he had done everything within his power to deliver the world title shot in a timely manner.
“I was frustrated that it had taken so long,” argued Duff when speaking to the Sports Argus in 1999. “You can't get world title shots just like that, it doesn't happen. And I never knew Richie was injured beforehand. He never told me but I would have got him another world title shot.”
The build-up to the fight was further impacted by Duff’s failure to secure home advantage, Woodhall had to travel to Maryland, and this contributed to his inability to reproduce his domestic form.
“Yeah,” revealed Richie when asked if travelling had hindered him in the Holmes fight. “I was mandatory challenger for the title and Mickey told me that if I didn’t go for it then I’d probably have to wait another fifteen months. I had to go over there. My right elbow was damaged as well, I had had a rushed operation just before the fight, but I still thought I’d beat Holmes.”
He continued: “Fighting away from home opens your eyes. People were knocking on my hotel room door at 4am. They took me for a medical and said they’d lost all my forms, which was nonsense. I was taken on journeys that were meant to be fifteen minutes long but lasted an hour.
“I lost fair and square on the night and there are no excuses but things were bad from the start. Everything is against you. The crowd, the promoter and the local people, they try to make it as uncomfortable as possible. If you win a title abroad then you’re a true champion, no doubt.”
Woodhall’s loss to Keith Holmes threatened to derail his pro career. Plus, that niggling injury to the right elbow had impacted on his ability to throw straight rights, a massive part of Richie’s game; he had to cut his cloth accordingly.
“My injury was really bad,” he confirmed. “I went back into hospital, had another operation and was told that I would have to retire, they said it was all over for me. I wouldn’t accept that and I spent a year working on a new style of boxing. I was always a long range man but I worked on throwing the right as a hook or an uppercut because there was no pain in it on hooked shots, only on straight ones, I adapted for that reason but it took me a long time. When you throw hook you are close to your opponent and make yourself open, especially at that level, so I had to be careful.”
In fact, Woodhall also decided to perform some drastic surgery on his out-of-the-ring set-up; his contract with Duff was coming to its end; Woodhall felt that Frank Warren could secure him a title shot in quicker time than Mickey; he waited for Mickey to make an offer and then opted to join Warren, a bitter blow for Duff, who had recently lost the services of Joe Calzaghe and Robert McCracken to his rival promoter. Duff would later slam Woodhall, claiming that he had once made Richie £250,000 richer after inserting a canny cancellation clause into a contract ahead of a mooted fight. For his part, Woodhall felt that his long wait for a middleweight title shot had impacted on his overall earning capabilities.
“I moved up in weight, to super-middle, and had come to the end of my contract with Mickey Duff, I never left him – I honoured the contract. Mickey phoned me up and offered me a new contract so I asked him what TV deal he had, he didn’t have anything so I said, ‘I can’t fight for you, then, can I?’, and signed with Frank Warren. This is the business we are in,” insisted Woodhall.
“People can’t say anything about how I left Mickey because I honoured my contract. I saw it through and then joined Frank. I was very happy to do that. At the end of the day, it is a short career, a short business as a professional, so if you can get seven or eight years under you belt you’ve done pretty good. I had to go with what was right for me and going back with Mickey, though he had great intentions, was no good when he didn’t have a TV deal on the table, that impacts the financial side of things and I had to go with the better deal.”
Woodhall had been breaking his own attendance records when fighting in Telford, they managed to get even more people into the arena when Woodhall won the WBC super-middleweight title by out-pointing Thulani ‘Sugar Boy’ Malinga; official figures stand at around 3000. However, it is rumoured that roughly 4000 fans managed to squeeze into the arena to see their hometown idol become a world king.
“Yeah,” confirmed Woodhall when asked if the official figure was erroneous, “4000 is the unofficial figure because it held just under three (thousand) so they were just cramming people in. There were lads who didn’t have tickets and they opened the doors and just let them in. It was packed solid. I was coming out the dressing room and making my way to the ring when the heat hit me, this was supposed to be an ice rink but the atmosphere was boiling hot. It was electric in terms of volume as well. We packed the place out and it was a great night.”
Woodhall’s first fight under Warren had taken place on the undercard of Robin Reid versus Hacine Cherifi in Widnes – a card that saw Ricky Hatton make his pro debut – and it seemed inevitable that Reid would defend his title against Woodhall after getting rid of his next challenger, the underrated Sugar Boy Malinga, then 41-10. One point’s reversal later and it was Malinga, not Reid, standing in the way of Woodhall’s coronation.
“I had one fight, a third-round win against a decent American called Bernice Barber, and was getting used to the new weight. I felt a bit more powerful. The fight was on a Robin Reid bill, when he defended the WBC title against Hacine Cherifi in Widnes, and I looked closely at Robin,” he recalled.
“Then Reidy got beat by Malinga in a bit of a stinker. Malinga got the tactics right and I looked at it and thought, ‘I could be in with a shout here’. I then got a call from Frank asking me if I wanted a shot at the title.
“Fighters need a bit of luck and that was my bit of luck. I was ranked by the WBC and was well-placed for a voluntary defence. Frank obviously rang Malinga and said he had a guy coming up in weight who was ready to fight. Malinga accepted straight away. I think he said, ‘That is an easy defence for me’, and the rest is history.”
“Malinga had a decent pedigree”, he reminisced, “beating [Nigel] Benn and Reid, but age-wise he wasn’t a spring chicken. I was 29 and in my own prime, he was probably at the end of his road but was still performing well. My old man and me had a chat about it and decided we had the tools to do it. I came through and my support was fantastic for that fight. Plus I used the right tactics.”
Alas, there was a hint of post-party comedown during Woodhall’s first title defence, a majority decision win over the talented but often tepid Glenn Catley. Still, a win is a win; Richie, though, was incredibly hard on himself when the final bell rang, going so far as to declare himself the loser on the night despite a close victory.
“I probably was a little bit harsh on myself”, he sighed, “but it was just how I felt at the end of the fight. Malinga had been such a euphoria, I felt liked I’d ripped the title from him, I boxed really well, so the first defence felt flat. I was meant to fight [Vincenzo] Nardiello and that was pulled a week before. Glen was in training and he took it at short-notice.
“As soon as they said Glen’s name, and no offence to Glen, I thought, ‘Is this a joke?’ Sure, he was the British middleweight champion and stepping up but I couldn’t get motivated and was complacent on the night [Writer’s note: Nardiello’s withdrawal impacted massively on the WBC rankings – Catley went from unranked at 168lb to WBC #10]. I boxed terribly, I couldn’t get into it, and he boxed out off his skin, fair enough, it was his big title shot, so at the end I thought, ‘He’s beat me here’, and was probably harsh on myself immediately afterwards. I’ve had people say to me that I shouldn’t have come out and said what I said but that was just how I felt on the night.”
Richie will join us again soon to discuss his all-British showdown with Joe Calzaghe.
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