Birmingham welterweight ace Frankie Gavin might just be the most naturally blessed boxer operating in Britain at present.
However, after a troubled spell last year, England’s only ever world amateur champion is now back on form and ready for his crucial British title challenge to Junior Witter at the York Hall a week on Thursday (1st November), live on BoxNation (Sky Ch. 437/Virgin Ch. 546).
Head cleansed, he is anxious to make up for lost time and certainly appeared close to his exhilarating best when rebounding with a brace of stoppage wins earlier this year.
After stints in Manchester with ‘Arnie’ Farnell and, briefly, in London’s East End with the Tibbs', the still unbeaten 27 year old is back in Brum and re-united with ex-amateur coach Tom Chaney.
Boxing writer Glynn Evans tracked down coach Chaney to discuss Gavin’s rehabilitation.
Tell us a bit about your background and how you first become interested in boxing?
I always loved the sport and boxed as a schoolboy at the Small Heath ABC in Birmingham until I was about 15. Then, 16 years ago, I took my eldest son down to the club and just started helping out, and it snowballed. Unfortunately, about 12 years ago, I left under bad terms and opened up the Hall Green ABC. In addition to Frankie, we’ve developed numerous national champions through the club.
I only got my pro trainers license about a year ago. Though I coach Frankie full-time during the day, I also run an academy for schools, where we get pupil referrals for kids who are having difficulties and teach them a bit of boxing, healthy eating, plus social and behavioral skills. There’s a classroom and a kitchen at the side of the gym and we’ve achieved some big things. Recently we started a GCSE Boxing course.
When did you first become involved with Frankie and what was your initial impression of him?
Frankie first came to the Small Heath club when he was about 13 or 14. He was a cheeky, chirpy little kid who was always in the gym and always desperate to spar anybody. Back then, he’d just tap ‘em and run off.
He always had great enthusiasm and this natural ability to get out of the way and gradually he started to develop his punches and movement. The first title he won was the CYPs when he was about 16, then he won the schools and Three Nations, went to America and won gold at the Junior Olympics, which led to him getting on England camps. From there his career really took off.
In your opinion, which specific qualities make him standout as exceptional today?
He has great vision and a fantastic boxing brain. He sees things very quickly and adapts accordingly. His movement and hand speed are second to none.
Frankie made a fantastic start to his pro career, stopping eight of his first nine opponents and bagging the Irish light-welter title. However, prior to returning to you a year ago, he had two sloppy back-to-back performances in WBO InterContinental championships against Young Mutley and Curtis Woodhouse (both 12 round points wins). In your opinion, what did he do wrong?
Initially, moving up to Manchester to train with Antony Farnell was a good decision. Frankie needed to get away from the limelight and distractions of Birmingham. At the start it went well but then he had a few personal problems. His mum was diagnosed with cancer and his nan, who he was very close to, passed away.
Against Mutley, Frank genuinely had the flu. On top of that, Mutley just didn’t want to know yet, because of personal problems, Frankie lacked the imagination, to really do a number on him. He just did what was needed to get through.
In contrast, Woodhouse came to have a real go. At that time, Frankie’s mind wasn’t really functioning on boxing and his training had started to go wrong because of that.
Things really came to a head when Frankie withdrew on the eve of his bill topping contest against France’s Frank Haroche Horta at the York Hall in October of last year. What was going on?
In the amateurs, though he was away a lot up at Sheffield with the GB set up, Frankie was surrounded by all the other lads and they’d hang out together after training. He had the camaraderie.
As a pro in Manchester, and later London, he enjoyed going to the gym and having the banter with the other boxers but, after training finished, they’d go home to their families and he’d be alone in a flat, isolated, staring out the window, letting his personal problems eat away at him.
Jimmy and Mark Tibbs are great trainers with a fantastic set-up at the TKO gym but Frankie got into a bad place mentally. In addition to his nan passing and his mum’s illness, there were other very personal problems.
He hit rock bottom just before he was due to meet Horta but was man enough to admit to his problems and withdraw from the fight. He knows he left it far too late to tell people and he’s been punished, taken a lot of flak from the press and public, and I suppose that’s understandable.
How did you become involved again?
We’d stayed in touch and whenever he came back from Manchester I might do a few days with him, especially for his earlier fights. ‘Arnie’ Farnell was very good to Frankie and if there was a way we could both have been involved that might well have worked.
Last year, Frankie told me he felt like ‘jacking it’. I saw it as a cry for help. I could see how important it was for him to be based in Birmingham because he’s very close to his mum. I’d just got a pro license to work with Tommy Langford so agreed to start working with Frankie again.
But initially it weren’t easy and I kicked him out my gym about four times! He’d got used to being his own boss, started telling me: ‘I don’t do that anymore?!’ I had to break him down mentally and physically, train him to ‘fail’, and then build him back up again. It was a battle but now he really looks forward to coming to the gym again.
That said, if it ever got to a stage whereby Frankie felt he needed to bring a more experienced coach in, I’d be fine with that, even if it meant I was just passing the bucket up. This is never about me, always about Frankie Gavin.
What have you changed?
We do a hell of a lot more strength and conditioning, and core body exercises. Frankie really struggled with it at first but now he accepts it. I’ve ensured that he gets all the techniques exactly right and it’s made a tremendous difference to him. Strength wise, he handles good middleweights comfortably in sparring.
Technically, he’d got into a bad habit of having his head over the front foot. I’ve re-focused on the basics; a jolting jab, a good stance, moving the right way, and restoring Frankie’s confidence to ‘sit in the pocket’.
How’s his mind right now?
Honestly, I’ve never seen him in a better place. When Frankie’s mind is 100 miles an hour on boxing, trust me, he’s unbeatable.
Three weeks before a fight, he moves in with me. He gets to see his lad, Thomas, three times a week. After his next fight he’s taking Thomas to Euro Disney for four days then he’ll be straight back in the gym. He hardly goes out.
Frankie’s not got a bad bone in his body, just a few daft ones! His big problem is he’ll do anything for anybody but, when we’re in camp, I put a ring around him and any requests for his time have to come through me.
A lot of Frankie’s difficulties appeared to have been diet and weight related. Which division would you like to see him compete in?
We’re happy at welter. This goes back a long way to when he won the world amateurs at 60 kilos. He was then left eating a few segments of orange a day to try to hold his weight down so he could compete at 60 at the Olympics nine months later. He’d be training solely to monitor weight and was losing technique as a consequence.
Could he still make 10 stone? Probably. Could he be a real force? Maybe not. Today he’s on a proper strength program and, on the scales, his body is totally different to when he was fighting at welter earlier as a pro. He’s got far more shoulders and shape now. There’s not seven pounds to come off. He’ll be a welter for the remainder of his career but he’ll develop into a really big strong welter.
Since re-joining with you he’s had two excellent performances, stopping former British champion Kevin McIntyre in three and forcing Laszlo Komjathi to retire on his stool after five rounds. What aspects of Frankie’s performances pleased you?
Against McIntyre, I liked the way he stayed on the front foot and made Kevin miss, made him pay. Against Komjathi, I was really impressed with Frankie’s foot movement, his adjustments, plus the speed and accuracy with which he punched through such a tight guard.
What, if anything, does he still need to add to his game before he can truly be let off the leash?
We’re always working on fresh things but the main thing, where he’ll deliver his very best, is when he’s put in a situation where he’s not supposed to win. Then, he’ll produce another level.
Next week he fights for his first major title as a pro when he challenges British welter champion Junior Witter. How has preparation gone and what specifically do you need to be mindful of?
Frankie had been floating about at the gym anyway but for the last eight weeks he’s really put his foot on the pedal. He’s in fantastic shape and has had quality sparring with Tommy Langford plus 50-60 rounds with (recent Prizefighter winner) Adil Anwar from Leeds.
Junior is very awkward and, remember, not many were keen to fight him even when he was world champion down at light-welter. He’s seldom in great fights.
The big thing is Frankie has to be switched on mentally for every single second that the fight lasts. Junior still hits very hard and lands from very unorthodox positions.
How does Gavin win?
By outboxing him with educated pressure, using his superior speed and footwork. Physically Frankie will be far, far tougher, stronger and bigger than Junior will expect. Frankie will be too intelligent.
Remaining tickets, priced at £35 and £60, are available from Ticketmaster on 0844 844 0444 or online at www.ticketmaster.co.uk
Witter v Gavin is live on BoxNation (Sky Ch. 437/Virgin Ch. 546). Join at www.boxnation.com