By Terence Dooley
Manchester’s John Murray takes on Dagenham’s Kevin Mitchell for the vacant WBO Inter-Continental lightweight title at London’s EXCEL Arena on July 9th in an all-British grudge match that has the extra carrot of a potential world title shot for the winner. Robert ‘The Ghost’ Guerro was the belt’s previous owner, he has since captured the interim WBO and WBA titles by hammering Michael Katsidis en route to a decision win.
Ironically, Mitchell held the Inter-Continental belt before the 28-year-old Californian, using it as a springboard into an interim WBO title challenge to then-holder Katsidis at Upton Park last May. ‘Mighty’ Mitchell was less than on the night, blaming bad preparation and lifestyle problems for his third-round stoppage defeat.
Joe Gallagher, who trains Murray, has expunged the memory of Kevin’s loss to Katsidis from his mind. Preferring instead to prepare for the prime version of Mitchell that handed Breidis Prescott a wide point’s defeat in December 2009.
“I think you can’t read much into the Katsidis fight because it is obvious that Kev’ didn’t train right for that one,” argues Gallagher when assessing the threat posed by Mitchell. “He looked like he crashed the weight, his midriff looked fleshy on the night, and he was too psyched going in – it wasn’t the same Mitchell who fought Prescott. His shoulders, arms and body didn’t look right.
“We’re training for the Mitchell that fought Prescott. Kevin has had a long time out the ring for this one but he had five months out going into the Prescott fight. It doesn’t mean anything when you’ve the quality Mitchell has. We need the best John Murray to beat the best of Mitchell. If John isn’t on the top of his game then we’re in trouble. John has got to knuckle down. He had a warning last time out [against Karim El Ouazghari on April 2].”
Talk of Murray needing to ‘knuckle down’ raises a few questions. Joe, though, was quick to point out that few expected Mitchell to take his eye off the ball when facing Katsidis – a lesson that set the 26-year-old back and derailed his top-flight pretensions.
“The people around John, his friends and whoever, need to leave John alone. Kevin can’t fart in London at the moment without [trainer] Jimmy Tibbs or Frank Warren knowing about it after what happened last time,” stressed Gallagher.
“I’m not going to hide John Murray or sit in the press conferences afterwards making a load of excuses up. John has to be on his game and be in the right place – I’d like him to be a little bit further on this far out from the fight so he needs to get to that place immediately.
“It is up to John. This is a big fight, he wanted the big fights, he wanted the big promotion and press from [his promoter] Frank Warren, now he’s talked the talk and has got to walk the walk. If he doesn’t then Kevin is going to come and do what his fans are predicting he will do.”
Strong words from the coach, music to the ears of Mitchell fans and a warning to Murray – Gallagher explained that his concerns stem from the fact that his charge is no longer a fresh faced twenty-year-old. With each passing year it becomes harder to whip yourself into prime shape.
“I’m not going to sit there and protect John by saying everything is great. What I’m saying is that John needs to be focused, be on it and put aside those people who want John to be out with them, to be at this place and another. If you want to be John’s friend then leave him well alone, don’t phone him and allow John to be John Murray the fighter for six weeks,” warned Gallagher, who rebuked the idea that the 26-year-old could make the same mistake Mitchell made.
Saying, “John is focused, he is in the gym today as you’ve seen and is preparing for a tough fight. Both these lads know how hard this is going to be. They both fought on schoolboy shows together. They both know what it is about. All John’s good work could come undone in this fight.
“John’s got it all to lose. Kevin has so much to gain and cannot fail but be motivated as this is his chance to get back to world title contention. It is up for him to turn up in great shape, not to kid the fans by saying he is in shape if he isn’t the best he can possibly be for this fight.
“For every ticket he sells, John needs to be able to look into the eyes of people who have paid hard earned money to travel all the way to London to support him. John needs to have a clean conscience and not shortchange supporters in the way some other fighters have done. It is expensive for people to support fighters. We are all working class people, we all dig deep into our pockets to support John and he has to be one hundred percent or he’d be shortchanging those fans.
“If he doesn’t turn up then there’ll be no excuses from us afterwards. I am here in the gym, I am here for the runs – the rest is down to John Murray. John is a man now and has it all to do if he wants that world title shot.”
Are Gallagher’s concerns based on thoughts, perhaps, that the WBC number 2 ranked contender emulates Ricky Hatton in style, football team and also shares ‘The Hitman’s tendency to burn the candle at both ends between fights?
“I wouldn’t say John has a party lifestyle”, opined Gallagher, “he doesn’t balloon up in weight, he is ten stone three today and never gets too overweight. He just has to realize that things we could do in six weeks when he was 22, 21 you can’t do in the same time when you’re 26. Hence why people like Anthony Crolla, Stephen Smith and Macklin are in the gym for ten to twelve weeks getting their bodies hard, their metabolism slowed down and doing it gradually, like Ricky did.
“You can’t just have that switch in your head that says it is time to turn it on at a certain point. Those days are gone. John has got to be on it. I know there’s a boredom factor but he’s got to be switched on. This is his livelihood. Where would John earn money if he weren’t involved in boxing? I want him to earn as much as he can to make the arguments with promoters, matchmakers, travelling the world and taking on short notice jobs to mean something, otherwise what has it all been for?
“Don’t waste my time, the fans time, your families time and your own time by only turning up with fifty percent of what you’re capable of. That is not what we’ve been working hard for up to this point in out careers. It definitely isn’t what I put my time in for.”
Viewed as the underdog by some going into his British title fight with Lee Meager in 2008, Murray stepped on the gas in the gym and on the night. Gallagher feels that the fighter he calls his ‘stamp’ likes to feel the fear and then do people in anyway. Consequently he welcomes the opinions of those who argue that Murray is stepping up a level in this one and will be soundly out-boxed.
“The thing is that John has won the English, the Lonsdale outright and the European so all that hard work means nothing if he loses to Kevin. John went the route that Kevin didn’t take. It has hardened him but I sat John down today and told him straight that he’s in trouble if the Mitchell of the Prescott turns up because we’re in a big ring, in front of Kevin’s home fans and everything else,” warned Gallagher.
“I want Kevin to be the favorite. People talk about him beating Prescott and how it is something John couldn’t have done. Great. I want John to be reading that he’s up against it, that he’s the underdog, because it fuels him – I saw that our talk was fueling him today in training. His weight is down, he’s six weeks out and I don’t want to see a letup from John.”
Given the in, I opted to lay all my cards on the table. Asking if Murray will come into this bout, “one hundred percent focused?”
“You’ll have to ask John,” shrugged Gallagher. Read John’s forthcoming interview to find out the answer.
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