Everybody loves an underdog story.

Whatever the sport, there are few more engaging spectacles than watching a minnow put in a blood and guts, all-or-nothing effort to take advantage of a complacent, under-prepared favorite or cling on for an unlikely victory after riding their luck throughout a one-sided contest. 

That isn’t Lee Beard’s style. Having worked with numerous world-level fighters, including Argenis Mendis, Joan Guzman and Jack Catterall, Beard doesn’t like to rely on good fortune or somebody else’s poor preparation.

Beard has been charged with masterminding Mark Heffron’s attempt to shock Christian Mbilli and gatecrash the world super middleweight scene when the two fight in Quebec on Saturday night.

Heffron and Beard got together late last year as the former British and Commonwealth champion cleared the decks after losing his titles to his former gym-mate, Jack Cullen.

Heffron, 30-3-1 (24 KOs), has done the rounds of trainers over the years. There have been moments where he has looked unstoppable – he was outstanding when ripping away Lennox Clarke’s British and Commonwealth titles – but also times where he has disappointed, the Cullen defeat being the prime example.

Nobody has been quite able to consistently harness his undoubted ability and world-class power.

Beard had heard all about Heffron and had seen him spar but had never worked with him. He started with a blank sheet of paper. 

“I wasn’t surprised how good he was. I knew he was a good lad. I’d seen his fights with Andrew Robinson and Lennox Clarke and a number of fights on smaller shows,” Beard told BoxingScene. 

“He’s got a lot of talent and he’s a strong kid. What I was surprised about was a few things he’s got to his game that I hadn’t seen in those particular fights. I’d seen a lot of aggression and he obviously carries power. He likes to work in fights too. He likes to put pressure on people, engage and put them in deep waters. 

“Within about five days I asked why he isn’t using his jab in fights. Look at the Jack Cullen fight. He was looking for shots over the top, right hands or left hooks. You think to yourself, ‘What if he’d just stayed on his jab and set things up off feints, controlled the space and just waited?’ It was like he was shooting for power straightaway. Obviously I don’t know what was going on though.

“He’s got a good jab, good speed, good timing. He’s got a good IQ too, when he’s thinking about what he’s doing. He’s got a good arsenal. Power is the one thing everyone knows about him and he’s very disciplined about his training and fitness but his jab is a weapon in itself. He’s got feints. He can hook off his jab, set things up with his jab and jab to the body.”

The two had their first fight together in February. 

Heffron comes from a well-known family and his fights in his hometown of Oldham attract large crowds of friends and family who – let’s put it bluntly – come to watch him knock somebody out. Heffron generally sends them home happy.

In February, Heffron was matched with journeyman Serhii Ksendzov, but what looked like a routine, confidence building win became something more than that. Heffron did as expected and knocked Ksendzov out heavily in less than two rounds but rather than playing to the crowd, he did it calmly, using the exact tactics and techniques that Beard had been teaching him. Fighter and trainer can get along personally and the boxer might enjoy their daily work but nothing cements a relationship quicker than seeing results.

“It was good for me but it was really good for Mark,” Beard said.

“There was nothing wrong with what he did in the first round. He overloaded a few shots but that’s boxing. For the rest of the round he was thinking, feinting and trying to make the guy uncomfortable. When he sat down, the expression on the other guy was that he was very anxious. I told Mark he had him very uneasy, keep him in that mindset. The right hand will be there but drop it low first. I told him he’ll walk him into it.

“You could hear people shouting, ‘Throw the uppercut’ but the next day he was sending me videos of the exact same stuff we’d been working on in the gym, even when he’s been shadowboxing.

“Ksendzov has boxed lots of other good British prospects but nobody has done that. I told Mark that that’s how it’s supposed to look when a world-class fighter boxes somebody like that.

“Experienced fighters have been through a lot but they have to make adjustments themselves because they’re the ones in there. We work on a variety of things because a lot of things can happen in one round. For me, it’s about giving him examples and experiences where he can get confidence. It builds a trust between the two of you.”

Witnessing the way that Heffron listened and implemented the things they had been working on under live fire meant that Beard had no qualms about jumping directly into world class with him. Heffron is now 32 and can’t afford to tread water. Beating Mbilli will reclaim all of the ground he lost by losing to Cullen and then some.

“He’s been at a good level anyway. He’s been a British champion and been on big shows. He’s had a lot of fights and he’s in his thirties now,” Beard said. “He’s probably got more ambition for this kind of fight than another couple of six rounders. We were gonna stay busy but the Anthony Yarde fight was mentioned – which he said, ‘Yes’ too but it obviously didn’t happen – so he was always gonna jump at an opportunity.

“These are the fights he needs to be in at this stage and needs to come through. That puts him in a really good position.”

Mbilii, 26-0 (22 KOs), is a massive step up from Ksendzov and Heffron will be given little more than a puncher’s chance by 99 per cent of observers.

Beard appreciates the size of the task he and Heffron face this weekend but having studied the Canadian and seeing just how well Heffron has grasped both his style of teaching and the tactical plan for the fight, the Mancunian insists that he and the 32-year-old Oldham fighter will be the two least surprised people in the Centre Gervais Auto if they pull it off.

Mbilli is highly ranked with every governing body, has stopped 22 of his 26 opponents and sets a relentless pace, but it is Beard’s job to see beyond the obvious. As he watched Mbilli more and more closely, he began to recognize openings. After working with Heffron, he started to see how Heffron’s skillset might be able to take advantage of those openings. The pieces began to drop into what started as a complicated puzzle. 

“Mbilli is an undefeated fighter with a good amateur background but it’s a fight where Mark can really show how good he is. He’s got more to his game than people have seen. If he puts all of them things together he can really do a dominating job on this guy,” Beard said.

“Everybody has an opinion on everybody else but maybe people haven’t been utilizing the assets they have had in fights. Mark’s timing is very good so if he can just come down on the power a bit and not tip-tap but set up attacks, he can show people the side of him that you see when you’re working with him. He’s gotta get confidence to produce that, though. Lots of fighters will revert to what they like to do when they get caught. In spars where that happens and all hell breaks loose, Mark’s been slipping and making guys miss but also countering and hurting them, that’s given him confidence that this works too. Not just sitting down and trying to land because he’s a harder puncher.

“The way Mbilli fights is a bit rugged and wild. He can throw unorthodox punches from the floor. He’ll have his head dipped over and throw looping hooks over the top. You’ve gotta be alert to that. I’ve seen fighters switch off because he’ll be leaning in and then he’ll pull a hook out of nowhere. A lot of these fighters haven’t done things they should have to eliminate that.

“A lot of fights at this level you have to make adjustments. You can’t just wait for round four or five to kick in, you have to be alert from the get go with a fighter like Mbilli. As the fight progresses, I think it’ll play more and more into Mark’s game.”