By Nick Halling
British boxing history could be made this weekend when Liam Smith aims to become domestic light middleweight champion with a victory over Erick Ochieng. If Smith prevails, he will join elder brothers Paul and Stephen as British champions. It is believed that never in the long history of the Lonsdale belt have there been three brothers reigning simultaneously.
Liam is the third of four boxing brothers from the city of Liverpool. Paul recently regained the domestic super middleweight title, former featherweight boss Stephen is now a two-weight champion after knocking out Gary Buckland to win the super featherweight strap, while younger brother Callum has been garnering attention for a string of five first round knockouts.
With so much success in the family, Liam has largely flown under the radar, despite picking up the Commonwealth crown last December. But the third brother is looking forward to being in the spotlight, and insists the high level of expectation has not affected his preparations. “It’s the biggest fight of my career, no question. I know how big a deal it is, but there’s no extra pressure,” he said. “I put pressure on myself every time I step into the ring. I’ve seen what it meant to my brothers to win the British title, and how badly they felt when they lost it, so its very exciting.”
As usual, Smith’s camp has been held at trainer Joe Gallagher’s gym in Bolton, although this time with a new sparring partner. “We brought over Cecil McCalla from America (a 16-0 prospect from Maryland) and we must have sparred close to 100 rounds together. He’s been perfect because he does a lot of things Erick does, with a very similar style. Plus, he’s fighting back home this weekend, so it’s worked out well for both of us.”
Gallagher took Smith to Freddie Roach’s Wild Card gym last year, and says the Liverpool man more than held his own. “Everyone talks about the Smith brothers because they’re all good,” he said, “but Liam’s the best of them in my eyes. His temperament and attitude are perfect. The big thing with him is his timing. You can’t teach that. I’d put him in with (IBF light middle champ Carlos) Molina right now. Liam is one of the best prospects in the country.”
Whatever happens, don’t expect any sibling rivalry to sour relationships. The four brothers are very tight-knit although, typically, they all keep each other grounded.
“We’re all very close,” he said, “but its great to have them around. They’ve been in this situation, so they know what to expect.” The History Boy sounds like he’s taking the weight of expectation in his stride.
One man with mixed emotions this weekend is promoter/trainer Dave Coldwell. The Sheffield-based former boxer looks after the careers of both Derry Mathews and Curtis Woodhouse, who meet in Liverpool on Saturday with Mathews’ Commonwealth lightweight title on the line.
“Its a hard one for me, and I’m not sure how I’ll handle it on the night,” said Coldwell, who promotes both boxers and additionally manages Woodhouse. “I’ve had Curtis since his second fight, and first worked with Derry years ago. I have a view on which guy I think will win, but I will be keeping that to myself. It’s going to be a case of sit back and stay neutral. But I’ve done my job as a promoter. I’ve secured the best purse possible for Derry, and I’ve delivered the chance to win a major title for Curtis.”
Woodhouse and Mathews have been pounding away at each other on Twitter in an engaging battle of verbal jabs for weeks, but these are two of the good guys of the British boxing scene. Both are raising money for charity through the sale of T-shirts. Mathews’ shirts are emblazoned with his nickname, Dirty Derry, while Woodhouse’s are called Troll Hunter, a reference to his locating and confronting an individual who abused him on the social media site.
The shirts, available at the venue on fight night, also sell direct through Coldwell, at £10 per time, with all proceeds going to charity: the Alder Hey children’s cancer hospital in the case of Mathews, and Barnardo’s for Woodhouse. Mathews took his Commonwealth belt to the hospital last month and was moved by the experience.
“I thought I was a fighter, but I’ve got nothing on these kids,” he tweeted afterwards.
The contest itself has the potential to be one of the domestic dustups of the year. Mathews is never in a boring affair, while Woodhouse, the former Sheffield United footballer, continues to improve and is confident of taking his career to the next level. For their promoter, Saturday night will be sheer agony.
“I’m an emotional guy, and it’s going to be very hard for me to sit there quietly,” said Coldwell. “It is going to be heartbreak for one, and elation for the other, but that’s the nature of the business we’re in.”
The lure of a potential world title shot, combined with the recommendation of a good friend led British lightweight Anthony Crolla becoming the latest addition to Matchroom’s growing stable earlier this week.
“I’m good friends with Scott Quigg, and he spoke very highly of them,” said Crolla. “And when I sat down with promoter Eddie Hearn, I really liked the sound of what he had planned for me. My job is to keep winning, and if I do my part, I’m confident that he will be able to deliver a world title opportunity for me.”
Prior to the recent draw with Ray Beltran, there had been talk of a possible all-British affair with Crolla challenging Ricky Burns, for the latter’s WBO title. That remains a possibility down the line, but Burns faces a layoff as he recovers from a broken jaw, and when he is healthy, there may first be a rematch with Beltran to be dealt with.
Instead, Crolla has been given a spot on the Froch/Groves undercard in November, and will look to add a couple more contests before the summer.
“There are plenty of good fights for me out there,” said the former British champion. “My job is to make sure I keep winning.”
Crolla is the latest name to join the Matchroom stable, but rumours persist that two more significant championship-level contenders could soon be added to the roster. Negotiations are said to be in progress, with announcements expected in the near future.
Nick Halling is a commentator for Sky Sports