By Nick Halling
The final chapter in the 17-year sporting odyssey of Curtis Woodhouse is likely to be written in February when the one-time footballer challenges Darren Hamilton for the British light-welterweight championship.
Woodhouse first made his reputation as an accomplished Premier League player, also representing his country at under-21 level. When he took up boxing seven years ago, his arrival was at first derided by many in the game. However, his dedication, courage and gritty performances in the ring have long ago won everybody over.
But whatever the result against Hamilton, Woodhouse says that he will be through with boxing. “This will be my last fight,” he said. “When I first put on the gloves seven years ago, people asked me why I was doing it, and my answer was that I want to be British champion.
“Well, now I have the opportunity, and it’s up to me to seize it. It’s well documented that I promised my dad on his deathbed that I’d win the British title, and now I’ve been given the chance. It’s a big bill, on television, and it’s in Hull, just down the road from my home town. It would be the perfect way to bow out.”
If he does go – and that remains an extremely large if – then he doesn’t plan on leaving empty-handed. Hamilton will start as overwhelming favourite, and the suggestion is that with Woodhouse currently ranked No 10 among British light-welters, the champion has gone for the softest available option for his voluntary.
Woodhouse can see that point of view, particularly in light of his bad defeat at the hands of Derry Mathews for the Commonwealth lightweight title in September. The big-punching Mathews uncorked a right hook in the fourth which destroyed the Driffield fighter, and although he got back on his feet, the stoppage was inevitable.
Shattered at the time, Woodhouse considered his options for several weeks after the Mathews disaster, and has since rebuilt himself with a couple of victories at light welter, his more natural weight. Looking back, that crushing defeat has done him a lot of good.
“It has worked for me because I’m probably seen as easy pickings now,” he admitted. “I’m sure Darren’s team see me as a safe option, which is why they’ve taken me. And he’s a very good champion. I know I’m up against it, but if I box as well as I possibly can, I can win it. But it has to be the best – 90 percent will get me beat.
“People say he’s not a big puncher, but everyone who’s a boxer hits hard. I have no doubt that Darren Hamilton can hurt me. You don’t beat the kind of opponents he’s beaten without getting their respect.”
He has learned from the experience in other ways too. “I built the Derry fight up way too much, and put so much pressure on myself. I just froze on the night, couldn’t get my shots off, my system just seemed to shut down. My manager, Dave Coldwell, had warned me not to go down to 9 stone 9. He warned me that the problems would come when I got hit, and he saw so right. When Derry caught me, my body felt strange, almost like it was hollow. I’m a lot sturdier at 10 stone.”
Training with Ryan Rhodes, the former European light middleweight champion, has also removed a lot of commuting from his schedule. Woodhouse is relaxed, at the right weight, and under no pressure of expectation this time around. “Let’s be honest, whatever happens, it cant be any worse than the Derry fight,” he joked.
So what about that retirement? Is it a concrete guarantee? Dont bet the mortgage on it.
“My intention right now is to retire as British champion,” he said. “But saying you’re retiring and actually doing it are two different things. I should know, I’ve retired three times already: I’ve had more comebacks than Sinatra.
“This will be my last fight. That’s what I’m saying now, and after being a professional athlete for 17 years, and being selfish with it, it’s time to give something back to my family. Then again, if I win, and I’m looking at that belt, it’s going to be very, very hard to say, here you go lads, and give it back...”
The bumper bill of boxing announced for February 1st in Cardiff earlier this week may feature Lee Selby and Rendall Munroe, but the clash that promises to be fight of the night will be the local dust-up between Gary Buckland and Gavin Rees. The two Welshmen are both coming off defeat, and will be fighting not only for South Wales bragging rights, but potentially for their boxing futures.
What should also make it a thriller for the fans is that neither man has a reverse gear. It will be an uncompromising head-on collision which will make compelling viewing. And when it is over, chances are the fighters and their trainers will probably head off and have a drink together.
Buckland and Rees have sparred many times and get along well, while the neighbouring gyms of Tony Borg (who looks after Buckland) and Gary Lockett (Rees’s trainer) enjoy an excellent relationship based on mutual help and respect.
“When I was asked about it last week, I wondered if it might be a little bit awkward, because we’re friends with the guys in their camp,” said Lockett. “Tony and I shook hands and agreed that we’ll be friends afterwards. But we’ve decided that we can set friendship aside for a night and make some money together. This is a fight which can sell out a venue on its own.”
Both boxers have endured a difficult 2013. Buckland travelled to Buenos Aires in April to box for the WBC Silver super featherweight title, a fight which was aborted as he made his way to the ring thanks to a full-blown riot in the venue. Next time out, he lost his British title on a one-punch knockout at the hands of Stephen Smith.
Rees, meanwhile, grabbed the chance to go for glory in February when he went to Atlantic City to challenge for Adrien Broner’s WBC lightweight belt. Rees, a massive underdog, gave it everything he had, but was stopped in five. Then, in June, he dropped a majority 12-round decision to Manchester’s Anthony Crolla to drop down the domestic lightweight pecking order.
For Rees, another defeat might mean the end of the line. “A win for Gavin is paramount,” said Lockett. “He is very realistic, and knows he cannot afford three defeats. If he loses, he’ll probably have to accept that its the end of the road.
“He needs a big performance. The real Gavin Rees wasn’t in the ring against Crolla. He’d had issues with injuries and weight making, but the truth of the matter is that Joe (Gallagher, Crolla’s trainer) and Anthony got their tactics right on the night. And there are no excuses and no complaints from us about that.”
But Rees is 33 now and has been involved in championship fights since 2007,when he sprang a massive surprise to win the WBA light welterweight crown. Subsequent hard battles for British and European titles have taken their toll. A ruptured tendon in his elbow is a condition which has to be managed these days, although a fractured hand has completely healed.
The tendon has compromised one of Rees’s main weapons, the hurtful jab which he once threw with venomous purpose. He can no longer use it the way he was able to in earlier years.
At least there should be no issues with making weight – although Lockett is quick to point out that under no circumstances is Rees going down to Buckland’s super feather limit. Lockett’s team are working with dietician Jordan Jones, with impressive results: the weight is already falling off his other boxers.
“Gav’s in a better place now,” said Lockett. “The weight is not an issue, the injuries are manageable, he wants big money fights against big name opponents. He’ll be the favourite against Buckland, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he can win it.”
Nick Halling is a commentator for Sky Sports.