By Nick Halling
There may be an unluckier British boxer out there than Gary Sykes, but right now it is hard to think of one. Through no fault of his own, the former British super featherweight champion missed out on the biggest payday of his career last year when he was slated as the unlikely opponent for Adrien Broner’s WBO title in Las Vegas.
However, the entire bill was scrapped amidst the fallout of Lamont Peterson’s failed drugs test after his fight with Amir Khan. Sykes would have been a longshot at best, but that outing could have given him exposure, experience, and a healthy bank bank balance. Instead, he ended up with nothing.
Now, the Dewsbury boxer finds himself tangled up in the controversy surrounding Stephen Smith’s decision to leave promoter Frank Warren to join Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom stable. Smith is the current domestic British super feather champ, following his stunning one-punch knockout of Gary Buckland, the man who relieved Sykes of the title in September 2011.
Sykes had waited nearly two years for a shot at redemption against Buckland, in the knowledge that one more win would earn him a Lonsdale belt outright. Instead, Sykes’s team stepped aside to let Smith face Buckland, on the proviso that the winner would face Sykes.
That could still happen. The only problem is, Sykes and his team do not know where or when such a fight will take place, given Smith’s current situation.
“It’s just complete frustration from our side,” said Sykes’s long-time trainer Julian McGowan. “We were told the Smith fight would be in Liverpool in December, then we heard that it could be on the Froch-Groves undercard next month. But nobody has actually told us anything. We’ve not got a contract, there’s no purse bids, nothing’s been confirmed, we’re just in limbo. The one thing I do know is that we cant fight on the Froch bill. There’s several reasons, but the biggest one is that there just isn’t the time. Nobody has had the courtesy of telling us anything.”
Sykes is simply an innocent bystander caught up in the crosshairs of boxing politics, which is what generally happens to talented operators who aren’t big ticket sellers and are not under a major promotional umbrella.
“He lost his title on a close decision, and had to wait nearly two years to be mandated,” said McGowan. “How many boxers does that happen to? In this business, it’s who you know. He’s not anybody’s Golden Boy, so that’s what happens, but its shameful treatment.
“I’m not saying Stephen Smith is ducking Gary, that’s not the issue. But we know Stephen and (trainer) Joe Gallagher, so you’d think they could at least call and tell us what’s going on. Maybe they don’t know.”
While the Smith issue rumbles on, Sykes is left spinning his wheels on the sidelines, collateral damage once again. “We’re just stuck,” added McGowan. “We’re sparring without knowing an opponent, training without any direction. He’s working hard, sparring with guys like Luke Campbell, but I cant just keep him ticking over forever. It’s been two years and he’s still just waiting. It’s painful for the kid.”
Big Sheffield heavyweight Richard Towers is preparing for his first fight in 16 months when he takes on Australian Lucas Browne in a Commonwealth title eliminator in Hull on 2 November. Most fighters facing an absence that long would be concerned about ring rust, but not Towers. He’s been much in demand as a sparring partner, and a modest man who still considers himself a relative novice in the business has been soaking up a lot of valuable experience.
“The sparring I’ve been doing is better than any fight I could have had,” he said. “I had four weeks with Wladimir Klitschko (in preparation for his fight with Mariusz Wach) and that was one of the best experiences of my life. And I’d only ever been a sparring partner for nine other guys.
“When the four weeks were over, he took me to one side and said: ‘You are my idol Rich. You get in that ring with me, and I’m just your 10th sparring partner? You have got balls the size of basketballs. You and Deontay (Wilder) have given me the best sparring I’ve ever had.’
“Wladimir said that to me? I couldn’t believe it. I was welling up, tears in my eyes, it was just amazing. Then he asked me if I would stay on for another week, and of course, I did.”
Towers has been in demand ever since. There was a three week camp in Germany with Francesco Pianeta. Then some work with the Cuban Mike Perez (“that kid’s dangerous”), before a six week camp with David Haye in preparation for his aborted contest with Tyson Fury.
He’s also sparred with Anthony Joshua ahead of the Olympic champion’s pro debut three weeks ago, and his second engagement against Paul Butlin this Saturday. “He’s a machine, a true pro, and he’s made the transition to the amateurs so smoothly. He adapts well, is very strong and is doing eight or 10 rounds with me no problem, and I can be a handful for anybody. He’s good, and you’re going to see big things from him.”
Big things might be coming from Towers too. A late starter to the pro game, the Yorkshireman survived a torrid war with Gregory Tony of France last time out, and was lucky to come away with the win. Towers looked like he needed rescuing on more than one occasion, and some referees would have stepped in. But he got the benefit of the doubt and eventually his opponent turned his back, citing an arm injury.
“That wasn’t a fight, that was a skin of the teeth moment,” Towers admits. “Brendan Ingle (who runs the Wincobank gym in Sheffield) had always told me that boxing is a hard game and that nothing ever goes according to plan. I never understood what he meant, until that night. Now, I just cant wait to get back out.”
With the experience gained from some of the game’s top professionals, Towers hopes to avoid a repeat against a man he also considers to be a friend. “He’s a really good guy, and I’ve got a lot of time for him, but that’s all by the by now. He’ll try to take my head off and I’ll be trying to do the same to him.”
The proposed European featherweight title fight between Lee Selby and Rendall Munroe is unlikely to take place this side of the New Year. There was talk of the contest happening in December, but Selby’s connections are in no rush, citing a hard year for the Welshman. Earlier this month, Selby won a Lonsdale belt outright against Ryan Walsh, but was also cut in the process.
A date in late January or early February is currently being looked at, with the strong possibility of the fight being staged in Selby’s South Wales manor.
Nick Halling is a commentator for Sky Sports.