From Me To You And Then Bilbao: Rhiannon Dixon And James Moorcroft Head To Spain

The double act preview their upcoming challenges abroad
21:00, 19 May 2022

They are bickering like an old married couple even before the interview starts – Rhiannon Dixon's telling James Moorcroft he’s holding the microphone all wrong. He smiles at her, turns to the camera, and starts rapping.

Today’s light training session at the recently refurbed Fox ABC in Oldham has finished. The pair, counting down to their respective fights on the same card in Bilbao, have done all the hard work under the guidance of their coach and former WBA lightweight champion Anthony ‘Million Dollar’ Crolla.

The music, which had been booming out of the large speakers positioned to the right of the pristine ring, has now been muted. For the past 90 minutes it’s been a mixture of 70’s rock anthems and sentimental old Irish folk ballads - The Dubliners feature strongly. It’s not the usual boxing gym soundtrack, and maybe not the kind of playlist you’d expect to belong to a 29year-old lad from Wigan. Rhiannon is not impressed.

“When I walked in today, I just thought - not again? It brings me down James! You’re fake Irish, you’re not Irish, you’re from Wigan!”

James is unfazed. “Have you seen my DNA results? I’m 29% Irish,” he says staring at Rhiannon, face straight.

“You should pay homage to your roots in Wigan!” She counters.

J: “So should you, your roots are in Wigan.”

R: “I’m from Warrington!”

J: “Nah, you’re from Wigan. Just on the edges. Look at the Wigan Reporter – always says you’re from Wigan.” 

R: “My mum goes in a mood about it. I’m from Warrington.”  

And on it goes.

After a bit more back and forth, they switch their attention to what promises to be a big night in Bilbao on the undercard of Kermin Lejarraga’s fight for the vacant WBA Continental Super Welterweight title against Liverpool’s JJ Metcalf.

“Rhiannon’s a home fighter, I’m in the away corner. I’m going over on the boat and Rhiannon’s flying!”

“You just keep on following me,” she says with a smile and shake of the head.

“Joking aside, it’s an honour to be on a Matchroom show,” says James. “Rhiannon was on it first and then the fight came up for me. It made sense to have us both on, so I do have to pay a little thank you to Rhiannon for being part of Matchroom to open the door for me to get on.”

Both fighters are managed by the well-respected Steve Wood and Rhiannon signed a five-fight promotional deal with Matchroom last year. The unbeaten 27year-old made her debut with the organisation, live on DAZN, against Vaida Masiokaite on the undercard of Parker v Chisora II in December.

“I said to Ant, ‘make sure James gets on the Bilbao show!’ He’s been fighting a week before me over the last few fights. He rings me up on fight-week, when I’m weight drained, going: ‘I’m drinking this, I’m eating this!’ I’m sat there feeling like smashing my phone. How annoying is he?”

Both take on unbeaten fighters at the Bilbao Arena in the heart of the Basque region’s biggest city. Rhiannon is in with Morocco’s Mahjouba Oubtil, while Spain’s Jon Miguez is in the opposite corner to James.

“I think it’s a really good fight,” Rhiannon says of her contest. “With the women, it can be a short time before you get title fights and I’m learning on the job. I do need these fights. She’s really come-forward and aggressive which I think will play into my hands because I think I can lead her on to shots. We’re very confident and I think this fight’s perfect for me at this stage of my career.”

It could be a tougher night for James. His 25-year-old opponent – aka ‘Goodboy’ - holds the EBU and Spanish welterweight titles.

“He’s alright!” James says laughing.  “I’m ranked 300 in the world on Boxrec, and he’s ranked at 60. I’m going into it a massive underdog. This is massive for someone like me, from little Wigan.

“I’m not delusional. I’m not going to win a close points decision. I’m going to have to be the aggressor, I’m going to have to go for it and really stamp my dominance on this fight. I know what I’m going to bring and he’s going to have to adapt to me.

“We’ll see, but I know I’m ready for it. I’m just going to enjoy it. I don’t get angry before fights, I get happy. That’s when I feel at my best. I enjoy the sport; I walk around with a smile on my face. It’s a very serious fight on one of the biggest platforms in the world, but I’m ready to put on a show.“

For a brief moment, the Moorcroft smile fades as he talks of his real motivation to get the win that will help push on his boxing career – one-year-old daughter Mia.

“Jon’s trying to take away everything I’m trying to give that little girl, so it’s going to get rough in there.  I’ve fought away from home, and I’ve picked up a loss on my journey in a British title eliminator. I know what if feels like to lose and I don’t want to lose again. And I won’t lose. As soon as I win, it’s time to enjoy it, have a week off and then get back in the gym. This is my time. All the stars have aligned. I really am ready to go.”

How it all pans out is intriguing for the fighters’ careers, their teams and also promoter Eddie Hearn. The chairman of Matchroom Sport has been dividing fight week between London and Bilbao, ensuring he’s ringside for both Lejaragga v Metcalf on Friday and Saturday’s show at the O2 which is headlined by Joshua Buatsi and Craig Richards.

“It's so good for a fighter’s experience to learn and understand the sport,” Eddie says. “You’ve got two different fighters in two different situations. You’ve got Rhiannon Dixon who’s a massive favourite and is not there to fight a tough Spaniard, but what an incredible experience for her?

“And then you’ve got Moorcroft who’s in deep against a Spaniard.  He’s right up against it. But as you’ve seen from fighters who’ve gone over and won those kind of fights, it changes the direction of their career.  Also, for James Moorcroft, he’s got nothing to lose. He can go over there, make his money, make a mark on the sport and if he gets the win, he's back on our shows in the UK.”

They’ve already come a long way. Dixon and Moorcroft started boxing together on the unlicensed scene seven years ago. Rhiannon’s partner Ross has been best pals with James since the start of secondary school, while Rhiannon is very close to James’s partner Hannah. It’s a tight-knit foursome, but in the gym it’s all about the boxing double act.

“He’s like an annoying little brother,” Rhiannon chips in, “We’re on the phone about 20 times a day so when he was ill a few weeks ago and he didn’t reply to Ant or me, I knew he wasn’t well. I just can’t seem to shake him!”

It’s been an interesting pathway for both fighters. From unlicensed to the pro game without amateur experience. Rhiannon, now 4-0, and sister of Toulouse rugby league player Andrew, found the gym after her active formative years as a dancer morphed into teenage layabout life.

“You know when you’re about 15, you just want to go to the park and get drunk! Then, when I was about 20, I was really chubby and I saw Ronda Rousey on tv and thought, ‘wow, she’s amazing!’ She said some quote about how all her muscles serve a purpose and that she’s not a do-nothing bitch! I was looking in the mirror thinking, ‘you are a do-nothing bitch!’ I was going to do MMA but was told to try boxing, and here I am.”

James is now 17 fights into his pro career and tasted solitary defeat against Martin Harkin in a British title eliminator in January 2020. A change of trainer followed with James, like Rhiannon, leaving Lee Blundell for Crolla.

James is now a full-time professional after years of grafting. “I was removing asbestos for a living. Me and me dad did that for five or six years and then I started doing groundwork up until my fifth professional fight,” he says.” It was manual labour, and it was so hard. It got to a situation where I had to sit down with my mum and dad and choose either boxing or groundwork - and I had a job cutting grass on the side! I’d saved some money, my mum and dad helped me out so I could quit my job. We’re here now, ready for the biggest fight of my life.

“But I always knew I wanted to be a pro, I was always training like a professional, I put everything into it. From unlicensed fighting to being with Anthony, it’s one world to the next. We get a lot of time with Anthony. To get the knowledge and guidance off him is priceless.”

For Rhiannon, boxing was put in perspective when the coronavirus pandemic turned the world on its head. The grim realities were all too evident in her day job as an NHS hospital pharmacist.

“I started pharmacy in 2019 and then the pandemic hit. Everything changed in the way we were working. I was on a COVID ward, and it was a really challenging time because obviously at the start of the pandemic, we didn’t know what we were working with.

“There was a lot of young people dying and situations where patients were having to say bye to family members on facetime. They were like, 30! Obviously, there were people going out in lockdown, but I was really cautious and didn’t see my mum and dad or nephew.

“I feel like working through that and being on the wards and seeing all that stuff, when I went to the gym for the boxing, it was a massive escape for me. I enjoyed that time. I was quite lucky as a professional boxer that I could do that. Other people couldn’t.

“Everything is back to normal-ish and now we do know what we’re dealing with. People are coming into the hospital with COVID and leaving. That’s the important thing.

“Boxing was just a hobby but now everything’s flipped on its head and I’m doing this full-time. I’m working as a pharmacist in my spare time. Three years ago, I didn’t think I’d be doing this, and I definitely don’t think my mum and dad did either! With sponsors, it’s enabled me to do it.

“I do enjoy pharmacy and I do really enjoy working on the wards with doctors and nurses and caring for patients. Obviously, I’m only young once and I can only do this once. I don’t want to be looking back wondering, ‘what if?’ I’m going to give boxing everything I’ve got in my young years and then go back to pharmacy when I’m older.

“The plan now is to have a couple of six-rounders and then eight-rounders and then step up. This time next year, I’m looking at titles. I’m in the best hands with Ant, he’s been there and done everything and me and James are now with Martin Cullen for our strength and conditioning so I couldn’t be in better hands. I’ve just got to listen and put everything into practice.”

Along with spending time with Anthony at Fox ABC, the duo are also regulars at Gloves Gym in Bolton where Joe Gallagher oversees his busy stable – Ant working with his own fighters along with helping to coach the former champions he used to train alongside. It’s a win win, with fighters and coaches all working and learning together.

“Training alongside Tash [Jonas], I literally watch what she does on the bag – she’s a southpaw as well – and I’ll just try and copy it,” says a wide-eyed Rhiannon. “I’m learning from the best and I’m really fortunate. We do a lot at Joe’s gym, with world champions, so I believe I’m in the best place.”

Full steam ahead then for Rhiannon Dixon and James Moorcroft – or the Chuckle Brothers as Crolla calls them – as they aim to impress in Bilbao.

“It’s a crazy thing,” says James. “I’m going over there with my best friends. We’re a team. We’re ready for this. I was supposed to be fighting on April 4th on the Savannah Marshall bill, but it wasn’t to be.

“I’ve been in camp for six months now, I’m more than ready and I just hope the beers are cold on Friday night.”

With that, the pair continue to jibe each other over beer, music, food, and everything else. They wouldn’t have it any other way.

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