Groves, Ali And A Life Inside Boxing: The Sportsman Interviews Paddy Fitzpatrick

The trainer tells us why boxing is the one drug he can’t quit
16:00, 30 Aug 2020

Irish boxing coach Paddy Fitzpatrick is the man you want in your corner. And not just in the ring. He’s the trainer who’s been there, done that, picked himself up and done it again. There are the scintillating highs and lowest of lows but he’s here. A protégé of Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach, Paddy has encountered some of the chief characters of the game, including George Groves, with whom he went to three world title fights, James Toney, and Laila and Muhammad Ali.

Now, he has collaborated with pal and gym buddy Lee ‘Teach’ Simpson (Paddy puts a nickname to everyone who walks into his place, so if you’ve got a red beard, it won’t take many guesses to tell which moniker you’re walking out with) for the first gripping account of his career in ‘Hats, Handwraps and Headaches: A Life on the Inside of Boxing’.

This isn’t simply a boxing book. This is about how boxing - despite the bruises and battles - can bring you back from the brink.

Don’t expect a typical autobiography, though it’s brilliantly basic. “We sat down, drank some Guinness, had a chat, and Teach recorded it,” Paddy tells The Sportsman. Reading through the 400+ pages, its style is reminiscent of watching an old '70s Dick Cavett interview. It’s not an autobiography in the sense of ‘I did this, then I did that’, it’s two mates with one in charge of regaling stories, the other writing them down, and that’s why it works. As a reader you aren’t made to feel like a third wheel, but that you’re privy towards a relationship with a welcome candidness. 

Image Credit: Matchroom Boxing
Image Credit: Matchroom Boxing

“This book is about my journey since being in boxing,” states Paddy, “Not just my journey in boxing.”

Here’s what to expect from the man who walked both with Ali and the line between life and death, just wants ‘to die on the right day’, and why boxing is the one drug he can’t quit.

What marks a great boxer from a good boxer, and same with a trainer? 

An attitude. Some guys believe that they have it, and they might be undefeated. They might be 30-0-0, and have never suffered a loss, but as soon as they do, that belief that they had starts to fall apart.

Then you have the other fighters who have the attitude of ‘Whatever’s happened, that was yesterday. I will go again.’ You have to have an ‘ignorant belief’ in yourself. You could be the most talented fighter in the world but if you don’t have that healthy ingredient, you’ve got nothing.

A good trainer isn’t necessarily about the amount of knowledge he has, but how he passes it on. A great coach on his own isn’t going to make a great fighter, and similarly, great fighters on their own will only get to a certain level.

You could have men like Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Floyd Mayweather and still have the attitude to win the world title. But look at the odd times, say, Angelo Dundee had to tell Leonard in Round 14, ‘You’re blowing it son’ for Leonard to go out there, shake his shoulders out, and do what he had to do.

It comes down to that: saying the right thing at the right time.

You brought up Muhammad Ali and you must get asked this every time you go into a pub, but what was it like to know him and work with his daughter, Laila?

You must think I drink a lot! Ali was cool to know because he was just good fun and never made you feel like he was important. With Laila there would be one time of the day when she’d look exactly like him; she’d put on her headgear, stretch her mouth open ready for the gumshield just as you’re putting it on and you’d see: Ali! As a fighter, she’s really, really stubborn, really, really driven and gives 100% and you always knew on fight night she would show up - and you can’t say that about everybody.

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How different could have the route been if boxing hadn’t entered your life?

I can remember starting to fall in love with it when I was around eight or nine years old but I started going to the boxing gym in my teens with all the gear and no idea and being beaten up before being told, “Do yerself a favour, don’t walk into a gym with boots and glove expecting someone to believe that you can’t box!”

Every man wherever he is now is because of everything he’s been through and every road he’s travelled. Any changes along the way might not change where you get to eventually, but it certainly changes how you got there. Boxing for me has always been, regardless of the lows that come with it, the best thing for me. I still mentally operate best when I’m in the gym. Life’s better.

Talk us through taking George Groves to three unforgettable world title fights. 

Every fight is dealt with individually. Any length of time you spend with a fighter is your career together. It was no big daunting fear. I knew a month ahead of the last fight that we had spent our time together, regardless of the outcome which I fully believed he was going to win. We didn’t achieve what we wanted to. Thankfully, George went on and did, becoming world champion which was his main goal. It just wasn’t to be for us. History shows it didn’t happen.

What have been your personal and professional highlights, so far?

Well I wouldn’t have said my time with George were highlights, because I wouldn’t disrespect either of us. How can they be highlights when we lost? They might be big nights to remember for people. But neither George nor I are going to remember them with a smile on our face.

The biggest thing I get the buzz and most gratification from, whether it’s a dude making his debut or someone fighting for a world title, is when somebody gives you their complete trust. With their career, with their health. That’s probably the biggest thing a man can give to another man, isn’t it?

You can be in the gym with a fighter on your own, they just look at you, you look back, and you both just know. That’s a buzz.

Image Credit: Matchroom Boxing
Image Credit: Matchroom Boxing

On the flip-side of that buzz, how do you cope with witnessing squandered talent?

People will be ready when they’re ready. You can be telling people what to do in life in the face of a struggle, you can tell a fighter what to do to give them the best opportunity in this game. But people will only take on board what you’re teaching them, if and when they’re ready. They can listen but they might not hear.

Success in this game isn’t for everybody. You have got to have a mentality of commitment and that just gives you the best opportunity for success, it still doesn’t guarantee success. You have to expect your opponent to be just as prepared, just as committed, and just as hungry.

Early on in the book, you discuss openly about fear, and it’s importance to a fighter’s ability.

Every man wants to be respected for what he is doing regardless. So then of course there’s a feeling attached to the possibility of not having that respect. Or you wouldn’t want to be in a position of a lack of respect for something you believe you should be. What if one day you woke up and everyone in your field didn’t give you the respect you knew you deserve?

So what would you call that feeling? That is some form of fear. If there was no fear whatsoever, you couldn’t be switched on all the time. You go bungee jumping, you expect to be fearful at the top. What would be the point of bungee jumping if you had absolutely zero fear of heights and you completely believed 100% that when you attach that bungee, nothing’s going to go wrong.

Maybe the label fear doesn’t sit well with some people, but if they can give me a better word, I’ll certainly use it.

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You are candid about discussing your own problems, issues, and fallibilities. Why was it important to do so, and why should certain issues be continuously addressed in boxing?

With my working process with Teach, it wasn’t a case of ‘let’s sit down tonight and talk about suicide’. We would be talking, he’ll be asking questions, and then it’d lead to a situation where we’d be talking about it. It was revealed because I wasn’t the subject of an interview with a stranger. It’s part of my life, quite a big part, and the fact that I screwed it up was a bonus! 

You were lucky enough to learn your trade at Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach's Wild Card gym, how did that come about? Tell us about working with Freddie.

I was appreciative of it as it came at a really dark time for me. I never felt out-of-my-depth, I just paid attention. When you have someone who does this craft so excellently and you’re assisting them, you just have to listen, be attentive, and understand the privilege to be witnessing things from his same viewpoint.

What makes boxing so special?

Boxing is life concentrated. Everything that you can go through in life you go through in a boxing ring. No matter the amount of rounds. It can be going your way and then you get hit by something you don’t see coming, and you’re on your ass - are you going to stay there or are you going to get up and try and do something about it?

Boxing is simple. You get hit. And not because the other dude did something right but because you did something wrong. Life is kind of like that. Freddie Roach told me, ‘every punch is a counter, and every counterpunch is a counter’ - everything in life has a counter to it. You just have to be ready to keep adjusting. 

Hats, Handwraps and Headaches: A Life on the Inside of Boxing, Paddy Fitzpatrick & Lee Simpson, Pitch Publishing, RRP: £19.99

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