The Sportsman’s new feature series ‘Outside the Ropes’ delves deeper into the world of professional boxing to uncover the stories away from the bright lights of fight night, with personalities from the ring telling their fascinating tales.
First up is a man who scaled the heights in two sports – a Premier League footballer turned British light-welterweight champion. Now, Curtis Woodhouse has his sights set on managing a Football League club, while in his spare time he’s helping people improve their physical and mental wellbeing.
Nothing in life has been straightforward for the 40-year-old from Driffield in east Yorkshire. Football came easy to him, as did his own version of rest and recuperation.
“I don’t play golf, I don’t play snooker. None of that. My hobbies were socialising. I liked to drink, and I liked to bet, so you could find me in the pub or the bookies!” Curtis grins broadly as he leans back in his chair.
“They were the days when you party! You enjoy a few beers and stuff like that. To wind down after a football game it’d be a quick shower, back to the apartment, change of clothes and straight out. I’m from the era where that was the norm. It wasn’t just you and a couple of mates, it was the whole squad.
“It was a bit like the wild west. I remember when I signed my first deal with Sheffield United, all of a sudden, I was earning big, big money. There was no guidance how to deal with that. I was living in digs, next day I woke up with thousands of pounds in my account. No guidance, but I think that’s one thing that’s changed. I’d welcome the support network that the players get now. I think it gives you a better opportunity to have longevity in your career, have people around you who are better decision makers than 18- or 19-year-old lads.”
It clearly wasn’t all play – off the field that is. A league debut at 17 before becoming Sheffield United’s youngest captain just two years later, Curtis made more than 300 league appearance in a football career that peaked with a £1 million move to Birmingham City and a spell in the Premier League. He also rubbed shoulders with elite players like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard while on England under-21 duty. Inevitably, the football landscape has changed dramatically since then, and, according to Curtis, not all for the better.
“There were no camera phones in my day. When I made my debut, I don’t think mobiles were out yet. I wouldn’t like to think what footage would be around of me if camera phones had been around! I definitely wouldn’t change that part of things!” he says, with a loud cackle.
“I am only 40, but back in my day you could go and sit in the pub on the corner near the ground and have a beer with normal people and fans. It wasn’t that much of a big deal. Now the money in the game has taken the players further away from the fans. I wouldn’t swap my era, we had the best of both worlds.
“We weren’t drunk all the time, but we were definitely out a couple of nights a week – all the lads. It was brilliant. Towards the end I did fall out of love with it, but I had some great times and made some great memories. A lot of those great memories are in the pub, celebrating a great victory!”
The good times faded and gradually football was something to be endured rather than enjoyed. That wasn’t the way it was supposed to be and, at the age of 26, Curtis decided to turn his back on the game that had been his life.
“I dreamt of playing for Liverpool and England as a kid. John Barnes was my hero. I played for England under-16s, 18s and 21s, and I thought my career was heading towards playing at the top level. To then wake up one morning and you’re playing away at Leyton Orient on a Tuesday night in front of 500 people… that wasn’t the dream. That hit me hard. I was more angry with football.”
Trouble was never too far away for Woodhouse the footballer. Fighting on the streets and in and around the boozer had been a regular occurrence. Why not then do it properly and get paid? Well, that was part of the thought process that led a wayward young man into the disciplined but hard environment of the boxing gym. But to make it as a pro in a different sport, everything had to change.
“I grew up!” Curtis says. “There’s only so many nightclubs and strip clubs you can go into before they get a bit boring! It was evolution. I know this will sound really arrogant, but I could go out two or three days during the week as a footballer and still perform on a Saturday because I was good enough.
“Every time I’d been in trouble, I’d been drunk. Partying, drunk, ending up in fights. Once you become a professional boxer, you’re not drinking any more. All of a sudden, I’m making better decisions because I’m not drunk. That was a big part of it as well. I’m not a drinker anymore – I’ve drunk enough in my football years to last me two lifetimes!” The wide grin returns.
“I was a little bit older and a little bit wiser, and the game’s a little more serious as well. You can’t go into a professional boxing match when you’ve been out partying. It’s a dangerous, dangerous sport. Chalk and cheese how I prepared for one to the other.”
As Curtis knuckled down to learn a new trade, he was never short of fighters willing to climb through the ropes to teach him a lesson. To those that did not know him, here was a millionaire prima donna footballer playing at boxing - making a mockery of their sport. All preconceptions were wrong, but it was nonetheless a brutal education.
“Boxing, when I started, I was ranked 189th in Great Britain out of 189. I was the worst fighter in Great Britain in my weight category, and I was there on merit – I was the worst!
“I didn’t have that luxury of being able to take my foot off the gas, maybe miss training, go out Saturday and Sunday on the lash and then think ‘I won’t train Monday or Tuesday, I’ll go back in on Wednesday!’ I did not have that luxury because I wasn’t very good. I had to be dedicated and live the life. I was forced to do that because of my lack of ability.”
Along with taking his bumps and bruises in sparring, Curtis had taken a financial hit after walking away from the lucrative world of professional football. The reality of life as a prizefighter was sinking in on every level.
“People look in on boxing and think of Tyson Fury, Anthony Joshua and the big names and the big, big purses. What they don’t realise is that maybe 98 per cent of fighters fight for less than minimum wage. There’s no money in it at all, 95 per cent of my purses were around two and a half grand. The biggest fight of my career, when I fought for the British title, I got paid nine grand to fight Darren Hamilton.
“Top of the bill on Sky Sports, 12-week training camp, trained in London. I made a loss on that fight – you pay your manager; you pay your trainer. There’s no money in boxing at all. It has to be a passion. I’d have fought Darren Hamilton for free and I’d have had most of my fights for free. It was all about progression with me and trying to reach that ultimate goal of being British champion.”
It was a goal that Curtis somehow achieved, against all the odds. It’s fair to say that that defining night against Hamilton seemed a million miles away when Curtis made his debut in September 2006 in a points win against Dean Marcantonio at Mayfair’s Grosvenor House hotel.
But perseverance and progression eventually led Curtis to an eye-catching performance in a split-decision loss to the immensely talented Frankie Gavin. There were notable wins along the way over seasoned, tough operators like Stefy Bull and Dave Ryan. Then his Everest, the mountain climbed at the Ice Arena in Hull on a crazy February night in 2014.
“Even now, seven years since that day, when people speak to me, that’s all they talk about, so the amount of money I earned from that fight, or from my whole boxing career, is irrelevant. When I die, that’s what they’ll talk about – me winning a British title. You can’t put a price on that.
“Losing my Dad had a massive impact on everything. I made a promise to my Dad literally 30 seconds before he died that I’d win the British title, so that made a big impact on me. I didn’t want the last thing I said to my Dad to not happen.
“Winning the British title, I just did that through hard work and bloody-mindedness. I spar my 17-year-old son who’s never boxed, and he boxes my ears off. I’m useless at boxing, I’m not very good, I’m just determined. I got there by refusing to give up, whereas football, I got there on pure talent. Football’s my expertise, boxing’s like my little bit on the side that’s no good for me, but I needed to scratch that itch!”
With no more pugilistic itch, it’s back to the football pitch. If boxing was his mistress, then football’s the wife as the lure of management has brought him back to the beautiful game. He has worked his way through the non-league football pyramid, gaining his pro badges and leaving a good impression everywhere he’s been. And so there is another stage to the Woodhouse story – scaling the heights from the dugout.
“I’ve got a really difficult relationship with football,” Curtis explains. “You rarely see interviews with me talking about my football career because it’s something I just don’t like talking about. I look back at it as a massive waste of an opportunity that I under-achieved in. But I still love the game and football is my expertise.
“I love managing, I love people and I love being around players. It’s funny how things work out. I believe my real calling is going to be in football management. I feel that’s where I’m really going to excel because of all the lessons I’ve learned from over 20 years in professional sport. Two completely different sports, but what I’ve learned about is people. That’s what football management is, it’s people.
“Everywhere I’ve been I’ve done a good job and I’m ready for that next step up, I’m ready to be let off the leash. I want my opportunity in league football, and once I do [get the opportunity] I’ve no doubt in my mind that I’ll get to the top.
“I’m fully qualified, I don’t want any excuses for anybody to say no to me. I’ve done my apprenticeship. No one can [talk of a] lack of experience or qualifications. I deserve my chance and I’m ready. Once I get that opportunity, the rest will be history.”
While Curtis continues to apply for football manager jobs after leaving Gainsborough Trinity in February, he’s not sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. A running joke at his boxing gym has led him to start a rapidly growing movement aimed at helping men and women get fit in mind and body.
“Once I retired, like most boxers, I looked down at my belly and I was nowhere near 10 stone, nowhere near light-welterweight. I’d started to look a hell of a lot like a cruiserweight and I’m only five foot six! I was always on about training, but for six months it was: ‘It starts Monday!’ In my first week I lost five pounds and I was buzzing. I put it on Twitter, and I got loads of messages back from people who couldn’t find the motivation to start.
“It just grew and grew and grew and there’s so many incredible stories happening through the movement. It’s been a beautiful thing. To be honest, and it’s a big shout, but this is the proudest thing I’ve ever been involved in. It’s coming out of love and nothing more. We’re helping so many people.
“I’ve lost 19 pounds, so if I don’t get a football job soon I might be coming back, although I don’t know if I’d make welterweight again!” The cackle is back once again.
With no plans for fighting, the new goals have been set. It’s all about looking to the future, a life in football management and supporting people’s mental and physical health.
“It’s taken me a long time to mature as a person. I don’t think I found my way until I was 30. Some people have got it nailed at 21. You’d look at me and you’d think ‘Wow, playing professional in the Premier League, he’s got it sussed!’ I didn’t know my arse from my elbow until I was 30.
“By the time I was 26 years of age, I’d been arrested 21 times. From 26 to now, I think I’ve had a parking ticket and that’s about it. It shows how boxing helped me.”
And boxing, along with his exploits with a ball at his feet, have combined to present Curtis with an unexpected honour: a British Empire Medal and a pending trip to Buckingham Palace.
“All I can do is football and boxing. Anything outside of that… useless! I can’t change a tyre, not got a clue about anything. I can play football and knock people out!
“I go down to Buckingham Palace in the summer, I can’t wait. My family and everyone, we’re buzzing at going down. You know what us northerners are like, we don’t get to go down south very often so I’m classing it as a holiday.
“[It will be] an amazing moment. I’m not normally speechless, but when I talk about being honoured by the Queen, I don’t really know what to say! I’m really, really humbled.”
A special day awaits then, and after fulfilling his title promise all those years ago, it’ll be another moment he’ll dedicate to his late father, Bernard.
“He’ll be looking down on me. He’ll be like ‘Yeah, that’s my boy!’”