The Sportsman delves deeper into the world of professional boxing to uncover the stories away from the bright lights of fight night. The personalities involved in the sport and their tales ‘Outside the Ropes.’
“I had a couple of strokes, not major ones, but that was three and a half years ago. I’m not saying that’s just the stress of boxing and the pressure of boxing, but the doctor thinks it was!” Boxing promoter and manager Steve Wood. He is laughing, but it is no joke. This is a man who has spent decades, and bucket loads of cash, on a sport he just cannot walk away from.
“I have had health problems, I’m on five tablets a day now and feeling great. I’m doing a little bit of training in the gym and trying to eat a little bit better. With no [small hall] boxing, I’ve felt the benefit of a stress-free 12 months. It’s been good. It’s certainly wisened me up a bit with what I need to do as we move forward. I am looking forward to the shows starting. Hopefully, I’ll do them in a different way.”
The pandemic has actually been good for business. Not the small hall boxing business, but the day job. Steve has run his successful engineering business on the edge of Salford for 35 years, along with promoting regular shows and managing fighters in a uniquely precarious sport.
With little hope for behind-closed-doors, non-tv fight nights in COVID times, Steve has focused on matters he can control. And things are going well enough for him to open a London branch to his company, securing 25 jobs in these troubled times, added to the similar number already employed at VIP (Valves, Instruments, Plus) in Astley.
“When you think about it, the stress you get from the boxing and the heartache you get from boxing, and financially losing money on all the shows; if that effort had gone into this place, maybe I’d have a national business with 20 branches all around the country!” Steve taps his index finger into the table to emphasise the point. He is sat, smartly dressed in a shirt and tie in the company boardroom. There are no pictures of valves or pipes on the walls, just memorabilia from the countless number of fighters he has worked with.
“There’s an illness in wanting to be involved in boxing and it’s not just from a promoter’s point of view, being stressed-out putting an event together and losing money,” he says in a broad Salford accent. “There’s a manager’s stress in trying to keep their fighters busy and getting the right fights which is the really hard part in developing a fighter. The trainers who’re working for ten percent, which to start with is very little. After eight weeks, they might get £100. It’s madness!
“I can’t understand why I do it. If you took yourself away from it and you were looking at someone else, you’d say, ‘what are you doing, you’re off your head! What are you doing that for?’ But when you’re in it, dealing with certain personalities, you want to do well for them. It isn’t just about me; it’s about helping these other people.”
Enough on his plate then, so maybe when the world returns to a little normality, there will be a work/life balance, free time for a few holes of golf and generally changing the pace of life. But Steve isn’t made that way. That is why he has actually signed more fighters to his stable during the pandemic. The plan was to reduce the number of boxers he looks after, but he now finds himself with 75 on the books.
“With this lockdown, there are so many quality amateurs who’ve got disheartened and want to turn over pro, and I think I’ve signed 20-odd kids who’ll be making their debuts in September, hopefully, when we’ve got going again.
“If things happen the way we presume they will do, I think by September the Board will be in a position where they don’t have to ask the fighters to take the [COVID] test and isolate for three days. It’s an extra cost of £30,000 per show. It’s just not viable.
“I can do a show with a full crowd and lose money, without the testing and isolations. If you look at it, it would be a financial disaster. The minimum you’d lose would be £50,000. The only way you’d do it, as a small hall promoter with no tv, is if you got a big sponsor to cover the costs. Maybe you’d put it out on a free stream to try and get the viewers to give the sponsor something back. I don’t think there are sponsors about to do that.”
With small hall shows not feasible, only a lucky few have secured work, fighting on behind-closed-doors tv events.
“I think I’ve had 12 lads fight on the tv shows. I had some good successes and obviously the bad night was Reece Mould losing his challenge for the British title and Josh Warrington getting beat and stopped in what was really a tune-up fight for his big world title [unification] fight. The other lads have all done well and it’s been enjoyable to watch on the telly and not have to do all the hard work on my own shows.”
The first major UK fight night of 2021 provided another reminder of boxing’s ability to provide a KO in and out of the ring. A crushing first defeat for Josh Warrington against Mexico’s Mauricio Lara provided a major shock and ripped up the best laid plans for the year ahead.
‘Woody’ and the ‘Leeds Warrior’ have enjoyed an extremely fruitful manager/boxer relationship. Once the injuries have healed, it is all about revenge.
“He’s had an operation on his elbow, which he had a problem with before the fight,” Steve explains. “We decided he’d have a cortisone [injection] and go ahead with the fight. No excuses, and that’s a good thing to come out of this, there’s not been one excuse from Josh. He took it on the chin like a man. He’s going to have to redeem himself, that’s what we all want to do as a team.
“It’s funny. Before the fight, people were saying, ‘it’s an easy fight, how have they got away with that? They shouldn’t be showing that on Sky!’ Then afterwards, ‘why did they take that fight? Why did they put him in with a hard, tough Mexican?’ You just can’t win in this boxing game.
“We’ve got to admit, he got beat. He must’ve done something wrong, and we need to make sure that what went wrong doesn’t go wrong in the rematch. For us to move on, we’ve got to put that right. He’s more than capable of putting that right and then we’ll get those big unification fights.”
Steve rises from his chair, pulls on a navy overcoat and drapes a charcoal grey scarf around his neck. He heads out of the boardroom and down a narrow corridor he calls his walk of fame – both walls lined with memorabilia. It is an eclectic mix ranging from Ricky Hatton, Joe Calzaghe, and Prince Naseem glory nights to images of champion jockey Tony McCoy and Ronnie O’Sullivan from the green baize.
Then his love of Manchester United shines through. There’s Denis Law, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Paul Scholes. He cannot wait to return to Old Trafford, regardless of the mixed bag he might find there.
“I’ve been nutting the walls watching it at home on the telly! He chuckles. “If you’re at the ground and you’ve had your ten pints, it’s a bit easier to take! Even beating [Manchester] City, it was frustrating because of all the points we’ve lost to the likes of Sheffield United, West Brom and Everton when they’ve switched off!”
The tour takes us down a flight of stairs and left, through a door and into the vast VIP warehouse. Along with pallets of plumbing and mechanical engineering items, there is a mezzanine floor stacked with VIP boxing equipment. Steve recognised a gap in the market along with the need for his long-term friend and fighter Jamie Moore to have a life after retirement from the ring. Danny Wright, a young Manchester fighter whose promising boxing career was curtailed by a failed brain scan, is also part of the business now.
Planning is clearly important. After taking over the building, three thousand feet of space was sectioned off for the creation of the VIP Boxing gym. Home to Astley ABC in the evening, the professionals train during the day with coaches Jamie Moore and Nigel Travis.
Steve walks out of the warehouse, into the car park and around the side of the building and into the separate gym entrance. Inside, heavy (VIP) bags line the wall on the left with the ring positioned to the right. It is stifling hot – ‘that’s because I get the fucking gas bill!’ Steve says half joking.
Carl Frampton is in the ring sparring southpaw Alex Dilmaghani. It is ‘The Jackal’s’ final UK session before he heads off for his challenge to become a three-weight world champion when he faces Jamel Herring in Dubai.
Woody is in his element. Socially distanced he may be, but not far enough away to avoid the barbs thrown at him by Jamie Moore – ‘Who do you think you are dressed like that? Sir Alex Ferguson!’
Fighters including Sean McGoldrick, Aqib Fiaz and Marc Leach are going through their respective routines on bags.
Steve spots Grant Smith and Sunny Edwards, trainer and fighter who have traveled over from Sheffield for sparring – ‘don’t leave money hanging around here and make sure your shorts are tied!’ he says with a chuckle. The latter point, a reference to a ‘debagging’ culture in the gym.
A quick farewell to all and Steve heads back to the office to have a meeting with another young amateur who wants to turn pro with VIP. His final thoughts before re-entering the boardroom return to Josh Warrington.
“I’m looking forward to him retiring to be honest, but it’s going to be two years of fun again now. It wasn’t nice that night, but I’ve had ten years of great times with Josh. Winning the world title at Elland Road – it’ll be hard to top that.
“I think now, because we’ve had the pain of the loss, when we beat Lara and then we go on to fight Can Xu maybe in America now, that’ll top it for me.
“I have said, once Josh Warrington calls it a day, I won’t be signing any more boxers, but the ones I have signed on, I’ll be fully committed to. I’ve probably got at least ten years with the lads we’re bringing through now.”
So, despite a global pandemic and defeat for his star fighter, there is a renewed spring in the step for a man who cannot turn his back on a sport that has provided him with more than his fair share of aggravation.
“I wouldn’t change it because it’s something that I’ve done, and I’ve had a lot of good times in it as well. But I wouldn’t do it again!” he laughs, but the point is serious. He wouldn’t do it all again. In another life, it would simply be Woody the boxing fan.
“I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve gone around the world, sat ringside and everything, but if I was ever going to do it again, I’d just pay for ringside tickets and do it that way!”
It is hard to imagine professional boxing in England’s north west, without Steve Wood. VIP Boxing’s small hall shows are prolific, high quality affairs. Just as well he has no intention of going anywhere just yet.