At last

John A. MacDonald
15/06/2016 11:24am

The Lord Lonsdale Challenge belt is one of the most iconic awards in British sport and was once much prized. A fighter who defended the Belt twice successfully (it has since been altered to three defences) was allowed to keep it. Despite its monetary value – the original belt was made out of 22-carat gold – its true value was symbolic, as proof of being the best in Britain.

While the Lonsdale Belt is still coveted by many fighters, boxing politics means we now see far fewer outright owners. Regional titles from each of the four major sanctioning bodies have become the favoured route for progressing fighters, with International and Inter-Continental titles now commonplace in British rings. While the titles themselves hold little prestige, the top 15 ranking that comes with them has made them a necessary evil.

For instance, in the light-heavyweight division. Crawford Ashley was the last fighter to win the Lonsdale Belt outright, and that was 24 years ago.

However, the new champion, Manchester's 27-year-old Hosea Burton, is aiming to rectify this and fulfil a lifelong ambition in the process.

“When I was a little boy, I dreamt of the Olympics and the British title. Now, you could go to the Olympics and [become a] world champion, but the Lonsdale belt was always the best looking belt,” Burton told Boxing Monthly over the phone. “It’s a British thing, and I’m a British man, so I want to be the best in Britain. That’s it.

“I’m going to win the British title outright by the end of the year. It hasn’t been done since 1992 in the light-heavyweight division. I’ve got the oldest belt in circulation, so I’m going to defend that and keep that. It’s got a bit of history with it, it’s got something to say. I’m going to have it and I’m going to put it on me mam’s mantelpiece."

Burton claimed the vacant title against Miles Shinkwin in February, on the undercard of the junior featherweight unification bout between Scott Quigg and Carl Frampton. While the main event took seven rounds to catch fire, the same can’t be said of Burton and Shinkwin, with London’s Shinkwin setting a ferocious pace from the opening bell. 

Rather than crumbling under his opponent’s pressure, Burton hung tough knowing Shinkwin couldn't keep up such intensity for 12 rounds. His confidence was justified as he sent Shinkwin to the canvas in the second round with a left uppercut.

“Miles is tough, he’s a tough opponent,” he said. “He was a top-class amateur. He started the first round as if he was still in an amateur contest. He came out sharp and fast, but in a 12-round fight, you can’t come out as quick. He came out fast in the first round and in the second I caught him one. When I caught him, I thought I was going to win the fight from there, because I knew he was hurt. It takes a long time to recover from such hard punches when you keep getting them landed on you.”

Shinkwin showed his resilience as he saw out the remainder of the round and rallied in the third whilst under an unrelenting onslaught from Burton, even bloodying Burton’s nose in the process. This didn’t faze the now-champion, as it’s an issue he has had to contend with all his life.

“My nose has bled since I was 11-years-old," confessed Burton. "Since I had me first spar it bleeds. Sometimes just in a bag session, it bleeds. I’ve been brought up with it, so it’s nothing to worry me. Maybe the first time it ever bled, I probably cried about it. It didn’t bother me, people thought me nose was broken, but it wasn’t – I’ve had worse nose bleeds in the gym.”

Burton brought the fight to an end in the sixth round as a right cross sent Shinkwin stumbling into the ropes, obliging referee Victor Loughlin to halt the contest. In that moment, Burton was overwhelmed by emotion, in a state of disbelief at what he had just accomplished.

“I didn’t want to cry but as soon as he waved it off, I turned around and I was like: ‘Yeah,’ celebrating then all of a sudden tears start coming to me eyes and it was like I was going to cry so I had to stop,” Burton recalled. “I pulled myself together, I said: ‘What’s up with you?’ I put me hands up again and the tears started coming again!”

It was a moment Burton had begun to doubt would ever arrive. In his four-year career as a professional, he’d only ever been in one contest scheduled to go beyond six rounds – prior to challenging for the British title – and that had been an eight-rounder.

Each time he had been presented with an opportunity a cruel twist of fate would snatch it away from him, be it injury, an opponent withdrawing or the show getting cancelled.

The support of his family, gym mates and trainer Joe Gallagher helped him to keep believing during the darker times.

“Boxing is a funny old game, you have highs and lows,” Burton said. “Your mind plays a lot of games with you at times. Sometimes you just think: ‘This ain’t going to come to me, this is never going to happen for me.’ I’ve had so many setbacks. Other people would have been British champion way before now.

“When it comes to staying focussed, I’ve been sparring with Callum Johnson, Callum Smith, Paul Smith and I do really well. Maybe if I was getting beat up by them and things kept falling through I’d think: ‘Is this falling through for a reason? Is Joe calling this off because I’m not ready for it or I’m not good enough?’ But because I’ve done it for so long and Joe keeps telling me: ‘Listen Hoff [short for Hoffie, his nickname], if you were no good, I’d tell you,’ and I believe him.

“I come to the gym, all the boys in the gym are 100% with me. I’ve not been to a gym with such nice people and – to be honest – every one of them can fight, each one of them is as good as each other. There’s no: ‘I’m better than you, I’m world champion,’ or ‘I’m better than you, I’m British champion.’ We are all equal. There’s a bit of competition now and again but there’s no egos.”

Despite this strong support network, had he lost to Shinkwin, Burton would likely have turned his back on boxing. With three children under five, and lower purses below boxing's top tier, he has found it difficult to provide for his family's needs.

“There have been times when it’s been hard with money and that,” he admitted. “Sometimes I’ve been wantin’ to pack in and go to work because I’ve got three children and it’s so hard to provide for them, but then I think it’s just one fight away. If I get this fight, if somebody gives me a chance, I can provide for them. I’ll be able to earn enough money to keep them in nice clothes and nice things instead of being the little rough ones who’ve not got very much. I always want to better me family, so during the tough times, that’s the motivation to keep me going.

“There’s been times when I’ve been in debt, and when I’ve fought, I’ve still been in debt because I’ve paid back what I’ve borrowed and I’m still in the red. There have been times where I’ve had nothing, really nothing. I’ve depended on a fight, and it’s not happened. I’ve had to borrow from me dad, me brother, and I thank them all a lot because If it wasn’t for them – having a good strong family ‘round me, by me side – I wouldn’t imagine I could box, no matter how much I wanted to.”

Burton has seen the generosity of people as they have helped him through difficult periods, but he also encountered the darker side of human nature. As a traveller – and the first cousin of world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury – he has found himself prejudiced against in the past, due to misconceptions and stereotypes regarding his culture.

However, he has found that once people spend time with him and judge him as a person, rather than on preconceived beliefs, their attitudes change.

“People just get tarred with the same brush: ‘Oh yeah, gypo him, pikey this, traveller that, blah, blah, blah,’ load of rubbish. Now, a lot of people are starting to know me and once you get to know somebody you get to see the real side of them. Once they actually take the time to get to know you, I don’t think there are too many people that know me who don’t like me. Even if they don’t like me, they won’t have much bad to say about me, I wouldn’t imagine.”

Adversity has been overcome, Burton’s career is now on an upward trajectory, and he’s looking to take full advantage of the opportunities the British title. With his family as his main motivation, allied with his determination, he believes he’ll be a hard man to beat.

“Everything is just starting to come sunny for me now, because I’ve got the belt,” Burton proclaimed. “Anybody on my track, I can beat. People will want to fight me, and I’m thinking: ‘Happy days, it’s easy money,’ because people want to try and take my Belt and they definitely aren’t going to be able to take it off me because I’ve already beaten Miles, and Miles – in my opinion – is the best one.

“I believe as long as there is one man in front of you and it’s you versus him, I don’t believe he has as big a heart as me. He can’t do things that I can. I always think I can do more than the opponent. If I’m finding it hard, he’s finding it twice as hard. If I feel like giving up, he’s gonna give up any second. That’s how I think of it. I have a bigger heart and more willpower than any person I come up against.”