Fans who follow boxing solely through TV coverage could be forgiven for thinking that every show takes place in an arena, there is always a title on the line and every punch, cut and scoring controversy is captured for posterity on stunning HD.
However, the majority of professional boxers toil away on small-hall shows away from the glitz and glamour of big-time boxing. Many of these off-TV boxers enter the profession thinking they will one day hold title belts aloft —regional, British and, in their wildest dreams, world — only to end up casting envious glances at the medal-laden amateurs who turn over with a lot of fanfare.
Commonwealth super middleweight titleholder Luke Blackledge (21-2-2, 7 KOs) is one such fighter. The 25-year-old from Clitheroe turned pro with a fifth-round TKO win over Stewart Tordoff at Wigan’s Robin Park Centre in 2010 and seemed destined to remain on small-hall shows despite useful victories over Phill Fury and a faded Matthew Barney (W6, twice, in 2011 and 2013 respectively).
One fight changed all that — when he was offered up as a sacrificial lamb for former European champion Mads Larsen in June 2012. Blackledge was 9-0 to Larsen’s 51-3, yet he packed his bags, headed to Denmark and upset the odds by stopping the home fighter in four rounds.
“I had a lot of doubts about taking it,” Blackledge told Boxing Monthly “Obviously they were using me to go over there and get beat. I wasn’t getting the fights I wanted at the time, so I took it and felt confident, even though [Larsen] saw me as a warm-up for a bigger fight.
“Even though I stopped him in the fourth, they were giving him everything up to that point. There was a lot of shit going on, but I went over there and got the win. Then I travelled to Denmark and lost a decision to [rising prospect] Erik Skoglund. I thought I beat him as well but they ripped me off.”
When Blackledge turned pro, few would have thought that he would end up talking about a loss to a prospect such as Skoglund with a keen sense of disappointment. “I was bored as a kid, so I was fighting on the street as I didn’t have any goals,” he said.
“I got into trouble, went to jail a few times for fighting, then came out. Then I went to the boxing gym and haven’t been in trouble since, over 10 years now. I see it as a career now, despite [originally] going into the gym just to keep off the streets. I’ve had title fights and travelled the world sparring.”
Robbed of a paternal influence after his father died when Blackledge was a young boy, he struggled during his teenage years.
“I didn’t have a dad when I was young,” Blackledge said. “He passed away when I was little. It was hard on my mum. My mum was upset about the way I was going. I was mating around with the wrong people.”
The “young man saved by boxing” cliché is just that, old enough to be hackneyed but with enough truth to be respected and held up as a saving grace of a sport that is often under siege.
“I had 45 convictions for fighting and doing daft stuff,” Blackledge recalled. “I’ve not had a single one since I started boxing.
“Jail is not nice. You get a lot of time to think in there and learn how not to go about things, but when you’re trapped in that cycle it’s easy to go back. You go to jail, get out, do the same shit and go back in there. I didn’t want that any more so I found something I’m good at.”
Blackledge learned his trade in the gyms, gaining experience by sparring with the likes of Carl Froch, Tony Bellew, Martin Murray and Arthur Abraham, as well frequently flying over to Denmark and Spain to spar with and learn from the best.
“They’ve all fought top, top people so they’ve got experience, the type of experience I haven’t got yet because I’ve not been at world level,” he said.
Still, Blackledge is well aware that some fighters fall into a “sparring partner” mentality due to too many rounds on the road.
“Sparring is sparring,” he said. “I do it for the experience, not the money. But you don’t want to do too much of it — that’s no good.
“For example, I got an offer to spar Skoglund. They offered a lot of money, but I turned it down as I had my own Commonwealth title fight [see sidebar], which is more important. I know what’s best for me and my career.
“I don’t think I’d ever fall into just being a sparring partner, but people actually do that, don’t they? I think it’s just down to people going into journeyman mode after doing a lot of sparring for money, then they go into real fights as journeymen.”
Blackledge had a huge setback when losing to then-Commonwealth champion Rocky Fielding in a single round in 2013. However, opportunity knocked again when he fought Liam Cameron for the same title last year — a decision win.
“Liam came out afterwards and said he expected a walk in the park, but I absolutely battered him,” Blackledge said of his biggest night thus far. “I made him look ordinary. We had a good game plan for that fight, and I stopped him from doing what he does. Before that, he’d made Tobias Webb look daft by boxing his head off.”
Blackledge has secured a TV deal with BoxNation, which he admits is not something he had envisioned after zero amateur experience and over 50 fights on the unlicensed scene.
“Turning pro is all about selling tickets,” he said. “[Promoter] Steve [Wood] took me on, but was umming and ahhing about it.
“When I signed with Steve, there were four other lads signing for him. I was the quiet one. The others were talking about being champions already. I said nothing, but got to fight for the Central Area title, then the WBC International [Silver] and then the Commonwealth.”
Since winning the Commonwealth belt, Blackledge has beaten Lee Markham (W12) and Ishmael Tetteh (KO 5). He puts his recent form down to a solid grounding earlier in his career as well as recent improvements under trainer Alex Matvienko.
“I’ve had those tough fights, so it means I’m going in there and smashing people now — look at my last two fights,” he said.
“Lee Markham was in form — he’d just beat Frank Buglioni, even though they gave it a draw — and I beat him despite some injuries going in. I’ve always been the underdog. Now it’s nice to get fights where I can prepare properly, do a full camp and do a number on people like [Markham] and Tetteh.
“I’ve only been with Matt [Matvienko] for a couple of fights, so we went back to scratch, working on the basics like balance and movement. I feel like I’m improving loads and learning. Matt’s good for me, and I’m good for him. “Obviously, I want big fights to show just how much I’ve improved. You can’t look that good against journeymen, as they come to survive. But now I’m at the level I’m at, I want the big fights so I can show what I can do.”