Following the footsteps of 'The Hitman'

John Evans
04/05/2015 1:58pm

Thursday 4th June will mark 10 years to the day since Ricky Hatton thrilled his Manchester fan club and announced himself to the world by bullying Kostya Tszyu into defeat to become the light-welterweight champion of the world. Hatton’s performance that night and his subsequent assaults on Las Vegas are still spoken about to this day, but we may be about to see some tangible evidence of his impact on Manchester fight scene.

Plenty of youngsters were drawn into the city’s gyms during the Hitman’s rise to prominence and three of those who showed the talent and dedication needed to become professional fighters are reaching critical points in their careers.

Ardwick-born, but Gorton-bred, ‘Ruthless’ Ryan Doyle’s route into professional boxing would be a familiar one were it not for one significant detour.

“I was very young when I started boxing. My dad took me down to a gym in Ardwick Doyle, 10-1 (6 KOs), told Boxing Monthly. “I had a very brief spell though. I didn’t really like it! I started properly when I was about 15 or 16.

“I was messing about and fighting in school and just being a bit of a toe-rag to be fair. I turned that aggression into something else and I’ve never looked back. I started my boxing career with Sean Krool [the South African born trainer who resides in Manchester. More of whom later]. He took me over to South Africa for eight weeks. That’s where I learned my trade.

“I stayed with Sean’s family and I was training twice a day like a pro. I’d only just turned 18 and was ready to go professional. South Africa opened my eyes to just how hard the training is and I realised I needed a bit more time to adjust and let my body grow.

“I was in Johannesburg at Nick Durandt’s. When I was there they had about three champions and around ten fighters ranked in the top ten with the governing bodies. It was a tough gym and they were very well-schooled.” 

Sharing a Johannesburg sweatshop with a host of world class talent made a lasting impression on the 23-year-old featherweight. There is still plenty of the Manchester toe-rag about his hard-punching, come forward style but he manages to combine it with some slick switch-hitting and plenty of head movement. When he is in full flow, it is an impressive sight.

“I’m a come forward pressure fighter but I switch stance a lot. I’m aggressive, I come forward and I move my head a lot. A lot of people have said I don’t box like the typical British fighter. I’m different to everybody else. A lot of people have said I look more American or Mexican.

“I’ve found that most of the people I’ve knocked out, it hasn’t happened from looking for the knockout. It’s been down to being sharp. It’s been a sharp shot and they’ve not expected it.”

From one tough school to another and Doyle decided to base himself at the legendary Champs Camp in inner city Moss Side, now under the watchful eye of Ensley ‘Bingo’ Bingham. He could never be accused of taking the path of least resistance. Hand injuries and a shock, injury ravaged 10-round defeat to late notice substitute Ian Bailey have slowed his progress slightly but the defeat made Doyle reassess his career. He came to the conclusion that he would benefit from a change of routine and has since relocated to the same back room at the Betta Bodies gym in Denton where Hatton honed his skills. Now training under Bobby Rimmer at the rebranded Bobby Rimmer Boxing Academy, Doyle is determined to get back on track.

“I had ten fights out of the Champs Camp. The training, the fighting. I’ve had it the hard way if anything!” he said. “People can reel off 101 excuses but I take my hat off to Ian Bailey. He came in a short notice, I was the favourite and he got the win. There’s no point in making excuses for it. I broke my hand in the third round – it sounds daft but I said in the corner that it felt like my hand was in sand - I couldn’t move it. I perforated my ear drum in round four and it felt like I was swaying on a boat and then I got a cut in round five. To be honest, I’m surprised I got as far as I did! I felt terrible from round four.

“I’m a ten times better fighter now than I was that night. I had that defeat and it opened my eyes a bit. Ricky Hatton won his world title from this gym, This is where he trained for the Kostya Tszyu fight. It’s great. I’m training under Bobby Rimmer now and I train alongside Brian Rose. We have a good time in the gym and things are good.”

Walk down the stairs of the Betta Bodies gym and out into the – probably damp – Manchester air, take three right turns and 30 seconds later you will come to an inconspicuous grey door. Push the door open, climb the stairs and you will likely find 7-0 (0 KOs) super-featherweight prospect Alex Rutter working away in the SR Elite Performance Centre. In a perfect example of the intertwining threads of the Manchester boxing fabric, having himself started his professional career at Rimmer’s Academy, Middleton-born Rutter made that very same journey and hooked up with Krool last year.

“I started out at Boarshaw ABC in Middleton,” the 22-year-old said. “I started training with Bobby Rimmer and turned over. Keiran Farrell [the former Central Area lightweight champion] was at the same amateur gym as me and said I should go down. It was around the time when Brian Rose fought Prince Arron for the British title. It was a big fight to be around for my first time in a pro gym.”

Rutter’s most recent performance was a microcosm of his career to date. He chose to exchange punches during the first couple of rounds before adapting, finding his range and dominating the rest of the fight to ease to a six-round decision. Rutter was an impressionable 12-year-old when Hatton reached the peak of his powers. Maybe the fighters he idolised as a youngster heavily influenced Rutter’s early fighting style but Krool has concentrated on getting Rutter to utilise his physical advantages and skill.

“Ricky Hatton and Jamie Moore were my idols when I was growing up. I used to go and watch them and that’s what got me into boxing really,” he said. “I’ve had two fights with Sean. Before I came to him I was just walking forward – it was my fault, too, because I was being lazy – and trying to break people down. I’m a six foot featherweight so that’s not gonna work is it? Sean wanted me to use my skills. At first it was hard but I think we’re clicking now. It’s working in sparring and I’m getting hit a lot less.  A lot less black eyes anyway. I used to be walking around with one constantly!

“I feel a lot physically stronger. I feel I can soak up a lot more shots on the gloves and arms. I used to ache after sparring but now doing all the strength workouts I never get achey after sparring. I think he’s a great trainer.”

I put it to Rutter that although he has yet to score a knockout, he has the type of frame that has lent itself to some devastating punchers over the years. “I’m long and thin and I’ve always said that to people that they see a short, stocky guy and think he must be a big puncher but I find it’s the long range fighters who hit hard because they have a lot more range,” he agreed.

Having spent so many years honing his skills, Rutter has decided that he owes it to himself to see exactly how far he can go. He has got this far campaigning as a part-time fighter but is determined to find out just what he is capable of. 

“I’ve been a pro for two-and-a-half years and it’s been slow because I work in a plumber’s merchants. Over the summer though, I’m gonna quit work and go for it. I’ve been saying to my dad that when I get older I don’t want to be thinking about what I could have done if I’d quit work. I’m just gonna go for it.”

Leave Middleton town centre and follow Rochdale Road for a couple of miles and you will arrive in Harpurhey, home of unbeaten super-featherweight Zelfa Barrett, 4-0 (1 KO). The Harpurhey I know isn’t the cartoonish world portrayed in the BBC documentary “The Only Way is Harpurhey” but a tough area where it would be easy to drift off the rails or fall into a routine of endless days spent in prehistoric comic Bernard Manning’s Embassy Club. The late comedian’s bar is located right in the centre of the community.

The 21-year-old Barrett has been making the daily trip to the famous Collyhurst and Moston Lads club since he was a schoolboy. Barrett was pitched into a gym with some seriously tough men and an even harder taskmaster; his uncle and former British and European light-welterweight champion, Pat. Former British welterweight champion and gym mate Michael Jennings testified to his determination during a recent conversation when he told me, “You could always see that Zelfa was talented, but he’s tough, too.”

“I was an active kid. Mondays I’d be at football training, Tuesdays at boxing. Every day of the week I’d be doing something but boxing was a choice,” Barrett told BM. “At first I was at a gym in Ancoats but when I started boxing properly I went to Collyhurst with Brian Hughes and my uncle, Pat.

“Brian would take me in the ring with Scott Quigg or Rhys Roberts and my uncle would watch me on the bags so I got the experience of both. I was in the gym with Matty Hall, Mike Jennings, Quigg, Roberts, Matty Askin. I came through in that era.”

He may have been learning to fight during Hatton’s pomp, but you only have to see the tall, slick Barrett box to realise that he wasn’t spending his time in the gym vaulting the bar and banging the body belt in tribute to the Hitman. ‘The Brown Flash’ raised himself on a steady diet of the classics.

“Sugar Ray Leonard was my man! From young I was watching people like him. I wasn’t a Hatton fan,” he said. “Back around the 1990s when Roy Jones Jr was on fire, that’s who I was watching. I had a chipped NTL box with all the channels and my mum would late me stay up late to watch all the fights!

“Roy was one of the best boxers ever. His flair and flamboyance was unbelievable. He used to bring entertainment to the ring. Everything about him was spectacular and about showmanship. I know every single one of Roy Jones’ fights.”

So far, Barrett has had a feel of Jones’ flamboyant lifestyle by making an appearance in local grime artist Bugzy Malone’s latest music video but has also had a true taste of the small hall. His last opponent, Jamie Quinn, literally put down a helping of Spaghetti Bolognese and accepted a call to fight 90 minutes before the first bell after his original opponent turned up with a cold sore.

“I got told I wasn’t fighting and my motivation slipped. All that training and hard graft for nothing. They told me it was back on and I was happy but my body wasn’t there. I was on a come down. It was weird,” said Barrett. “The nerves had most definitely gone. I’m a professional though and I had to get the job done. Some fighters would have spat their dummy out and tried all out to knock him out or shied away. I got it done and, bang, onto the next one. 

“The aim is to keep winning, don’t lose – nah, I won’t lose anyway – and whatever comes, comes. Keep winning, that’s the game. I’m a diamond in the dirt. If I’m winning, they can’t stop me.”

With all three fighters honing their skills within 4lbs on the scales and a 10 mile radius, it is almost inevitable that their paths should cross. Doyle, Rutter and Barrett all know each other well and there have already been plenty of rounds of sparring between the trio.

Maybe those sparring sessions will provide them with useful information for a thrilling series of future fights or maybe, just maybe, one of them will go on to provide Manchester with it’s next huge night.