'I’ll never close the door': Sanjeev Singh Sahota interview
There are question marks over the boxing future of undefeated super lightweight Sanjeev Singh Sahota, but as Oliver McManus discovers, the Essex-born pugilist's heart and determination can never be doubted...
Sanjeev Singh Sahota was raring to go for his first fight in over a year. A date was set, Saturday 18 May, an opponent was found (though he later withdrew) and the wheels were firmly in motion.
However an ongoing medical issue, for which Sahota is currently receiving professional advice, halted his comeback bout and has left the 11-0 prospect in the mire - unsure of whether he’ll fight again.
As a consequence there was an understandably sombre tone to our interview but Sahota, trained by Lenny Butcher, wants his story to be told.
It all started back in 2005 when, having moved to Spain with his family, the then 14-year-old became gripped with TV series 'The Contender'.
“I was born in the UK to Indian heritage but I moved out to Spain and just got obsessed with the first series. I liked the stories behind the fighters on that series and it was the first time I really watched boxing and began to understand it. I didn’t have many friends at first because I was new to the country but I went down the gym and loved it. That was about 14 years ago, now.”
From watching the likes of Ishe Smith and Peter Manfredo - Sahota’s personal favourite ‘contender’ - he began to develop an obsessive love for the sport, to the extent that he would regularly travel 400km from his home in Murcia to fight in Madrid.
“The amateur set-up in Britain is a lot more developed and advanced than in Spain. When I started off there weren’t actually that many bouts taking place whilst they’re pretty much every week in the UK.
"I had to box in Madrid because it was the centre of the country and you’d get more fights presented to you. For my first fight I was entered into a tournament and I didn’t really know if I was going to be any good but I ended up coming away with the gold medal!”
Despite finding success at the very first opportunity, Sahota told me he still remained unsure of his ability in the ring.
Even now, he says, he doesn’t like to rest on his laurels or heap praise on himself.
“I still look at myself and think ‘ah I could do this better’ and that’s the truth of it; I never like to say I’m good at anything because I’d much rather keep working hard and try to be even better. I don’t think I ever will say ‘yeah, do you know what, I’m actually quite good.’"
Nonetheless the Madrid youth champion continued to find his rhythm during his unpaid apprenticeship. Just over a decade after picking up the gloves, he signed a professional contract with Frank Warren and debuted on 30 April 2016 with a 60-second destruction of Nikita Gultjajevs.
“He wasn’t the toughest opponent but the occasion made it a lot harder than most people will realise. It was my professional debut but on top of that it was my first fight back in the UK; I was on TV, the lights were blindingly bright, promoted by Hall of Famer Frank Warren, everything about it was incredible.
"And then it was all over in about 60 seconds! It didn’t last very long at all and I had prepared myself to experience those four rounds and soak up the atmosphere. I’d had such a long training camp for that fight - pretty much since October - because at first I was debuting in January, then March, then 30 April. I was a bit gutted it ended so quickly because I didn’t even have to time to even come to terms with the occasion!”
The super lightweight’s next fight managed to go the distance, with Silvije Kebet extending him to four rounds, although Sahota was barely pushed him out of cruise control. With just those two fights to his name, Sahota found himself quickly thrust into the spotlight; Vijender Singh was headlining in India, needed a support act and up stepped 'SSS'.
“That was a big step up for a third professional fight, I’ve got that heritage from India and it was always on the bucket list to actually have a fight there. Going into that I was an underdog, believe it or not, against the local boy Vikas Kumar. All the fans, thousands of them, were going crazy for Vikas at the start and I just thought ‘what the bloody hell am I doing?’. That’s one of those experiences that scar you for life but in a good way and I’d never have experienced anything like that if it weren’t for boxing.”
Such experiences were made all the better by those who he shared them with: a team led by Lenny Butcher that Sahota insisted I call ‘family’ not merely ‘coaches’.
“Lenny Butcher is obviously the main guy but I’ve got a nutritionist, strength and conditioning coach, sports therapy, there’s so many names to mention but I know I’ll forget one. They’ve helped me become the man I am today, Lenny’s taught me pretty much everything I know about boxing but that support means something completely different when you’re in a tricky situation like this. You know they’ve got your best interests at heart and it means the world, it honestly means the world.”
For all that the 28-year-old has been through in boxing you’d have to pinch yourself into believing he’s only been professional for a little over three years; the last 12 months of which have been blighted by an absence from the ring. A slot on the undercard of Liam Walsh’s world title challenge against Floyd Mayweather’s protege Gervonta Davis, stands out vividly for Sahota but his contests with Idris Hill and Kane Baker will likely be more memorable to spectators.
“Yes, yes, I knew they were going to be tough challenges at the time,” he explained to me, with a giddy giggle beforehand. "They’re good sportsmen. That’s what makes boxing unique, I’d never met Idris or Kane before but after punching each other we now have a reasonable relationship - I’ll still speak to both guys, we show support for each other and have helped each other for camps.
"At the time I had no idea how good the fights were looking, though, first I knew about it was the crowd’s reaction [after his fight with Hill, a recent Southern Area challenger] but that was an absolute tear-up, wasn’t it? That showed me, even though I suffered a cut, I would never give up; I’ve got heart and that often outdoes pure talent. You’ve got to have heart, it’s got to mean something to you, and you’d have to knock me clean out for me not to get back up.”
The thing with Sahota, still under contract to Frank Warren, is that he’s perhaps not generous enough in his self-praise. He’s got heart, absolutely, but he’s also got raw talent - combine those qualities and you have a firm fan favourite. Indeed, ever since his debut, ticket sales have always been relatively easy although it’s something he doesn’t take for granted.
“People will often say tickets are the harshest part of boxing because if you can’t sell any you’re very unlikely to get many opportunities. I’ve only had eleven fights but I’ve felt like a world champion in every fight because of my fans, they’ve been so good for me.
"In my fourth fight, against Fonz Alexander, I got caught with a good shot in the first round and I went down. It was just a mistake, really, so I was always getting up. I could have shied away or beat myself up about it but I could hear my fans, genuinely, and they forced me to push on and just put it to one side.”
Throughout our conversation we don't dwell on the elephant in the room because, such is the nature of Sahota’s medical issue, there is no certainty: for good or for bad.
The word “retirement” was one neither of us were willing to mention but, I ventured, if we have seen the last of the likeable super-lightweight, what would he take away from all his years in the sport?
“It’s been my life since I was 14, Ollie, boxing is my breakfast! I’ve met some incredible people, honest people, who have gone out of their way to help me achieve my dream. It’s made me want to help other people, if I can inspire even one person then that’ll make me feel as though it was worth something. Boxing has taught me values for life, that don’t just apply to boxing, if you know what I mean?
"It has educated me on being a man and that takes far more than punching people in the face, trust me on that, I cannot say his name enough but Lenny Butcher needs as much praise possible for what he’s done with me. At the end of the day, I know I’ve got to have a Plan B, though, I’ve got to pay bills just like anyone else.”
Heavy sighs of frustration were commonplace by now and understandably so. To have dedicated your life, from adolescence, in the pursuit of becoming world champion and have it seemingly ripped away due to happenings out of your control, well, it’s the cruelest circumstances imaginable.
Sahota is indebted to the sport of boxing for sculpting him into who he is today, but we’ve got to be incredibly thankful for his irrepressible passion for boxing. Already he’s inspired people across the world, quite literally, in Spain, India and the United Kingdom and it’s not going to stop just because of this setback.
We need more gentlemen like Sanjeev Sahota in the sport - emphasis on the word 'gentleman', by the way. He’ll be back, God willing, but his impact as a person and a boxer is already undeniable.
The final word, then, on what’s next for the Hornchurch fighter...
“You can never say what’s going to happen in the future, especially with your health," he said. "You’d much rather be safe than sorry because no-one’s going to love you if you’re dead, are they? I know it’s a cliche but you don’t play boxing, you really don’t, it’s a tough game and there are obvious risks involved.
"I’ve got my whole life ahead of me, and I want to keep it that way, so I don’t need to rush into anything or tie myself down to the first thing that comes along. I’ve had the blessing to be part of the sport and see the good it can do.
"I was meant to be back fighting on 18 May so I don’t want to give up all hope that I might return but I don’t want to give false hope to anyone either. It’s out of my hands and I can’t predict what is going to happen but I’ll tell you this; boxing is in my blood, I’ll always be somewhere near a gym, I’ll never close the door on it.”