'I’m only here for the journeymen': Curtis Gargano interview

Garry White
20/08/2019 11:30am

Photo: Curtis Gargano with Carl Greaves

Curtis Gargano may have departed pro boxing with a winless record, but there is much to admire in his career and mindset. Garry White speaks to the 35-year-old who is now training his own stable of journeymen...

Curtis Gargano answers the phone in a tidal wave of energy. His voice bounds out like an eager puppy armed with a chainsaw. Within seconds he is telling me about his Hot Yoga routine. “It’s great, the best thing I’ve ever done. You just sweat away all the anxiety and stress.”

When I tell him about my bad back he goes into overdrive on the virtues of his new regime. “It’s awesome,” he reminds me in accelerated tones. You get the feeling with Gargano that - like the catchy theme tune to ‘The Lego Movie’ - ‘Everything Is Awesome’ all of the time, even on the tough days when it probably isn’t.

His booming, slightly high-pitched Mancunian voice, soon becomes infectious.

Gargano knocks you out with warmth and enthusiasm in a way that he never did his opponents in the ring. But it provides a window into why he was the recipient of so much affection throughout a 52-fight professional career.

With his nickname of ‘The Entertainer’ he brought his own blend of stoic razzmatazz to small hall shows up and down the land; once to Denmark and even graced a world championship night at the Manchester Arena. From the comfort of his car - parked up outside the gym-  he discloses to Boxing Monthly, that ‘The Entertainer’ persona was originally invented to wrong-foot the British Boxing Board.

“They had me on my toes,” Gargano recalls. “They were telling me that I wasn’t trying hard enough, that I wasn’t throwing any punches or entertaining the crowd. They were considering taking my licence off me. So, I thought, right, that’s what I need to start doing. I did it and the crowd loved it!”

From Edinburgh to Bournemouth and every place in-between Gargano brought every last drop of his charisma to the centre of the ring. A fighting shtick that punctuated solid gloves-up defence with teasing Ray Leonard arm swings, Ali’s famous shuffle and - on rare sublime occasions - Chunk’s patented truffle shuffle from The Goonies.

Anyone able to find their way through Gargano’s gloves and locate his head, would eventually be met with a leering smile and a stuck-out tongue.

It was hard to see how the crowd couldn’t warm to his antics, but the 35-year-old reveals that it wasn’t all just for laughs. “If the other guy was coming on strong I’d do it to frustrate him,” he remembers.

“It would change their mind-set. ‘Look at that cocky idiot,’ they’d think. They would then start throwing big swings that I could see coming from miles away. It would mess up their game plan.”

In a career that lasted a little under five years, and didn’t commence until he was 30, Gargano failed to win on 51 occasions. If it wasn’t for the presence of a draw in his debut appearance, he would have exited the sport with a perfect losing record. It may then have been tempting to think of him as the reverse Floyd Mayweather, or with a cheeky nod to his Greater Manchester home: The Middleton Mayweather.

Perhaps, for Gargano, his entry into professional boxing was an inevitability. His late father Des fought 123 times in the 80s and 90s against the likes of Spencer Oliver, Paul Ingle, Richie Wenton, Carl Greaves and, most famously, ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed.

Gargano Sr was a fighter for whom the term ‘journeyman’ was woefully insufficient and ‘tradesman’ more appropriate. Operating predominantly at bantamweight he chalked up 33 victories and a couple of draws, always on the road.

“I was always in the gym growing up,” the younger Gargano, recalls. “When I was young we couldn’t afford baby sitters and stuff, so we’d be in the gym every night after school, with my dad. I’d hang around all the old school gyms around Manchester. The real ‘Rocky’ type places. It was like a family.”

As a 15-year-old Gargano recollects accompanying his father to the weigh-in for Hamed’s defence of his WBO featherweight title against Paul Ingle, due to be staged at the MEN Arena. “My dad had boxed both, so it was a real thing to go to. Thomas Hearns was on the bill as well,” he reminisces.

“Prince Naseem saw us and came over to my dad and said: ‘There’s two free tickets for you and your son for tomorrows show.’ We went along, but we were so skint back then that we couldn’t even afford a drink. But it was a great memory!”

There was a time when Gargano had dreams of one day becoming a world champion. “Between 12 and 14 I was doing good and winning all the time,” he remembers. “I beat some good kids and won the schoolboys.”

But with his mother and father splitting up when he was 15, he drifted away from the sport. A brief comeback at 18 led to four KO successes in five amateur outings, before he took his leave from boxing again.

Only when he was 30, with a family and an achingly empty wallet, did boxing lure him back out of financial necessity.

“I had to find a way to put food on the table,” he says honestly. “I didn’t do well at school and boxing is the best thing that I can do. You know, I really didn’t think I could do it. I remember my dad always in bed with broken ribs. I used to think then: ‘Why does he lose all the time?’ But when I got older I understood it was to put food on the table. That’s something I admire about him.

“Now I have ended up doing the same thing as him and walking in his shoes. I have carried his name on and proved to myself that I could do it. I couldn’t be walking out of the house with no money and seeing my family struggle.”

A call to his dad’s old opponent, and now successful trainer / manager Carl Greaves, got Gargano started down the tough but ready money route of the journeyman. A career that ultimately saw him face down 19 unbeaten prospects and 14 promising debutants among his 52 appearances. Early on he trained himself before tying up with veteran trainer Joe Pennington and as he says, “taking things more seriously.”

Gargano has relished the life of the journeyman. He tells BM “I loved it. It was great going up and down the country. I never let promoters down. I was always there.” He then takes a moment before adding: “But it was gruelling. I had to put a lot of work into it. Life on the road isn’t for everyone. Mentally it isn’t easy sometimes and you do hit the odd downer. It takes a special person to do it. There aren’t enough of them in this country anymore.”

He has special memories of York Hall, where he fought eight times, despite its lack of proximity to his Lancashire home. “We always went down to London on the train for those fights. We’d get an early one, go for the weigh-in, get some food and be on at 5 or 6pm. We’d then get the last train back to Manchester.

“It was an easy day and I’d come back with a few quid,” he laughs.

Like every fighter that ever plied their trade on the road he feels that he rarely, if ever, got the rub of the green from referees. “I definitely won six or seven fights, no doubt. But they didn’t give me any decisions because of my record,” he says. “But I never really came into this game to win fights. I knew what I was doing. I wanted to be a top journeyman and fight every week.”

And there perhaps is the greatest disconnect between the outside world of the casual boxing fan, who would take a solitary look at Gargano’s winless record and immediately defame him as a 'bum'.

They would struggle to comprehend Gargano’s obvious pride in his career and the honour with which he wears the ‘journeyman’ tag. A respect that is mirrored throughout boxing’s inside track and even led to Steve Bunce giving him a fond retirement farewell on his BoxNation show.

But amongst all of the regular small hall shows the one big ticket standout is his Manchester Arena appearance against a then 3-0 Anthony Yarde. Despite the satisfaction of appearing at the cavernous venue where he had previously sat at ringside as a schoolboy and watched Naseem Hamed, he is still disappointed by his performance [a 1st round stoppage defeat] on what was the biggest night of his career.

“I was mentally done in. The sheer size of him. I thought, ‘I’m not going through that.’ I wasn’t switched on for it,” he reflects.

“I wish I had been. If the fight had been the week before it would have been a different story. No disrespect to Yarde, but I think I could have gone the distance with him. But it was my fourth fight in as many weeks. I was just done.”

Such regular activity was a routine aspect of Gargano’s career. In 2017, for example, he fought 20 times. He declares a preference for always having a list of fights lined up in the diary. A strategy that he reveals would enable him to dig deep when under pressure in order to avoid the board’s mandatory 28-day suspension. “If someone’s coming on strong I’d think I’m fighting next week, I’m not giving up.”

Gargano provides a tantalising insight into the mind and the drive of the journeyman. “It’s all mental this game. That’s why so many journeymen struggle around Christmas or the end of July. The season ends in August and there isn’t much on in January. They start to think: “I’m not fighting for a while now.’ Then you start to see a lot of them get stopped. The mind just isn’t there.”

Nevertheless, Gargano has often taken fights at extremely short notice. The shortest of which was a 2016 match-up with current English middleweight champion Jack Cullen, then stepping out for his professional debut. “I had just come back from a two week all-inclusive holiday,” he recalls.

“I had been out of the gym for a month. I had got back on the Friday night and the Saturday morning I got a call asking if I could fight that night. I didn’t really want to fight, but I didn’t want to let the promoters down. I picked up my kit and was straight out of the door.”

"I had been 12’ 10 for my last fight and coming back from holiday I was 14 stone. I went the distance with him. He had to give away a bit of weight. But it was only fat. Nothing useful.

“I loved the short notice ones though. You got much better money!”

The actual fighting is now all back in the past. Gargano called it a day last June after suffering three stoppage losses in his last six appearances – almost as many as he had faced throughout the rest of his career.

“My elbows went from taking all those big shots on them,” he discloses. "The last few fights I was finding that when I was hit in the elbows my wrist would go lose, so I couldn’t protect myself or even throw a punch. My arms still hurt now. I wanted to carry on but I just couldn’t go on with that.

“The buzz went as well to be honest,” he concedes. “Training every day, struggling with weight and having to take stones off. I was taking loads off each week then putting it back on again. I’m a middleweight really, but I always struggled to make weight. At 5”8 I was small at light-heavy. My age and weight were always against me in the pros."

Now Gargano’s focus is on coaching and management. He has already put together a small stable and is determined to see it grow. His emphasis is on creating the next generation of journeyman but reveals that he has had numerous young ‘prospects’ come to him.

“I send them to Joe Pennington,” he says. “That isn’t the route I want to go down. It’s a lot of stress. I’m only here for the journeymen.”

With his undoubted charisma and focus on providing opponents, BM asks if Gargano, could see himself as a latter day Nobby Nobbs. “I’d love that,” he immediately confirms. “Definitely. Nobby was class! I used to go to his shows as a kid and Nobby was always there with about ten fighters. Some of them were shocking but they always did the job.

“One day I’d love to fill a card with all my journeymen.”