No half measures: Dec Spelman interview
Ahead of his English title defence against Shakan Pitters this weekend, light heavyweight Dec Spelman speaks to Garry White about looking forward while also honouring Scott Westgarth...
“If I carry on boxing I can’t do it half-heartedly. I’m in there to hurt somebody and they’re gonna hurt me. They are standing in the way of my future I suppose,” newly crowned English light heavyweight champion Dec Spelman tells Boxing Monthly.
“I have a little pep-talk to myself every time I go in the ring. It never changes. It always stays the same. It has to stay the same because if I change anything it will change me as a fighter and there’d be no point carrying on. I can’t have any second thoughts when I hit someone.”
Spelman is a tough barnstorming fighter of the old school, one who originally planned to pack his bags and follow the instant paydays of the journeyman route, before being convinced by trainer and manager Carl Greaves that he could be more than just an 'opponent'.
This necessitated a more patient career strategy, but one that delivered 11 straight wins - seven inside the distance - over three years. A February date last year with Scott Westgarth in an eliminator for the English title was meant to be the night that he was propelled from relative provincial obscurity onto a more national footing.
Entering as the pre-fight favourite, Spelman found himself on the canvass in the third round and behind as the fight entered the closing seconds of its final stanza. Defiantly Spelman dropped Westgarth and sent him tumbling through the ring ropes; ultimately only the final bell, in literal boxing parlance at least, ‘saved him.’
“You had a situation there where the man [Westgarth] was so tough and gritty. He wasn’t going anywhere,” recollects Spelman, on those last harum-scarum moments of a fight that has since unwantedly defined him.
“Then there was me in the opposite corner, who can hit like a sledgehammer, and I wasn’t going anywhere either. I’m very mentally tough and I wasn’t prepared to give any ground. You know, it was just one of those unfortunate situations.”
That mental toughness has served Spelman well in the days and months since. The initial disappointment of defeat very quickly giving way to something altogether more distressing as paramedics were called to Westgarth’s dressing room post-fight. Rushed to hospital to have a blood clot removed from his brain; he never recovered and succumbed to his injuries just hours after his hand had been raised in triumph.
Spelman, used to the minimal attention of small hall shows around his native Scunthorpe, suddenly found himself the subject of a media frenzy. “It was tough, very, very tough,” he recollects. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the 27-year-old gained deserved plaudits for the respectful way in which he conducted himself. He describes attending the funeral as “the hardest thing I have ever done”.
Yet in the months that have followed he has struck up a firm bond with Westgarth’s family, one that has culminated with Scott's brother, Adam, being in his corner for Spelman’s recent English title success, and the Westgarth family supporting him at ringside. He takes special pride in winning the belt that his fallen opponent had earlier won the right to compete for. “The fact that I’ve won it means he could have won it too,” he reflects.
“It’s another chapter in the story. It’s not finished yet, but his brother has said that it gives him that ‘bit of closure.’ That’s special to me. If I can just bring a little bit of that, then it makes me very, very happy; from something that was such a tragic thing.”
Spelman is clear that he initially had some understandable doubts about resuming his career: “It’s a hard one. Obviously, at times it was very hard. Being truthful it has been the worry about doing it again. I can talk about it much easier now due to the time that has gone by and stuff.
“But you think: ‘could it happen again?’ I just need to keep on fighting those demons. I’ve been doing pretty well so far. People say that you’ve more chance of winning the lottery. But what’s to say it couldn’t happen again? I’ve been there in that situation and I can feel how easy it can be done.”
The precariousness of life in the ring is something that has regrettably been brought into sharp focus again recently following the sad death of Russian super lightweight Maxim Dadashev and Argentinian lightweight Hugo Alfredo Santillan in the space of just three traumatic days. Spelman takes a moment to ponder the injudicious remarks frequently made by Deontay Wilder about wanting a 'body' on his record. “I know he’s trying to hype a fight, but it’s horrible,” he remarks.
“For someone like me that has been in those situations, I can only listen to that and think: ‘What an idiot.’ People’s families could be listening to that; imagine how it’s going to hurt them. I know he will never meet these people but it’s a horrible thing to say. There is a personal connection that goes way beyond selling a fight. He [Wilder] needs to sit back, have a look and think.”
A major step in getting Spelman’s career back on track was his appearance in Ultimate Boxxer II at The O2, last November. An eight boxer, three-round, knockout format that appeared particularly suited to the man with the self-styled nickname, ‘Kid Nytro’. “Going into it I made no secret of the fact that I wanted a shootout. And that’s exactly what I got,” he laughs.
By the time he faced eventual winner Shakan Pitters in the final, Spelman’s battle scars were all too apparent. “I had two cuts, a broken nose [courtesy of his semi-final opponent Joel McIntyre] – we had adrenaline pipes up there to stop the bleeding. Everything was going on backstage to get me ready. I had two ice packs as well to stop the swelling on my eyes.”
Spelman’s road to the final was not without drama. In his opening bout against Sam Horsfall, he ended proceedings via a very heavy knockout. For those in the audience aware of Spelman’s history, it was an uncomfortable minute or two as his beaten opponent lay prone on the canvass.
The 27-year-old confesses that he too had his concerns: “I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to having a bit of a worry, because of how long he was down and not moving. He was out cold. It was a scary moment standing there with Carl [Greaves]. I had a little word with myself in the corner.”
But Spelman is quick to point out that there was no lasting negative mental impact. “The second fight proves it didn’t affect me, I was straight back out there,” he confirms.
Spelman readily admits that Pitters was the better fighter and worthy winner on the night. His rangy and awkward opponent proving too much for the heavily patched up Scunthorpe man. However, he is confident that he would have the edge in any return fixture.
“You need a longer distance of 10 or 12 rounds to get to him. I was aggressive and heavy-handed, but I’ve got a lot more boxing brain than I showed there and that I have proved since. I do rate him, but I would really fancy fighting him again.”
Since Boxing Monthly caught up with Spelman, it has subsequently been announced that he will be making the first defence of his English title against the aforementioned Pitters on 14 September at York Hall. A belt that was won in convincing style via unanimous decision against Clapham’s Kirk Garvey in front of a packed home crowd at Scunthorpe’s Baths Hall, back in May.
A fight where for the first time Spelman felt that he was fully prepared to give himself the best chance of success, having opted to go part-time from his building job, to focus fully on training in the run-up to his title challenge. “I sacrificed a lot. I think that showed during and at the end of the fight. If that Dec Spelman gets in with Shakan Pitters, then it will be a very interesting night,” he says, confidently.
But above all else, he points to the ongoing support of trainer and manager Carl Greaves, both in and out of the ring. He describes him as “one of my best friends.” An already strong relationship that was permanently bonded following the tragic events of last year. “I still talk to him about it,” he recalls.
“I can ring him up or go around his house and talk to him about anything. When it comes to boxing he really knows what he’s on about. He’s been there, seen it and done it. He’s knocked people out and been knocked out, He’s been through hard times and knows how you feel at different times, I’m learning every day from one of the best.”
There is real honesty and integrity in the way that Spelman communicates. He is as straightforward and down-to-earth as his Scunthorpe home. Moments of seriousness – that his story is now forever compelled to throw up - are immediately cast adrift on a wave of laughter; often of the raucous variety.
He is respectful to his past but refuses to be held hostage to it. The memory of that February night is not carried as a millstone, but instead as an ongoing responsibility to create something positive.
He holds it with him every time that he enters the ring and there can be no doubt that he is committed to defending it with every sinew.