The 12 days of BM Christmas: Odyssey around boxing - Stefy Bull interview
As we celebrate the 12 days of Christmas we will be bringing you 12 of the best pieces of writing from Boxing Monthly magazine over the last 12 months. On the tenth day of Christmas we bring to you... James Oddy's interview with Stefy Bull from our October issue...
Boxing requires a level of devotion that can be hard to understand to an outsider. It’s therefore unsurprising that so many former fighters stay involved. Many go into coaching and providing advice in corners. Some take on the role of manager. A few give promoting a try.
It’s rare for an ex-fighter to attempt all of the above, yet, in Stefy Bull’s case he’s done just that. But then perhaps it’s not so surprising, considering boxing was almost love at first sight for the South Yorkshireman, as he told Boxing Monthly via telephone.
“I was 11 years old, from a small mining village in Doncaster Borough called Denaby Main,” Bull said. “Jon Jo Irwin, who trained at the local amateur club, had just won the Commonwealth gold medal in 1990. He was a bit of a hero. I can remember staying up watching him in Auckland. I was inspired by that. Seeing him running around in the village, I thought: ‘I wouldn’t mind giving it a go.’ I went with a few friends from school; I got a busted nose. I got the bug.
“I was very self-motivated. I stayed boxing. I never had any time out. I had 44 amateur fights, winning 32, boxed for Young England once, got to the semi-finals and finals of national championships. I beat Jason Booth. I lost to Esham Pickering on points. I mixed in some good company as a junior.”
Although Bull had served an apprenticeship in the amateurs, he still turned pro at a startlingly young age.
“I turned pro at 17,” he said. “When I look back, I was just a baby. I wasn’t the brightest kid at school. I didn’t want to do anything other than box. I fought four weeks after my 18th birthday, on Sky Sports, on the undercard of a Jon Jo Irwin fight.”
In his view, a boxer’s life when Bull turned pro in 1995 was a long way from what it is today.
“One thing I ain’t, with boxing, is deluded,” he said. “I knew my level. When I was a young fighter, there was no social media, mobiles, texting, looking on the internet about who you’re fighting.
“I was travelling up and down the country. I didn’t know anything about who I was boxing. You didn’t have to sell tickets. You were on a purse, which wasn’t great - but you were guaranteed your money. I boxed because I loved boxing.”
That love of boxing and a willingness to take on challenges paid off early in Bull’s career. Already Central Area champion at featherweight, he found himself in a unique situation after only 11 fights.
“When I was 18 and I fought Dean Pithie, that was a 24-hour-notice type thing,” he said. “I got ringside tickets, which I paid a couple of hundred quid for, to see Irwin fight, and then I got the call the day before to fight Dean Pithie. I was a teenager, fighting the last person to beat Naseem Hamed [as an amateur]. Can you tell me how many teenagers would go do that now? To have an opportunity to fight on Sky Sports, it was unbelievable. I went right to 11 rounds [Bull was stopped in the 11th]. I broke both my hands in that fight.
“It was just the absolute buzz. It was like a Rocky fight, the crowd cheering me on. I hadn’t had a training camp. It was just the pure love of boxing that kept me going.”
Bull lost two of his next three bouts then took a four-year break from boxing. He returned older and wiser to win another Central Area title, this time at lightweight. A run of 13 wins in a row included a points victory over Gwyn Wale, a relative of the fighter Bull guided to the British bantamweight title, Josh Wale.
“It’s crazy considering the relationship I have with the Wale family now,” he said. “Gwyn’s from Brampton, a couple of villages away. I was the good guy, he kinda played the bad guy.
“Gwyn was a good fighter, an England international as a junior. We sold the Doncaster Dome out. Everyone in our area came to watch that fight. I fought my heart out, as he did. I edged it on points. I was proud because it was a really big occasion.”
Two years later, Bull went in with future world champion Amir Khan. The bout was on the same show as the Joe Calzaghe vs Peter Manfredo Jr fight in Cardiff in April 2007. Bull had planned to attend the show as a spectator. Instead he found himself meeting the highest- profile boxer he had faced in his 15-year career. He lost in the third round.
“I only had three weeks’ notice for that fight,” he said. “I hadn’t been in the gym. I was getting married. I was a massive Calzaghe fan and I’d paid for floor seats. Then John Rushton, my manager, said: ‘We’ve got the fight we’ve always wanted: Amir Khan.’ I didn’t even ask how much money it was. I got my sweat gear on and went straight out running.
“It was probably the worst thing I ever did. Amir Khan is a very special talent. His speed was freakish… I told John I was 10 and a half stone when I was more like 11. I lost a stone and a half in three weeks. I made myself ill because of that fight.
“I ended up in hospital on the night due to severe dehydration; I took my body that low that I ended up with yellow jaundice.”
Bull returned for a kind of Indian summer, winning five of six bouts before losing to Curtis Woodhouse in July 2010. He retired after the fight.
“I was 33 then, I’d been in boxing all my life and had lots of long fights,” he said. “I was proud of that fight because I put absolutely everything into it. Me and Curtis had a great fight [Woodhouse won on a ninth-round stoppage]. That was the night I realised it just wasn’t in me any more.
“I was man enough to say I wasn’t good enough to win a major title. I did my best. I knew after Curtis my career as a fighter was done. To win Central Area titles and to fight for Continental titles, sell the Doncaster Dome out, fight on a Hamed bill, fight on a Calzaghe bill, in front of thousands, live on ITV, Michael Buffer introducing [me] — as a fighter I’ve got lots of special memories and no regrets.
“I wasn’t the best fighter, but I did my best. I’m proud of that. I know where I went wrong, and I think that has helped me as a trainer and a manager.
“I knew my own level. I’m a realist, I can see levels on fighters that I look after.”
South Yorkshire has always been a conveyor belt of talent and after retiring from the ring Bull was straight in the mix, nurturing the next generation.
“As I was finishing as a fighter, I was co-training Jamie McDonnell, who was the reigning British and Commonwealth champion,” he said. “So that fulfilled the excitement of being a fighter. On the back of Jamie’s success, I signed Gavin McDonnell.
“Before I knew it, I had a stable of pros overnight. It was all natural. Nothing was planned. That was my transition, from fighter to training and managing, then promoting.”
Bull has gone from strength to strength as a promoter - he mainly runs shows at the familiar haunt of the Doncaster
Dome - trainer and manager. Yet he admits it can be a draining experience.
“I’m not in the gym on my own,” he said. “Ray Doyle trains my fighters. I’m managing these fighters, promoting these fighters, matching these fighters on my own. I’m wrapping all these fighters’ hands, in the corners, doing the cuts. I’m running around paying people.
“But it’s just what I do. After a show, I’m so run down, and so flat, it’s taken everything out of me.
“It’s very hard and emotional, is boxing, and when your fighters win it’s great, but when you’re around them they’re like family, and when they get beat, you get beat.
“It’s heartbreaking. And you have to go home to your wife and your kids, and you have sleepless nights. And it doesn’t even balance, because a defeat hurts more than the high feels good. And it’s very brutal. It’s a brutal game. When Robbie Barrett lost to Lewis Ritson, I went back to my hotel room and cried. I felt his pain.”
The pain was brought home in tragic circumstances after Scott Westgarth died as the result of a brain injury after boxing on one of Bull’s shows. Bull was remarkably candid about how much the terrible event took out of him.
“I knew the kid, but I didn’t have the relationship that [trainer] Glyn [Rhodes] did. But, as a promoter, it knocked the hell out of me.
“Knowing what these kids are getting paid, running around selling tickets — a tragedy like that, it broke my heart. And I questioned: ‘Why are we doing this?’ I really did. But then the night after I’m on Sky TV with Jason Cunningham, on zero sleep, as if nothing has happened.”
For Bull, though, leaving boxing isn’t an option. His stable is thriving, and he is looking forward to the future with trademark optimism.
“I’m a good manager,” he said. “What I do with Josh [Wale] shows. All Josh needed was that guidance, getting him the right fights at the right weight. I said Josh was a bantamweight. I am so proud of what we have achieved as a team, after he was the nearly man for a while.
“There is nothing I’d love more than to get Josh a big fight, well beyond domestic, that gets him a good purse that’ll help his family.
“I’ve got Terri Harper, who is undefeated, 21 years old, a European silver medallist, won three junior titles. I strongly believe she’s the future of women’s boxing. I’m not even going to test her. She’ll be in the gym for a number of years. Terri will learn. I’ll take her to 25 years old before I really let her off the leash. Then she’ll have really learned her trade. I’m excited about the journey for Terri.”
Still only 41, but with a lifetime in the business, Bull has a simple mission statement for his continued odyssey around boxing.
“I put some cracking fights on,” he said. “I can hold my hand up and say I love what I do and I’m proud of what I do. I’m just an ordinary kid from a village, who loves what he does, and loves his fighters, and loves boxing.”