Out of the shadows: Lewis Ritson interview

John A. MacDonald
13/10/2018 6:27am

On Saturday, lightweight Lewis Ritson fights for the European title. John Angus MacDonald speaks to the 17-0 talent about why he nearly quit the sport, the influence of his father and much more...

Over the past 12 months, Lewis Ritson has established himself as one of the most exciting young boxers in Britain.

The 25-year-old had long since been held in high regard within the trade, in part due to acquitting himself admirably in sparring sessions against world level fighters, such as: Ricky Burns, Anthony Crolla and Kiryl Relikh.

However, his talents remained largely unknown to the general public. Ritson had predominantly fought on small-hall shows in the North East of England, and before his breakout win against Robbie Barrett, in October of last year, Ritson had never fought live on television.

Prior to the Barrett fight, Ritson fought on ticket deals, where he would first have to sell a predetermined number of tickets to cover his opponent’s purse and more on top of that to pay his own wages. As a popular figure in his local area, Ritson would attract in excess of 100 paying spectators for each of his fights, with his father Davey managing sales to alleviate the burden on his son.

His large following ensured the lightweight was in high demand during his first year as a professional, amassing nine wins within 12 months. As he stepped up in levels against higher calibre fighters, over longer distances, the wages of the men in the opposite corner increased, as his own significantly diminished. The reduction in money coupled with a spell of inactivity placed a financial burden on Ritson

The situation was exacerbated when his daughter Darcie entered the world seven weeks premature. A matter of months before his big break, Ritson was prepared to turn his back on boxing.

“It was hard times. I was honestly nearly ready to quit,” Ritson told Boxing Monthly over the phone whilst enjoying a short break in Sherwood Forest, with his child and girlfriend, Samantha. “We’d sell 120 tickets and a few ringside tables and you’re not even coming home with a couple of hundred quid. The Barrett fight kept getting rescheduled. I came to the gym a few times and said to me Da’: ‘Look, obviously I’ve got a family now, I need money. I can’t cope like this.’”

Ritson (15-0, 9 KOs at the time of writing, now 17-0) had actively started the search for alternative employment. Despite being a qualified electrician, he instead applied for factory jobs, such was his urgency to provide for his young family. His trade is one built on reputation and contacts, and given that Ritson left the profession shortly after qualifying, he knew he was left wanting, on both fronts. Several of his friends assured him they could secure him unskilled work, but – what would ultimately become – fortuitous timing in submitting his résumé, resulted in neither employer responding to him.

“I’d put a few CVs into places, [I was] waiting to hear back [from them],” he said. “Luckily I didn’t hear back from the two places I’d put my CV in to, which were just local. If I’d have heard back from them and got the job, I’d probably have been away, gone. Thankfully, they never!

“What had happened was; I’d handed in my CV on a Bank Holiday so I put it to one side and had forgot about it, which was lucky because I’d probably be working in a factory now and not having the British title. It’s mad when you think about it. I say to my da’ when we are in the gym, when we’ve finished our session and sat down having a little bit of a laugh and a joke about it, about how different it could have been. Luckily, they never got back to us.”

Without alternative employment readily available, Ritson’s dad and trainer, Davey, persuaded his son to persevere in pursuit of his dream. The preparation was arduous as Ritson divided his time between the hospital and gym. Darcie weighed just 4 lbs when she was born, and spent her first five days inside an incubator. High levels of bilirubin left her jaundice and required her to receive phototherapy, a process where she was placed under a fluorescent light to lower the bilirubin in her blood, through photo-oxidation. Unsurprisingly, this was an extremely emotionally fraught time, to the extent where Ritson again considered hanging up his gloves.

“It was hard,” he said, in an understated manner. “I was getting up at eight o’clock in the morning, go to training, straight to hospital until five o’clock until my next [training] session, going straight back to the gym, then going straight back to the hospital and staying there until one o’clock in the morning. That happened for two and a half weeks.

“I think I was fighting Robbie Barrett a week and a half or two weeks after that. So really, the preparation wasn’t great for that. There was even a few times when I said to my girlfriend and my da’: ‘I’m just going to wrap this in and have time with the bairn, time with my lass. I haven’t really been having much time with them.’”

Those who know Ritson best, attest that he is an incredibly, cool, calm and collected individual. His manager Phil ‘Jaffa’ Jeffries has been known to remark regarding his charge: ‘He’s so laid back, if you blow on him he’ll fall over.’ Even so, Ritson was uncharacteristically unsettled whilst attempting to prepare for the biggest fight of his career to date. Such an impact is understandable, but even now, Ritson appears shocked by the extent to which he was affected.

“I’m usually laid back, but that was the first time in a long time that I was stressed,” he said. “Not many people know it apart from the close family and friends. To be fair, for a while in training, I wasn’t looking great. I wasn’t doing great and I thought to myself: ‘This is our big chance and we are going to end up blowing it.’ I still trained hard.”

Ten days ahead of the Barrett fight, Darcie was discharged from hospital. Suddenly, Ritson became invigorated and the results were evident immediately. Despite having to leave his partner and child in Forrest Hall – 20 minutes outside of Newcastle – while he travelled to Manchester, he was unperturbed. He was resolute, he was going to capture the British lightweight title.

“As soon as the baby came out of hospital, everything just clicked and I was looking on fire, in training,” he said. “I’m quite a focussed person. I got down there and got my head in the game. I had a few FaceTimes off our lass with the little ‘un. That was enough for me, just making sure she was all right. I had made a promise to the little ‘un and my girlfriend that I was going to win this fight and make a better life for ourselves and that’s what I’ve done. I just knew: ‘It’s going to take a special Robbie Barrett to beat me on the night.’”

Ritson was right. Despite all the mental anguish he endured ahead of the contest, he produced a devastating display, dropping his opponent four times, before obliging Barrett’s corner to throw in the towel during the seventh round.

‘The Sandman’ believes his father’s presence was invaluable to his success. Having initially turned professional with Billy Nelson, Ritson began training with his father once more – as he had done as an amateur – when he relocated back to the North East in 2016. Their relationship transcends that of father and son, or fighter and coach, they are the closest of friends. During that personal crisis, only Davey could have guided his son through.

“I’ve said a few times: my dad is like my best friend,” he said. “If I win this British title outright, I want that belt for him. It’s not going to be mine. He keeps it in the house now anyway, I’ve sort of given him it. I was lucky, anyone else in the gym with me around that time and it wouldn’t have worked. He was the one. He’d go: ‘C’mon, we know what’s happened has been bad, but this is your chance to change your life now.’”

Ritson Sr was right, victory did indeed change his son’s life. Shortly after his destructive showing against Barrett, Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Sport, signed Ritson to a promotional contract. Ritson had hoped to capitalise on the momentum he had built, by facing Tommy Coyle on the undercard of the rematch between Tony Bellew and David Haye, originally scheduled for 17 December, at the O2 Arena. Both fighters had agreed to the contest, but it was never formally announced, as the card was cancelled when David Haye injured his bicep in training, ahead of the fight. Matchroom had hoped to keep Ritson active on the 13 December show, at York Hall, but were unable to secure a suitable opponent.

Ritson was told to stay in the gym as he’d be fighting early in the new year. Former British champion, Scotty Cardle, had been the intended opponent, but it was ultimately, 2008 Beijing Olympian, Joe Murray, who was in the opposite corner at the Victoria Warehouse, Manchester, back in February. Murray had previously been called to face Ritson in an eliminator for the British title, before the Mancunian withdrew. As such, he was an opponent Ritson was familiar with.

Murray had a maniacal look about him, as he bounced his way to the ring, while ‘Cotton Eyed Joe’ blasted through the sound system. Murray looked like a man who believed he would not be denied, that this was his moment! It wasn’t. Murray charged at Ritson from the first bell, but soon found himself writhing on the canvas, in agony from a body shot. Murray rose, but Ritson was methodical and menacing. A barrage to head and body caused Murray to slump to his knees, pinned against the ropes. Again, Murray beat the count, but within the first two minutes of the opening round, Howard Foster was obliged to halt the contest. After a 20-week period of training and dieting, Ritson was pleased to settle matters in a decisive fashion.

Given that Murray is better known for his boxing ability than his brawling, did his tactics come as a surprise to Ritson? “No,” he said emphatically before explaining why. “I’d heard him before the fight, he was in the changing room two down from mine, they’re screaming, they’re shouting, they’re f’ing and blinding. I don’t know what his game plan was, was he trying to put me off or what? It didn’t [put me off]. He got himself so psyched up beforehand that he looked like he was on a different planet [laughs]! We had been told Joe Murray is a hard puncher. You know after about the first 20 seconds, I knew then: ‘You are not going to hurt me in this fight. You’ve got nothing that can hurt us.’ I knew that his game plan was going to play into my hands, because he couldn’t hurt us.”

Less than four weeks later, Ritson would face similar tactic from another former member of the GB Podium Squad, Scotty Cardle. Ritson had known Cardle and his father Joe Sr for quite some time and always got on well with both men. It came as a surprise to Ritson when he offered his hand to his opponent to shake after the weigh-in, only to have the gesture declined.

Both fighters were staying in the same hotel, and this pattern of – what Ritson described as – macho behaviour continued to be displayed by Cardle. These out of character actions led former light-heavyweight boxer and Ritson’s assistant coach Neil Fannan to believe that Cardle would fight in a way reminiscent of Murray. Ritson dismissed the idea.

“My trainer, Neil went: ‘He’s going to run out here. He’s been putting on the attitude for the last couple of days, he’s psyching himself up,’” Ritson recalled. “I was going: ‘There’s no chance he’s going to do that, no chance!’ Then he did! I was a bit shocked: ‘What’s going on here [Laughs]?’. Again, he done the wrong tactics and he ended up getting stopped.”

Fannan’s premonition came true as Cardle caught the champion with a counter right hand early in the first round and proceeded to unleash an unrelenting assault for the full three minutes. Ritson displayed great composure to cover up and catch the majority of his opponent’s attack on arms and gloves. Despite the fact that Cardle had won the frame emphatically, at the end of the stanza, bookmakers had Ritson as a 33-1 on favourite. The tide had turned.

In the second round, Ritson was in complete control, cutting off the ring as he stalked the challenger. Soon Ritson’s pressure was rewarded as Cardle was given an eight-count after only the ropes prevented him from hitting the canvas. Shortly after Ritson unloaded once again, forcing Joe Gallagher to throw in the towel. Ritson believes that the fight was a great learning experience.

“He didn’t hurt me, Ritson said. “Two right hands hit us and I was like: ‘All right, he’s hit us with two good ones, I’m going to tuck up.’ Then he decided to throw the kitchen sink! I couldn’t believe it. You always get that when you are tucking in and somebody is throwing about 30 or 40 shots at you, towards the end of them 30 or 40 shots, there’s nothing in them, absolutely nothing at all. I knew then, towards the end of the first round. I came back to the corner and said: ‘He’s got nothing left.’ The corner said: ‘Don’t do anything stupid, keep your hands up nice and tight.’

“A few people said: ‘Oh, he got hit too many times,’ but if somebody is going to throw the kitchen sink at you, out of 30 or 40 shots, 10 or 12 [of] them will hit you. No one is going to throw 40 shots at you and not hit you. We’ve got things we need to work on. We didn’t really plan for a fast start, but we’ve come out with little things we need to work on.”

Some have speculated that he may go on to claim world honours, however, the relaxed Ritson would never make such bold predictions. “We just need a little bit of luck in this game and the right opponents. Who knows where we can get to.”