Quick wits quick fists: Mark Heffron interview
Middleweight Mark Heffron took a walk through his old stamping grounds with John Evans and explained how lessons learnt growing up in Oldham serve him well in the ring…
Despite what you may have heard, the sun does sometimes shine in Oldham.
As Mark Heffron strolls down Yorkshire Street on a warm Sunday afternoon with his girlfriend Rebecca and their new daughter, Poppy, talk alternates between boxing gossip, an amusing initial visit to his physiotherapist and memories of his old stamping grounds.
Times have changed. Just a few years ago the unbeaten 26-year-old super middleweight would have spent his Sunday considering the consequences of his latest wild night out on the very same stretch of road we are now walking along.
“I’ve been in trouble a few times on Yorkshire Street,” he tells Boxing Monthly. “You’d always get people kicking off and what have you and it was well known for trouble around here.
“It didn’t matter who you were, you’d get trouble. I haven’t been out around here for a good few years now. I decided to stay away.
“I was used to it all because I was brought up around it. Coming out around here was just normal to me.”
Rebecca laughs. “I’d drive up and down slowly, trying to see which bar he was in,” she says.
There was a time when Yorkshire Street would rank high on any list of Britain’s most notorious streets. In 2009 the BBC current- affairs programme Panorama featured the problems and violence an evening in the town centre could bring.
Like Gangs of New York but with chip muffins and two-for-one alcopops, every weekend groups from the Lancashire town’s various estates would descend on to the same piece of pavement. Drinks were cheap, the bars were packed and the atmosphere could turn ugly in a split second. A night on Yorkshire Street could be fun but required quick wits or quicker fists.
It was on these same streets that Mark’s father Tommy — head of the famous fighting family and a former pro who made the final of the ABAs in 1978 — cemented his status as the town’s most renowned doorman.
A doorman will shake a thousand hands over a weekend and Tommy’s reputation grew. As the teenaged Heffron found himself drawn to the town’s lively nightlife, his surname brought plenty of attention and trouble his way. Most of it was unwanted, a decent amount of it welcomed, all of it dealt with.
“My dad was the head doorman on places like Scruples and Dreamers, but there’s just no money in places like that any more,” Heffron says as we wander past the derelict clubs.
“Living around here toughened me up, though. I’m wiser now after being in some of the situations I’ve been in. I’ve had a few bad ones and it’s made me a stronger person.
“If it hadn’t have been for Rebecca I’d still be out there on the streets doing what I was doing. She used to tell me all the time that I had to sort my head out. If it hadn’t been for her I’d still be being an idiot.”
Heffron (17-0, 13 KOs at time of writing - now 20-0, 16 KOs) is being touted as one of British boxing’s brightest prospects but he heard those same compliments when he made his debut way back in 2010. While his talented older brother Ronnie moved smoothly from his 2009 ABA triumph to a promotional deal with Frank Warren, Mark got a Boxing Union of Ireland licence and joined Guillermo Rigondeaux and Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam in Irish manager Gary Hyde’s international stable.
Usually, a young fighter with such strong ties to his local area would make his debut in front of his friends and family but, at just 18, Heffron made his pro debut at something called the Bekkerveld Festival in Holland. The next three years saw him train in the US and box in Hungary, Poland and Ireland. Three years of globetrotting provided him with some invaluable experience but eventually the partnership with Hyde crumbled and he found himself back on the streets of Oldham without a plan and still better known for his exploits in and around his hometown than for his promising career as an unbeaten professional boxer.
“It was definitely a chance missed,” Heffron says. “I always wanted to start my career off in my hometown and build up a good fanbase but Gary chose to do it his way. I don’t think Gary had a British licence at the time so he couldn’t put on shows around here.
“I think one of those early fights was in a tent. There were a few fights in shitholes, to be honest. I just got through them and got the wins and, really, it was a good experience to go fighting away from home.
“I lived with Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam above a pub in Dublin. In fact, I went through four training camps with him. He’s very good and he’s a good guy but a bit crazy. He’d eat raw fish in the room. I’m talking fish that had come straight out of the river.
“I spent time with Guillermo Rigondeaux when we were at the Wild Card gym in America and when he was getting ready to fight Willie Casey in Ireland. He’s a pretty cool guy and very chilled. He doesn’t speak much English, though. I’d ask him something and he’d sort of grunt. He’s tiny and his fists are so small. I wouldn’t like a crack off him. He can really bang.
“Two or three years ago, I had a conversation on the phone with Teddy Atlas. We were talking for way over an hour. My dad was going mad about the phone bill. He’d watched a few fights of mine and was telling me that he thought I’d looked better early in my career. When I was fighting away from home there wasn’t much pressure on me. Since I came back I’ve been slowly getting used to fighting in front of my own people and I’m a lot more relaxed now.
“I’m really thankful that the people around here have stuck by me. People are slowly beginning to realise that I’m not messing about any more. I’d get stopped by people and they’d say ‘Hello’ and then ask me when Ronnie was next boxing.
“I sold 400 tickets myself for my last fight and it was the first time I’d fought in Oldham. I can’t imagine what it’d be like if I got an English or British title fight. I could sell out Oldham Athletic’s [football] stadium. No doubt at all.”
Heffron is most regularly described as an aggressive knockout artist but to concentrate on his brute force is to overlook the boxing ability that carried him to a silver medal at the 2009 European youth championships. Joe Gallagher, Anthony Farnell, Freddie Roach and Pat Barrett are among those who have spoken highly of Heffron’s raw ability. Now, with his troubles behind him, Heffron is beginning to show what he is capable of producing.
One man deserves more credit than most for Heffron’s emergence. That is northern boxing figure Kevin Maree, who trusted his instincts and chose to concentrate on his memories of Heffron the boxer rather than the stories and rumours about the unfocused, unfulfilled talent.
“I’ve only really enjoyed being a professional for the last couple of years,” Heffron says.
“I always knew I was making a good impression on people [when he was younger]. I’d be sparring the likes of John Murray, Joe Murray and Anthony Crolla. I was always involved in 50-50 spars. Joe Gallagher used to say I boxed like Canelo and that I’d be a world champion one day. I just didn’t believe anybody. My head wasn’t in the right place back then.
“I’d been out of the gym for about two years. I got a message from Kevin Maree telling me that I was a wasted talent and that I should get up to his place in Clitheroe to train and get on with it. I was getting into a lot of trouble around here in Oldham and I spoke with Rebecca and she agreed I should do it. I just packed my stuff and went.
“I was with Kevin for nearly four years but it was taking me nearly an hour and a half to get there every day. We sat down and spoke about it and I’ve ended up coming back here. I’ll be with Kevin for the rest of my career. I trust him with my life.
I leave Heffron and his new family opposite Yorkshire Street’s main taxi rank. If he were to cast his mind back over the years, he could probably think of a hundred nasty incidents that have taken place on this very spot during the small dark hours. But, on this sunny Sunday afternoon, he looks content.
“I’m just glad that Kevin messaged me and Rebecca got me to go,” he says. “I had to leave her to go up there to Clitheroe. I’m a dad myself now and I just feel happy all the time.
“I’ve been living with Rebecca for about nine years and now we really want to buy our own house. I want to be a world champion — but a house is important, too. We made it a New Year’s resolution and I’m determined to do it.”