The renaissance of Ross Burkinshaw
Ross 'The Boss' Burkinshaw struggled badly between 2010 and 2013, a run of three consecutive defeats (to Craig Lyon by RTD 5 in 2010, Michael Ramabeletsa by fifth-round TKO in 2012 and a second round defeat to Gavin McDonnell in 2013) coupled with debilitating injury problems to his knees and shoulder in 2011 meant that he was in and out of hospital more often than he was in and out the ring.
“I’d been out with lots of injuries then came back against Michael,” revealed Burkinshaw when talking to Boxing Monthly. “I’d had a cruciate operation on my right knee; the doctors told me my left knee wasn’t too strong because it had overcompensated while I’d been in recovery.
“Then I had the fight, my left knee gave way in the middle of the fight. I wasn’t fighting how I was meant to be fighting. I ended up getting stopped. As I was throwing a punch, I got caught and my corner threw the towel in, which I don’t think they should have done, but that’s boxing for you.
“Then I had an operation on my left knee, two of them, and was out for 16-months. At that time, Gavin McDonnell was doing really well. I was due to make a comeback so my management at that time told me it’d be a good idea to move up a weight and go against him. In hindsight, it wasn’t, I should have gone back to the drawing board and built myself up.”
After this run of poor form, Burkinshaw decided to have a troublesome, long-standing right shoulder injury operated on. A run of wins later and he is about to take on Klaas Mboyane for the vacant WBO Inter-Continental bantamweight title live and free on Spike TV at Sheffield's Octagon Centre on Saturday night.
“I decided to have my shoulder operated on as it had popped out once in a fight, my first loss [TKO'd in two by Abdul Mghrbel],” he recalled. “I’d had it done, but it would still pop out and was always on the back of my mind. I had a pin put in it. Now my body feels like it did when I was 18.”
The Sheffield-based boxer’s father took him to the gym was he was 8-years-old - he was short for his age and found himself in plenty of fights due to his unwillingness to be bullied by the bigger kids. He had his first amateur fight at the age of 11 and turned professional in 2006 after a stint in the Army.
“I joined the Army at sixteen and nine months. I just got in as an adult entry. People told me I wouldn’t hack it. In basic training, there were times I hated it, but proving people wrong, and myself right, is a big thing to me. I served just short of 10-years and got my redundancy through in 2012.”
Barely out of school, the young squaddie placed himself in a new environment and saw first-hand what happens when you make the ultimate commitment to your country before becoming the Army’s first serving professional.
“After my basic training, my first post was in Cyprus with lads coming back from Iraq,” he recalled. “It was a tough time, the lads were coming back from war; some of them had lost mates, others were badly injured.
“I kept telling the lads I was a good boxer. I was this scrawny, cheeky little lad so they must have thought I was taking the piss. Then I had a trial with the Battalion team, I did really well. They flew me to England and I took the Number One flyweight spot for the Army Boxing Team and ended up becoming Combined Services Champion two years in a row, which meant I didn’t have to go back to my regiment.
“They call boxers in the Army ‘Tracksuit soldiers’, but once I got going I had the Riflemen [his Regiment] marching me out and they really loved it because they could say I belonged to them.”
However, Burkinshaw was briefly deployed just as the situation in the Lebanon grew tense. They were placed on 12-hour notice and told they might be going to war. Fortunately for him, his value as a boxer meant that he was taken off call in order to fight for the forces in a different capacity.
“It (being on call for battle) was a lot more scary than waiting for a fight,” he exclaimed.
“The Army was brilliant for me. The training is mentally and physically the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I was a young lad, the other lads joining up were adults, so that made me grown up instantly - it turned me into the person I am now. The British Army loves me, which is also a great thing to have going for you.”
He added: “Then I have boxing, which is my life and has taken me around the world meeting different people. I’d be lost without it.”
The 28-year-old since won the Commonwealth (now relinquished) and WBO European bantamweight titles thanks to wins over Jason Cunningham (W SD 12 in September and Benjamin Smoes TKO 1 in February). He is unbeaten in his last five. Dennis Hobson, his promoter, is working on a world title eliminator - things couldn’t be better for the 14-5-2 (8 KOs) contender. A huge turnaround from those dark days between 2010 and 2013.
“I was ready to give up - I dropped down to about seven-and-a-half stone through being in hospital and being depressed,” admitted Burkinshaw.
“When I came out (of hospital), I didn’t go down to the gym to see anyone because I couldn’t box - it really got to me. I didn’t go to fights or watch them on telly. In my head, I was finished.
“There’s a lot of depression in boxing. I’ve got good friends who have it. One of the greatest fighters to ever come out of Britain gets depressed, so I can see where it comes from.
“In boxing, the ring walk, fights and wins are the biggest high you’ll ever have. Not being able to have that high again, I can see why retired fighters do get depressed. It is the greatest experience ever when you win. Then you have to think about getting the next win, not a loss, and keep positive.”
As is often the case, it was those closest to the dejected young boxer who guided him out of the mental maze that you enmesh yourself in during a deep depression. Help came from close to home for Burkinshaw.
“[His wife] Nicola told me to give it another go to see what I could do. In September 2013, me and Glyn Rhodes [his former trainer] went our separate ways. I didn’t know where to turn to. I was in limbo, had been through a lot and felt I was washed up.”
Curtis Woodhouse recommended former world title challenger turned trainer Ryan Rhodes - the partnership has turned his career around. Opportunity knocked when a short-notice fight against the then-undefeated Cunningham for the vacant Commonwealth crown was offered to him on a few days notice. Burkinshaw believed that boxing was offering him a second chance.
“I work with Paul Russell [a Chartered Sports and Exercise Psychologist],” he said. “Boxing is ninety-percent mental. I’m so mentally strong now. Ryan and Dennis took me under their wing, which instantly made me believe in myself because Ryan is a hero of mine.
“Kids out there, or even adults, who think they’re done need to realise that they’re not, and then go out there and prove it to people. I believed I could stop Cunningham, then he came strong late and it made for a great fight”
Burkinshaw hit the headlines by association in February after footage of an impromptu set-to between rival sets of fans following Uzair Najib’s single stanza loss to Muheeb Fazeldin went viral. He was getting ready to box Smoes when news of the kerfuffle filtered through.
“I was worried my fight could be called off, then Dennis came down to tell me it was still on and everything had calmed down,” he said.
“I did an interview for a non-boxing magazine, they went on about it and about how boxing can be barbaric. It was fans who’d never had a glove on in their lives. They have a bit of alcohol in them, see the boxing and think they’re ten men. Boxing’s not barbaric, I’ve met the best people I’ve ever met through boxing.”
Coda: As Above, So Below:
What’s in the mind is often reflected in the body and our lives in general. If you put good thoughts out then good things should happen to you, even if it takes a bit of time.
Burkinshaw suffered physically, mentally and emotionally when forced into his 15-month sabbatical. The seemingly endless injury woes came before and after he got married, a time that should have been idyllic turned into a nightmare.
The discovery of a cyst - later proven to be benign - in his bladder raised cancer concerns, especially when he was told he was facing up to 30-days in hospital. He was due to fly out to Cuba to get married the following week. It was a real head or heart moment - Ross led with his heart.
“Before flying, I found out about the cyst on the bladder,” he said. “They told me I would have to go into the hospital as soon as I got back.
“My leg was ruined, I couldn’t walk, so had that operated on then went straight from one hospital to another for the operation on my bladder. Then the knee got infected and I had another operation. It was a rollercoaster, but life isn’t a slow journey is it?
“For the first two or three months of marriage, I was in and out of hospital - I think I spent over 40 days in there,” he surmised. “It was a bit of a nightmare. It was hard for Nicola because she had to sort the kids out in the morning, visit me in hospital and go to work. She works full-time so I can concentrate on my boxing career.
“Boxing is a dark, lonely place. When something like that happens, it becomes a very lonely place. On my way up, I got the English [flyweight] title [TKO 7 over Mike Robinson in 2009] and was doing well. Then I lost the following fight [TKO 4 to Lee Haskins]. You are in the changing room and notice there aren’t as many people around you.
“When I was in hospital, only so many people came to visit me. If I’d have been up there in the limelight there’d have been lots. You see people for who they are.”
Burkinshaw lives a regimented life. The staccato hospital trips and uncertainty was his worst nightmare brought to vivid, painful life.
“I like structure in my life. I like to know what time I’m getting up, the time of my first training session, when I’ll take the little one to school, so hospital and illness was harsh.
“I’ll never go back to that position of being depressed. My mindset is so positive now. I wish I’d been like that back then, but that’s speaking with hindsight. What’s bad has been turned into positives to make me the person and fighter I am today.
“Sometimes, I feel myself slipping a bit, so I change my thoughts. I’ve got a tattoo that says: ‘Change your thoughts and change your world’. If you start to get depressed, you’ll spiral. Change a negative into a positive.
“If you get depressed, your career’s done and your life’s done. I see people in town that I used to know who’ve got a tinnie in their hands because you can either go one way or another. I’m going the other way, to the top.”
Looking back on his wedding day, Burkinshaw told me a story that reaffirmed the idea that a little luck can come your way if you think about the best-case scenario.
“We got married on the beach,” he said. “It started to rain slightly that morning, so they wanted to change the venue from the beach to the reception place. Obviously, you can’t speak because of wedding day rituals. I had to get my best man to ring to see if Nicola would change venue. I knew for a fact she wouldn’t change the location. Luckily, we stuck to the plan, went to the beach and it turned all bright and sunny. We had a brilliant day. Things work out.”