Starting over: Tyrone Spong interview
Craig Scott interviews Surinamese heavyweight Tyrone Spong - a former kickboxer and mixed martial artist turned boxer who is now 11-0 in the pro boxing game...
From private jets and five-star suites to the simplest of humid dressing rooms in Yucatán's Polyforum arena... As an outsider looking in, it would seem that Tyrone Spong has taken ten steps back for the sake of a single stumble towards success.
Still, he has come a long way from the concrete jungle that sculpted him, growing up in suburban Amsterdam.
"I was born in Surinam and I lived there until I was almost six-years-old, then we moved here," he tells Boxing Monthly. "My Mum wanted to provide us with a better future; education wise etc. We moved to Amsterdam, a place called Bijlmer and that's considered a rough neighbourhood, you know?
"It wasn't an easy place to grow up. I don't wanna go into too many details but growing up, I wasn't the easiest kid. I was on a path that probably wouldn't have led to much good, but I was lucky I found the sport of kickboxing."
Arguably one of kickboxing's greatest ever fighters, Spong recently made the transition to heavyweight boxing, and currently boasts an unblemished record, with eleven wins, all coming by knockout. Old habits die hard. Currently the proud owner of the WBO and WBC Latino heavyweight titles, boxing fans across the globe have started to take notice of this exciting talent.
Spong speaks fondly when remembering his first experience of a sport that, in many ways, saved his life. Walking into a gym, hot-on-the-heels of a classmate and bursting with intrigue, he tells me of his first lesson, on his first day.
"I got my ass whooped," he recalls. "I was a loud-mouth, I did a lot of talking. So right away I started fighting with one of their high-level guys. I was so pissed off that I came back the next day to give him some payback, after a week of training I said to the coach, 'I wanna fight!'
"I turned pro when I was eighteen, I had twelve professional fights in my first year and became world champion - same year. I became European champion and world champion in my first year of professional fighting. After that, that's all she wrote..."
The belts, trophies and cups conquered by kickboxers are often the subject of ridicule amongst the boxing fraternity. Their 'world champion' tag seems loosely banded about, with governing bodies and rulesets in at least double-figures. Make no mistake though, Spong is Mount Rushmore.
He understands that boxing is an art-form where respect must be earned. Speaking to him, it is clear he is a student of the old-school. With his name and existing pedigree in combat sports, it would have been easy for him to cash in on some freakshow contests around the globe, but it isn't about the money. It never has been.
"People don't realise it, but I was a 72kg [fighter]. I started out at middleweight and became a heavyweight. I became champion at all those weight classes in between. Every weight class I fought in, I have become champion in. Even when I was fighting as a kickboxer, I was always challenging myself because the moment I became champion and I'd beat everybody, I would move up and repeat myself. I did that all the way up to heavyweight.
"I'm a kickboxer on the highest level, you know? [Vitali] Klitschko always said he was a kickboxer. He was never a kickboxer at my level, never. Even Dillian Whyte said he was a kickboxer - but not at my level. None of those guys were on my level. We'll see how it goes but I think we could give people some entertaining fights! I'm ranked number 12 with the WBO, I think a lot of people under-estimate the fact that we got a fanbase that could sell out arenas."
Tyrone and I look through the WBO rankings at heavyweight together, I pick out a few names above him and he is happy to oblige with his thoughts. I firstly ask about the Japanese fighter Kyotaro Fujimoto, ranked number 6.
"[Fujimoto?], I already beat him in kickboxing."
Small world, indeed.
Spong wants the biggest fights on the biggest stage, something he has been used to since he was a teenager. He welcomes a potential fight with Anthony Joshua, claiming the duo could sell out the Amsterdam Arena. His determination to succeed makes a deep impression on me, and whilst discussing his route to world titles he constantly echoes his vision of 'becoming a mandatory' which is perhaps the only way to gatecrash the current clique of top heavyweights.
In the circus-like world of MMA and kickboxing, the governing bodies tend to double up as the promoters. For example; the UFC hands out the belts, promotes the entire roster and decides/alters its own rankings. I can imagine the red tape that surrounds boxing has been tricky for Spong, as he battles for recognition and fair treatment simultaneously.
"So far, it hasn't been easy," he agrees. "The structure in boxing is totally different than in kickboxing as many of my fans know, and people that are following the martial arts world.
"It's just totally different, so I have to adapt and get used to how everything works in this world. Considering that I started my professional boxing career not too long ago, I can't complain. I climbed the rankings, I got two titles; a WBO [Latino] title and a WBC [Latino] title.
"I just have to get used to how everything is structured, with a promoter and a manager being involved so heavily in the career of a boxer. In kickboxing, it's not necessarily like that, you have a manager and a promotion that you fight for, but that's it. The politics were never as heavy in kickboxing, as they are in boxing."
I watch some clips of Spong whilst listening back to our conversation. The audio describes a man who speaks of loving animals, catching birds and feeding chickens - an image which is hard to reconcile with the footage of a man who carries devastating power and displays relentless pressure.
How far can he go? Aged thirty-two and with almost fourteen years of professional combat behind him can Spong reach boxing's pinnacle? Will boxing ever truly give him a chance, or will it freeze him out, protecting its own reputation as an isolated discipline?
"I'm gonna get there," he maintains. "I've never had anything for free in my career. The heavyweight division is booming, I saw David Price fighting Povetkin and I was like, 'Damn! I wanna fight one of those guys!
"Listen this is my example, I did it legitimately from the bottom AGAIN in boxing. I don't get shit for free, I went from flying private jets to my fights and main events with suites, to fighting in small, stinking arenas. Starting from the bottom.
"If they can do it with Conor against Floyd, [Conor had] no professional boxing fights. Why can't we do it? I've accomplished way more than McGregor in my fighting career, way more. So why couldn't we do it?"
I find it hard not to root for the Surinamese destroyer, who is so charming on the phone throughout our conversation. It seems his burning desire is to test himself. Who are we, to tell Tyrone Spong, he can't win a world title in boxing?
As he battles to climb the rankings of the governing bodies, not even the fictitious riches of a relative can dissuade him.
"My Mum says, 'If I won the €500m jackpot will you stop fighting?'
"I tell her, 'No. I'd probably become a better fighter because I'd have no worries.'
"I don't only do it for the money, I do it for the legacy and to put my birth country of Surinam on the map."