Stepping forward

Andrew Harrison
17/05/2016 9:32am

Murray’s Machines Boxing Gym sits on a congested, dead-end industrial estate in Reddish, on the outskirts of Stockport, sandwiched between a bedroom company and a professional make-up artist. A red brick building, it is almost impossible to locate in darkness. From the main road, it looks abandoned with shuttered doors and grills on the windows. "I’ve got a sign but it’s blown down,” says the owner, former European lightweight champion John Murray. “It’s on the road there with an arrow pointing up this way.”

Inside, two giant portraits loom high above the staircase leading to the first floor gym that Murray founded with the purse from his final fight. One depicts Murray’s favourite boxer – the irrepressible Mexican icon Julio César Chávez, El Gran Campeón - the other is of Murray deep in battle. In the painting, Murray’s right eye is busted and closing; smeared in blood, he’s gasping for air – a crisis frozen in time. Retired since November 2014, Murray, 31, is currently blind in that same eye.

Once hailed as “a sensation”, Murray was a WBC youth world champion who attacked like a mini Joe Frazier. Head down, arms pumping, he was an unrelenting ball of fury. Born in the same city, the same year The Stone Roses took off, Murray moved around a lot when he was young. You could imagine him, as the oldest brother of the perpetual new kids in town, warring on sink estates across Greater Manchester: Levenshulme, Longsight, Gorton, Beswick and Wythenshawe. He never backed down – he wasn’t allowed to if truth be told. Murray would later bulldoze his way to British and European lightweight championships before falling short in a bruising world title battle against Brandon “Bam Bam” Rios in New York in 2011.

On the eve of his comeback fight with Welshman Gavin Rees the following winter, Murray failed a brain scan that left him in freefall. On the day he’d planned to resurrect his career, Murray was literally out in the cold - digging trenches on the roads to make ends meet.

Misdiagnosed with a brain tumour initially (later revealed to be a swollen pituitary gland), Murray’s neurosurgeon cleared him for one final run at the big time in 2013 that ended in a valorous 10-round defeat to Murray’s old friend and former training partner, Anthony Crolla. And like that, Murray was done, aged just 29.

Today, Murray is ill with a chest infection. He’s croaky, not long out of bed and smells of cough sweets, yet is upbeat after seeing his unborn son on a hospital monitor earlier that day. A father to two girls aged nine and two, Murray whistled as he opens the gym for business. He already seemed a long way removed from that ill-fated swansong in Manchester.

“I’ve moved on,” he says while sitting on the ring apron, the punch bags motionless behind him and a cold rain lashing at the windows. “I’ve got a couple of pros under me. I’ve got a nice big amateur team. I do classes and personal training and I’m happy at home where I’ve got a missus, a kid and another kid on the way. I’m in a really good place in life – it’s the happiest I’ve ever been.”

In embarking on one last hurrah, Murray revealed he’d risked his sight for a shot at a future.

“There were no savings or anything from boxing,” he admits. “You cover the cost of living when you’re not making any money and I had to get back into boxing and have a couple more fights. Realistically, I don’t think I’d have boxed on after the Rios fight. I had a problem with my right eye – I had double vision. I could have done with not fighting really but I needed to get enough money to set this [gym] up.

“It was a good move in the end. It’s worked out well but my eye’s not that great at the minute. I’m pretty much blind in it. I’ve had my cataracts taken out, I’ve had a detached retina - twice. I’m waiting for another operation now to put a lens back in my eye which should make it a bit better because at the minute I can’t see anything.”

Murray displayed the nerve damage in his right eye: when he tugged his cheek down and looked skyward, one eyeball wasn’t in unison with the other.

“I had a black eye every fight with the way I used to fight,” he says with a shrug. “Eventually they all build up. It was mostly head clashes that used to mark me up and when I used to block the shots (he cupped his hands to his head to demonstrate) my wrist would bang on my head – that’s bone on bone constantly whacking away. It caused them to swell and blacken. You learn from that. I put a bit of sponge in [the heel of the gloves] now for the lads when they fight - just to cushion the blow [if the boxers] block in the same way I did.

“Both eyes on their own were alright - they just couldn’t work together. It was OK when I was looking through the top of my eyes, though. You never think the end’s gonna be the next fight. You always think you’ve got one more.”

Murray works long hours as a trainer, rising each day before sunrise to make the short commute into work, where he’ll be back and forth, running sessions until late. It earns him a living. He’s currently guiding two local professional prospects, Andy Kremner (6-0, 1 KO) and Chris Conwell (8-1, 1 KO). He met Kremner, a rangy boxer, through a mutual friend and knew Conwell, a tough inside fighter, from his amateur days (after Murray caught Conwell fighting on the unlicensed circuit, he convinced him to turn pro).

“[They’re] both unbeaten yeah, both doing well – trying to keep busy,” Murray says (Conwell lost a four-round decision to Seaham’s Jordan Ellison on 20 February). “It’s tough, the game at the minute – most [fighters] are on ticket deals, which are great for fighters who can sell tickets. But if you can’t shift tickets you’re going to struggle.

“There’re lots of shows in Manchester and we tend to get on most of them but no-one’s paying any of the fighters. Chris does alright with tickets but Kremner’s not doing too great with them at the minute so a lot of the times he’s boxed, he’s boxing for nothing. It should never happen in professional boxing. If you’re boxing in a professional ring there’s no chance you should be in there for free but he’s trying to build up his name and his reputation, so it’s got to be done at the minute. Eddie Hearn’s doing a good job with his fighters but it’s hard for anyone else who ain’t signed with him or Frank Warren.

“I don’t want them to make the same mistakes I made – not just in the ring but outside the ring, as well. They’ve got their own jobs and they make their own money but if they want extra work they can happily come down here and do work for me.”

Almost from the moment he turned pro, Murray would fret about life after boxing. Even after compiling a 30-fight unbeaten record that brought him a legitimate world ranking at 135lbs, those thoughts persisted. How would he make a living once his eyes and legs betrayed him for the final time?

“That’s the thing with boxing: you don’t get any help once you’ve finished,” he says softly. “I left everything in the ring but no one… you don’t feel like you’re owed something but… I felt like I was. Do you know what I mean? It cost me a right eye. I’m blind in one eye so I thought there would have been something for me.

“I tell you who helped me out - the British Boxing Board [of Control] helped me out. They gave me a little grant towards the gym. Rob Smith [general secretary] sorted it out which was nice of him. I haven’t forgotten that.

“When I was fighting, I was a very popular fighter. I had lots of friends. It’s funny. Literally overnight your phone stops ringing. It’s one of the most brutal sports inside that ring, and outside the ring’s just as brutal sometimes. It’s tough, man.”

Most professional boxers never earn above the minimum wage. Most fight to get by, to keep chasing a lost dream – to be someone. Fighters strive for support ¬– to be loved, ultimately. Tellingly, Murray’s fondest memory remains the night he won over a partisan away crowd in Florida, on a bill headed by Jeff Lacy vs Robin Reid back in 2005.

Murray, then 12-0, locked horns with a crafty journeyman on a non-televised bout on the undercard. “What was he called?” Murray ponders before it came back to him: “Johnny Walker – the whiskey!” he says, breaking into a warm grin. Walker had been rounds with men like Junior Jones and Jesus Chavez. Murray dismantled him through six well-received sessions to earn a standing ovation. Everyone wanted to speak to him afterwards. Amid the crowd’s cheers, though, and unbeknown to anyone else, Murray blanked out temporarily. He eventually came round backstage with a doctor’s flashlight in his eyes. Confused, Murray whispered over to his trainer, Joe Gallagher, to check he hadn’t been knocked out.

“I had lots of brilliant nights for British and European title defences: [Jon] Thaxton, [Lee] Meager, Gary Buckland – all those fights were really good,” he reminisces. “Boxing in New York - even though I lost to Brandon Rios - it was still a very special night that for me and walking out with my music ‘Johnny B. Goode’ playing in the background… I’ll never forget that experience.”

The Rios loss was the second of three heroic defeats. The first, to Londoner Kevin Mitchell was 2011’s domestic fight of the year. Murray put the heat on Mitchell through five rounds with his familiar brand of aggressive, suffocating pressure. His right eye, though – that right eye - began to swell at the mid-point, rallying Mitchell sufficiently to pull out a violent, eighth-round stoppage.

The last, to Crolla, was a mirror image. Murray, not quite what he once was, breathed fire early before his eyes inevitably swelled up, he started to take more punches and then he ran out of steam. Six rounds in 28 months had simply not been enough.

“I wasn’t in bad nick but after two years out of the ring I don’t think the ring fitness was there,” he recalls. “I could have probably have done with one more fight before then but I don’t regret either of those losses. After the fantastic career (Murray finished with a record of 33-3, 20 KOs) that I’ve had it annoys me a little bit that that’s all they remember you for – those losing fights. Even when I lost there was nothing else I could have given. I always got stopped on my feet trying to throw punches back.”

Murray’s gym has recently been amateur-affiliated (a process due to be completed in February). It is the kids who arrive, each of them dreaming, like he once did, that spurs Murray onwards.

“They’re my next stock of pro fighters,” he says. “I want to bring them through from nothing. I’ve got lads in the gym [who are] five years old training with me. I expect them to grow, to take them through [from] the amateurs and take them through the pros. That’s the dream. That’s the next ambition. I’m hungry as a trainer, I’m really hungry.

“This is, I’m sure, what I’ll be doing until the day I die now, so this is the biggest fight I’ve got. It’s gone really well. After a year I couldn’t be happier. Now I’ve just got to keep it going and make sure it keeps building and keeps getting bigger and I’m sure it will do.”
As always, he will never take a backward step.