The partying's over

John A. MacDonald
03/08/2016 10:49am

Stuart Hall has surpassed his own expectations, and perhaps even defied logic. Having turned to boxing as a means to bring stability to a life that was in danger of spiralling out of control, he could never have envisaged the glory that the sport would bring him.

Despite having achieved success beyond his wildest dreams, Hall’s ambition hasn’t diminished in the slightest and he has a second world title firmly within his sights. [Note: Hall now faces Lee Haskins on 10 September for Haskins' IBF World bantamweight title.]

“When I write a book, you’ll think: ‘How the hell did he even win a British title, let alone go on to win the world title?,’” Hall laughed as he spoke to Boxing Monthly over the phone from his home in Darlington. “Honestly, to win a Lonsdale belt outright is amazing, but to go out and win a world title is just crazy. To go on to be a two-time world champ – which I’m gonna do – is even more crazy.”

At 36, Hall (20-4-2, 7 KOs) finds himself at an age when many fighters have slower reflexes and declining punch resistance. However, he believes he's now better than ever.

Hall credits this improvement to the tutelage of trainers Paddy Lynch and Max McCracken. The trio have worked together for five fights now, and in Hall’s last contest their efforts bore fruit.

In April, Hall returned to the scene of his world title triumph – The First Direct Arena, Leeds – to face former junior bantam world champion Rodrigo Guerrero in a final eliminator for the IBF bantamweight title. The Mexican was a slight betting favourite, but Hall upset the odds in what he ranks as one of the best victories of his career.

“I thought it was a great performance,” Hall said. “I knew it would be a good performance, because I’d been away from me family for just under three months and we’ve been working on a lot of things, me and me trainers. It all came together perfectly.

“Apart from winning the world title, that was probably the second-best night of boxing I’ve actually had. The crowd were brilliant. Leeds fans got behind me, my own fans made the trip down from Darlington and got behind me. It was just a fantastic night. I really enjoyed it.”

The fight itself was gruelling, as both men stood toe to toe for large parts of the contest. Hall’s heavier shots were matched by Guerrero’s volume. While the result itself wasn’t questioned, the margin by which the judges awarded the fight to the Darlington man raised eyebrows. Even Hall himself believes that the fight was much closer than the three identical scores of 117-111.

“In all honesty, I thought I was a bit lucky to get it by six rounds,” he admitted. “They’ve obviously given me the closer rounds – all three judges got it the same – but I don’t think it was that wide a margin. If you looked at them scorecards and didn’t watch the fight you’d think that was an easy fight, but it wasn’t an easy fight. It was a real competitive fight. Both me and Rodrigo Guerrero turned up in there and the crowd were the winners on the night.”

For a week after the bout, Hall’s body ached, a sacrifice he has been willing to make on several occasions. The war of attrition with Guerrero now joins the ever-growing list of arduous fights he has engaged in. The fact that he is able to endure is made more remarkable when you consider the effects a hedonistic lifestyle had on his body as a youth.

In 1999, at the age of 19, Hall travelled to Ibiza for what was intended to be a short vacation. The infatuation with the "White Isle" was both immediate and intense. As soon as he arrived, he knew he didn’t want to leave. This was the start of a five-year cycle that would see him spend six months of the year in Europe’s party capital, working in bars and handing out leaflets to fund daily drinking sessions.

“I went for a two-week holiday. When I landed there, within half an hour, I said: ‘I’m staying [laughs],’”Hall recalled. “I had a labouring job [back home], I called me mam and said: ‘Ring the gaffer and tell him I’m not coming back.’ I’d only been there about two hours. I never looked back. I wouldn’t change anything, either, because I met some great people out there.”

After half a decade of annual pilgrimages to Ibiza – with a couple of trips to Thailand thrown in for good measure – Hall realised his life was in freefall. Despite the laughs, despite the memories he knew that lifestyle couldn’t be sustained. Hall turned to a place that had been a sanctuary to him in the past – the boxing gym. His father originally took him to the gym when he was nine to provide him with a positive outlet for the aggression that had led him to be in a multitude of fights. Once again, boxing helped him get his life on track.

“Boxing saved my life. It definitely saved my life because I was on a bad road,” Hall revealed. “I was 11 and a half stone, proper out of shape, drinking heavily… just on the road to nowhere really. I just thought: ‘I’ve got to get myself back in the gym.’ I went down the gym and started thinking a bit more positively about my life.

“I’d say my real life-changer was when I met my wife. They say there’s a good woman in every good man’s life. When I met her, that was it, my life was brilliant then. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be where I am now. That’s the definite honest truth.”

Boxing quickly gave Hall focus in life, and in 2005 he made it to the final of the ABA championships, finishing runner-up to Nick McDonald. He turned pro at 28. Ironically enough, he got his big break whilst in a pub. Having defeated Jason Thomas (on 4 September 2009) over four rounds the night before, Hall was celebrating when he received an offer to face former British bantamweight champion Martin Power, on one week’s notice.

“I’ll be honest with you, I had a pint of lager in my hand on the Saturday,” Hall remembered. “I got a phone call while I was drinking this pint of lager saying: ‘Do you want to fight Martin Power next Friday?’ I said: ‘Definitely, yeah. Lets take it.’ I said to my mate: ‘Get us a pint of soda and lime,’ I put the pint [of lager down] and just drank the soda and lime.”

The gamble paid off as Hall – despite being only a six-fight novice at the time – stopped Power in the final round of the scheduled eight. The victory earned him the right to contest the vacant British bantamweight title against Ian Napa. He beat Napa and went on to win the Lonsdale belt outright.

This willingness to grasp opportunities saw Hall become an unlikely world champion just four days before Christmas 2013. Jamie McDonnell had been stripped of his IBF world title when a dispute with promoter Dennis Hobson prevented him from making a mandatory defence of his title against Vusi Malinga.

Hall – the next highest ranked, available challenger – stepped in to contest the vacant belt against the South African. Despite being vastly less experienced than his opponent, Hall had the dream start as he established his jab early before dropping Malinga in the third round.

The visitor was far from a beaten man though, as he dragged Hall into the trenches, causing the Englishman’s left eye to swell shut. With his vision almost entirely obscured in that eye, Hall is thankful that referee Phil Edwards allowed the contest to continue. Hall won a unanimous decision and fulfilled a lifelong ambition.

“I think it was about three rounds where I couldn’t see,” Hall said. “The ref gave me the benefit of the doubt because I was still throwing punches and I was winning the fight. That was brilliant refereeing, if you ask me, to let me continue and go onto win the world title.

“I knew I’d won. I just had to get through that last round. I knew I’d won. I knew I’d done enough. It was a surreal feeling when he said: ‘And the new world champion,’ It was crazy. I’ve dreamed of that since I was a kid.”

His reign would ultimately be a short one. An all-North East showdown with Martin Ward in his first defence ended in the second round with the challenger cut from an accidental clash of heads, resulting in a technical draw.

 A nip-and-tuck contest with Paul Butler followed, with Hall finding himself on the wrong end of a split decision.

In his first fight with Paddy Lynch and Max McCracken, Hall travelled to Monaco to contest his former title – vacated by Paul Butler – against Randy Caballero. Despite finding himself on the canvas in the second round, he pushed the Golden Boy prospect, all the way.

“I tell you what, I’ve only watched that fight back twice and I thought that was very, very close,” Hall said, adding with a laugh in his voice: "Obviously the judges didn’t think it was close [Cabellero won by scores of 118-110 and 116-111 twice]. I thought if it wasn’t for the knockdown, I could have got that fight, when I watched it back – that’s boxing I suppose.”

Now a dedicated family man, Hall finds it tough to leave his wife, son and two daughters behind as he bases himself in Birmingham during training camp. While he says this isn’t easy, he believes it will be justified in the long run as success will help secure his family's financial future.

“It is difficult," Hall said. "You know you’ve got a 10, 12-week camp ahead of you. When you get in the car for the first time you know you’ve got 10 more drives on the weekend, leaving your family, leaving your wife, leaving your kids. It is hard but when you win a big fight – like against Guerrero – it makes it all worthwhile. I’m doing it to give my wife and my kids a better life. That’s what keeps me going.”

When Haskins vs. Hall takes place next month it will be a rematch of their 2012 contest, in which Haskins claimed the vacant European bantamweight title via wide unanimous decision. Hall believes that, despite being four years Haskins’ senior, he was a novice when they first met. He believes he has improved while the champion has stagnated. Haskins victory over Ivan Morales in his first defence has done nothing to alter this opinion.

“It was Lee Haskins, wasn’t it,” Hall said. “It was a good performance on his [Haskins] part, but I didn’t rate his opponent. His opponent was a basic fighter, with a padded record, if you ask me. Fair play to Lee, he fights the way he fights and he defended his title.”

Hall believes it will be different story this time when the Haskins rematch takes place. “I really do think I’ve come on a lot in four years,” he said.

“You can see by the quality of fighters I’ve been fighting, and the quality of fighters I’ve beaten, in the last four years. It speaks for itself. Four years ago, I was a baby in boxing. Now I’m not. Now I’m a man in boxing. I’ve got all the experience I need now to beat him. I think I’ve fought better fighters than Lee has. He’s just an awkward fighter. A big-headed, confident, awkward fighter. That’s all he is.”

The fight has a little needle to it, as Hall doesn’t like Haskins and is determined to make a statement by stopping the champion.

“He won his world title at Weight Watchers. I won the world title in a 12 round war against a world-class opponent,” Hall said.

“It’s the way he [Haskins] is, He’s a bit of a gobshite to be honest – mind my French. He might be a nice lad deep down, but I can’t see it.

“I don’t think it’s going to go 12 rounds. I think I’m going to get him out of there within eight rounds. I don’t usually make predictions like that, but I don’t like Lee Haskins so I really, really want to get him out of there before the judges can score the fight.”