Tommy Martin: 'Bring them on'
John A. MacDonald
“I had an absolute nightmare,” was the surprising self-assessment Tommy Martin gave Boxing Monthly of his win over Ricky Boylan in January. The victory saw the 21-year-old announce his arrival on to a thriving British 140lbs scene as well as claiming the English light-welterweight title in the process.
Martin displayed maturity and discipline beyond his years as he withstood the heavier shots and constant pressure from his – naturally bigger – opponent. The youngster used rapid-fire combinations, a flicking jab and mobility to negate Boylan’s attack en route to a wide unanimous decision. While Martin gained many admirers with his efforts, he remains critical of a performance which was curtailed by injury and illness.
“It was really bad. I woke up in the morning [on the day of the fight] and I had laryngitis,” Martin revealed to BM over the phone from his home in Cambridgeshire. “Obviously, I kept that to myself, no one knew except for my coach [Barry Smith].”
The severity of his condition didn’t become apparent until he began preparing for the bout in his changing room, in the bowels of London’s O2 Arena. As he went through his warm-up routine he found himself gasping for air. Unsure if he’d be able to complete the ten-round distance in this state, Martin went with a last-minute change in tactics.
“We started warming up in the changing rooms and Jimmy Tibbs turns to me and goes: ‘Tom, you can’t breathe can ya?’ I was so confident I could beat Ricky [that] I just said: ‘I’ll be all right.’ In my head I thought: I’ll go in there put it straight on him in the first round and see what happens. As you can see I nearly got him out of there with the first three or four punches!
“Then I got to about round four and my throat started swelling up – it wasn’t my chest – and as they were chucking water all over me in the corner I was losing my breath even more as I was trying to catch it. It was horrible,” he confessed.
Unable to breathe freely, Martin endured a torrid time in rounds four and five as Boylan pinned him to the ropes for large periods, sinking in brutal shots to the midsection. Having weathered the onslaught, a resurgent Martin stepped up the pace once more claiming the majority of the later rounds despite sustaining tissue damage to his left hand which has prevented him from returning to action since.
“I’ve done in my left hand. That was from rounds six and seven when I stepped it up. I thought I’d just try and get him out again! During the fight I had an absolute nightmare but I pulled off one of the best victories of my career to date. I’m just grateful to be English champion,” Martin proclaimed.
Martin attributes his success to his religious faith. At the end of both difficult and successful rounds in his fight with Boylan he can be seen crossing himself as he makes his way to the corner.
“That’s just me being thankful, that’s what that is. I’m just grateful to be in the position I’m in today and I honestly believe it is God’s doing, not my own,” Martin revealed.
A born-again Christian, Martin discovered God in – the spiritual home of British boxing – York Hall. Ahead of his fifth fight against Ibrar Riyaz, Martin found himself in a changing-room surrounded by Christians with - legendary East End coach - Jimmy Tibbs providing the youngster with the answer he yearned for.
“We get in this changing room and I sat down and there’s four or five Christians sitting in the changing room at the same time. I’m thinking what’s going on here? I honestly believe I was put in this room for a reason; to find out everything.
“I’ve always been searching, I’ve always known there’s something more. I honestly believe we can’t just die. There’s more to life. Why do we have feelings? Why does the sea and land work so well? I was always searching for an answer. I don’t believe I was evolved from no ape. I ain’t no ape. Then Jimmy Tibbs put me in touch with a few people and from there it’s all explained itself to me. Since that day it’s changed my life.”
Whilst Martin is forging a successful career inside the ring, a natural footballing talent made it appear as though his future would be in the beautiful game rather than the sweet science. As a child, Martin was on the books of Fulham Football Club, who were in the English Premiership at the time. He then joined Peterborough United FC. He first entered a boxing gym to support his younger brother, George, who had taken up the sport to lose weight. George had travelled the length and breadth of the country supporting his brother playing football, Tommy felt it was the least he could do to repay the favour. To Martin’s surprise, the allure of boxing was both instantaneous and intense.
“I stepped in and saw everyone fighting and doing the pads, I just wanted to be involved,” recalled Martin. “I actually looked at one of my coaches [Sheridan Dyer] – who’s still my one of my coaches now – and he had that proper boxer’s flat nose and I said; ‘That looks cool. I want one of those!’ He went: ‘Listen mate, you don’t want one of these; it means you’re getting caught too much.’ Since that day, I’ve just been in love with boxing.
When he turned 15, Peterborough Utd requested that Martin be excused from school one day a week to train with the first team. At such a young age, he found himself training with the likes of Joe Lewis – England U21 goalkeeper – and George Boyd – who has gone on to have success in the Premiership with Hull City. Yet the attraction of boxing was so strong that Martin turned his back on a potentially lucrative – certainly more glamorous - future in football to try his hand at boxing. A decision he feels couldn’t have made without the support of his family and friends.
“I was going in [to training] every Thursday with the first-team and I still wasn’t enjoying it. I was in the flipping cold and filth thinking: I want to be in a nice warm gym punching someone’s head in. That’s how it came about. I just said: ‘Mum, Dad I’ve had enough. I want to be in the boxing gym.’ My passion was fighting and they supported me. They said: ‘Whatever you want to do we’ll support you.’ I’ve got the best family and friends in the world. They will support me whatever I do; whether I wanted to be a ballet dancer or a boxer!”
After a short amateur career, Martin decided to turn professional at 18. To maximise his chances of success he relocated from the picture-postcard town of St. Neots to the bustling metropolis of London. There he hired Johnny Eames as his manager and Barry Smith as his coach. Having always lived with his family, Martin was now alone in Canning Town. Unfamiliar with the area and isolated from his friends and relatives, he found the initial few months difficult. The situation was exacerbated by some less-than-friendly locals.
“It was horrible,” he remarked on those early days. “The first day I went running - I had Beats by Dre headphones on – I got chased for about half-an-hour on my first run! They were only about 15-years-old but they were chasing me shouting that they were going to nick my headphones. That was the first night I was there, I was terrified. After that I found a different running route and stuck to it!”
Martin believes he is now reaping the rewards of his sacrifice. He has made many friends in the city and has become, as he says: “One of the jack-the-lads in the gym.”
Boxing can inflict more pain on both the body and mind than almost any other sport. Martin acknowledges this fact and is quick to praise the support of his family, coaching and management teams allied with the financial support from his sponsor: Junction 17. With the backing of all those people, he believes he is ready to test himself against the best in the country. Refreshingly, remaining undefeated isn’t a priority for the youngster.
“Boxing can’t be a singular sport, it’s too hard. It has to be a team effort. Without great people around you, you’ll fail. I know it’s only me on the night but I need great people around me to keep me up at the top level.
“I’m not one of these to worry about losing the “0”. I want to be involved in great fights for the fans, the paying public and prove to myself that I am up there. That’s why I took the Ricky Boylan fight. Obviously I don’t want to lose – I’m petrified of losing – but if it happens, it happens. You either win or you learn, that’s what happens in boxing.”