Vintage BM: Sykes and the Waiting Game

The Central Gym in Batley, West Yorkshire, is stifling. Cracks along windowpanes proclaiming “DICKY’S GYM” in flaking white paint offer scant ventilation. Trainer Julian McGowan’s star pupil, Gary Sykes, looks weary, sore and has a bloodshot right eye. Preparations are underway for a pre-Xmas payday, possibly on the undercard of the Stuart Hall-Vusi Malinga fight for the vacant IBF bantamweight title in Leeds on 21 December.

The greater motivation for Sykes, however, is a fight for the vacant British super featherweight championship that is scheduled for early 2014, which will be pivotal to his career.

Sykes spent the second half of 2013 as mandatory contender for the belt he once held. He was looking towards his third fight with Gary Buckland, when the Welshman held the title, only for the championship landscape to change when Buckland was knocked cold by Stephen Smith,

who was substituting for injured John Simpson, in August. Smith and Sykes had been due to face off in an eliminator, but when Simpson dropped out, Smith was given his opportunity, with both he and Buckland agreeing that the winner of their fight would make his first title defence against Sykes.

Unfortunately for Sykes, new champion Smith became central to a promotional dispute between Frank Warren and Eddie Hearn, who each announced a different date for a defence against Sykes. The British Boxing Board of Control ordered that Smith could not fight on Hearn’s 7 December card as they had already sanctioned the fight for Warren’s 27 November show in Liverpool, upholding the rights of the promoter.

Subsequently, Smith vacated the championship, and while Warren, Hearn, Smith and the Board attempt to resolve the problem, Sykes was left up in the air and frustrated — but that’s not a new sensation for Sykes. Few have had to weather as many sloughs of disappointment as 29-year-old Sykes (24-5, with five stoppage wins). Three years ago, Sykes was unbeaten in 16 fights and held the British title he is in waiting for a shot at today.

Sykes was a local hero in Dewsbury and a good news story for an area in dire Need of one. He’d won the vacant belt in March 2010 against Andy Morris and successfully defended it two months later with a decision over Kevin O’Hara.

Then things ground to a halt. Unable to arrange a second title defence, Sykes chose to enter a November 2010 Prizefighter tournament. Held at two pounds above the super featherweight championship limit, his British title would not be on the line.

“I got told about Prizefighter three weeks before,” he explained. “I was inactive for quite a while and there was still nothing on the horizon. I like to take risks, so we just said: ‘Let’s do it.’ I’m a fighter, so that’s what I do.”

As gambles go, Sykes was dealt a dead man’s hand: Cardiff’s Buckland coldcocked him with a booming right-hander after 45 seconds of their semi final contest.

Sykes returned four months later, with a thrilling title victory over Leeds puncher Carl Johanneson, but Sykes was haunted by the Buckland loss and they rematched in September 2011 with the Lonsdale Belt on the line — and the Welshman beat Sykes again, this time on points after a hard-fought battle. “Even my daughter [Layla, aged seven] loved that belt,” Sykes lamented. “When I lost it, she said: ‘Daddy, I’ll help you get it back.’”

With his career at a nadir, good fortune finally appeared to call. Sykes received an offer of $65,000 to face WBO titlist Adrien Broner on the undercard of the May 2012 rematch between Amir Khan and Lamont Peterson in Las Vegas. “At the time he was nowhere,” said trainer McGowan. “Gary was pissed up and depressed, with no fights and no opportunities. I told Gary [about the offer] and

he never asked: ‘How much?’ He said: ‘Yeah, I’ll fight him,’ and that’s his attitude.

“If you’re a footballer you want to play at Wembley, don’t you?” Sykes stated. “And if you’re a boxer, you want to box in Vegas.”

Then, less than 10 days before the first bell, Peterson failed a drug test and the whole card was scrapped. “The biggest regret about that was I trained so well, because I was training on fear,” Sykes said ruefully. “That is still the peak of my career.”

His only consolation was having escaped the verbal sparring with Broner, the trashiest of trash talkers. “The one aspect that made me glad it didn’t happen is the press conferences,” Sykes admitted. “I’m not right good in front of the camera — specially on the microphone. I reckon I’d have been in trouble. A lot of people have said I need to be more big headed, but when I talk crap
to someone I feel bad after.”

It was another low point, but Sykes was able to reconcile it, philosophically: “Julian’s aunty is pretty spiritual and she said it might have happened for a reason, as something bad might have happened. 

“After the Broner fight cancellation, I got the opportunity to box Liam Walsh for the Commonwealth title and that didn’t come off. That was horrible and that’s when the second Prizefighter came around again and I thought:‘Bugger it.’ If I’d have lost in the first round, I was that sick of boxing it would have probably been my last fight.”

In October of last year, though, Sykes saw off Hull’s Tommy Coyle and, for the second time in his career, Manchester star Anthony Crolla, before losing a contentious decision to southpaw Terry Flannigan in the final. “I thought I won, but saying that, I looked at the first fight [against Coyle] and that was pretty close,” Sykes offered graciously, before whispering: “That was an easy fight, that, [the Crolla rematch]; really easy. I must just have his number.”

A brace of English title victories followed earlier this year, wins scored on the road that have brought him back into title contention, yet he refuses to abandon a hometown — a rugby stronghold, traditionally — that can’t support him, or indeed, the man who continues to provide him with unwavering assistance.

When pressed about Sykes’s predicament, McGowan is phlegmatic. “Boxing is a business,” he said. “If you’re a huge ticket seller, promoters pick you up - it’s that simple. We’re in an area that’s not big on boxing; there’s not a lot of money around here.

“I’ve said to Gary: ‘If ever you want to progress and move on to another gym, I’ll take you over and I’ll do the introductions,’ but there’s no way he would work with anybody else. I think he knows deep down I have his best interests at heart. Most of the time I don’t get paid — he probably owes me more money than I would even want to think about. I look at him like he’s a son and,
realistically, when Gary’s finished I’ll very likely get on with the rest of my life.”

Opportunities continue to present themselves. Sykes was working towards his British title shot when a chance to face Kevin Mitchell emerged. (It was rejected due to what Sykes and McGowan viewed as a derisory purse offer.) Before that, however, came an offer that shows that in boxing,
you never know what’s around the corner.

“People don’t know, but we’ve actually been offered two world title shots,” said McGowan. “Last October we got offered $80,000 to fight Yuriorkis Gamboa, but Sykes was 11 stone and we had three weeks notice. I just said: ‘Bloody hell, it’s one thing taking Broner when we’re in the gym, but
fighting Gamboa — at featherweight, by the way — why are we going to do that?’”

Sykes now awaits developments on the British super featherweight title front, Where Commonwealth champion Liam Walsh has been mentioned as Sykes’s co-challenger. What’s certain is that Sykes will end up in a vacant title fight early next year, but while winning a title by beating the champion is always preferred, Sykes believes that any way he wins the title will make up for past misfortunes.

“I think she’s got it in my head, you know, Julian’s aunty — about what goes around, comes around,” said Sykes. “As long as I’ve got that British title outright, that’s the main thing. Anything after that is a bonus. It’s everything.”