Work ethic: Gavin McDonnell interview
People laughed when Gavin McDonnell took up boxing, but sheer effort paid off and no one's laughing now. Indeed, as the Yorkshireman tells Mark Butcher, he's "shooting for the stars" and a world title...
No one likes to be underestimated in life, but being overlooked does have its advantages.
Gavin McDonnell has made a habit of surprising nonbelievers, but after handily outboxing the fancied Gamal Yafai in March the affable Yorkshireman is unlikely to be disregarded again.
Super-bantamweight McDonnell (19-1-2, 5 KOs) has just turned 32, but seems to be maturing late like a fine merlot. A relative latecomer to the boxing game, his rich vein of form stems from a fierce drive to succeed and, of course, the remarkable McDonnell DNA that has propelled identical twin Jamie to two world championships.
“You settle down when you get a bit older and you know what you want. You work that bit harder. You’re racing against the clock, really, because you know time will still catch up,” a relaxed McDonnell told BM over the phone after returning from a family break in Cape Verde.
“When I’m in the gym now, I’m putting that bit more in. When I see myself improving, it motivates me even more. Nobody trains as hard as me and I think it shows in the fights. You can see the improvements are quite big. It’s just a case of knowing who you are as you’re getting on.”
McDonnell turned his crossroads bout with Yafai into a boxing exhibition, an expression of dominance, exemplified by a stellar jab and some terrific bodywork that left the Birmingham man gasping down the stretch. A stark reminder, should one be needed, to never underestimate a McDonnell. Yet the bookmakers, who rarely miss a trick, pinned Gavin as a sizeable underdog.
“It baffled me. I’m a big boxing fan, I know me boxing inside out, and I were just like, ‘What are people seeing here?’ What evidence have they got to back it up?” he said. “The fight went exactly how I thought it would. If I really wanted to – I could have stopped him. It did give me that bit of motivation and kept me on my toes, but I weren’t complaining because every man and his dog who I know are probably going to get a holiday out of it!
“I had one geezer messaging me saying, ‘I owe you big. I had 500 quid on you. I got two grand back.’ I’m not complaining. Everyone I know has had a payday. It’s nice to get that little touch. I hope the bookies write me off next time! We knew he were a good fighter, dangerous, but I were the proven fighter. I said all along experience is key and it’s what won me the fight.
“There were loads of boxes he hadn’t ticked. In his head, he would have known that and he probably underestimated me, but he learned the hard way. You take your hat off to him – he hung in there in those last few rounds and, if I really wanted to, I probably could have put it on him. But power is the last thing to go and, in the end, he was just winging away, trying to land one and Dave Coldwell - being the good coach he is – knew there is always that threat and we’d probably done enough to win it.
“Dave has changed my mindset on boxing,” continued McDonnell, a former British and European champion. “You think boxing is all about attack, but if you’re not getting hit, you’re not losing. We work a lot on not getting hit. Now we’re making them miss. People think I’m tall and lanky, but if you watch me and our kid, we work the body well. Especially, our kid, but I’m getting better.
"In the Yafai fight, I’m making him miss and banging him downstairs. When you watch it back [Sky Sports commentator] Carl Froch said, ‘Yafai is gassing.’ Making out he was gassed because of what he was doing, but I was tiring him, making him miss and smashing him to the body. That was our gameplan. I don’t think I got credit, really, off the commentators. That’s why he was knackered.
“When I watch myself back, I think, ‘I don’t get hit now, I used to get hit.’ It’s a good job I had a good chin back in the day because I used to take one to give two, but now I take half [the amount of punches]. I look quite easy to beat. Nought stands out, but when you’ve got somebody who does everything well enough, who has got a heart you can’t buy, you’re born with, and that ambition, just an all-round solid fighter – they are hard to beat. It will take a special fighter to beat me and that’s what it did in the world title fight [against Rey Vargas]. Next time I get a crack it will take some going to beat me again.”
McDonnell acquitted himself admirably in his vacant WBC 122lbs title fight with Vargas in March 2017, but the rangy Mexican knew too much on the night. That majority decision loss brought lessons, in life and boxing, and also refreshing honesty from the Doncaster dynamo.
“Everything I done was spot on. If I could have pinned anything on what cost me the fight, I would have blamed it, but there was nothing. I done the best I could, I just got beaten by the best man,” said McDonnell of his only defeat as an amateur or a pro.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m going to crack on now’ but my next fight were [a six-rounder] on Stefy Bull’s show; from the highest of high to the lowest of low [in terms of visibility]. You become the forgotten man. When you’re not relevant. That were one lesson. It can be taken away. Even when everyone is praising you, the next day it’s all gone. Now I just want to make it count.
“I always used to think I could pull it out of the bag if I needed to, I tried my hardest in the last round [against Vargas], but the kid could move well. The next time I have to chase somebody down and pin them, my feet have to be that much faster. I take confidence out of the performance, but a loss is a loss and it was the worst day in my boxing career.
"They say you’ve got to go through the bad to appreciate the good. Last year, I honestly couldn’t see another world title shot. I were in six-rounders, but now I’ve had that [Yafai] win, I’m like, ‘Yep, I can see it.’ There are certain fights being mentioned and dates and a bit of a path. The wind is in my sails now and I’m chomping at the bit.
“I think there’s a plan to have another fight in June [McDonnell is now due to face Stuart Hall on 16 June], July and, all going well, a world title crack before the year is out. The more dangerous the fighter, the more switched on I am and the better I perform. I want a fight that puts a bit of fear in me. Somebody who is a proven world class fighter. I feel ready, but I know I need another little step up before a world title.”
Born nine minutes after his brother, Gavin hopes to follow Jamie to a world title or two. In their younger days, the McDonnell twins were naturally mistaken for one another, often leading to hilarious results with that trademark McDonnell stamina proving an invaluable asset.
“Our kid is supposedly nine minutes older. Who knows? My mum might have got us mixed up as kids and swapped us round, god knows how many times. I might have been born as Jamie and swapped to Gavin!” joked McDonnell. “When we were kids, we were like small, skinny. Our kid was doing his boxing so he were champion of everything. He were known for his boxing. We were just small skinny lads. Got bullied a bit, didn’t stand out.
“People always got us mixed up. There would be older kids who would want to chin me or our kid. They’d see the other one. If they wanted to chin Jamie McDonnell, they would see me and I’d say, ‘No, I’m Gavin’ and they’d say, ‘But you say that every time!’ And we’d get clipped! But, in most cases, we could run fast. This is where our engine must have come from because when we were kids we would get chased and they could never catch us. We could keep running all day. It sort of stems back from giving it out with mouth and then doing a runner when we were kids. Now we’re backing it up!”
Gavin’s improbable, late rise in boxing was started by, of all things, a night on the champagne. Celebrating in a hotel in France after Jamie’s European title win against Jerome Arnould, Gavin, buoyed by a few drinks, proudly stated, ‘If our Jamie can do it, I can do it’ to the mirth of those family and team members in attendance.
“I know my heart. I never would have thought I would have won a British title. I was swelled up on champagne. I looked around and everyone in there laughed at me because I was genuinely one of the lad’s lads, one of the full on, proper lads,” recalled McDonnell.
“When I came back home everybody laughed me off the planet. Everyone in the village who knew me said you haven’t got the dedication. Even my family, not one person believed in me. I don’t think I believed it myself, in all fairness. [Manager] Stefy Bull said on my first trip to the gym I didn’t know my left from my right. All I did was work hard with the bit between my teeth, always wanting to prove people wrong were my motivation.
“And when I won that European title [against Oleksandr Yegorov W12 in March 2015], I think I even said it on Sky: ‘I told you so. I dreamed it.’ People said, ‘I knew you’d do it, Gav!’ And I would say, ‘Listen mate, fuck off!’ That’s why I got to where I am now because not one person, not even my own family, thought I’d do it. It just goes to show if you work hard for something, you can do anything in life.
“Now I will be gutted if I don’t ever win a world title, but I know deep down I could win a couple. That’s how your confidence grows as a champion. I’ve got the fight bug and I’m fresh and ambitious enough to really shoot for the stars.”