The sport of boxing has been coursing through the veins of respected British trainer Michael Marsden for more than 40 years now.
A former amateur and pro boxer, the one-time Central Area lightweight boss has subsequently served the game with honour as a trainer-second, manager and matchmaker.
Quiet, understated but hugely respected by his fellow licence holders, Mike was unanimously saluted when Darlington’s Stuey Hall – a lad he’d coached and managed since Hall’s formative pro years – annexed the IBF bantamweight title following an epic battle with South Africa’s Vusi Malinga in Marsden’s home city last December.
Both fighter and mentor will now be looking to expand their legacies, starting with Hall’s maiden defence against north-east rival Martin Ward, the Commonwealth champion, at the Newcastle Arena this Saturday. It promises to be a spicy affair.
Hall-Ward forms part of a triple title bill – which also includes Jon Lewis Dickinson’s British title defence against Yorkshire bomber Neil Dawson and ex world amateur champion Frankie Gavin defending his Commonwealth welter strap against Namibia’s Sacky ‘The Snake’ Shikukuta – that can be seen live and exclusive in the UK on BoxNation, the Channel of Champions from 7pm on Sky Ch 437 (449HD)/Virgin Ch.546.
Last Sunday morning, boxing writer Glynn Evans cornered the reticent Tyke to chat about his extensive shift in the fight game.
Q: When did you first become interested in boxing and who were your early heroes?
MM: I was always a bit of a feisty kid, a scrapper. My older brother Dean went boxing at the local Burley Road gym and I followed him there from the age of eight. I was the youngest at the gym. My early heroes were Duran and Arguello. I liked the Latin fighters.
When the Burley Road gym closed we moved to the Meanwood club where we were coached by Vince Flynn and Harry Pickney whose son died in the ring.
I had about 70 odd junior contests, won the Yorkshire and North-east schoolboys and got to the English quarter-finals a couple of times but, having started so young, both Dean and myself stopped when I was just 14.
Q: You turned professional when you were just 17. Retrospectively, was that a mistake? What do you recall of your pro career?
MM: Hindsight is a wonderful thing and, if I’d known then what I know now I’d have done things differently.
Dean, who’s four years older, started back at the Market District gym where (future world light-heavyweight title challenger) Tom Collins trained. He turned pro with Trevor Callaghan and, though I’d had no senior amateur experience, I went pro with him.
Between the ages of 17 and 21, I was totally dedicated and did alright. I was a decent box-fighter and at the age of 21, I won the Central Area lightweight title against Mohammed Lovelock. I then successfully defended it by stopping Peter Crook with just seven seconds left of the tenth and final round. The Crook fight was televised on ITV’s Fight Night and I got a lot of recognition for that.
I also boxed an unbeaten French kid called Alain Simoes (a triple European title challenger) in Monte Carlo on the undercard to Julio Cesar Chavez and Rocky Lockeridge, a card that Don King promoted. That was an unbelievable experience. I was actually on a lad’s holiday in Gran Canaria a week before but still managed to last the eight round distance.
At my peak, I got to number six in Britain in the Boxing News ratings and, for me, that was a massive achievement. There was no super-feather division established back then so there were double the fighters at lightweight then, that there are today.
Probably the best opponent I fought was Pat Cowdell. Anthony Brown from Liverpool hit me hardest. We’d previously fought a good draw but in the rematch he caught me with a sharp, heavy shot and put me away. Probably the toughest I fought was a big, strong coloured lad called Charlie Coke who I fought in a six rounder in Stoke. I won and it drew ‘nobbins’.
Back then, everybody used to fight everybody else and it wasn’t uncommon for fighters to have 50-50 records similar to mine (16-13-1). Today, on the undercards, usually only one fighter is coming to win. You don’t get many 60-40 matches.
After the age of 21, I started to go out enjoying myself and stopped training correctly. I took a lot of late notice jobs. For my last few fights I didn’t do myself justice, just turned up for the money. That’s why I retired at 23.
Q: Were you ever tempted back?
MM: No I weren’t. I consciously avoided gyms and distanced myself because if you’re at an age where you could still fight, you’d return for the wrong reasons. Instead, I took up rugby league and played as a hooker in the National Conference League until I was 30. I really enjoyed the training and the camaraderie.
Q:So how did you return to the game?
MM: I was working as a butcher but opened a local weights and aerobics gym called Bodymania Fitness Centre in Rothwell. We ran boxercise classes from there. A local heavyweight called Carl Gaffney was fighting for the Central Area title and asked me to train him. To work his corner, I needed to get a trainer’s licence and it all snowballed from there.
Shortly after, Carl’s manager Trevor Callaghan brought Nicky and Noel Wilders to me and I looked after them throughout their professional careers. Later, I was involved with Kevin Bennett, Steve Conway, Isaac ‘Argie’ Ward, Darren Rhodes.....
I also worked the corner for most of Mickey Hunters big title fights. Today, in addition to Stuey Hall, I train and manage (ex British, Commonwealth and European lightweight king) John Murray and his younger brother Joe, another very talented boxer .
I’ve subsequently taken out manager’s and matchmaker’s licences. As a former fighter, I prefer the coaching part best. I dislike matchmaking most. You no longer match boxers, you match ticket sellers.
Q: Castleford’s Noel Wilders won British, European and IBO bantam titles under your watch. What were his qualities and what prevented him from going even further?
MM: Noel was a really great kid and a very sharp and skilful southpaw. On the way up, some of the ten round spars that he had with Jason Booth at my gym were unbelievable. So competitive, so much skill.
After just one three round fight in 18 months due to a brain scan discrepancy, he went over to Nice and stood Fabien Guillerme on his head for 12 rounds to win the European title.
Noel was a very good trainer at the gym but not really 100% dedicated. He might have gone even further had he been a better ticket seller.
Q: In addition to Stuey Hall, you also pull the managerial strings for Manchester’s John Murray, the one time British, Commonwealth and European lightweight champion. At 29, what might he still achieve?
MM: Good things. John was already 27-0 and British champion when he asked me to manage him. He’s such a natural fighting man. He’s far better now than he was when he got stopped by Kevin Mitchell and Brandon Rios because now he’s doing everything right. Back then, he was taking shortcuts, crashing his training and crashing his weight, always out partying.
Now he’s got a dietician on board and he doesn’t drink anymore. He makes lightweight very comfortably. I think a lot of people were very surprised to find how much he still has left, after the way he ripped through John Simpson last time out.
We’ll find out a lot more when he faces Anthony Crolla over 12 rounds in Manchester next month. I used to manage Crolla and I really like him. That’ll be a very, very good fight. They both know each other but I’ve got to back my man. I just think John will be too much of a natural fighter for Anthony. I’d not have accepted the fight if I’d thought otherwise.
Q:You’ve been involved in boxing for over four decades now, Mike. What’s the best thing about this sport?
MM: It’s a bug, addictive. Rarely a day passes without me speaking on the phone to some fight face who’s on the brink of ‘chucking it’. Then the next time you see them, they’re absolutely buzzing about the sport again!
Boxing people are different to others. They have a completely different attitude to life. They’re gladiators who are prepared to walk into a ring half naked and risk getting knocked out before an audience. They’re a special breed. You can usually tell within a sentence of speaking to someone whether they’re a proper fighting man.
Q: And the worst?!
There’s a few things. Contracts don’t seem to be worth the paper they’re written on and I don’t like ticket deals. When I boxed, promoters promoted fighters. They advertised around the town and put on good matches for boxing fans to enjoy. And the fans would watch the whole show and appreciate the fights. Good fighters always got plenty of work back then, regardless of how many tickets they shifted.
Today, promoters expect fighters to sell all the tickets, in addition to training and making weight. They expect them to be able to pay for their own fight.
Also, too many trainers think they’re fighters and are almost shadow boxing in the ring between rounds. There’s a few involved in the game today who don’t deserve to be, who haven’t paid their dues.
Q: When did you first become involved with Stuey Hall? What were your initial impressions of him both as a person and as a fighter?
MM: A trainer from Darlington called Paul Hamilton who was previously involved with (one time British welterweight challenger) Francis Jones brought Stuey and (recently crowned British light-heavyweight champion) Bob Ajisafe to me and I signed them very early in Stuey’s career.
Stuey got badly cut in the first round of his second pro fight against Dougie Walton, who was unbeaten in six, over in Coventry. But working his corner, I got him through and we’ve worked closely since.
From the first time I saw Stuey spar, I knew he had something a bit special about him. He was a natural fighting man who hit very, very hard. I just needed to improve his defence and sharpen him up a bit. He needed to learn how to plan out rounds rather than just blaze away.
Though he had a reputation as a beach bum, we struck up a friendship very quickly and he’s great company. Regardless of his past, he’s always lived the life since he’s been a pro fighter. After joining the pros relatively late I think he made a pact to himself to give it his best shot.
Q: After flying to the Lonsdale Belt in just a dozen fights, Stuey appeared to plateau after Jamie McDonnell, then Lee Haskins outpointed him in European title fights. Have you been surprised at how he’s managed to kick on?
MM: I weren’t really, no. Though he narrowly lost the Jamie McDonnell fight, it was such a good learning experience for Stuey. People forget, he was fighting for the British, Commonwealth and European titles in just his 13th fight. Afterwards, Stuey could’ve changed things himself. He knew exactly why he lost.
For Haskins, he simply didn’t turn up on the night and I still can’t pinpoint why. I guess only Stuey knows. He was ‘bang on’ in the build up and turned up in proper shape so new excuses. I don’t want to take anything away from Lee Haskins.
Stuey needed to use his superior physicality to bully Haskins, knock him out of his rhythm but he gave Lee far too much respect and allowed him to get too far in front, too early. Still, off nights happen in boxing.
McDonnell and Haskins are the two fighters we most want to defend against. Tidy things up.
Q: You deserve tremendous credit for managing to rehabilitate Stuey into a world title contender in such a short period of time following Haskins. How did that happen?
MM: After the Haskins loss, Stuey was very down. Everyone had written him off and I needed to get him back out quickly but there were nowt about. I managed to persuade Dennis Hobson to put him in with Josh Wale for the Commonwealth title and his convincing win there (pts 12) paved the way to the world title eliminator with Sergio Perales.
Trust me, Stuey Hall stepped up several levels that night. Perales was very smooth and hit extremely hard; very deceptive. The rounds were very close and Stuey needed to dig really, really deep. We thought he’d won but we didn’t have it anywhere near as wide as the official judges gave it to us.
Stuey’s world title win over Vusi Malinga at the First Direct Arena in Leeds last December was one of the great nights for British boxing this Millennium.
Q: Were you apprehensive about placing Stuey into a world title ring against such a grizzled operator as Malinga? What were your abiding emotions during, and immediately after their titanic battle?
MM: I had absolutely no reservations and was extremely happy when the match was made. Stylistically, I felt Vusi was made for Stuey Hall. I expected him to stand and tee off and, when that happened, I knew Stuey would prove too strong, too tough, too fresh.
Everybody knows Stuey can have a fight but, during camp, we worked massively on speed and sharpness. Stuey had most of the early rounds won after just two minutes because he was landing the eye catching stuff. With the round in the bag, he needed to conserve but he were overworking himself which were a bit of a worry. He was too ambitious.
And the last round, when Stuey’s eye was completely closed, was the longest three minutes of my boxing life!
I half expected Stuey to win the fight but, when the decision was announced to make it official, I was very proud that I’d trained and managed a world champion, pretty much from scratch. I’ve stayed very humble but whatever happens in future, it’s done. Nobody will ever be able to take that away from me.
Q: You’ve always kept a low profile and shunned the limelight. Why?
MM: I don’t really like being interviewed because I don’t give any bullshit so sometimes it’s just best to keep your nose out of the papers. I’ve been asked to do a lot more since Stuey won the title and I think I’m getting a bit better at it.
As long as I’m doing my job properly and I’m fair to my fighters, I’m happy with that. I’d like to think that proper boxing people know what I’m about and have respect for me.
Q: Stuey enters as a big, big favourite ahead of Saturday night’s title defence. Any chance he could become complacent?
MM: Well, you never know until the night but he’s certainly done everything right in the gym and he’s very focussed. I really can’t see that being at issue.
Martin Ward is a very talented boxer who’s definitely a potential banana skin. I expect he’ll put up a very good fight and if he runs, as we expect him to, it’ll be a hard night for us.
Q: Why are you confident that Hall retains?
Ultimately I think Stuey Hall will be far too much of a man for Martin Ward. If you saw how bashed up his face were after six rounds against Malinga, yet he carried on for another six. That shows the character of the kid and I know Martin can’t match that. Five of Stuey’s last seven fights have been hard 12 rounders. Unlike Martin, he has that championship conditioning, that seasoning. He’s a very rough, hard punching bantamweight and Ward won’t be strong enough to hold him off.
Q: As his manager, what direction do you see his career taking over the next 12-18 months, if he triumphs on Saturday?
MM: Paul Butler’s name keeps cropping up in the media. If that fight is to come about, it’ll be on our terms. Paul’s a very, very good fighter; loads of skill and other attributes. He’s very sharp and a nice body puncher. That might be an easier fight to make with BoxNation involved but we’re not overly worried by Butler.
Q: The fight Stuey wants, and I’d also be 100% keen on, is a rematch with Jamie McDonnell. Question is, can it be made?
MM: One thing I’m very conscious of, is not burning Stuey out. I want him to take his time and still be defending his IBF title two years from now, gradually increasing his media exposure, becoming a big celebrity up in the north-east.
Q: Finally, what are Michael Marsden’s remaining ambitions in boxing?
MM: I’ve high hopes for my 22 year old heavyweight Dave Allen, ‘The White Rhino’, but I’m quite happy with my lot, to be honest. I’m presently doing well with Stuey and you never know what’ll walk through your gym door tomorrow. I just want to stay humble and carry on enjoying the game.
March 28, 2014