Former promising boxer Chris Evangelou has swapped the ring for the big screen and, the Londoner tells Danny Flexen, he is finally at peace
It’s hard to decide which is the more startling transformation, that former super-lightweight title challenger Chris Evangelou has put on around 50lbs of pure muscle to resemble a Greek God - more accurately a Greek-Cypriot God - or that he sounds so happy. Not in a self-deluding, ‘look at me’ way, either, but instead projecting sincere contentment and a renewed lust for life. For a man that suffered significantly with depression and other mental health issues in the immediate aftermath of his boxing career, acting clearly better agrees with the Londoner. He has not boxed competitively since 2016, but Evangelou is still fighting on a daily basis, both for personal wellbeing and to progress through one of the more competitive industries. Fortunately, he has some experience in that regard.
“That’s all I’ve ever known,” Evangelou reflects. “As a fighter you always want to get to the next big fight or next level. It’s like the Guy Ritchie film, The Gentleman, that I will be appearing in, is my first ever fight… I’m not gonna say I want GGG; I’d get knocked out in 10 seconds! You need to build your talent and experience. Even though being in a Guy Ritchie film is a big deal, because I’ve been a boxer for so long and the character was a fighter and a Londoner, I was confident but if it had been a different kind of role I might have been quite intimidated. My aspirations for acting are as ambitious as they were for boxing. I want to play opposite Tom Hardy, he’s my favourite actor and on my vision board. When I watch a film or TV series, I want to affect someone in a positive way like they affect me.”
The analogy he draws is interesting, not least because he views longtime friend and Game of Thrones star James Cosmo as his acting mentor, the latter-day version, for Chris, of a boxing coach, the one person he trusts to draw out his optimal performance. It is a mark of the respect Cosmo has for Evangelou that the veteran scene-stealer agreed to play the father of his protégé’s lead in a short that the 33-year-old co-produced based on a story he had written with director Ross McGowan. Shadow Boxer, which Evangelou has submitted to around 60 film festivals to generate the momentum that will hopefully propel it to full-length feature status, was in its current incarnation funded by both Deadline Films UK, whose Craig McDonald-Kelly crafted the screenplay, and the project’s protagonist who “Was feeding the cast and crew every week with my brother’s Costco card!” The film is a gripping 10 minutes of conflict, both literal and internal, focusing on a boxer’s battle to overcome low self-esteem and anxiety instilled by a harsh father/trainer who, in the pivotal contest, ends up helming the opposing corner. For Chris, who was managed by his own father, an archbishop and respected community leader, this belligerent dynamic seems like a radical departure, but the mental health issues brought to the fore are all too familiar.
“A lot of men are suffering with their mental health but they don’t know how to talk about it; that’s the reason why we came up with the film,” Chris explains. “I went through a bit of a tough time about three years ago, family problems, it really affected me, but it wasn’t actually my idea to put the dad in the opposite corner. In my original story the father has died and there was never any validation from the father to the son. Ross [McGowan], the director, said, ‘Why don’t we have your dad alive and have this man, who’s a former world champion, loved by everyone, he’ll be in the opponent’s corner?’ Father and son relationships can be very volatile and detrimental to a young man’s health. Mason, who I play, is the story of depression and anxiety that I experienced three years ago. I was unrecognisable, and that was the inspiration for the mental health aspect of the film.”
Chris seemed invariably amiable during his boxing days but that only periodically passed beyond the surface. In retrospect, far too much was demanded of a young man who found the sport only when aged 17 and was thrust into the limelight from the very beginning of what turned out to be a relatively brief professional career. An impressive amateur, Evangelou signed with Matchroom from the off and, although they were not the behemoth they later became, he made his debut on a Sky Sports show below European and Commonwealth title fights. The prospect’s still-developing boxing skill was quickly relegated below a coveted ability to sell a great number of tickets and this brought unnecessary added pressure. Evangelou needed space to grow; instead he was gradually suffocated by commercial imperatives and the unrealistic expectations of others. He retired, aged just 30 and with a 13-3 (2) record, having seemingly underachieved.
“I definitely do feel that,” he concurs. “I feel that as a pro I wish I had made stronger decisions with my own career. I feel my accolades as an amateur, when I was always outclassing my opponents, I don’t think I took that into the pro world as well as I should have. Signing with Matchroom, fighting in front of thousands, I was kind of in at the deep end. Because I sold a lot of tickets, there was a lot of pressure on me from the start. I’m a people-pleaser and because you’re young as well – I was only 23 when I turned pro – I could have made stronger decisions and had more experience before I took on the bigger fights. I wasn’t doing things for myself. You’re sometimes not allowed to go backwards, you’re not allowed many warm-up fights, once you fight a name on Sky Sports it’s like you’ve always got to do that. If you don’t, it can look like your career is going backwards and image is very important in boxing.
“After I lost against Danny Connor [a contentious decision defeat for the vacant Southern Area title in 2012], I should have taken time to regroup and think about whether I really needed the rematch at that time. For the  return, I was ill, but I thought I’d beat him in the rematch on 50% and because I’d sold 400 tickets at Wembley Arena on a Sky show, with guys like George Groves and Darren Barker on there, I thought, ‘I don’t wana miss this opportunity.’”
Evangelou was dropped twice in the seventh round of the sequel and again came out on the wrong end of the verdict. Unsurprisingly, few robbery cries were emitted the second time around. From there things continued to unravel. His comeback fight saw Chris lose over six rounds to a 3-3 opponent, Ashley Mayall, whose upset win that night was sandwiched by a pair of stoppage setbacks to novices. A belated move up in weight followed as did four straight victories but a badly broken right hand suffered against Zoran Cvek in 2014 and the after-effects of the Croatian’s rabbit punching left Evangelou constantly playing catch-up. Months after squeaking by the average James Gorman in March 2016, one door finally closed, but one fondly remembered from his past had already reopened. It feels apt that the former boxer officially confirmed his retirement at a private screening of Shadow Boxer earlier this month.
“When I came back and had what would be my last fight, with only 10oz gloves, I could feel my hand,” Evangelou recalls. “I went back to the surgeon and he told me the bone wasn’t healing well because I was punching on it; he advised me to take time out. I turned to acting, which was actually my first love. I found an agent who put me forward for big-name brand commercials and, slowly slowly, I started to get a few jobs. In 2019 I booked Samsung and Heineken, big international campaigns, and I started to fall back in love with acting again. The acting world just grabbed me and I wake up every day now, so happy. When I booked the Guy Ritchie role, it was one of the best days of my life.
“I was an actor since I was about seven. I did a lot of community theatre, I actually wanted to be an actor as a kid and all through my teenage years I was acting. When I went to college, I studied acting. At one time I was an actor/boxer, then became a boxer/actor. I remember once I had a sparring day that I had to get ready for, but I had a small acting job the day before and they had me there for 12 hours. The next day I didn’t spar as well as I could have and I had to make a choice. Because boxing is a young man’s sport, I chose to pursue it. I thought that acting would still be there later and thankfully it was.”
The Gentleman, released in January, could well be Evangelou’s big break and the role that facilitates his planned relocation to Los Angeles, the epicentre of mainstream movie-making. Working alongside a diverse and starry cast, led by Matthew McConaughey, was wish-fulfilment stuff for Chris and he will only learn alongside other highly respected co-stars like Hugh Grant, Charlie Hunnam and Colin Farrell. While Primetime, his pugnacious, cheeky cockney character, is not much of a stretch, Evangelou has undoubted charisma and it’s not inconceivable that he could carve out a niche for himself in Hollywood.
“When I read the cast, I was blown away,” he enthuses, sounding every bit the awestruck cinema-goer, the effect typically endearing. “It’s a star-studded cast. Guy Ritchie does a black box rehearsal, so he gets everyone that’s in the film in a hall one day, and they film the whole thing in front of black curtains. I met McConaughey, Grant, Hunnam. It was like a dream.
“The plot, as much as I can say, is this American drug kingpin [McConaughey] wants out and in the process of selling off his empire, a lot of cock-ups happen. It’s a typical Guy Ritchie film, multiple storylines going on at once but they kind of meet at the end. Primetime is a gang member but they are big, loveable rogues. I get a few good lines and he’s a cool character.”
There is a concerning lack of post-boxing success stories and, refreshingly, Evangelou is already one of the few. He has been with girlfriend Mercedes, who works in IT, for over two years and has high hopes for the future, both personally and professionally. As a paid fighter, pushed too far beyond his growing gifts to satisfy the bloodlust of consumers and the venality of those who serve them, Chris often had to pretend to be something he wasn’t, to represent something everyone else desired in him. Boxing is, in essence, a lot like acting, having to deceive your opponents and, more often, yourself. Now the pretence is paying off in a significantly safer environment and, ironically by portraying other people, Evangelou is finally happy in his own skin.