Danny Flexen speaks to Fabio Wardley, the Dillian Whyte-managed unbeaten heavyweight with no amateur career and only 11 fights total who finds himself on pay-per-view shows
Fabio Wardley accidentally fell into white-collar boxing with the same effortless timing he had already used to great effect as a high-flying recruitment consultant. Once a promising footballer, the laidback Ipswich man is now an unbeaten pro heavyweight, but ask him how the team of Oleksandr Usyk headhunted him as a sparring partner before the Ukranian’s fight with Tony Bellew late last year and he does not know; query the way in which future manager Dillian Whyte sourced him for similar duties before he met Robert Helenius in October 2017 and Wardley, while eternally grateful, hasn’t a clue. It wasn’t called the ‘Law of attraction’ when I was a kid and, on my rough-hewn estate, any suggestions that “Good things happen to good people” was immediately and understandably scoffed at. The theory has grown in popularity in recent years, however, and Wardley appears to have encountered good fortune at every turn since abandoning the moderate sins of youth.
Having endured the separation of his parents at around two years of age, Wardley grew into, by his own admission, a rebellious and challenging child. This phase continued even after his mum met Fabio’s stepfather – whose surname the boxer is proud to use – and survived a burgeoning talent for football that led him to the Ipswich Town Academy by age 12.
“After the split, my dad moved to America, he’s been there ever since and never come back,” Wardley said, the intervening years adding a casual air to what must have been a heartbreaking development. “When I was younger, I would visit him, we had a relationship of some sort, we’d get on some times, not at others, but now I realise we are better just trying to be friends and getting along; I’ve not seen him for about four-five years. When I was a lot younger it was a big thing for me, but I learned to live without him, without wanting or needing him there.
“When I was about six or seven, my mum met a new fella and they’ve been together nearly 20 years now. He was my father figure and he raised me, pretty much. He’s a no-nonsense geezer, gives it to you how you need to hear it. I was used to being a young, rebellious kid with a single mum and no direction. Those first few years we butted heads a lot, I was trying to fight off having a father figure and someone telling me what to do, but now we’re exactly like father and son.
“My mum is my everything, my reason why I do everything, my beginning and end. We had no money, literally. I have a joke with my cousins because when I was younger, we didn’t have new clothes. I used to support Man u, my cousin had an old top of theirs with his name on the back but I’d run around with it, with his name on, absolutely buzzing. Hand-me-downs and a rough life, that’s how we grew up, but my mum did absolutely everything else, I never felt like I went without. We were always doing things, even simple stuff like going to the seaside or a day at the park. She was a cleaner for years and now has her own cleaning business. My stepdad works for a building firm, he’s one of the top director-level people.”
Despite a loving family, Wardley found himself constantly in trouble at school, able to do the work but often bored and with little enthusiasm for education. Concerned by the teenager’s increasingly wayward behaviour, the school referred him to Suffolk Positive Futures, a programme designed to deter potential troublemakers and provide them with alternative pursuits. The scheme helped Wardley twice over as it offered a detour from the perilous path he was walking and led him to Suffolk Punch boxing coach Rob Hodgins, who would eventually become his head trainer. By that point, the regular football matches, which had already receded into a hobby, were scuppered by injuries to both ankles.
“You can go play football, go to boxing events, do little bits to keep you away from that life and around something a bit more positive,” explains Wardley regarding Positive Futures. “You also have that connection with coaches if there’s anything you want to talk about; Rob still works for them. I was just doing those type of things you would assume a young kid was doing, I was out in the wrong places, not in a gang, but around rough people doing rough things. I was fortunate enough to not be in that hole for too long. I probably wanted to be rebellious as kids enjoy that, it was something to do, a bit of excitement in your life. As silly as it sounds, it’s exciting as a kid to get chased by police.
“After I’d done my ankles, I was around 19, I sat around for six months doing nothing. I’d always been into going to the gym anyway, but I wanted something different. I just messaged Rob on Facebook, ‘Long time… I want to do a bit of boxing casually.’ He said, ‘Yeah, come up.’ It literally seemed like I walked in one day and never left. I trained for a couple of months, and every three-four months the club has a white-collar show; the owner said ‘Do you wanna give it a go?’ And I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’ll have a go.’ That first fight, the raw of the crowd, shouting my name, it was mental, there’s not much that beats that feeling. I did it again and again and again, then I got a call from someone who knew a pro manager [Mervyn Turner] who wanted to turn me over. My first spar was at 20, so I’ve only been doing this for around five years total. The gym I was at had no ABA affiliation - it does now – and when I was doing white-collar, I was still not thinking I could make something out of this, I was just thinking thick and fast, when can I get another fight?”
Amazing as it seems, with no traditional amateur background, Wardley only had four white-collar bouts before turning professional. Yes, he won them all inside the distance and is now 7-0 (6) as a pro, having faced surprisingly decent opposition thus far, but the sheer audacity of the move offers yet more evidence that ignorance is bliss. Wardley simply saw an opportunity and, with limited knowledge of the vagaries of boxing politics, jumped in with both feet. His lack of experience, exacerbated by his failure to ever go beyond four rounds, has been partially mitigated by sparring at the very highest level, regularly against Whyte plus two spells with Usyk and a valuable day with Tyson Fury, among many others. Only three of his first seven victims have brought losing records into their contests, quite remarkable given Wardley is a 24-year-old heavyweight who only laced on a pair of gloves for the first time in 2015. He can clearly handle the competition not to mention the spotlight, given the Whyte association has led to appearances on three Matchroom shows already – though Fabio himself is a promotional free agent – a pattern which continues this Saturday on the big Sky Sports Box Office bill from London’s O2, topped of course by his friend and ‘boss’, against Oscar Rivas. Even that propitious link-up came by chance.
“We got on really well, started laughing, joking and messing around,” Wardley recalls of meeting Whyte when the prospect had fought just twice as a pro. “They used to train in a big, old, convertible mechanical garage next to a car shop. It was just a ring and some bags, nothing flashy about it, pure grit. I expected a state-of-the-art complex and walked into what was basically a big shed. I was with a manager at the time, but eventually got myself free and was on the hunt for a manager. I had a few different meetings, seeing what options there were for me. By this time, me and Dillian had built up a bit of a rapport. I called him one evening, I didn’t know he was taking on fighters, I thought he was just half looking after Richard Riakporhe. I told him, ‘I’m free now, speaking to this and that manager, what’s your thoughts?’ Out of nowhere he goes, ‘Hold on…’ and hangs up on me. He then calls me back straight away and says, ‘Forget all that, sign with me and I’ll look after you properly.’ A week or so later I went up to Loughborough [University] for the [Dereck] Chisora [rematch] camp, met him and the managers behind him, everything was signed and we moved from there.”
When the unmissable opportunity to work with Usyk came around – Wardley has since returned, by invitation – he jettisoned his part-time job in a gym, having already left a far more lucrative and time-consuming role in recruitment sales following his pro debut. That career provided a guaranteed and not insignificant income; abandoning it for what must have seemed like a pipe dream to some was a real leap of faith, though yet another example of Wardley playing the cards he’d been dealt. So far, the 6ft 5in mobile puncher has held a winning hand.
“I’m fortunate that I still live at home,” Wardley, who takes on durable Argentine Mariano Ruben Diaz Strunz at the weekend, points out. “I think that’s the biggest thing because without that wouldn’t have been able to go full-time. I gave up my job, then a couple of months later I signed with Dillian, then got bigger fights and Matchroom bills. Without the security of my family, I wouldn’t be in this position to do that.
“I’m fortunate to be relatively young in boxing, especially heavyweight boxing, so I don’t have to rush. I know I need experience, I need to know what it feels like to be in the eight, ninth, 10th rounds. I’ve done those rounds in sparring, it’s not the same but I can take some confidence from that, especially the level I’ve been sparring. But there’s not a name mentioned I’ve ever said no to, I don’t fear anyone.
“I want to start picking up some belts and making the first steps towards bigger shows and bigger fights and having my name more in the mix with more weight behind it.”
Does Wardley’s journey illustrate the law of attraction or is it simply a case of hard work combining with the requisite good luck? We cannot be sure what Fabio Wardley’s secret is but maybe it reflects a different proverb, that one about fortune favouring the bold.