First published at BritishBoxers.co.uk in November 2016.
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Some are shared by thousands or even millions. Others are more personal; grandfathers with ‘snap’ tins filled with medals and ribbons or a father marching for his community beneath a colliery banner. Usually, their place is earned in endeavour we believe to be beyond us or undertaken in our stead.
Occasionally, a figure enters my consciousness from an apparently innocuous encounter or anecdote or due to the most obscure or seemingly trivial of reasons.
One such occurrence happened six years ago as I witnessed a humble coin toss occur in a boxing dressing room with a potentially career changing prize at stake. The toss was necessary to select one of the two unused reserves to replace an injured finalist in the Featherweight edition of the then popular Prizefighter show and a chance to win £32,000.
The loser in this contrived game of chance, Slough’s Ian Bailey, his face etched with anguish and emotion, became an unwitting member of the serendipitous and unwitting band of heroes I’ve acquired over my years as a boxing fan.
True, Bailey hasn’t yet scaled the heights of sprinter Derek Redmond, or the courageous pairing of Andries and Close but in a sport of parables and people, this minuscule melodrama positioned the fresh-faced young fighter as someone I would follow and, hopefully, one day interview.
In the momentary silence that fell as the coin was revealed, Bailey dipped his brow into the consolation of his trainer’s silks to hide his emotion, the spotlight lurched away, like headlights catching the eyes of a fox on a country bend, and Bailey’s solid but ghostly white outline slipped back into the shadows. Boxing, like the show, must go on.
Despite the ensuing finale, my thoughts stayed in that dressing room. Tears were unseen, but imagined.
“It was horrible,” said Bailey when speaking to me six years on from that night. “I wasn’t thinking about the money, I don’t fight for the money. If you get into boxing for the money, it won’t end well. But I did look at that coin toss as a chance to ‘nick’ thirty two grand.”
“At that time, that money would have sorted us right out. I was skint. And I did think about that in that moment because I was thinking of the 32 grand, not 16 (for fighting eventual winner Willie Casey and losing). The kid who won the toss hadn’t even been in training, he just saw it as a chance to gamble and collect sixteen grand. I was fit. I’d been training and I knew I could beat Casey. I knew he was knackered and I could take it to him.”
Casey would win the final against Scottish novice Paul McElhinney to leverage a European Title fight, he won and was then over-matched against Guillermo Rigondeux for the WBA 122lb belt. Prizefighter could do that back then. McElhinney would retire four fights later.
“Even if I’d won that toss, won the fight and got the money, I wouldn’t have considered it a proper win. It wouldn’t have been right, beating someone who’d already had two hard fights, I wouldn’t have felt good about it. I’m pleased Casey won it.”
The dismay Bailey could be entitled to feel didn’t linger and he was matched with an emerging Carl Frampton shortly afterwards.
“He probably is the best I’ve faced. You watch him and you can’t see anything exceptional, he doesn’t do any one thing outstanding, but he’s just good at everything. I thought I did alright in that fight, he was just a bit better at everything than me. Mind you, Lee Selby was good. And the kid I lost to when I did get to fight in a Prizefighter, Rhys Roberts, he was good too but he seemed to pack up not long after.”
It was good to learn that Ian remains aspirational. His record determines that he inhabits the space between domestic champions and journeymen, refusing the latter and aiming to be in the right place on the right night to become the former. This despite a 13-19-1 (5 KOs) record.
“I don’t worry about my record. I know I’m in the top 10 in my division in the country and that every fighter I’ve faced could fight. I’m still trying to do something, to become a champion. If it was just about the money, I’d be a journeymen. I’m a full time professional. I earn my living from boxing; fighting and training others. I’ve had some good years financially, and some bad ones. But I’ve always been aiming for something.
Some lads come in to the gym wanting to be journeymen, but they’re not good enough. You have to be good not to get hurt, they don’t understand that, and don’t get me started on these Latvians. Its dangerous. But that’s boxing. Even the Olympic kids find it hard to earn, after deductions, training and all that and if they can’t sell tickets, they end up paying to fight. Because somebody is coming to get beat up and they need paying.”
The next play for the Berkshire quiet man is a fight with Reece Belloti. An unbeaten prospect, Belloti will face his first real professional test against Bailey in a fight to secure a potential shot at a vacated English title. The current custodian, Ryan Doyle, who outpointed Bailey in July, is presumed to be progressing up the pyramid. As always, Bailey will enter from the right of the bill.
“I’m not a ticket seller. I never have been. I don’t do all this tweeting ‘What I’m having for dinner’. I know its all part of the game but its not me. I was the same at school, and I don’t have loads and loads of mates. I’m anti-social I suppose. I’d rather not do all that, I don’t believe in it all.”
For this curious observer, a lover of the non-conformist, Bailey’s star just shone a little brighter. True to himself, and those closest, he remains with renowned fight figure Johnny Eames and travels to London three days a week to prepare for his next encounter.
“He’s a throwback,” added Eames. “He never asks who he is fighting, what they’ve done or even how much he’ll get paid. Just what weight and when. If boxing promoters actually promoted fighters instead of just the kids who sell tickets then Ian’s career could have had a totally different direction. He deserves something out of the sport. He has given so much to it.”
Bailey’s earthy pragmatism could be a valuable outlook in his forthcoming fight. “This fight with Belloti (26th November , Wembley Arena) should be good for me,” he said.
“I feel much better than last time out, just everything was wrong that night. He (Doyle) beat me but I was cut, I didn’t feel right on the night in there. I don’t really know why, I’d been on antibiotics in the penultimate week so that might have took the edge off me. But I’d been carrying a shoulder injury for ages, and it affected my right hand.
“I always put off resting it because there was always another fight, and I’d be taking clients on the pads too but I took a full break for a few weeks and it feels much better. So I’m looking forward to this, I’ve seen his fights. I think I can get at him and its an eliminator for the English and I’d like another go at that.”
Pick a winner? Sounds like a toss up to me.
[Note: Reece Bellotti would beat Ian Bailey more comprehensively than anyone I’d seen Ian fight before and would announce himself to this observer as a fighter with great potential. One year later, Ian is yet to box again.]