Curtis Woodhouse: Street-fighting man is ready to shun studs and mud for his love of the ring

After tomorrow's Cardiff final Grimsby's Curtis Woodhouse is quitting to pursue a boxing dream, writes Richard Rae
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The Independent Online

Curtis Woodhouse is searching for words, trying to explain why, at the age of 26, he has decided that tomorrow's League Two play-off final for Grimsby Town against Cheltenham Town at the Millennium Stadium will be his final game as a professional footballer. It isn't easy.

"Nearly everyone I know thinks I'm crazy," he says. "The way they see it, I'm stopping doing what most kids dream about doing, giving up good money and security for my family, to embarrass myself and get seven bells knocked out of me."

Seated on a physio's coach he pauses, picking mud off knees encrusted in training. "But I'm not stupid, if I didn't believe I had prospects, I'd carry on playing football. But I can't wait, because what I'm going to do is a whole different kind of excitement. After Cardiff, it's about me, no one else, and I think I'm going to surprise a few people."

And so on Monday, while his former team-mates head off for their summer holidays, Woodhouse will begin a new career as a professional boxer. Leaving his young family in Hull, he will rent a flat in Peterborough near the gym run by former British featherweight champion Gary de Roux, and begin preparing for his first fight, on 15 July, on the undercard at the MEN Arena.

Boxing is, Woodhouse insists, something he was always going to do. Football just got in the way. Growing up in Driffield, an isolated market town in the Yorkshire Wolds, he learned to fight at an early age.

"It's a nice place, but it was also quite tough, simply because we were the only black family. There was a lot of name-calling, and worse, and I had my first street fight when I was about eight, first pub fight when I was maybe 14 or 15.

"And this might not sound good, but I liked fighting. Even when I got hurt by bigger men, the adrenalin was there. The more so because I was quite objective about it. I knew it was going to happen, so I learned how to look after myself."

The only thing he enjoyed almost as much was, of course, playing football. Combative is an adjective too often used to describe a player who is simply destructive, but while Woodhouse has always been able to mix it with the best, he can play too. Signed by Sheffield United aged 17, he made his first-team debut soon afterwards; three years later he was signed by Birmingham City for £1m.

A Premiership future beckoned, but somehow it never happened. Soon after joining City he was sentenced to 120 hours of community service for brawling in a Cardiff restaurant - an incident he insists even now he did not initiate - and though he went on to establish himself in the first team under Trevor Francis, Woodhouse was among the casualties when Francis was replaced by Steve Bruce.

A loan to Rotherham was followed by a free transfer to Peterborough United, before he moved to Hull City, the club he supported as a child, and for the last six months, to Grimsby Town. Perhaps his decision to go back to his first love has been prompted by disappointment.

"Not at all," insists Woodhouse. "I'm very proud of what I've achieved as a footballer - I've played in an FA Cup semi-final, play-off semis and now a final, Sheffield derbies - but I'd still be doing this if I'd been playing for Manchester United. Wherever I've been the first thing I've done is find the local boxing gym.

"What people need to understand is my main ambition in signing as a footballer was to keep out of trouble. It was never about money; if it was, I'd carry on, because I've got two young children and though I'm not poor, I'm a long way from being a millionaire. In fact had it not been for the family, I'd have made the switch a couple of years ago.

"As it is I can do my boxing without worrying about money because there's enough set aside for us to live on for a couple of years. After that I'll need to be earning, and I will be."

Will he, though? According to De Roux, he's got a serious chance. "Curtis came to me when he was at Peterborough, and I basically told him to clear off," he said. "But he kept coming back, and once we let him in he more than held his own, and we've got some very serious young prospects here.

"So I sat him down and laid it on the line, the sacrifices he'd have to make, the commitment, the pain, all that. And it was clear he'd thought it through. Yes, he's 26, but his underlying fitness is good and he has the big advantage of knowing how to get the most out of himself under pressure.

"He's also come from a tough background. There are plenty of examples of boxers winning championships after coming late to the sport - I myself didn't lace on a glove until I was 21 - so though it's a huge task, I've seen enough of him to believe he can achieve great things."

Woodhouse, who describes himself as an "aggressive, pressure fighter" and intends to box at light-middleweight, accepts that many people in the sport are relishing the prospect of seeing him learn a quick and painful lesson.

"I wouldn't think anyone will want to be beaten by an ex-footballer, but that's human nature. I've signed a three year deal with [match-maker] Dean Powell, and he reckons it will take three years to get to a serious level; well, I'm ready for that.

"Bernard Hopkins didn't get out of prison until he was in his 20s, and went on to become middleweight champion of the world.

"I need fights, and a lot of them, but the way I see it, I'll be a lot more optimistic and enthusiastic than the guys I'll be in against, at first anyway. They'll know their limitations, but I'll be expecting big things because I know how good I am already and I'll be improving every day I'm training full-time.

"I will miss football, but not that much. At the same time it means a lot to finish with a big game, and I'll give it everything to end holding a trophy. Then I'm going to make my change, and think about the fulfilment of one day being able to say, 'hey, you know what? I took a big gamble and I achieved.' Anyone who has given up a well-paid job they enjoy to follow a dream should be able to respect that."