Boxing: Multiple skills begin to add up for calculated Cleverly

The maths graduate from the Welsh Valleys who fitted in winning the European title while studying for his finals is making a calculated bid for the world light-heavyweight crown
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The Independent Online

It is doubtful whether anyone who was in the audience at Butlins 30-odd years ago, watching a band called Autumn Mist, remembers the occasion. But for the Welshman Vince Cleverly, Autumn Mist's vocalist, that evening in Minehead still resonates.

His usual lead guitarist had pulled out, and so he got a musician called Enzo Calzaghe to fill in. Scarcely could the pair have guessed that Enzo's little boy Joe would go on to become a world boxing champion for many years, and that Vince and his wife Jackie would have a son called Nathan, who would be trained by Enzo, and now stands on the brink of becoming a world champion boxer himself. It's remarkable what can emerge from the Autumn Mist.

It wasn't until young Nathan was 11, however, that Vince and Enzo renewed their acquaintance. Nathan wanted to learn to box, and was preparing to go to school one morning in October 1997 when his mother saw on Teletext that Joe Calzaghe had beaten Chris Eubank to become WBO super-middleweight champion. "Your dad knows his dad," she said. Vince duly made contact with Enzo again, and took Nathan to the Calzaghe gym. Enzo liked what he saw. Another boxing career was born.

That gym, which I visited myself, was in truth little more than a tumbledown, corrugated-iron shack. The Calzaghes later traded up to another place, pebbledashed rather than corrugated iron, and probably considered distinctly insalubrious itself except to those who'd seen the first HQ. But then boxing gyms are rarely much to look at, indeed their grimness is often in indirect proportion to the success of the men who train there. That's an equation that might appeal to the 23-year-old Nathan Cleverly, partly because his current training base is in the Bargoed Social Club, a building that looks almost derelict in the heart of the depressed and depressing Welsh Valleys, and partly because he's good at equations. Against just about all the odds that he confronted when growing up, the fourth of five brothers in the rough, tough village of Phillipstown just up the valley from Bargoed, he is a graduate in pure mathematics from Cardiff University.

We meet in his gym, at the top of two flights of rickety stairs. The weather is bitter outside, but it's hardly any warmer indoors, another feature of boxing gyms. "When we left Enzo Calzaghe we needed a gym, and luckily my dad had this amateur club," Cleverly tells me. The decision two years ago to leave Enzo – Cleverly done in more ways than one – was prompted by the concern that he might be dragged into the conflict between the Calzaghes and the promoter Frank Warren.

"I had a good friendship with Enzo and Joe, so it was a difficult decision, and it caused some bitterness at the time. I knew Enzo desperately wanted me to stay. He felt I was going to be his next world champion. But I knew that the best thing for my career was to stay with Frank. He's a great promoter and I knew he'd get me the fights. So I moved on, and was trained by my dad."

Vince only got into boxing when Nathan did. "I kind of dragged him into it with me. It's only in the last two years that he's been technically classed as my trainer, but behind the scenes he's always done bits, even in the living room." They must have accounted for more than a few ornaments down the years? A big smile, from a hugely affable young man. "Yeah. Mum had to put up with quite a bit. We'd have to move the carpet, push back the settee, to do pad work in the living room. Eventually we built a little garage."

Next Saturday, in Liverpool, Cleverly, unbeaten in all his 19 professional fights, will meet the 31-year-old Spaniard Alejandro Lakatos in a WBO interim light-heavyweight contest. "He's an over-hyped, jumped-up kid who will be exposed for what he is," Lakatos has said. For Cleverly, less confrontationally, Lakatos is "tough, experienced and dangerous, but I should have too much for the guy". If he does, only the WBO champion Jürgen Braehmer, now appealing against a prison sentence for assault, will stand between him and the prize he has long craved.

Before all that, his fighting instinct was evident on street corners. "There was nothing much else to do in Phillipstown, no facilities or anything, so I basically started street-fighting aged nine, 10, 11, usually by appointment after school. I always wanted to take on the person who thought he was the hardest. But when I was 11 I had this idea to channel my aggression and competitive nature into boxing."

The self-discipline he learnt in the ring was parlayed into discipline in the classroom, and today he is a local role model in all sorts of ways.

"People round here have seen where I come from. In this area, people are insecure, they don't believe they can achieve something, but I always wanted to break that mould. It's crazy really, though, to combine boxing with such an academic subject as mathematics."

Boxing was not the only sport at which he excelled. He was Welsh Under-15 cross-country champion, and a decent enough footballer to be offered a trial by Cardiff City. Coincidentally, he missed the trial because the family were on holiday at Butlins in Minehead that week. Rarely has one of Billy Butlin's holiday camps loomed so large in a sporting evolution. For, though he was disappointed at the time, missing the trial helped him to cast off any football ambitions and concentrate on boxing. Boxing and maths.

"I did physics, maths and French in my A levels, and got two As and a B, which got me into Cardiff fairly comfortably. Actually, the maths helped my boxing, and vice versa. Boxing is so single-minded at times, so intense. You've got to focus your brain and maths is a similar environment, mentally. In exams you have a time limit to perform as well as you can, and it's the same in the boxing ring. You have to figure out your opponent as quickly as you can."

Even so, when a stab at the European title coincided with his finals eight months ago, the pressure almost decked him. "I was studying all hours for my exams, and I completely sacrificed Christmas. I'd be in the library in Cardiff until 3am, then up to train the next morning, and back in the library in the evening. The fight was a week after my final exam, and there was a bit of a delayed reaction. I had a sore throat, I felt lethargic, but I managed to put on a great performance. I stopped the guy [Antonio Brancalion] in five rounds, pretty much stole the show. And when I had the belt round my waist I thought 'If I can get through this, I'll be unstoppable in future'."

There are plenty in boxing who agree, some comparing him pretty favourably with one of the best boxers Britain has produced, his fellow light-heavyweight John Conteh. "I'm actually not so interested in boxing history," Cleverly says. "Sometimes you can get too much of it. I like to do my training, then brush boxing aside for a while. But I know a bit about Conteh, yeah. He won the British, Commonwealth and European titles like myself." A pause, and a grin. "But apparently I've done it quicker."

In doing so, he has also made a few bob, doubtless with plenty more yet to make. "Yeah, I'm getting there, but it's not too much for me to go off track. I've bought a nice house, that was my first priority. And I'm on the verge of getting a nice car for myself.

"I intend to spend it wisely. But it's not about money for me. I want to become undisputed champion and possibly move up a weight, but first I want to dominate the light heavyweight division. Basically, though, if I become world champion in the next few months then I'll have achieved every goal I set out to achieve in life, at the age of 23."

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Boxing brains

* Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko Both brothers are multilingual and hold PhDs from the University of Kiev.

* Audley Harrison Completed a degree in sports science prior to winning his gold medal at the Sydney Olympics.

* Matthew Macklin Birmingham-born fighter pulled out of a law degree to focus on his sporting goals.

* Gene Tunney American former world heavyweight champion corresponded with playwright George Bernard Shaw, co-founder of the London School of Economics, for 20 years.

* Calvin Brock Former Olympian has a degree in finance and worked in banking.

* Nicky Piper Former Commonwealth light-heavyweight champion is a Mensa member with an IQ of 153.

* Juan Diaz Tough Mexican-American lightweight has a degree in political science.

* James 'Bonecrusher' Smith American who ended Frank Bruno's unbeaten record in 1984 at Wembley studied for a business degree prior to a successful career in boxing.