Boxing: Woodhouse is ready for another shot at big time

 

Former footballer turned fighter Curtis Woodhouse has a message for the putative pugilist Andrew Flintoff: It's not cricket. "I like Fred and wish him well," says the one-time England Under-21 midfielder who boxes for the English light-welterweight title in Rotherham on Friday as the man from across the Pennines prepares to make his own ring debut in Manchester next month."But this is an altogether different ball game.

"Swapping sports and going into boxing is not easy and if he thinks it is, he is in for a huge surprise. I just hope he is preparing himself right and will know what to do when someone comes at him looking to smack him in the mouth.

"He was at the top of his game as a cricketer so he'll know that to be the same in another sport you have to be 100 per cent dedicated. Everyone is writing him off already but actually if he is serious about this, and puts the right work ethic into boxing, he could do well.

"If this is something he really wants to do, and it is not just a gimmick, then who are we to say he can't? He has the right to say 'I'm going for it', as I did."

But that was six years ago when Woodhouse, who had never boxed as an amateur, became one of the few to make a successful transition from from playing field to prize ring. He was 26 and as he warns, it will be much harder for 33-year-old Flintoff, whose excursion into the fight game as part of a Sky documentary has been described by sceptic promoter Frank Warren as "car crash television".

Beverley-born Woodhouse , who is now back in football part-time as manager of the Northern Premier League side Sheffield FC, the world's oldest club, was as useful with his feet as he now is with his fists. He commanded a £1m fee when Trevor Francis took him from Sheffield United to Birmingham City in 2001, and played over 300 games in League football. His career also embraced four Under-21 caps, and spells at Rotherham, Peterborough, Hull and Grimsby. He eventually combined his ring appearances with day jobs at several non-League clubs and as a coach at Lincoln.

"It was when I was with Birmingham in the Premier League that I realised that, at the time, I had completely fallen out of love with football. It depressed me. I just felt dead. I know there are many who won't be able to understand that, because I earned good money and had a great lifestyle, but I wasn't fulfilled.

"Boxing had always been my first love. I used to scrap in the street at the drop of a hat and often got into trouble. I was a bit of a bad lad. I was called a few names due to the colour of my skin but with a quick smack in the mouth they soon backed off."

Football and fighting are not uncommon sparmates and Woodhouse was a chippy, aggressive player. "I used to spar in a gym after football without the manager knowing. At Sheffield Neil Warnock would drag me in and say, 'I hear you've been boxing'. I'd be standing there with a big black eye and a fat lip and deny it."

Woodhouse made his ring debut in September 2006 and has won 16 of his 20 bouts. Last year he came close to a sensational upset, taking the unbeaten rising star Frankie Gavin to a split decision, a fight many thought he had won. His dream is to be British champion, and Friday's contest with Derby's Dave "Rocky" Ryan, 29, at Rotherham's Magna Centre is an eliminator for that title.

The next day he will be in the dug-out at Sheffield FC's ground behind the Coach and Horses in Dronfield, where he has similarly ambitious title hopes for the club he has managed since May. When we spoke last week he was on his way to Grisley, where they won 3-2, after his 5am roadwork and afternoon sparring.

Boxing, he says, has taken him to levels of fitness he never thought possible. "Everything I've done in boxing has been so much more professional, so much harder than anything I've experienced in football. Football training is kids' stuff by comparison."

His remarkable career switch was "one hell of a gamble". He says: "This is something I've wanted to do all my life, but football got in the way. I don't want to be sitting at the end of a bar when I'm 50 wishing I'd had a go at boxing. I really do believe I can become a champion."

We're told Freddie Flintoff feels the same, though whether he will after that first smack in the mouth remains to be seen.

Sport's switch hitters

Andrew Flintoff is not the first England cricket captain to box. Adam Hollioake had one winning pro bout last April as a heavyweight boxer in Australia, where he now lives, aged 41 after being declared bankrupt with business debts of £14m. Now he is a Mixed Martial Arts cage fighter.

Former rugby World Cup-winning All Black Sonny Bill Williams is the current New Zealand heavyweight champion after five pro fights.

Australian Anthony Mundine, the son of a boxer, gave up a successful rugby league career and became the WBA super-middleweight champion.

Mark Gasteneau, the New York Jets line-backer, boxed as a heavyweight but retired in 1996 after losing to another famous ex-footballer, Alonzo Highsmith, the Houston Oilers running back, who had 23 KOs.

Former Dallas Cowboys running back Ed "Too Tall" Jones, who was 6ft 9in, won six heavyweight bouts in 1979 before returning to football.

Alan Hubbard

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