Last Sunday at York Hall, deep in east London’s boxing heartland, Johnny Greaves quit the ring after winning his 100th fight.
Greaves will be missed because he is one of the best fighters in Britain, but not for the reasons that define the careers of most boxers in the fight business: on Sunday Greaves won for just the fourth time to end his career with 100 fights, 96 defeats and the four wins.
The end came in front of a crowd familiar with Greaves and other fighters like him and he retires as the King of the Journeymen, a breed of prizefighter that is essential in the boxing business.
Greaves fought the unbeaten prospects, the winning fighters who need a contest without too much risk, and since turning professional in 2007 he has met 70 boxers who had not lost a fight. However, on Sunday Greaves was the star and people paid their 35 quid to see him win, not lose, and he came close to getting carried from the old ring on the shoulders of his fans.
“It was a glorious way to go out,” said Greaves. “I was under a bit of pressure before the fight with people driving me mad and I know now why I never sold tickets – I moved about 200 for this fight and they all wanted to talk to me; I had to go out the back for a snout to get a bit of peace and quiet.
“The fight went to plan and I was a bit disappointed that I never threw in an Ali shuffle but, to the tell the truth, it was hard because he [Dan Carr] was trying to out-Johnny Greaves Johnny Greaves. That was a liberty.”
Carr, who has now lost 42 of his 46 fights, did indeed try a few of the moves that have made Greaves an attraction: he touched Greaves on the bum, stood in the corner with his arms on the top rope whistling, he asked a lot of personal questions during clinches and he talked to people at ringside.
“The way my business works is simple,” Greaves explained. “I get matched against all these unbeaten fighters and they have their family there – girlfriend, nan, the lot. I like that, the more that are there the better and I will tell you why.”
Greaves paused to take a long drag on his first cigarette since retiring from boxing. It was also the first one he had had since about 10 minutes before he got into the ring.
“You see, if they are all there the kid will try like a nutter and then I know it’s going to be an easy night. He will be swinging and I will be saying to him: ‘Is that your bird in the white? She can’t stop looking at me.’ Now, the kid with all the fans will start throwing wild punches and I can slip and slide those easily. The problems start when the kid ignores me!”
It is too easy to point out to Greaves that he has managed to lose 96 “easy” fights. I point it out anyway: “I never said that I would win, I just meant that it would be easier to lose,” he explains and it makes perfect mad sense.
Greaves, who is 34, has been in some hard, hard fights when all of his tactics and skills have vanished and he has been forced to trade on his heart against a really good fighter in an occasional mismatch. “It happens and then I have to fight. I was fighting on the unlicensed circuit before I turned pro and I’m not afraid of having a tear-up.”
There were also occasions when Greaves, just like other journeymen, knew that he would not get the decision even if he had done enough to win. “That happens all the time, it’s the business and I just accept it,” he said. It’s not illegal, it’s just the way the boxing business works.
“I kept on fighting to put food on the table, to provide for my kids and my family. That’s why I did it,” Greaves said.
Now he will take over a small part of the gym to work alongside Frank, his brother and trainer, to make the next great journeyman. “I know too much to disappear, but I will never get back in there. I liked that winning feeling too much and I don’t want it to get addictive.”