Far from Vegas: The grassroots boxers going toe-to-toe around Britain

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Away from the bright lights, brash hype and big bucks of the TV sport, unknown boxers are pulling in the punters. Steve Bunce spends an evening at one of Britain's booming fight nights.

Floyd 'Money' Mayweather made $32m (£21m) at the MGM in Las Vegas on 4 May for a world title fight that secured his place as sport's best earner. Mayweather has generated just over $500m (£332m) in pay-per-view revenue and is boxing's main attraction.

Seven days later a Bulgarian boxer, with a dark bruise under his eye, was nodding gently as a man called Davey Cowland gave him his final instructions before his latest fight. There was a lot of listening going on, which was odd, as the Bulgarian, Borislav Zankov, spoke no English and Cowland spoke no Bulgarian. Win or lose, the Bulgarian will make 800 quid at the Camden Centre, north London, for his four-round professional middleweight fight.

All the fights at the Camden Centre take place under British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC) rules, the same rules that govern multi-million pound fights involving Ricky Hatton, Carl Froch, Joe Calzaghe and David Haye. On this particular Saturday night, seven professional shows, sanctioned by the BBBofC, took place across Britain, and there were 46 fights. It's the same business, but nights at the Camden Centre are very different. There are no cameras from Sky or BoxNation, and no VIP area, though there is a man called Eric up on the balcony filming the fights and selling DVDs of the action for "a score".

The audience members at the Camden Centre are ordinary people, supporting a friend, a boyfriend or a son. This is not amateur boxing, it's not white collar, no, this is just old-fashioned pro boxing at, for want of a better expression, a grassroots level. The best boxers from nights like this hope for the neon of a big show, a big fight, a title, a television date and a place next to their idols. This is where it starts. It is also where it can end.

The conversation in the downstairs changing room, which is dedicated to the visiting boxers, stops when the warm-up starts. Cowland holds up a set of pads and the Bulgarian looks at him like he is a madman. It turns out that Bulgarian, Latvian and Estonian boxers like to just get changed, put their gloves on and fight.

"Five minutes, Davey," says the whip, a position leftover from boxing's dark 19th-century history. The men in charge of keeping the Victorian fancy in order at clandestine gatherings for bare-knuckle fights held a whip. The man talking to Cowland is in charge of getting the boxers in the ring on time. He is the whip.

Fifteen minutes later the Bulgarian is back in the dressing room, pulling faces and moaning. He lost again and this time it hurts because he went over his ankle after a right hand shifted his senses. He was unable to beat the count in any language and limped from the ring. He is not a bad Bulgarian, to be honest, with two wins in seven fights.

"He knows what it's all about," Cowland says. Cowland is something called a 'house second' and that means he goes in the corner with the foreign boxers or any of the boxers that show up with little more than a bag of kit and an empty pocket. His corner duties include washing out the gumshield between rounds, giving advice to the fighter between rounds and holding on to the boxer's valuables during the fight. A lot of boxers travel solo, finding a familiar face at a venue and slipping the second 50 quid for the night. A foreign boxer's purse improves if he comes in on his own.

There is a Bulgarian translator floating about the changing rooms, looking and talking like Sofia's answer to Tony Montana. Each time I see him he's throwing punches, shadowboxing the life out of a memory and recreating one of his recent fights. His name was Danny Dontchev; he lives in Tooting and fights anywhere that he can. The translating is a freebie, a favour to his manager, who is also the show's promoter.

"You seen Danny yet?" Mickey Helliet, the promoter had asked when I arrived at the Camden Centre. "He lost last night and he's not happy." Dontchev is never happy about losing and he gets plenty of practice at being miserable, having won just four of his 59 fights. However, the statistics really don't tell the story; Dontchev tells the story, mostly by taking the listener through his fights punch-by-punch. It is exhausting at times, because he never stands still. That's where the Tony Montana tag comes from. Also, Scarface is a big film in Eastern Europe. Danny plays at Al Pacino just a little bit.

"Look at this cut, look at it," Dontchev demands. He has a five-stitch gash on his hairline, the result of a butt in a fight in Leeds the night before. Dontchev lost on points and drove home alone. "I had no problem with him [the opponent] and I want to fight again soon." Dontchev was due to fight again the following Saturday.

Helliet joins us for the conversation in one of the Camden Centre's many stairwells.

"Danny, Danny, you can't fight next week," says Helliet. "I know why you want to fight, but if the cut opens up and you get stopped, it means 45 days. Think about it, leave it for two weeks, let it heal and you can go back out. The break will be better than 45 days."

Helliet applies his hand of calm to Dontchev's fidgety shoulder – I watch him extend it a dozen times throughout the night. It works on Dontchev and the prize-fighter can see the sense in waiting for the cut to scab over before getting back in the ring. If a boxer loses on points he can fight again in a week, which is often what Dontchev does, but if he is stopped there is a forced rest period of as many as 45 days. Dontchev isn't really a bad fighter but he makes his money, like half of the fighters at the Camden Centre, by accepting fights as the visitor, the foreigner, the away fighter: the loser.

The Camden Centre is just one of Mickey Helliet's venues in London. He uses an old vaudeville hall in east London and a derelict cinema conversion at the Elephant and Castle. He packs them high, sells them cheap and his shows always deliver. At the Camden Centre the tickets started at £30 and went to £60 for inner ringside. It is a throwback crowd and they demand, and get, hard fights. Several losers left the ring to a chorus of: "Wanker". This is not a corporate crowd on a jolly.

"My fighters know that they have to do more than just sell some tickets," says Helliet during yet another stop in a stairwell. "It's a tough business on both sides of the ropes. I know that, they know that. My fighters have to sell tickets to pay for their purse and for their opponent's purse. That's the way I can put on the shows. If they want a chance at winning, they have to sell some tickets. Simple."

Helliet manages, promotes and works as an agent for about 75 fighters, mostly in Britain. He had more but it is harder, so Helliet claims, to deal with foreign fighters because so many are approached directly on social media sites. Helliet has fighters that win and some, like Dontchev, that seldom win. Helliet can certainly find the right fighter for just about any level of fight anywhere in Europe and is part of a distinguished line of fixers. He has boxers on his books who will accept fights in the afternoon for that evening – if the money is right.

During the night, Helliet seemed to be on constant retreat to a corner somewhere inside the Camden Centre to discuss something or solve a crisis with either a fighter or a trainer. "You wanna fight? You do want to fight, right?" he says to a teenage boxer at one point. "Let's sort this dough out now," he instructs a man in a tracksuit as the pair walked into the gloom outside the losing changing room. Helliet was rarely to be seen in his ringside seat. "It's no good sitting down because there is always something to be sorted," he remarks.

"On a show like this, it is all about the boxers getting some work and their fans having a good night. It is what it is. The boxers will get between 800 quid and two grand for their fights. Everybody gets paid, everybody makes a few quid and then we move to the next show."

Late in the evening, Helliet leads out his fighter, Dan Woodgate, for the main event. Woodgate is a winner and is fighting Doncaster's James Tucker for the International Masters light-heavyweight title belt. On the Camden Centre circuit the piece of waist-jewellery is meaningful, and after 10 rounds 'Woody' has it over his shoulder; it is win number 10 and he moves a fraction closer to the 'other world' of boxing. In the downstairs changing room, Tucker tidies away his kit, dabs at a cut on the bridge of his nose and Carl Greaves, his manager, laughs off another loss on the road. Tucker, who is known as 'Slugger', has now lost 60 of his 72 fights.

"Make no mistake about it, we are foreigners here when we take fights as opponents," says Greaves. "It's getting harder and harder to get a win on the road. I'm not complaining about this," he goes on, with a glance at Tucker, "but nobody wants to lose any more, and people are just not taking enough real fights for the house fighters." In translation, Greaves means that his boxers, like everybody in the 'defeated' room, have the odds stacked against them before the first bell. They have been matched hard, matched against home fighters with better records. It is legal cattle trading, and outsiders mistake it for bent activity. The last people sent to prison for fixing fights served time on Alcatraz in the Fifties and they were, it has to be said, gangsters.

"I have about 50 fighters at the moment and some are unbeaten, some are on the road and some are a mix. They decide where they want to be and I have to explain to them the way the business works. I tell them that they have to sell tickets or you go on the road. That's it," says Greaves. "I take 15 or 12 and half per cent from the boxers – I don't take liberties." Greaves was a good operator in his days as a pro.

Greaves had his first loser in the first fight. James Conroy, who had lost eight stone after a doctor warned him that he would die unless he stopped eating junk, walked on to a short right uppercut and was dropped and stopped in round three. Conroy complained, Greaves shrugged and the referee got it right. Conroy was having his first licensed professional fight after years on the unregulated or unlicensed boxing circuit, which is an arena where men fight at dangerous venues in bouts without medics in attendance.

"It was hard to get him [Conroy] a fight because nobody knewf him and that meant nobody wanted him," explains Greaves. "It will be easy to match him now, and that's what I want." Conroy lost to a kid called Joe Duffy, originally from Donegal, but now chasing his boxing dream in Islington. He injured his hand in round one of the fight. "Luckily, I caught him with my good knuckles," said Duffy when he finally returned from the hospital with a huge cast on his right hand.

Duffy moved to four wins in four fights in just three months. Greaves will have another chat with Conroy and perhaps his status could change, because he had some fans in the crowd. One called out at the end, when it was stopped with Conroy up at the count of seven and complaining: "Ref, you're a dickhead". The ref ignored him. "I reached eight [counts] and that was enough," the ref said to the British Boxing Board of Control's ringside doctor as he climbed from the ring. It was enough, by the way.

Carl Greaves promotes enough of his own shows to get his boxers wins, providing they shift tickets. "I have fighters with losing records that sell more tickets than some British champions," said Greaves. He is not joking; it's not a business for those types of jokes. The following day Greaves went back to Newark on the train with Tucker, he then jumped in his car, drove to Leicester and had three winners at a show in a nightclub. "Perhaps it was a weekend for underdogs," said Greaves. It was not, and at the Camden Centre everybody in the downstairs changing room lost.

The fights continued with the men from upstairs coming and going in glory, treating the backstage stairs as their victory parade steps, lined with smiling family and friends. The losers slipped in and out, often ducking away after defeat for a long journey home. The first stop on the journey was Helliet, to get paid. "I've got your dough."

There are no envelopes in this world and readies are reeled off in a silent show and bundles slid back inside pockets. There is always a set of eyes from a security guard catching Helliet's action. It was a gentle night for the security, with just a couple of punters walked outside to help with their own sobriety; each time the venue's doors were opened the sirens blared from King's Cross. The location, opposite the station, gives the place a real inner-city feel; it is a fighting hall on the edge of Somers Town.

Back in the ring, Alan Higgins moved to five victories from five fights with a hurtful win over sad-eyed Dan Blackwell. 'Higgo' is a Camden Town boy, can shift as many as 500 tickets and he can fight. Blackwell has now lost 19 of his last 22 fights and, oddly, he can also fight. Floyd Moore, who walks to the ring under a John Denver song, hit a Bulgarian called Asen Vasilev on the chin and won in the first round. Arturs Geikins from Latvia moved to Bognor Regis to improve his boxing and got a win against Swansea's Matthew Ashmole.

Geikins, however, never sold the tickets he promised and his purse was adjusted. "Latvians don't sell tickets, that's a fact – even when they move to Bognor," quips Helliet. Geikins could be switching changing rooms in the near future. Ashmole lost for the 10th time in 10 fights and seems destined for a career in the downstairs room. However, a big blonde woman approached Ashmole as he left the ring and told him: "You won that, darling". She moved off, Ashmole looked at me and says: "Never seen her before in my life". Nice to know that he had one fan in the hall.

At the end of the night, the Most Reverend Doctor Costakis Evangelou was a mix of nerves and endless goodness as he watched his son, Andreas, climb through the ropes. The Reverend, from Wood Green, has another son fighting and this summer his boys will go to America and work with Jesse Reid, a quality trainer. They will be off to the next level, that is his hope. The Reverend, meanwhile, will continue his missionary work in Africa as president of Ixthus Church Council. "It is a world of contrasts," says the Reverend. Evangelou, the light-heavyweight won, and the stairs were packed for his walk back to the victory room. "We have been blessed," adds his father.

It was 11.20pm by the time the ring was being dismantled by just one man. The crowd was off throwing punches from the fights in the wet night, most of the boxers had left, the small huddle of security guards held a tiny de-briefing before splitting, leaving just one to shadow Helliet as he made the last of his payments.

"People think that a boxing promoter drives a Bentley, that's the perception, but that is just a couple of guys," Helliet tells me in the Camden Centre's vestibule. "I will end up breaking even tonight, and in the boxing business that's success."

Just as Helliet turns to leave, looking exhausted it has to be said, Dontchev appears from the hall, his two Bulgarian friends at his side. Vasilev looks a bit sheepish and Zankov has to quickly remember to limp. "Hey, Mickey, this cut is getting better, I think I can box next week." Helliet just shakes his head and walks for the door and the street and the sirens.

Steve Bunce is the author of 'The Fixer' (Mainstream)

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