Stalker in hot pursuit of Olympic glory
Liverpool lightweight left behind a life of crime to learn the ropes of the noble art
Sunday 27 February 2011
Tom Stalker has an accent as thick as scouse itself and like all typecast Liverpudlian larrikins he'll also admit to having been a bit of a scally. Well, more than just a bit. "I was out robbing cars, nicking stuff and all that, getting into a lorra trouble," he says. "Basically I was in with the wrong sort. I don't think I'm a bad person but I had become a bad person because of who I was with. They were all no-marks."
He was certainly one of the naughtier Liver Boys but, aged 18, two things happened: "Me nan died and I found boxing." The death of his beloved grandmother really shook Stalker up. "Not only that but my girlfriend was pregnant. I realised that the people I was with weren't proper mates, they were horrible people, so I decided to go down to the boxing gym with my two brothers, who were already training there. I stopped drinking and doing bad things. I knew I was heading for jail. I had already had a couple of close calls, but boxing got a hold and sorted me out."
It is not an unfamiliar tale – salvation through the discipline of an art which can still preach nobility. But what makes the Stalker story even more remarkable is that he had not put on a glove until he was almost 19, never having boxed at school, and says he was "hopeless" in his first year.
Yet now, at 26, he is in the vanguard of Britain's prospects for next year's Olympics in London, having won an ABA title, and European silver and Commonwealth Games gold medals at lightweight – he captained the England team in Delhi – and been named Amateur of the Year by the Boxing Writers' Club.
"I only had my first real fight when I was 19 and won a novice competition," Stalker says. "To be honest, at first I was terrible, I just couldn't get it together. I wasn't a natural but I stuck at it."
His first club was the now defunct St Aloysius and he is currently with Liverpool's renowned Salisbury Club, which produced the Olympic bronze medallist heavyweight David Price. Some of his old amateur buddies such as Price, James DeGale and Frankie Gavin are now professional and Stalker himself had the opportunity to turn pro after winning his European silver.
"Of course I thought about it, but to me the chance to have the honour of representing my country outweighs that. If I win a medal in London then things would get bigger for me and I would certainly go pro then. I'll still only be 27 and boxing careers don't last that long anyway.
"Since I started boxing I've lived a good life. I haven't touched a drug or anything like that. I am a cleaner, better person. Boxing is everything to me now. All I've got in my sights is that gold medal in London.
"It's very competitive in our squad – there are virtually two of us fighting for our place at every weight division. My great rival is the Repton boy, Martin Ward, a brilliant boxer. What I've got to do is keep my form and make sure I'm the one who's selected. We've got the European and World Championships coming up this year which are important for qualifying for the Olympics, so I'll keep working hard.
"When I do turn pro, my ambition will be to top the bill at the wonderful Echo Arena in Liverpool. I boxed there in the GB Championships and the atmosphere is fantastic. I was also there to see 'Chunky' [DeGale] win the British title against Paul Smith. I thought he boxed out of his skin.
"I'm mates with quite a few of the boys who were in the last Olympics but the one I look up to most is Frankie [Gavin]. We met as amateurs in the ABA final and I was his understudy in the GB team. He's always been there for me. He's a southpaw like me and has shown me things which have improved my game. He's a really good mate. We speak on the phone at least once or twice a week and I go down and spar with him whenever I can."
Stalker and his girlfriend have been together for nine years and have a seven-year-old daughter. "I've got a lot of good people behind me now, both at home in Liverpool and in Sheffield where we train. The coaches are great. It's the best atmosphere I've ever known. There's no favouritism and we all get on famously. But this year it's going to be crunch time. I'll be on Martin Ward's case and he'll be on mine, but at the end of the day it's boxing and it's our job so we'll be mates.
"I wouldn't describe myself as a good boxer. It's just that I know how to win. I'm awkward and I've got a big heart and the hunger for it."
Outside the ring Stalker works with Knowsley Council, visiting schools to advise on fitness, healthy eating and keeping on the straight and narrow. "I tell them it doesn't matter if you are a nice person. If you hang around with the wrong people you can become someone you are not. Boxing became my sanctuary. It kept me off the streets and has put me where I am.
"I am an honest person and I know there is still a long way to go to get into the 2012 team. Whatever happens, if I get there, I want to be able to look back and say: 'Well I tried my best.' Because boxing has given me so much to be thankful for."
Message from an icon: Frankie Gavin
I boxed Tom in the ABA finals before the Beijing Olympics and although I beat him, I found him very awkward. It was a good, competitive fight and he made me think all the way through it.
We used to spar regularly and he helped me a lot when I was preparing for the World Amateur Championships. Like me, he's a southpaw, a hard puncher and he's got a good boxing brain.
We got on well as mates – actually we still do – because we both like a laugh. When we fought I was more experienced than him but he's learned a lot since.
Tom has had a bit of a hard upbringing and the fact that he didn't take up boxing until he was 19, has stuck at it and done so well shows what a very dedicated lad he has become.
The best advice that I can give him is to keep going the way that he is, keep fit, keep trying and keep the weight down. If he can do all that, I think he's on for an Olympic medal, definitely.
I am pleased to see Tom and the other squad members doing so well. They've got some terrific boxers there. I particularly like Tom and [European bantamweight champion] Luke Campbell – he's brilliant.
We could get a few medals in London. I was pleased to hear that our former coach Terry Edwards is the boxing manager for the 2012 tournament [he will be responsible for organising the event].
That speaks for the reputation he has. But I am not taking anything away from his successor Rob McCracken. He's doing a great job.
I wish Tom and the rest of the boys all the best for the London Games. I will be there cheering them on, and who knows, if he turns pro afterwards we might even be on for a return bout.
"Funtime" Frankie Gavin, 25, became Britain's first world amateur champion in 2007. He has won all his nine professional fights and is now in contention for the British light-welterweight title following his best-ever performance against Michael Lomax last week
British Olympic Association
The British Olympic Association are the national Olympic committee for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They prepare the "Best of British" athletes for (and lead them at) the summer, winter and youth Olympics, and deliver extensive support services to Britain's Olympic athletes and their national governing bodies to enhance Olympic success. Go to olympics.org.uk
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