Saturday 13 February 2010
Brian Viner: Nobody ever won gold on wine gums
The Last Word
Boxing gyms are never located in the swankiest parts of town and Arnie's Gym, a converted carpet mill in Failsworth, Manchester, is no exception.
It is run by the engaging Anthony "Arnie" Farnell, a former boxer himself, and the trainer charged with turning light-welterweight Frankie Gavin – the only British fighter ever to hold a world amateur title and a young man considered by some astute judges to be potentially the best of his generation (a generation that includes Amir Khan) – into a professional world champion.
I made my way to Arnie's place recently. Outside, swirling snow and litter added to the desolate look. Even a mangy dog hurried by. You'd never know that great careers are plotted in this building, but they are. The carpet mill has become a dream factory.
At 10 in the morning, though, it was too cold to dream. Empty boxing gyms are like walk-in freezers. Then Arnie arrived and turned on the heaters. One by one, his fighters came in. And when I left a couple of hours later, the place was steaming; a fug of artificial heating, adrenalin, testosterone and sweat. In the middle of the fug was Gavin, shadow-boxing furiously in between bursts of Brummie banter. He is still only 24, this irrepressible southpaw, and he fights tonight at Wembley Arena, on the Kevin Mitchell undercard. His opponent is a tough, experienced Irishman, Peter McDonagh. It could be a hell of a scrap, and it represents a step up in class for Gavin. But even with Uri Geller reportedly helping his opponent, Gavin should win.
A million pounds is a conservative estimate of what he might already have earned had he turned pro with an Olympic gold medal in his locker, or more likely on his mum's wall in Yardley, Birmingham. It is 18 months since arrant mismanagement resulted in Gavin not even making the weight for Beijing, where as world amateur lightweight champion he would have been one of Britain's strongest medal contenders, and the episode still rankles. He begged to be allowed to fight at light-welterweight, but it was insisted that he make the 60kg lightweight mark, and he was fed wine gums to give him energy while his fluid intake was limited. Nobody ever won a gold medal on wine gums.
But maybe this incompetence did him a favour. Gavin thinks that if he'd won the Olympic title he might have stayed amateur to defend it on home soil in 2012. As it was, he turned pro, put himself in the much safer stewardship of promoter Frank Warren, and is now well on his way to that first million. A convincing defeat of the dangerous McDonagh will accelerate the process. But more significantly, Gavin expects to be fighting for a world title inside three years. Maybe Khan's world title, which would tickle Warren, who so carefully guided Khan to the top and then got dumped.
Meanwhile, can any sport match boxing for what the newspapers describe as "human interest" stories? Gavin's is already a colourful version of the classic boxer's tale: the feckless dad, the mum who held down three cleaning jobs and shifts as a dinner-lady to put food on the table, the granny (regrettably dead now) who used to sit ringside urging him on, the umpteen suspensions from Archbishop Ilsley school. "I get invited back there now," he told me, with pride and amusement, that morning at Arnie's place. A less welcome overture came from his estranged dad. Now that the son is successful the father has tried to make contact. "But I'm not one bit interested," Gavin told me. "He never showed one bit of interest in me as a kid. I wouldn't give him the time of day."
It was a rare dip in otherwise relentless chirpiness. His nickname is "Funtime": as a kid he and his mates used to tamper with the signs to Birmingham Airport, and watch motorists sail off in the wrong direction. But he's on the right road himself now, thanks to a steady relationship. He met Ria when he was 18; she was 15. "I needed someone younger because I was so immature," he admitted cheerfully. "At 18 I was still on the streets kicking a football around, but not drinking or nothing. I never had a drink till I was 19." Their son, Thomas, is just over a year old, not walking yet but already punching. "Watching him being born was the best buzz ever," Gavin told me. "Even better than winning a fight ... but only just."
Gavin v McDonagh is part of the "Night of the Champions" show at the Wembley Arena tonight. Tickets from See Tickets on 0871 220 0260, or watch live and in HD on Sky Sports.
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