Travelling 238 miles in the wee hours of the morning, crammed between two other men in the back of a small, icy vehicle, the winner of that evening’s bout didn’t celebrate in traditional fashion. It didn’t matter to him – the alcohol, the parties or the money spent wasting time with people who’d disappeared when he suffered his lone defeat.
Former rugby player, Josh Sandland (4-1-1, 0KOs), had upset the odds before, first coming to our attention when bludgeoning respected amateur and unbeaten professional, Dominic Akinlade, two years ago. Nobody fancied him then, overweight and wearing his basic, budget black trunks. Akinlade’s raucous fanbase screamed abuse at Sandland, who refused to submit, comfortably cruising to his most impressive victory.
Boxing has a short memory, but after taking time out of the sport he has now pieced together two meaningful wins, most recently as an away fighter when beating Scotland’s Jay Carrigan-McFarlane. He has all of the dogged physical traits required to become a success, yet in his hometown of Halifax – tiny and tight-knit – he has struggled to build a reliable fan base.
Ahead of the sixth instalment of the Ultimate Boxxer tournament, Josh reflected on a career spent unearthing opportunities. The televised series is the Yorkshireman’s chance to showcase his ability and will be his first introduction to the cameras and bright lights of broadcast boxing. Despite dangling the carrot of a hefty prize fund in front of the participants, those who suffer defeat early in the elimination format often slip further from domestic relevance.
“It’s very opinionated, boxing, isn’t it?” Josh stated, his voice tired and disillusioned, “There’s loads of heavyweights signing for MTK Global and Matchroom and stuff like that. You just think, how the hell do I get a chance? How do you get to that point? I don’t know. I don’t have a clue.”
“It’s still slow now. People aren’t interested [in me] – even in Halifax. There’s just nothing happening, but it’ll come. I give 110% in everything that I do, so if they can’t see that and if they don’t think I’m good enough, then that’s fine. That’s them. Obviously I’m still chubby, but I do all the right stuff. I don’t eat shit and I’ve never had any easy fights to date.”
“If I were a journeyman, I’d be getting hammered every time. I’ve been in a lot of professional gyms and trained with a lot of people. It sounds daft, but when you’re a kid and somebody says to you, ‘This guy is the best you will ever see’, then you go and see them, you’re disappointed. Everybody is human in this world. I’ve always believed that anybody I fight, whether he’s ranked at the bottom or the top, it only takes one punch. It’s a very dangerous game, this.
“I don’t drink, I don’t go out, I don’t start fighting and I don’t mingle with a lot of people. I just don’t get into that sort of shit. When I’ve had a fight, I love to get home to my family. The thing is, I will never look back on my boxing career and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t try’, because fucking hell, I do try!”
Despite dedicating himself to a strict strength and conditioning regime and pouring hours into the gym, Sandland remained largely overlooked. His résumé was impressive, that victory over Akinlade added to his triumph over Jone Volau on his debut, an opponent who was widely fancied and undefeated in four fights. Doing things the easy way didn’t suit the father of two. He wanted to throw himself in against the country’s biggest names – an admirable, rare quality.
The tournament, with bouts scheduled over three rounds, had resulted in explosive fights in recent months. Many expect the heavyweight tournament to stun viewers, with the big men going hell for leather, often for survival’s sake. Former opponent McFarlane takes his place in the eight-man lineup, with fans looking at proven Pole, Kamil Sokolowski, as a potential victor. Frank Warren contender Jonathan Palata is being tipped by some fans as the one to watch, whilst Nick Webb attempts to rebuild a once promising career, derailed by Dave Allen and Sokolowski.
Sandland explained the importance of December 13th to his struggling career, “I’ve been given an opportunity and I’ve had to go down this road to get a chance to get on TV and try to get myself out there a bit more. There’s a big prize at the end of it. A lot of them are looking at it for the money side. Money doesn’t entertain me. I’m not interested in the money. It’s a bonus at the end of the day for me. If you win, you win, you know?”
“They’re all good fighters. They are. I’m not gonna turn around and answer with, ‘He is shit’, because they’re not. I’ve been entered in to it, I’ve been asked. You can tell these guys are looking for fireworks and they’re gonna get some. Don’t get me wrong, like Jay, I’ve just beat him, but that’s all gone. You’ve got to be on your mettle at all times, because things can change in a split-second.”
“It can suit me, or it can’t. It can work against you. But I’ll be trained and I’ll be ready to go 100% and I’ll give it my best, I’ll give it my all in there against everyone that I step in with. And hopefully put a good show on for the people who are going. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?”
Yes, I thought, in an ideal world.
The last time we’d spoken, Josh opened up over family tragedy and a recent loss, but with that now behind him he was focused on his next chapter. His partner and two sons, Lenny and Ronnie, meant everything to him – that hadn’t changed. Boxing wasn’t something he relied upon to provide for them, thankfully. Though it was his cross to bear. He couldn’t shake it – not yet.
That time spent lurking in boxing’s shadows had been a struggle. Seventeen months out recovering from shoulder surgery left Sandland’s career in doubt. But he had returned, both to the gym and to winning ways. Our sport doesn’t care much for your mental health, even if you’re fortunate enough to have the backing of a meaningful promoter. So, Josh finding his feet as a triumphant away fighter on the small hall circuit only proved his determination.
“Everyone thought I would retire. I’ll be honest with you, I thought about it. I still do. I get frustrated and I get upset. I sit and think, ‘What the fuck am I doing this for?’ I don’t get any recognition, I don’t get any help. Nobody gives a fuck and I genuinely believe that I could become British champion – but I would still find it hard.
“A lot of boxing is psychological. You’ve got to have the mentality for it and I think a lot of people forget that. I’ve had a lot of hell in my life, mate. A lot. I don’t think people would understand. My own family have had negative comments and I just can’t be around it. I need positivity. It’s frightening, yeah. I get a bit scared. These guys are much bigger than me, but I do everything right and I believe they could hit me with sledgehammers. They couldn’t stop me.”
On December 13th, the successful tiler will step in and challenge at least one of his peers in Manchester. He hasn’t made a penny from boxing, but openly admits it owes him nothing. Just a fair crack of the whip. Josh revealed that tickets for this event have been flying, comparatively, which was great to hear from the man who struggled to cover his costs. Talent doesn’t write cheques and neither does hard, Northern graft. But he knows the game.
Balancing the rigours of training with a laborious day job pushes the twenty-seven year old to his limit. He knows that some of his potential opponents aren’t working as hard, either in the gym or during the day, yet they’re wearing glossy trunks or appealing to a wider audience. Sometimes boxing just isn’t fair.
“Friggin’ hell, I come home sometimes from work and I sit on the couch, our lass says to me, ‘Get up and go [to the gym]’. Because I’m not gonna go otherwise. It’s mental, a lot of it. Like tonight, I’ve been at work, then to the gym, now I’m just home and my kids are in bed. The best time to see your kids is when they’re young, but I’m just doing this now so that I can hopefully have a better life with them when they’re a bit older.”
It struck me that most of Josh Sandland’s involvement with boxing was hinged on hope. He was hoping to grasp the opportunity afforded to him on Ultimate Boxxer; he hoped to build a fanbase, sell tickets and demand the attention of bigger promoters; he hoped that in fifteen years he could look back and say it was all worth the effort.
He didn’t expect anything. Self pity or entitlement just wasn’t in his nature. Sandland could be sent tumbling out of the tournament in the opening bout or he could upset the bookmakers by taking home the golden robe. Whatever the outcome, he’ll just work harder and grit his teeth. Something will come at some point. Fighters like him don’t really retire. The phone just stops ringing.
Just under four weeks out from his broadcast debut, images of Josh in a gym plastered in old posters and flyers circulated via the social media accounts he barely understands. He opened up his Instagram account because he was advised that it could boost his profile. He has 394 followers, at time of writing. Fighting and winning isn’t enough anymore, but Sandland is trying to match his potential with his profile.
“I started boxing for the thrill of it. If somebody asks for a photo or an autograph, listen, I would stay and sign things all day! For somebody to recognise me for what I’m doing, well… I’d just get overwhelmed by that. I’m not there yet, but hopefully one day. A lot of people think it’s all about the money and that’s a shame. They take it for granted, but not me. I’d love all of that.
“People just underestimate me. They see a bit of fat or a bit of a belly and they just laugh. It’s funny, isn’t it? It happened up in Glasgow. They were all shouting stuff at me, ‘Oh he’s fat’ or whatever. There was a woman there in the front row, I swear you could have heard her on the seafront. After the second round – she was silent. But that’s just the way it goes. That’s boxing, isn’t it?”
Interview written by: Craig Scott
Follow Craig on Twitter at: @craigscott209