Have you heard the one about the fifty fight veteran deciding to take up the guitar?
Defying logic and repeating chords with his trusted, yet tired and inevitably damaged hands, the instrument’s enthusiast served us a further reminder of his ardent determination.
Tucked away, hundreds of miles from his family once again, Scotland’s three-weight world champion, Ricky Burns (43-7, 16 KO’s), told me of his newest hobby.
“I only started it about four or five weeks ago. We were at a concert, I was there with my brother and I said, ‘I’d love to do that!’ He said, ‘Well, why don’t you? When you’re training, you’re either sitting on that PlayStation or on yer phone. Why don’t you go for something else?’
“So, I started doing it and I’m getting it. A few of my pals are surprised I’m keeping it going, but I’ve put my mind to it, so I’m 100%. I’m definitely gonnae learn how to do it.”
Hailing from the same town that birthed Bert Gilroy (historically Scotland’s longest-reigning boxing champion), Burns had travelled far-and-wide throughout his seventeen year career. But it was never about money or fame.
Now basing himself in Brentwood, Essex, it was North Lanarkshire in all its grim and grey glory that had sparked his interest in boxing. Less aesthetically pleasing than his current surroundings, but home nonetheless. The spattering of Glasgow’s summer rain cooled the young prospect, emerging from a busy household to seek solace in his roadwork. Even then, it was about fighting. Softly-spoken and jovial, Burns carried an air of menace, unsuspecting yet keen for combat. He wasn’t a violent kid with behavioural issues, but he’d always been fiercely competitive.
“We must have been about eleven-years-old. The amateur boxing club, Rab Bannon it was who had the Barn ABC, it was in Coatbridge where I’m originally from. I always say Glasgow, but it’s just outside of Glasgow…
“The gym opened up about a hundred yards from where we were staying at the time. My two brothers went down one day. They came back and they were telling us about it, so the next day me and a few of my pals went down and from then; that was it. My pals and my brothers used to fight amateur and all of that, but I was the only one that stuck with it!
Second-guessing himself, he admitted, “It sounds weird when I tell people, but I just loved the fighting side of it. It sounds weird, especially to people that know me, but back then, when I was at school I was quite quiet. I loved the fighting side, that’s what got me – and the fact that my Maw’ had us watching Rocky twenty-four-seven! That helped as well! I think we burnt out a few copies of Rocky IV. I’m sure if that fight was to happen now, it would be totally different!”
Thankfully avoiding any Drago-esque bouts of his own, Ricky had become an important figure for Scottish boxing at a time when Scott Harrison’s troubled life had twisted and turned its way into a Spanish prison sentence. Our proud fighting nation has a weird way of supplying one outstanding talent at a time; from Harrison to Alex Arthur; Arthur to Burns and now seemingly; from Burns to Prestonpans’ prodigy Josh Taylor.
I could vividly recall sneaking beers from my house to gather at a friend’s place, clattering the bag stealthily off the carpet. A group of us watched the Coatbridge man battle the wild, ageing Michael Gomez. It would be Gomez’ final stanza, almost ten years ago. Burns is thirty-five now, with cabinets of success, but explained that losing twice at an earlier stage of his career only served as an education.
“Obviously when I boxed Alex Arthur, I can’t even remember what age I was, but I’m sure it was only my thirteenth fight. [It was] my first twelve-rounder and I was fighting for the British, Commonwealth and European! After the fight, I even said that I wasn’t gonnae take that as a loss. I’m gonnae learn, get myself back in the gym and that’s what I done. I’d say it was experience that night that beat me, more than anything.
He continued, “Then, the Carl Johanneson fight, there was a couple of things that happened. At the weigh-in, I must have eaten something that’s not agreed with me. I was in a bad way the day of the fight. I had loads of fans coming down and I didn’t wantae let anyone down. Being young, I just kept saying to myself, ‘Once I’m in there, I’ll be fine!’ There was a few times I was getting put down with body shots and my stomach was in bits.
“I hardly ate anything the day of that fight. Again, it’s boxing and these things happen. My attitude was that I just didn’t wantae let anyone down. I was going in there and hoped for the best. I’m sure it was after the Carl Johanneson fight that I switched training and went to Billy Nelson. Do you know, it was never, ever in my mind that I’m not going to be doing this anymore…”
With Nelson in his corner, the pair had forged their formidable partnership. The opportunity to face Puerto Rican, Roman Martinez, at Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall seemed one that the young Scot had to snatch, though many favoured the visiting opposition. Burns grazed the canvas early after a clean shot from the feared puncher, before dusting himself down and treating his hometown to a boxing lesson, unexpected by both pundits and those without tartan-tinted glasses, alike. Martinez departed with his tail between his legs and another stamp in his passport.
Burns had captured his first world title – a meaningful belt against a fancied opponent.
Even as the champion of the world, Ricky was the everyday man often worshipped in working-class areas, like ours. He continued clocking in for shifts at DW Sports, a retail chain selling a variety of sporting goods to his own Coatbridge public. Some knew his face from magazines or newspapers, whilst others looked at the cuts and bruises, assuming the worst.
Many have said that the ‘Rickster’ isn’t great at anything in isolation. He’s shown his tireless engine, educated jab, that granite chin and the heart of the lion rampant. He’d never been known as a massive puncher or an evasive back-foot fighter, it wasn’t his style. He loved fighting. Combining hard work from those early, character-building sessions in Bannon’s gym with his learning in the trenches with Billy Nelson, he’d become extremely hard to beat.
He sealed his second world title when beating Michael Katsidis, becoming a belt holder at two-weights.
It was interesting to note the continued hunger when speaking to Burns, discussing his training with Tony Sims whilst preparing for a recent keep-busy fight.
He remarked on his time in the gym wearing the smirk of a misbehaving schoolboy, “Me and Tony were having a laugh because I trained for that six-rounder exactly the same way I trained for any other fight! I’m always in the gym. No matter who I’m fighting, nothing changes in my camp. I treat every fight the same.
“By the time it gets to a Friday, I’m done in! It’s my own fault! Tony is always telling me to relax, don’t try and put power into every shot, go for speed… It works for about a minute and then I go back to trying to drill every shot in! That’s the way I’ve always been, so I canny change it!”
Linking up with Sims had rejuvenated a career that had become somewhat stagnant. He’d been there for the last four years, adjusting to life as a Glaswegian trapped in London. He joked that friends back home have told him he ‘is in TOWIE territory!’, whilst the locals have requested their own translator. He seemed settled professionally, despite spending extended periods of time away from wife, Amanda, and his son, Leon.
Just over two years ago, Burns climbed through the ropes at the SSE Hydro Arena in Glasgow, squaring off against Italian challenger, Michele Di Rocco. It was a night to remember for those in attendance, with Di Rocco conceding defeat in the eighth round. I slapped a wall inside the venue whilst celebrating and broke a watch I’d been extremely fond of. I didn’t realise until we’d left.
Cementing himself in the history books, Ricky was a three-weight world champion. Nobody could take that away.
Many have questioned Burns’ future in the sport, particularly following his defeat to the rangy Namibian, Julius Indongo. Immediately after that disappointing unification fight, he’d again fallen short in a Battle of Britain with Anthony Crolla. What now, for the man who had achieved it all? He’d bounced back with victories over Ivan Njegac and recently Scotty Cardle, but was it enough?
“I don’t feel any different. I’m always saying to Tony [Sims] and the guys I train with, ‘I’d be the first to admit it if I didn’t have it anymore’. I’ve been based in London and training with Tony for years. If I wasn’t enjoying it, I wouldn’t be moving down there for twelve weeks before fights. The way Tony has it set up for training, we’re up in the morning for running, punching in the afternoon and training again at night, so it takes up a lot of your time.
“In the gym, it’s great. We all get on well and we do all of our sessions together. Some of us will start ourselves. Me and Joe Cordina, we stay with Tony. We all have our track sessions in the morning, me and Joe will go out and get our long distance runs done, which is good. We all get on so well. Conor [Benn], Joe [Cordina], Martin J Ward, Felix [Cash] – there’s loads. A lot of talented fighters and they’re all winning titles, so there’s a good confidence around the gym.
He reflected on November’s victory, “You know, no disrespect to Scotty [Cardle], because I get on really well with him and I got on well with his family, but I had it in my head [that I could win]. I don’t remember what fight it was, but he actually came up to help me with sparring, so I knew myself when we went into that fight what the outcome should have been. I was saying to Tony when we got the phonecall, I said, ‘Aye, but has Scotty agreed to it?’ They came back the next day and said that Scotty was up for it – that was the fight done. I had to go out there and make a big statement. That’s what I did, so…”
It seemed within the last week or two, Burns’ name has slipped into the discussion for a coveted slot on an American pay-per-view card. He’d been mentioned as an undercard fighter for Anthony Joshua’s heavyweight title defence in the historic Madison Square Garden. His potential opponent was familiar, from perhaps his most suspect result.
Mexican warrior and former world champion, Raymundo Beltran, travelled to Glasgow in 2013, only to leave with an extremely controversial draw. The defending champion had shattered his jaw when fighting Beltran, throwing the career of Scotland’s leading fighter into doubt almost half-a-decade ago. The rematch is one that Ricky craves, looking for the most important fights to conclude a storied career. Neither the location or the purse seemed to bother him, as he focused primarily on what victory could mean at this juncture.
“Obviously the rematch with Beltran was mentioned, but hopefully we should get a phone call at the end of this week to let me know what’s happening. Whether it’s him or not, I’ve always said and they [Matchroom] know it as well, I’m prepared to fight anybody. I’ll just go out there and get on with it. Fingers crossed we get a good one.
“They’re the fights that I definitely want to be involved in. I think all of the belts at lightweight are tied up just now, so I think it’s gonna be a bit of a waiting game. Although the belts are tied up, there’s still some big names out there and some big fights available. Hopefully, within the next couple of weeks we should have the next one confirmed and we’ll take it from there. These big world title fights, that’s what I want to be involved in!”
As the curtain starts to slowly draw on Burns’ career, there could be time for one last encore. Sharp and punishing on the outside, yet warm and colourful beneath the surface, he was boxing’s personification of our national emblem. Some will tell you that ‘the last thing to leave a fighter is his punch’. Ricky’s punch will seemingly betray him before his passion for the sport dissolves – if it ever does.
His amateur coach, Rab Bannon, took the eleven-year-old boy from Coatbridge and began moulding the professional fighter. Bannon was awarded an ‘Unsung Hero’ Award recently and said of boxing, ‘I live it, I love it’. That sentence echoed down the phone, with Burns forever grateful to the sport.
“If I fight on a Saturday, I guarantee on the Monday I’ll be back on the roads putting the miles in. As long as I do something every day, I can keep eating what I want without putting too much weight on! That’s my downfall! I hate dieting. I train to eat, that’s what I say (laughs). I’m always saying to Amanda, ‘When I stop boxing, I’m gonnae have to keep training!’ because the amount I can eat, I’d be the size of a house! I need to keep training.
“I definitely see myself still being involved in the sport [after I stop fighting]. But in my head, I’ve still got it that I have a few years at least left in me. I’ve said to Tony and he’s said to me, if there ever comes a point where I’m in the gym sparring these guys, if there ever got a point where I was taking too many punches or I was coming out of the ring with my face in a state – I just wouldn’t do it anymore. I’m totally switched on that way, I’ll know when to call it a day!”
Article by: Craig Scott
Follow Craig on Twitter at: @craigscott209