On Wednesday 26th September 2018, in a no-frills gym on the outskirts of Leeds, a grand audience of two people were treated to a boxing mismatch of monumental proportions.

In one corner of the ring stood a man of 6 ft 3 and 18 stone; holding a professional boxing record of 14-2-4 with 11 knockouts; fan favourite; the most-viewed man on IFL TV; mental health advocate; friend and sparring partner of Tyson Fury; beloved of the girls of Babestation; twenty seven combined rounds with Dillian Whyte, Luis Ortiz and Tony Yoka and never being taken off his feet; coming off a sensational knockout victory to become number one contender for the British heavyweight title. In the opposite corner stood a man stepping into the boxing ring for the first and probably last time; a deeper shade of boxing green than the Yorkshire countryside; standing nearly a foot shorter and eight stone lighter; the writer of this article.

A number of current and former professional boxers have opined that first-hand experience of boxing is necessary for your views on the sport to carry credibility. If this is true, then I am a mere flyweight plying my trade amongst heavyweights. I’m a obsessive boxing fan – capable of reeling off statistics like one of those much-maligned BoxRec anoraks – and religiously follow the latest boxing news. But following and writing about boxing is one thing, doing it is another. Until September, I had never stepped foot in a boxing ring. In fact, I’ve never been ringside for a live boxing match in my life. My day-to-day life is teaching chess – that most civilised of games – to children; a world away from the blood, sweat and pain of paid pugilism. However, in contrast to my occasional scribbling on boxing, I can claim some pedigree in my chosen profession as a former England junior international. In many ways, I’m the last person who should consider lacing up the gloves. But the circumstances surrounding this choice were far from normal.

In June last year, Ben, the son of a good friend of mine, Scott, was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare and aggressive form of childhood cancer. One can only begin to imagine how tough it was for their family to receive this news, but their strength and positivity is simply awe-inspiring. Scott and his wife Sarah set up a project called ‘Pass The Smile’ to fundraise for the charities supporting Ben and other children and their families affected by cancer, and encouraged family and friends to get involved. When considering how I might make a meaningful contribution, the idea of a fundraiser involving boxing was one of the first things to cross my mind. I already had contacts within the industry thanks to my work for Boxing Social. The thought of an adherent of the ultimate cerebral activity trying his hand out at the most physically brutal held some kind of exotic appeal. Chess is not the most physically taxing of activities and getting fit and in shape was an additional bonus. Now that I was committed to the idea, all I needed was a dance partner.

Rob Tebbutt was then perhaps the best-kept secret in British boxing media, and I don’t just say that because he is a friend and colleague. A true grafter with unrivalled knowledge of the sport, incisive lines of questioning and a fair but firm attitude towards his interview subjects, he is part of a new breed pushing up the standards of online boxing platforms higher and higher. As my editor at Behind The Gloves and now at Boxing Social, he had given me my first real ‘break’ as a writer. He was the obvious port of call in pursuit of a boxer prepared to give up their time for a good cause. The reply was instant: ‘How about Dave Allen?’

I was already very familiar with the ‘White Rhino’ and, truth be told, a fan ever since his fight with Dillian Whyte, when he gamely took ‘The Bodysnatcher’ the ten-round-distance as well as Whyte’s best shots without flinching. On that night, he lost his undefeated record, but gained a legion of admirers with the toughness and heart that he demonstrated in the ring and a heartfelt post-fight interview, in which he bluntly disclosed that he had tried to take his own life just 13 months previously while in the grip of depression. The dark picture which he portrayed was a complete contrast to the jovial personality which Dave has been known to exude on social media, in front of the camera and in person with fellow boxing heads and members of the public alike.

Depression is something I know a little bit about myself. I too have experienced some intense lows throughout my life, to the extent that I have resorted to professional help. Dave’s honesty about his mental health struggles and his keep-it-real attitude were real eye-openers for me. Boxing is a sport of notoriously hard men, in which admitting to any kind of vulnerability is not par for the course, but Dave had no such inhibitions. Moreover, his words carried a sense of purpose going above and beyond Dave Allen the boxer and the man, and reaching out to the general public.

Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK, and for one of the toughest men in a sport full of them to talk about his depression so frankly is a powerful example to those who might otherwise suffer in silence. Dave would likely reject the notion that he is being a hero for doing so. Why should he be ashamed of feeling down when it’s simply him being who he is? It is simple logic, but I would argue that Dave’s appeal to his many fans and his true ‘greatness’ emanates from just that; his ability to be ordinary. Dave engages daily with a staggering variety of people from all backgrounds and walks of life, far more than any other active professional boxer out there, online and in person.

While Dave had seen his public profile and popularity explode since the Whyte fight, he had experienced mixed fortunes in the boxing ring. Taking on Luis Ortiz at short notice and when out-of-shape was a kamikaze mission and the Cuban danger man proved his class as he stopped Dave for the first time in his career, though Dave once again demonstrated grit and bravery by never touching down in the face of hellacious punishment through seven rounds. A subpar performance in a split-decision loss to Lenroy Thomas for the Commonwealth title raised questions about his commitment to the sport and left many wondering whether playing the joker on social media and in real life had gone too far. Dave entered the rematch with Thomas motivated and in shape, but this time found himself on the receiving end of a horrible stroke of bad luck when a head-clash caused a bad cut over his eye in the first round, resulting in the bout’s termination via technical draw.

After knocking out journeyman David Howe for the second time, Dave found himself facing another dangerous opponent, the 2016 Olympic super heavyweight gold medallist, Tony Yoka, once again at short notice and out-of-shape. That night, Dave took a beating in a Paris ring that become more and more difficult to watch as the rounds progressed until the referee had seen enough and stepped in to call a halt to the contest in the tenth and final episode. Once again, Dave never hit the canvas, but one was left to ponder whether this was a man who was simply too tough for his own good.

You can therefore understand my misgivings when Dave took to the ring again just over a month later to face undefeated, big-punching 6ft 5 prospect Nick Webb, on the undercard of the Dillian Whyte-Joseph Parker fight. My heart was with Dave, but my head was telling me otherwise and nothing in the first three rounds dissuaded that wisdom as he did very little. Webb was not exactly looking sizzling, but he was winning rounds just by being the busier man. Then came the dramatic fourth round. Webb seemed to be having his way at the start, but as the round progressed, Dave increased his workrate and got within range of the taller, longer man. A left hook to the body was followed by an overhand right which stunned Webb and woke up the crowd. Dave was now coming forwards with mean intentions. Then, with the ten second mark approaching, Dave again threw a left to the body followed by another massive overhand right that would have been felt back up in Doncaster. It connected flush with Webb’s temple, sending him crashing to the canvas and hanging over the bottom rope. A glazed Webb tried desperately to get to his feet to beat the referee’s count, but his legs were gone and he collapsed again, falling flat on his back and sending the crowd into rapture as a victorious White Rhino saluted it, emotion etched on his face.

Nine days later, I received a message from Rob. Dave was more than happy to box for charity. Furthermore, Rob had told him about my chess exploits and apparently Dave fancied himself as a chess player. I must admit to having been somewhat sceptical. This was after all the man who called out Carl Frampton for a table tennis showdown, talking a good game in the lead-up to the contest, only for ‘the Jackal’ to emerge a comfortable winner. A chess/boxing duathlon did however sound perfect. What better way to raise awareness within the separate nations of chess and boxing of the battle facing Ben and other children suffering from cancer? Moreover, one didn’t need to be a fan of either to recognise the uniqueness of this contest, combining the ultimate cerebral activity with the most brutal. A date of Wednesday 26th September was agreed upon and the fight was on.

Fight day

Rob and I got off our Uber in a rural village to the south of Leeds. Dave was staying there in a guesthouse during training camp for his fight scheduled for 13th October in Newcastle on the undercard of Lewis Ritson’s European lightweight title fight against Francesco Patera. I was struck by the leafy, tranquil settings which would not have looked out of place as the background to a contemplative Buddhist retreat. The White Rhino emerged from the guesthouse, bespectacled in a yellow Pikachu t-shirt. We both received a warm welcome and I got my first opportunity to size up Dave as he put his arm around my back to greet me. At 6 ft 3 and 18 stone, he’s one big unit of a man.

He took us into his room and introduced us to his new friend Harry, a sports journalism student who he had only met the previous day. Harry and his university mates had invited Dave over to socialise, only for him to oblige, true to form. We all spent time talking about boxing and I was curious to know how training camp was going for Dave. As it turned out, living out of a B & B for a month, all expenses paid out of his own pocket, was not ideal. Neither was the fact that no opponent had yet been announced for him, but he shrugged it all off. What else could he do? I pictured myself living in the guesthouse for a month and could see myself going stir crazy. Suddenly, I understood better why Dave would feel the urge to visit complete strangers’ houses. The deafening tone of isolation out there completely displaced the silence. We all need human contact and company. Dave was however quick to lighten the mood and his trademark sense of humour had us all in stitches.

We sat down with Rob for our pre-event interviews. I felt sheepish and ill-at-ease behind the camera despite Rob’s reassurances that my self-presentation and responses to his questions were fine. Dave of course was used to being behind the camera and the most trouble he had was pronouncing ‘Rhab-do-my-o-sar-co-ma’. Mission one accomplished, now for the moment I had been simultaneously looking forward to and dreading; stepping into the ring with Dave.

We drove to the gym run by Dave’s trainer Mick Marsden, around a mile away in the nearest town. I’m not a trash talker by nature, but with Rob egging me on, I declared that the White Rhino would be going extinct that day and vow to surprise Dave with my physical strength inside the ring. It was wishful thinking. Rob did his best pre-fight Michael Buffer impression and Dave and I touched gloves to begin the first round. I started off with movement, figuring that speed and mobility were two areas in which I had a chance of besting Dave. Unfortunately, he towered over me and I quickly found that there was no room to escape. I landed a few limp jabs to Dave’s body, but his own lengthy jab prevented me from getting within range to land a power shot. I ended the round on the back foot getting my head jabbed off and being bullied to the ropes. I was already breathing heavily and felt relieved when Rob called an end to the round, with Dave having barely broken sweat.

In round two it got even worse for me. Dave was now content to stick me with his jab and push me back to the ropes. He was throwing shots with only 5-10% power behind them but I could still feel their weight, with one uppercut to the solar plexus resonating in particular. He was now just toying with me. Rob urged me to let me hands go, but instead I found myself ducking, bending over and running around the ring just to survive. After what seemed like a lifetime, but was probably only two minutes, Rob mercifully called a halt to the second round and to my humiliation.

When asked for my assessment of the fight, I replied that it was harder than I thought it would be. It was probably the understatement of the century. Dave was more generous with his post-fight words than I probably deserved, saying that I could probably be alright if I grew another foot in height and gained eight stone in weight. To show that there were no hard feelings, he took us to Greggs for some post-fight replenishment. We headed back to the car, swerving the gym to avoid Dave being caught out by Mick with steak bake in hand, and returned to the guesthouse for the second part of the duathlon, the chess match.

Prior to shaking hands to start the first game, Dave disclosed that he was on a ten year unbeaten run in chess, though he admitted that he has played maybe just once in that time! As the veteran of hundreds of over-the-board battles in that time against opponents up to grandmaster-level, I fancied my chances better than I did in the boxing match. The first game began and, rather like in the first round of a boxing match, I was keen to see what Dave had to offer. I played a couple of ‘feeler’ moves and he demonstrated his knowledge of check and the ability to spot captures. At one point I played a move which constituted a cheap threat, what all my chess students know as a ‘one-hit-wonder’. Dave easily parried this and after ten moves we were still level. He was taking his time over his moves, being patient and considered, and I began to wonder whether Dave was some kind of chess ‘rain man’ in disguise. Then his first blunder occurred, allowing me to obtain a material advantage. I exploited it mercilessly and checkmate soon followed. I extended my hand to the gallant loser who peered into the camera with a desolate look on his face. He turned back to slowly shake my hand and quipped in a monotone voice ‘for charity ain’t it’, as the desolate look quickly transformed into a big grin while we all laughed.

We began the second game and I gained an advantage even earlier this time. Dave hung on gamely though and despite my material advantage, I was struggling to put him away. After some thought, I spotted the opportunity to create a ‘checkmating net’ around Dave’s king. However, impressed by Dave’s game showing, I chose to offer a draw which he quickly rejected, affirming that he did not believe in draws. Spoken like a true champion. Seconds later I delivered checkmate, bringing the contest to an end. I joked that Dave could probably make my junior club’s C group. Considering that it is one of England’s leading junior chess clubs and that many of our children regularly defeat experienced adult opponents, it’s not quite as bad as it sounds. By ordinary standards and bearing in mind his lack of practice, Dave plays a mean game of chess.

It was now time for Dave to sit down with Rob for an in-depth one-to-one Boxing Social interview. As mentioned, I had watched many interviews with Dave online, but this was a real privilege to watch him being interviewed at first-hand. He and Rob talked about a range of subjects; his upcoming fight and training camp, Wilder-Fury, Nick Webb, Joshua-Povetkin and more. When asked a more personal question, about his own happiness and its relationship with boxing, his response was crystal clear. ‘I’m not involved in boxing to make money’ he asserted. ‘My enjoyment comes from winning and doing things like what we’ve done today (in reference to our charity event)…. I’m in boxing because it gives me a platform to do nice things for others.’

That self-professed winner’s attitude is one which some fans would find hard to square with the image of Dave entering the ring at late notice and out-of-shape against elite opponents like Whyte, Ortiz and Yoka and taking a frightening amount of physical punishment. Rob was moved to recall a previous interview with Dave in which he likened himself to a high-end prostitute. It’s a crude comparison that provokes smiles but is also tinged with sadness. ‘That’s what all boxers are, even Floyd Mayweather’ said Dave in a matter-of-fact manner. ‘We’re getting paid to put our bodies on the line. People are paying me to give my body to the paying public…They’re the ones paying for me to get in there and fight for their entertainment… You’re paying for us to give a bit of our bodies to you because every fight takes something out of you. The Yoka fight, I gave a lot, it probably took two or three years off my career that night.’ It was a stark admission, but not wanting to end on a sombre note, he then quipped ‘I’m just fortunate that I’m becoming a high-end girl’, and that big grin appeared again.

What many people do not appreciate is just how low a point Dave reached before the Yoka fight. When Rob alluded to a phone interview he conducted with Dave before the fight which never saw the light of day, Dave recalled the moment clearly. ‘I was sat there nineteen stone in a chair in the garden… I call them ‘periods on the brain’ and it was one of those moments. I thought ‘I’ve got to fight Tony Yoka in two and a half weeks’ and at that moment in time I wouldn’t have been able to fight Paul!’ he chuckled. I was down and out. But obviously these things change. I can be in one of those moods and then ten minutes later I can be really happy. It’s nothing new to me.’

We all experience highs and lows to varying extents. Dave was having a good day, but he freely admitted to feeling terrible the day before. What remains constant is the ongoing battle to maintain good mental health. For Dave, it’s a case of simply doing his best or ‘trying my best to try my best’ as he put it. In practice it means supporting charities, training his protégé Danny Murrell, making time for fans and much more. Dave clearly gains a lot of satisfaction from using his profile within boxing to touch the lives of and help others. However, doing your best in practice also means doing the best for you. After all, how can you help others if you are not well enough yourself? In Dave’s case, doing the best for himself as well as for others manifested itself most clearly in his new winner’s attitude.

So what changed to make this happen? ‘I’ve seen a different side of life now. Life doesn’t have to be all struggle and living off steak bakes’ he replies with a guilty smile on his face. ‘I’m not asking for everything, I’m just thinking let’s just go and do something nice and have a nice life, so I’m ambitious in that sense and obviously boxing is the thing that can give me that life…. I’m not Anthony Joshua making £20 million a fight and got the world at my feet’ admitted Dave in reference to his former sparring partner, the current unified IBF, WBA (Super) and WBO heavyweight champion of the world. ‘The world at my feet is one where I can buy a house and I might be able to go on holiday once a year and save money so I don’t have to work again, so the world at my feet is just different.’

Dave was under no illusions about his situation and what his ability will permit. He definitely felt that winning the British title and even a level above that was within reach. ‘I’d like to get the British title won for my granddad, first and foremost’ he vows. It would be a massive achievement and I’d feel proud of winning it.’

After 44 minutes, the interview was coming to its end, but there was still time to finish on a positive note as Dave talked about the day’s activities, gave ‘Pass The Smile’ another plug and urged viewers to get involved with a very worthy cause. Time was up and Dave had to return to the gym for training. I thanked him once again for all he had done and we said our goodbyes.

The aftermath

The response to our charity duathlon was overwhelming. A grand total of £2396.50 was raised for children’s cancer charities, more than doubling our initial target. Fate dealt Ben and his family a cruel hand, but the manner in which they have responded in the face of adversity is truly inspirational. In spite of everything he has gone through and is going through, Ben’s courage, infectious sense of fun and massive smile still shine through. In total, ‘Pass The Smile’ has raised over £27,000 to date in support of children with cancer; a magnificent achievement.

I’ve had plenty of time to reflect in the months that have passed since our charity event on Ben and his family, Dave, myself, and the twists and turns our lives have taken to reach this point. As I write this article, I’m experiencing one of my downs. I remember another interview with Dave where he stated with conviction that there isn’t a human being on the planet who doesn’t experience these feelings. We all have bad days; some are just worse than others. Likewise, we all have problems; some are just more severe than others. I don’t believe that mine nor anyone’s hardship should be trivialised, but life hits some harder and/or more often than others. Dave knows all about that, literally and figuratively. So do Ben and his family.

Tomorrow night, Dave will step into the ring on a three-fight winning streak, all by stoppage, in the best shape of his career for the fight of his life to date; headlining the O2 Arena in London against former WBA heavyweight world champion, Lucas Browne. It’s as far removed a scenario as would have been imaginable that depressing night in Paris just four fights ago. But, as Dave would likely point out, would it be any more imaginable for your average humble lad from Doncaster?

While boxing may be the perfect analogy for life, ultimately life is bigger than boxing. It’s a point that wasn’t lost on Dave in his interview that day in September when he reflected on what the future held for him. He admitted that, as a youth, he never really considered life beyond 50 years of age. Now he seemed reconciled to a future beyond this, a life away from the ring, though it’s hard to see Dave not being involved in some way in the sport once he hangs up the gloves. So what is it that he really wants from life? ‘I just want to be the best fighter and man I can be’ he affirmed.

Many aspire to the same, but Dave is living that life through his daily deeds. Whatever the outcome tomorrow night, he will enter and leave the ring as a true winner in life.

Article by: Paul Lam

Follow Paul on Twitter at: @PaulTheWallLam