Akeem Ennis-Brown stands at attention, accepting his fate, despite almost everybody in attendance and those watching from home bemused at both of his hands remaining firmly at his sides. Defeat. The first as a professional. Ennis-Brown (14-1, 1 KO) was fighting Sam Maxwell, confusing the Liverpudlian and using his long, jagged arms like spears, picking shots, and disrupting the house fighter. Both men were brought together, exchanging glances at one another, the ring canvas, their cornermen and fans in attendance, preparing to hear the verdict.
“I’d worked so hard to get to that point,” he tells Boxing Social. “I was numb, I was just numb, and I was thinking, ‘What was that all for?’ That camp, the build-up to this big moment and it went the way it went… I’m not the kinda guy who’s gonna cry and moan about it. I was just confused. It is what it is really. For me, everything happens for a reason. It’s a different experience for me because I felt like the only way they could rob me is if it was a close fight, on their show. But I won clearly. And for them to score it the other way?”
He tails off. Silence fills the space where the Gloucester man’s words jostled for position previously. It has happened now, that bitter taste of a defeat unearned. We prefer to focus on the future, discussing a potential rematch, though I’m informed it might not be next. Ennis-Brown, known to long-time fans as alter-ego ‘Riiddy Riiddy Rival’, knows about operating in boxing’s shadows, though. He’s had to scratch his way up this wall since turning professional; an exceptional talent blessed with awkward, unorthodox fighting ability. It started early as the product of a “three-quarters Jamaican” family, with a nudge from his older brother.
“Gloucester is a small city. I grew up in a mostly dominant white school but then Gloucester is very multi-cultural all over. I think my area is mostly white, to be honest, or it was at that time. Most of my friends were white, but I had black friends, all coloured friends. It was just that kinda place. I used to go to church a lot when I was growing up with my family. Getting into boxing, my older brother started training me. He was my first ever coach and he became like a father figure to me. He was just wise beyond his age. From an early age, I started training and from the age of 14, I was getting ready to spar some of the neighbours and the other kids, then it was grown men and stuff like that.”
Ennis-Brown would stand toe-to-toe with some of Gloucester’s game fighting men, emerging victorious more often than not. That grounding in the streets didn’t seem unusual to him at the time; it was all he understood: “It’s weird, I didn’t notice it at the time, but I got really good fighting these grown men as a 13, 14-year old boy. I was turning these grown men over. That’s where I honed my skills and I always say my come-up, I think that’s why I’ve had the career I’ve had.” Tough fights early, travelling to earn his stripes, prepared to lick his wounds.
“It wasn’t my uncle taking me down to the gym, it was fighting these guys who had all different styles of fighting, whether they were good or not, that helped me. Then, when I walked into a gym, and I started learning things the proper way. I remember the first time I met my coach, we hit it off straight away. I was just spending time hanging around McDonalds, you know those times when you’re just a teenage kid? Hanging about, street kids, whatever. I didn’t want to show it, but I was really excited to go to the gym. I was looking forward to being in an actual boxing gym, seeing the ring, the bags, but I acted cool. I said the first day: ‘I wanna spar’. He said, ‘Mate, you gotta keep coming and show that you’re dedicated’.”
Ennis-Brown, still just 26, continued, “I knew I wasn’t just a normal kid. I wasn’t just a street kid – I could fight. Eventually, the fourth time coming, I was getting on to him and he was like, ‘Okay, you can spar’. So, we spar one of the fighters in there and I did really good. Then he let me spar one of the ABA guys, and I did really good against him. So, then he gets me this pro fighter, this pro boxer. I was never scared of a challenge, and I wanted to see how good I was. How good am I? Can I do this? If I get turned over by this pro boxer, I’m happy with that because I know I’m not that good. I sparred this guy, and I was holding my own – I didn’t beat him up, but I was holding my own.
“Here I am, this kid, no fights, never been in the gym. Everybody in there was like, ‘Wow.’ I thought, ‘I wanna go to the Olympics, I wanna do this-and-that, but boxing is what I wanna do’. I’ve never looked back; boxing is all I’ve ever done. Then I got to 18 and I was thinking about going pro and stuff, and there was a couple of guys around us who were turning pro, we had a pro fighter in the gym at that time, so you start to understand about the [business of] boxing. I never really understood anything about ticket sales or any of that. When I did find out about tickets, it was just before I turned pro. Can you sell 80, 100? Can you cover your opponent? You start learning the business side the more you move along and the more you gain that experience.”
It was during Ennis-Brown’s early days as a professional that he’d caught the attention of British boxing’s media. Normally, sitting ringside in Bethnal Green’s York Hall, you’ll watch an undefeated ‘prospect’ fighting another Eastern European club fighter. In fact, I’ve watched some amass records of 19-0 – constantly selling tickets to the same family, friends, and fans, in the hopes of… being noticed? Maybe. Or maybe masquerading as an aspiring professional boxer, playing the part. The Gloucester-man, former British and Commonwealth champion, was different. And he was different early on.
“When I first turned pro, obviously I knew I turned over young and I didn’t have this big amateur background. I didn’t do anything to get a promoter, so I didn’t really care, I knew I’d have to learn on the job. I was fighting on the small hall shows, fighting journeyman, but I knew I was way better than that and I wanted a challenge. I wanted to see how good I was. But I didn’t really get any good learning fighting journeymen, they didn’t really do nothin’ for me. I want to get on shows, I want to fight proper fighters, and I was just trying to get to where I knew I should be.”
In just his seventh professional fight, Ennis-Brown toppled Freddy Kiwitt (then 11-0, undefeated). Two fights later, it was the experienced Northerner, Glenn Foot for the English super-lightweight title, and just two fights after that, it was Chris Jenkins for the vacant WBC Youth World title. Fighting Philip Bowes would follow, and for a man with just 14 professional fights, his domestic resume is close to unrivalled.
“If I couldn’t get a big promoter then I’ll get there my way, fighting, sparring tougher fighters like Joe Cordina or Ohara [Davies],” explains the father-of-one. “You know you’re on that level but you’re still waiting for your chance. That wasn’t really the problem; you know you gotta bide your time. I was okay with that. But it got to the point where I was seeing people I’d beat challenging for titles or getting made mandatory, stuff like that. That’s what started getting to me. The game is confusing. Why am I not getting made mandatory? Why am I not getting my shot to make my name on the big stage? Everyone says, ‘You know you’re good’, but nobody wanted to take a risk. I just had to keep getting the Ws and I knew if I did that, then it would eventually come.”
It came, and it went. Losing to Maxwell in a seemingly unthinkable set of scorecards has undeniably set the former champion back. He’s thinking about two things: retribution and progression. Asking Ennis-Brown about the future, you’ll likely stumble upon some respectful, cliché answers. But asking the “showman, Riiddy Riiddy Rival” opens up a completely different perspective. He spent too long mingling with these domestic fighters, unable to match him. He repeats the word “decode” throughout his chat with Boxing Social, and it seems apt.
His style of rangy, accurate fighting frustrates opponents, while never quite threatening the highlight-reel stoppage some fringe fans crave. Does it bother him? Not really. He knows that by fighting legitimate champions or contenders, he can prove himself a conundrum: “We know that my style, it isn’t something you’re gonna see often, it’s high risk-low reward, you know? If you look at my resume compared to any other fighter with my record, I can’t find nobody, man. I’m not trying to blow my own trumpet here. My resume isn’t big or amazing – it’s just how boxing should be.
“It could be [frustrating for fans], who knows. But to me, everybody wants to see a banger – I’m not a boxing fan like that. Sometimes I do wanna see a knockout, but I believe I compensate by taking on all-comers. I’m taking the hardest fights and they can’t decode me, they can’t break me down; I think that compensates for it. All these fans, they’re looking for knockouts and I’m beating their best fighters. Without this dodgy decision, I showed again they can’t decode me. If it was a case of me outclassing standard anybodies [then I could see their point]. But I’m not. I’m taking these hard fights, and I’m trying to make up for it by fighting guys and beating them in different ways.”
It’s hard to argue. Ennis-Brown beating Sam Maxwell on points seemed a certainty to many, but that wasn’t how things transpired. The dethroned fighter knows what he has to do, and he’s looking to draw a line under the saga by the end of January 2022 at the latest. For him, it’s a much-needed a step away from British level, with eyes fixed on European or reputable international opponents.
“What’s next? I wanna move on to bigger and better things. I want to get more experience now to find out if I’m ready for world level, whether that’s European level or international fighters, I want to start developing myself and preparing for that world level now. These are just personality traits of me anyway, so you can be humble, that’s me and my moral code. But why can you not be confident? People don’t like confidence. They call it arrogance, cocky or whatever. I wouldn’t wanna be shy; ‘Riiddy Riiddy Rival’ is the showman.”
It’s interesting to view Akeem Ennis-Brown as British boxing’s puzzle. He will come again, and you’d fancy him to earn revenge over the older Maxwell, probably over the distance. But what next? His journey from small hall card-warmer to nationally televised defending champion has been muted, with fans clamouring to praise him after the fact. How far can he go? How long will it take the keen, challenged champions to solve his puzzle? From humble beginnings in Gloucester, hailing from – and extremely proud of – his Jamaican roots, Ennis-Brown knows what’s important to him.
“I want to box forever,” he jokes. Maybe. “If I could be, then forever. Well, there’s gonna be a time when I’ll want to chill, but I don’t know [when]. The clock’s getting on, even though I’ve still got a good 10 years. It all depends on how my career’s gone and how I’ve achieved, how things are going, have I done the things I wanted to do? What level am I at? It all depends on that. Ideally, I’d like to be like Floyd Mayweather and fight on until I’m like 39, 40. I wouldn’t wanna be fighting when I’m older if things weren’t going well, just getting bowled over in hard fights. If I’m at the top, or if I know I’m in a good place, that’s ideally [what I want].”
“I’d want people to remember me as the guy who took on the hardest challenges. I want them to remember me as the guy they never thought would prevail, but the one who always came through with boxing skills and his own unique style. Very effective, creative, couldn’t be beaten. I want to go down as one of the greatest fighters who ever lived – an all-time great. And I think that every fighter should want to have those aspirations. At a minimum, that’s what I’d want them to remember me for. Taking on every challenge and comfortable when the people doubted him with a crazy unique style. One of a kind.”
Main image and all photos: Sash Shots.