“You are not telling me this fight is going ahead until I actually see Philip Bowes in the ring. I don’t care if you even see him at the venue or in the changing room or whatever. It’s not definitely on until he’s stood in the ring and that bell rings,” Akeem Ennis Brown tells Boxing Social enthusiastically, his voice straining with laughter.
The Gloucester-based super-lightweight is sanguine about his current situation, can obviously see the comedy in it, but the frustration is clearly bubbling away not far beneath the surface. Twice now he has suffered the frustration of seeing his big break – a shot at the British and Commonwealth titles – cast into oblivion at the last available minute.
On the first occasion, last November, he had made the trip from his native Gloucester all the way to London only for the axe to fall just hours before making his way to York Hall. He recalls his coach Jon Pitman taking a call and then despondently giving him the throat-chopping motion that typically accompanies a major blow-out; the fight had been cancelled at the behest of the British Boxing Board of Control following the detection of blood in Bowes’ urine sample.
“The five-hour trip back to Gloucester was just the longest drive,” remembers Ennis Brown. “The week after was like a lost week. I just stayed in my room. After all the build-up, I was like, ‘What do I do now?’. It was just a numb feeling.
“But then you think to yourself, ‘I haven’t lost anything. It’s just been delayed. When it happens, I am going to beat him. So, what’s the point using this time being upset? Just get on with it’. There are so many worse things in life.”
A philosophical state of mind that would have been critical to the 24-year-old maintaining his sanity, as the revised fight date of 20th March coincided with the first weekend of the UK’s lockdown. Like many, Ennis Brown saw Covid-19 as a distant thing and it was only the cancellation of Premier League fixtures the weekend before that placed the genesis of doubt in his mind. “It was still scheduled to go ahead,” he recalls. “But I was already thinking to myself that it’s not going to happen and it’s going to be called off for a second time. But it got close enough to the fight that I actually started to believe.”
So close, in fact, that Ennis Brown was sat in the passenger seat of Jon Pitman’s car, only one-hour from London, when the message came through that the fight was off again. They reluctantly turned around and headed back west.
A third date, in what was then deemed to be a safely distant July, was confirmed, but even that is now laced with optimism, as sport in the UK remains locked in suspended animation. However, Ennis Brown remains positive that his fight with Bowes could be one of the first bouts approved to be held behind-closed-doors. “I guess there’ll be no crowd, but it will obviously be live on TV,” he says.
“It will be weird, but it’s just one of those things. You just have to get on with it. But I’ve said to my team to try and make it the first one back. Whoever is in that first show will have TV viewing figures that are through the roof. Despite everything, it could prove to be my breakthrough opportunity.
“But it’s really all about getting those titles now. I’ve got to the stage where I’m sick and bored of talking about the British and Commonwealth belts.
“I thought I would have been past this British scene by now. So, however we get this done, I don’t care. It has to be third-time lucky, surely. We just need it to be confirmed. I can’t see it being called off a third time. That would be ridiculous. We need to get Philip Bowes in there – no matter what!”
The repeated delays have allowed what appears to be bad blood, or at least a medium-rare ‘Twitter Beef’, to develop between the two. The young and effervescent Ennis Brown and the quietly respectful, seasoned campaigner, Bowes are contrasting characters and this has led to the 35-year-old Commonwealth champion taking exception to some of the Gloucester man’s comments. Even referring to him as “a rude kid” and accusing him of lacking respect.
“It was just to build the fight,” counters Ennis Brown, in response to Bowes’ complaints. “It was a small hall show and not on TV. Why not build-up the fight? We only get one shot at this. He took it the wrong way and turned it into something personal, and made it into some beef, so I just went with it. I’ve no hate for him. He’s saying he hates me and wants to beat me up.
“Bowes would do better saving some of that energy for the fight. Let’s have a great fight and have some fun. Anyone who gets upset with something like that isn’t made for the sport. It’s not personal, just business.”
Ennis Brown has only appeared once since claiming the IBF European title following an impressive victory over Australia-based Irishman Darragh Foley in December 2018. At a seasonal York Hall, dominated by Irish tricolours, Ennis Brown bamboozled, frustrated and ultimately demoralised his world-ranked opponent over 10 rounds.
It was not always easy on the eye with Foley striving to bring single punch finality to proceedings and Ennis Brown continually adding to his frustration with fleet-footed elusiveness; his long arms frequently tying up his bewildered and despairing foe.
His accomplished performance had Barry Jones and the BoxNation commentary team purring, albeit with the following caveat: “He’ll be avoided like the plague now. He’s a nightmare to fight. Even if you can beat him, you won’t look good doing it. You’ve got to knock him spark out, but he’s so difficult to hit,” commented Jones.
A successful defence of the same belt in March last year, over fellow unbeaten prospect Bilal Rehman, marked the Gloucester man’s last appearance between the ropes. However, Ennis Brown has zero concerns over any ring rust upsetting his rhythm. “A year out could damage some fighters,” he says. “But I keep to such a high-level of sparring that it isn’t a problem. I spar with the likes of Josh Taylor and Luke Campbell, real top-level people. When you are in the ring with world champions then nothing fazes you.
“Even now it is business as usual. My coach has locked down the gym. It’s his business and so he can’t earn any money, but I have a key as well, so I can go in whenever I want.”
Ennis Brown can trace his path into boxing back to his childhood days in Gloucester. An unfamiliar grid reference far away from boxing’s typical big-city landmarks. Lacking big connections and with just one inside-the-distance victory among his 13 unblemished professional successes, he is used to being underestimated.
It was the same even in those far-off days when his elder brother would organise little boxing tournaments for him and the other local lads. The street was their ring and the diminutive boy that they all knew as ‘Riiddy’, quickly became a value bet in their unofficial, cash only sportsbook.
Giving away height and years, Ennis Brown was still apt to come out on top and his bigger opponents quickly learned not to hold back on their seemingly unthreatening foe. The concept of small boys fighting for money may feel a bit suspect and Dickensian, but Ennis Brown allays any concerns by describing these memories as “great fun,” and advantageous to his future choice of career. “I was like a little kid tearing these guys up. That was such a big part in helping me develop the skills and self-belief I’ve got now. I enjoyed surprising them,” he reminisces.
This has followed him into his professional career where he feels that opponents and matchmakers have continually underrated his abilities. “It’s funny,” he reflects. “I have been underestimated for all my fights from Freddy Kiwitt [then 11-0] in my [seventh] fight onwards, people have always underestimated me. No one gave me a chance.
“But I have got a thrill out of proving people wrong. People didn’t think I could beat Darragh Foley either or Glenn Foot. I love testing myself and overcoming these challenges. But it’s only a big thrill for a day or two and then it’s all about finding the next one.”
Ennis Brown clearly takes a lot of pride in his impressive on-the-road victories, against more touted and certainly greater experienced campaigners. None more so than the 250 miles he travelled to defeat local favourite Foot in 2016, for the English title, at Sunderland’s ambitiously named Stadium of Light.
With just eight pro fights in the tank at the time, few fancied the youngster’s chances against the future Commonwealth champion. But on the night, he comprehensively outboxed his shell-shocked opponent to pick up the judges’ verdict and collect his first title honours.
This domestic success was complemented with an inaugural international title a year later when Ennis Brown claimed the WBC Youth belt after outpointing future British welterweight champion Chris Jenkins. That he was able to achieve this whilst headlining a promotion in his home city is an obvious source of pride.
“It was crazy,” he remembers. “My whole city came together and came out, everybody who was anyone was there. It was a fantastic experience. It just provided validation for all the work I have been doing. It was a great performance, a great show. I think it did a lot for boxing locally.”
In a city where Rugby Union traditionally rules the roost, Ennis Brown admits that he would one day love to sell out the Kingsholm Stadium, home to Gloucester RFC. “Gloucester is my city, it’s a small place and it’s a rugby city,” he says.
“But I am trying to create a wave. So long as you make a lot of noise, do the right things and keep winning, people will have to take notice eventually. The opportunities will have to come.”
Yet Ennis Brown does carry a sense of frustration for how much extra he feels he has had to put in, to gain even tacit acknowledgment of his ability. “I’ve had to do way more than a lot of fighters,” he says. “Anyone at British level, with my number of fights, hasn’t had to do what I’ve done. They haven’t had to take the type of fights that I have. They’ve padded their record and still they get more respect. It’s frustrating.
“But at the same time, I still see some respect in the way that none of these guys want to fight me. They know that if they do they’ll have a hard night and most likely lose. So, is it worth it to them? Why would they want to take the risk when there are easier options for them?
“I was baying for my British title shot for over a year. We put into the Board, straight after I beat Jenkins, but I was continually knocked back and told to wait my turn whilst others got in front. Foot, [Robbie] Davies [Jr], [Joe] Hughes; they all got put ahead of me.
“Now, finally, it’s my turn.”
Only a global pandemic and a disgruntled Philip Bowes stand in his way.
Main image: Liam Hartery.