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Alen Babic: A savage rising

Alen Babic was looking at a future with very few prospects after finishing high school. His grades were terrible, he had been bullied and, overall, he didn’t enjoy his time in secondary education.

He soon found himself studying to be an electrician. “I was shit,” he said.

He looked at the possibility of working in construction. “I respect that job, but I’m shit at it, not as good as they are.”

He tried to be a waiter. “I sucked at waitering. The stuff fell out of the trays all the time.” 

The teenage Babic had little belief in himself, something that he holds the school bullies partly responsible for. It came down to a decision of persevering at being a waiter or doing nothing. “I didn’t want that kind of life,” he said. So, with only 30 Euros to his name he left his home and mother in Rovinj, Croatia, in search of a better life.

His mother didn’t have the finances to support her son in whatever he sought beyond life in Rovinj. He describes her as a “great woman”. One who taught him everything he knows and the reason why he is looking to become a cult hero and success as a professional boxer. In between fleeing the nest and landing in London for a sparring session with Dillian Whyte, there were some bumps along the way.

Babic had two hands and was strong. It was time to put that to some use. At 19-years-old, he found himself working in nightclubs as a doorman in his homeland. Life after his home in Rovinj took him to the city of Rijeka. Sleeping in his car and on wet floors in apartments that smelled like “shit”, eating rice five times a week were just some memories of a stage in his life that he described as the most challenging to date. His nights as a doorman just made life more interesting.

“I worked in some fucked up places,” he laughed while talking to Boxing Social about his story so far. “I had a lot of fights. Croatia is a very tough country; everyone here wants to hurt you! Croatians are kind of crazy, warm-blooded. I got hit a couple of times, of course. I’m not perfect, I’m not the biggest guy in the world but I got hit a couple of times, but I always finished on top.”

There were times when Babic had to make money to survive. There were no examples given or stories shared of some of the people he worked with. His description at the very least led to you to think that he was venturing down a darker path to get away from the same basic meal every day and the kind of accommodation that sounded more suitable for rodents.

“I had so many, how you say it, so many bad choices to make more money and I could have made much, much more money, but I didn’t want to do it that way. I’m not ashamed of anything because I was always on the right side,” he recalled.

It has crossed his mind, however, where life might have taken him had he not found success with a pair of boxing gloves.

“I would have ended up dead,” was his matter of fact and yet startling admission.

“But boxing taught me about humility, about honour, about respect. I didn’t know that stuff. I was just a young kid with a bald head who weighed 100 kilos. I would be just another thug. I wouldn’t have liked what I would have become but boxing showed me the way that I can do stuff with my own hands. 

“I would have done something because the pay in Croatia is critically small like 500 Euros [per month]. What do I do with that? I think I would have been a thug or a mercenary or a soldier. I think I would go into the military. probably.”

Thankfully, he now finds himself in England. Hours away from his fifth professional contest against Ireland’s Niall Kennedy. It’s another opportunity at gaining exposure on Sky Sports, this Sunday, as part of Matchroom’s first event post-Fight Camp, headlined by Joshua Buatsi taking on Babic’s fellow countryman Marko Calic.

Babic (right) obliterates Shawndell Winters in August.
Photo: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.

Nine years ago, Babic had his first amateur fight. He found boxing while reading about it on Wikipedia. The profiles and tales of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Rocky Marciano and Jack Dempsey captivated the then 20-year-old Babic. “I couldn’t work YouTube because I had a fucked up phone,” he added.

Babic (4-0, 4 KOs) found himself empathising with the likes of Frazier whose family had little money when ‘Smokin’ Joe was a child. Periods of poverty that Babic could relate to, long before these men became boxing and sporting icons. It wasn’t long before Babic fell in love with the sport.

“My first fight was a heavy knockout, a brutal knockout,” he said, recalling his first amateur fight. “The guy was ten kilos heavier than me. Everybody saw my potential and from that day on I believed in myself. I knew what I could do.”

Croatian boxing coach Leonardo Pijetraj, who trains Babic and is owner of the Leonardo Boxing Gym in Zagreb, also found out what the fighter could do when he first came through the doors of his gym. Babic had been travelling around gyms in Croatia beating up those in front of him and facing little threat in the process. 

“I just roam through life seeking challenges,” Babic said. “Then I went to Leonardo’s door because he had [Filip] Hrgovic at the time. He made Hrgovic out of nothing, he was his first trainer. I wanted to fight Hrgovic. Leonardo saw potential in me when I was nothing. Nobody gave me a chance. I was the underdog all the time, but he saw it before everybody. I’ll be grateful for the rest of my life for that.”

Defeat in the national championships as an amateur, a “robbery” Babic said, proved to be a blessing in disguise. A week later, Babic received a call offering him the opportunity to go and spar Dillian Whyte while the British heavyweight was in camp for his bout against Oscar Rivas last summer. A speedy pick me up after the deflated feeling of defeat in a final.

“It was really a movie story,” Babic beamed.

Babic arrived at Whyte’s camp in London with £20 in his pocket but was going with the intention to take down anyone in his way, knowing that he may not receive another chance again.

“The first sparring session [with Whyte] was beautiful. He said we would do two rounds and we did three, four, five rounds on the first day. He couldn’t believe I could do it.” said Babic. “I was a small guy. Eighty-eight kilos at the time. And he was around 130 and I had an all-out war with him. It was a beautiful tear-up and, from that first fight, he told me he’s going to manage me, and my life changed just like that.”

Babic’s fledgling career to date only caught fire when he dismantled Shawndell Winters in two rounds back in August. From the opening seconds, Babic kept his head low and forced the American up against the ropes hitting everything and anything that he could. His heavy hands connected with Winters with a minute to go. Plan A had worked; seek and destroy. There would be no grades given for style but if you want entertainment then Babic is your man. And fighting for the fans and giving them what they want is something that motivates him.

“I want to be able to walk amongst the public and be greeted by fans, for them to call my name, to drink with them and share stories. That is the man and boxer I want to be,” said Babic. “I want to box for the fans. I love boxing. Boxing made the craziest and baddest memories I ever had but also the best. Boxing is everything for me. I could have had a family with the girlfriends I had but they were in my way with boxing and I said no, I’m going to marry boxing!”

Babic has captured the imagination of fight fans with his engaging personality.
Photo: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.

Weighing in at 205lbs for his last fight against Winters, there is an argument to be made for the Croatian fighting at cruiserweight, but something is building with Babic at heavyweight. His promoter Eddie Hearn has recognised it and will look to see how far Babic can go. Plans are already in place for Babic to fight Tom Little should he beat Niall Kennedy on Sunday. While it lasts, the heavyweight career of ‘The Savage’ will be wild, fun and full of soundbites that will do good YouTube numbers. Babic is also eyeing a fight with another Matchroom’s Dave Allen at some point, too. 

“I don’t think boxing wise he’s [Allen] on my level, I do everything better. In my gym we don’t think he’s at my level, but he has a beautiful story. He has a great story, and I was actually a fan and I still am,” said Babic. “I would like that fight because he is a big name, he’s top 40 in the world. That is the fight I am looking for in the next couple of fights, if the fans wanna see it.”

Fights against Little and Allen can fall into Babic’s ambitious plans of having 10 fights in 10 months. He wants to take us back to the old days when fighters took little breaks and fought until they physically couldn’t. It’s an idea filled with nostalgia but will likely be reined in by his management team and the obstacles that Covid-19 is placing at boxing’s feet these days.

“I just want to fight, give me fights, test me. I want to be tested. I want to be given someone worthy and I hope Niall is going to be that, but I don’t see it,” he said. “I hope he can last a couple of rounds so I can show everything I know from boxing.”

One fight that Babic is chomping at the bit for is against the highly touted Filip Hrgovic. Another Croatian heavyweight who some see as the future of the division. Hrgovic is the polar opposite to Babic who recognises that and cites their differences in character and profile as one of the main reasons he is keen to fight him and end the hype.

“He is everything I fight against,” said Babic whose tone was immediately filled with disdain for his countryman.

“He’s kind of a bully and I’m the guy who was bullied so we are totally opposite guys. He is stuck up and I’m the guy who talks to his fans every day. I answer their messages and Babic fans say, ‘He answered my message, it’s so weird’. I like that. He’s not like that, he’s all stuck up and he thinks he’s the most beautiful guy in the world. Fuck him. 

“I’m a little man, I’m nothing special. I say that all the time and that is what he doesn’t like because he thinks he is something special. I say we are boxers; we are not special. A lot of guys are better than me at a lot of stuff, I just know how to box that is all. That’s what he doesn’t like. He thinks he is made out of heaven. My country loves our rivalry. He doesn’t want to give it to the people, and I think that’s fucked up. Just give the people what they want! They want the beef. Maybe we can make it in one year or two at one of Croatia’s stadiums, it’s gonna be history for my little country.”

Main image and all photos: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.