Dec Spelman: War all the time

Scunthorpe’s coat of arms contains a golden wheatsheaf on a field of green. It is a permanent reminder of its once agricultural heritage before plough and scythe gave way to the smoke and hammers of heavy industry in the mid-19th Century. If Sheffield is Britain’s historic steel centre then the Lincolnshire town of approximately 80,000, is its smaller unprepossessing brother.

Scunthorpe isn’t a destination that readily falls off the tongue of boxing’s power brokers. Their fingers are unlikely to ever trip over it on the ’Sat Nav’ as they accelerate their flash motors through the security gates of their mock-Tudor mansions and onto the tree-lined avenues beyond.

To them, it isn’t somewhere for even passing through. It’s traditionally a place where you put men to work and collect on their toil. The town’s steelworks once employed 27,000 people, now it has shrunk to just four thousand, as the industry clings on to survival. The town’s motto “The Heavens Reflect our Labours” has never felt so distant.

Its story could be that of Gary, Indiana. The American Mid-west town that took Anthony Zaleski and turned him into Tony Zale: ‘The Man of Steel’. A fighter who knew only how to come forward and throw punches, with the unrelenting intensity of a man who was pushed ever onward by the deafening thunder of the steel mill beckoning behind him.

Dec Spelman may not reach the heights of Tony Zale, but in the image of the Man of Steel, he is programmed to march only forward and possesses no reverse gear. And like his hometown of Scunthorpe, he has waited his turn to be on the radar of boxing’s movers and shakers. Despite an English title and an appearance in the final of Ultimate Boxxer, his natural habitat has been the small hall circuit, just beyond the fringes of centre stage.

When the phone does ring, as it did recently for what will be the biggest fight of his career, Spelman answers it in the knowledge that the opportunity is unlikely to be on terms favourable to him. “They rang us about five-and-a-half weeks before the fight date,” he says of his upcoming shot against Lyndon Arthur, for the Commonwealth light-heavyweight title this Friday.

“We were told the fight was going to be in August, and we thought, ‘That’s great’. Then they said it was going to be July 16, before saying the fight was off. They then said, ‘Can you box on July 31?’” Unperturbed, he answered their question with, “Yeah, I’m ready.”

Spelman is experienced enough to understand the inconsistencies of boxing’s rules of engagement. “I’m in the away corner. You know, they might have even known all along,” he speculates on the fight’s scheduling. “You know how these TV shows work. That might have always been the date they wanted. There’s been a few interviews and tweets suggesting Arthur has never been out of the gym.

“But I don’t really care. I know what shape I’m in. I hope he’s in good shape as well and it’ll be another war.”

The 28-year-old has specialised in wars throughout a 19-fight career that has yielded 16 wins and three reverses. The latest of which was a 10-round points defeat to Shakan Pitters, and the loss of an English title that had meant the world to him. It was Spelman’s second defeat in less than a year to the awkward and rangy Pitters, who also outpointed him over three rounds in the final of the Ultimate Boxxer tournament.

The all-action Spelman (right) is steeled for another war on Friday.

Spelman acknowledges some regrets over losing his title in what was a voluntary defence. “I think my heart over-ruled my head a bit,” he admits over his desire to avenge the earlier defeat. “I think I’ve learnt from it a bit. But, you know, I believed I could beat Pitters. I didn’t go in there thinking I was gonna get beat. He’s a really good fighter and I really rate him.”

But despite the loss of his title, being involved in a real barnburner of a contest, has enhanced the Scunthorpe man’s marketability. His untiring come-forward style and ability to take a hit; make him perfect for televised shows. “What you see is what you get with me,” says Spelman, in no-nonsense yet amicable tones.

“I think people are starting to realise that now, after I’ve had three very good showings on TV. I was on a Sky bill on the undercard to Gavin McDonnell [WBC 122lbs title fight vs Ray Vargas] and got into a toe-to-toe war with Nathan King. It probably shouldn’t have been a war [considering the journeyman status of his opponent] but you know I still stopped somebody that hadn’t been stopped in seven years.

“After that, I put on an exciting shift in Ultimate Boxxer [Outpointing Joel McIntyre and a spectacular knock out of Sam Horsfall] and obviously the two Pitters fights. So I think it’s got me a bit of a name. If they put me on a poster now, it’s like people think, ‘I want to go and see him’.”

There was a time when Dec Spelman’s name was all over the newspapers and national news. It was following yet another keenly fought contest, but one that his inherent decency prevents him from referencing. On a chilly February night in Doncaster, Spelman climbed off the canvas and knocked down opponent Scott Westgarth in the closing seconds of the final round of an eliminator for the English title. Westgarth won the decision but lost his life shortly afterwards.

The story went viral and plucked a Scunthorpe scaffolder, from the hinterland world of the small hall into the intense glare of the media flashbulb. Spelman dealt with the heartbreak and unwanted scrutiny with the same matchless courage that he had earlier displayed between the ropes. As the mainstream media once again only opted to review the sport through the prism of violent, senseless loss; there stood Spelman as the unwavering antidote to all the blame and cynicism.

He confronted the agony of loss by opting to carry the name of his fallen adversary across the waistband of his shorts and struck up a rapport with Westgarth’s family, that culminated with his brother working his corner. Some sense of closure was finally achieved when Spelman captured the English belt following a convincing points success over Kirk Garvey. If boxing or its media detractors are looking for role models then they needn’t look further than Dec Spelman.

With this in mind, it is no great surprise to learn that Spelman and Pitters are now the best of friends. “We’ve got that mutual respect. We’ve got a really good relationship and we talk all the time,” he says. “I’m happy for him and I want him to go on and do well for himself and his family.”

It is a friendship that has further crystallised following recent sparring between the two. “We needed someone sharp and who can move well,” says Spelman. “He [Pitters] just fitted what we needed perfectly. He’s fighting Chad Sugden [For the British title] who’s very much like me: a come forward fighter, with a similar stature. So it’s just worked really well for both of us.”

Spelman shelved an opportunity to compete in the Siesta Promotions ‘Kold Wars’ event in Belarus – intended to pit 12 Russian boxers against a dozen of their British peers – for a shot at ‘King’ Arthur’s Commonwealth crown. Even with the added temptation of a WBA-sponsored trinket in Belarus, he exhibits no regrets. “The fight was confirmed for the last week in August against a Russian lad I’d never heard of, but he had plenty of backing and had been in with some good kids and banged them out. It would have been a good fight against a strong fighter,” he reveals.

“It would have been a great experience going over there. I was looking forward to it and then it got passed for the WBA Intercontinental as well, which was even better. But then this offer to fight Lyndon Arthur came in out of the blue and I just couldn’t turn it down. I really believe I can win this fight and it means not having to travel to Belarus. It’s going to be on BT Sport, so I had to take it.”

Spelman jumped at the opportunity to face Arthur on BT Sport.
Photo: Richard Sellers/Press Association.

The Scunthorpe man has listened patiently while his opponent and the media discuss a future fight with Anthony Yarde. At times, it must feel like the result of Friday night’s fight has already been phoned in and the challenger only employed to make him look good on television. Spelman understandably bristles at this suggestion and feels strongly that Arthur is underestimating him and will ultimately be undone by his perceived hubris. “Yeah, everyone’s been getting the impression it’s a done deal. Everyone’s touting him to go on to world level and the fight with Yarde,” he says, whilst weighing up the bookie’s odds of 1/6 on Arthur.

“I know how good he is. I’m not kidding myself and know it will be one of my toughest fights. But I know what I’m capable of and I’m ready. That’s exactly why I have trained like an animal. I’ve never trained this hard in my life. I’ve got to be tip-top, the same condition as when I beat [Kirk] Garvey. I didn’t give him a look, just went right through him, so I’ve got to do the same here.

“[Arthur’s] been saying I’ve not been in with anyone that hits as hard as him. I’m not being funny but if I’d gone in with the same people he has, I think I’d have the same record. So, you can’t really read much into that. But he’s done what he’s had to do. You can’t take that away from him.”

With the odds seemingly stacked against him, the Carl Greaves trained and managed fighter, is comfortable that he has the necessary skills and engine to pull off a shock on the night. He thinks that weight could prove to be a key factor. “He’s a big old lump for light-heavy and I know how much I struggle to make the weight, so he’s quite well known for struggling. In the later rounds, I’ll just keep coming and coming all day long.

“The more experience I have [earned] the more educated I’ve got when it comes to dealing with pressure. If I can stay away from those big-hands, if I can be a bit more switched on in them early rounds, then I honestly think I can stop him late on,” he adds.

For Spelman, you get the sense that losing isn’t an option. “I’ve put so much work into it,” he says of his fight preparation. But this could equally apply to his career. When he first walked into a gym he was focused on chasing the ready money of the journeyman route, but Greaves saw more in him than that. He ultimately chose, what is in many ways, the harder path of the prospect and its pressure to sell tickets and make ends meet. 

It’s an existence a world away from the big money pay-per-views and rolls of dollar bills being thrown around like they were loose change destined for the back of a sofa. His journey has taught him that when the breakout chance comes it has to be seized.

“It’s cost me a lot of money, this,” he muses. “I have left work and taken time off unpaid. I’ve put so much into this now. It has had to be full steam ahead from when it was first announced.

“The reality is that if I can win a Commonwealth title, I can become a full-time professional. That’s something I have dreamed about since I started pro boxing. I’ve constantly been on the fringe. It’s always just been in my grasp. It’s been frustrating but I believe it will come. Hopefully, this weekend.”

Come Friday night, in the manner of the motto of his hometown, Dec Spelman will be hoping that, at last, the boxing heavens reflect his labour.