Situated just over ten miles from Glasgow’s city centre on the North Bank of the River Clyde, Dumbarton has kept a low profile in recent years, smothered in the shadow of its own famous rock. Boxing hasn’t brought the town the success that other sports have, with no mention of any fighters or particular contests detailed under its relatively minimalist Wikipedia page. Despite that, it is a fighting town.
With the decline of glassmaking and shipbuilding – primary local industries – it now appeals to a generation of commuters and young professionals, happy with affordable housing and safe neighbourhoods. It’s no surprise then, that unbeaten welterweight contender, Martin Harkin (13-0, 5KOs), has sought training elsewhere, despite his grounding in the Royal Burgh. The quieter of two, fighting Harkin men was knocking on the door of a big fight, however, due to the current pandemic, he was turned away unanswered. But before lacing up his gloves, his future seemed pre-determined.
“It was reasonably a quiet area we lived in growing up. I’ve always kinda kept myself to myself anyway, and I had a good upbringing really,” explained the second generation, professional fighter in an interview with Boxing Social. “I got into boxing at an early age through my dad fighting professionally. That’s all I’ve ever known – just watching him. He boxed for British and Commonwealth titles, though unsuccessfully, but he got to that level. So growing up, he was always out at the gym at nights and stuff, so I’d just go with him.”
“I think it felt normal for me, really, watching my dad fight. I know most kids are kinda brought up with football, and I was just always in and out of the gym. I’d watched some of my dad’s pro bouts on tape at the time. I’ve still got them to this day, and I still watch them. I was quite thankful that I got in at an early age because you should see a lot of fighters nowadays, starting late, and kinda following that white collar background. That’s a lot different from when I was young. I went the amateur route, and obviously I turned pro at a reasonable age, so I’m thankful for that education.”
Martin had just walked through his front door after a late night run, something that usually follows a full day at work if he’s not grafting in the gym in Greenock, some 20 miles away. Life in Glasgow’s small hall circuit differs vastly from my experiences visiting York Hall in London, often considered the sport’s own Mecca within the United Kingdom. There, fighters selling tickets were never far away from gracing televised undercards, whereas Glasgow’s lesser-known prospects are never far from the cancellation or curtailment of fights.
Harkin’s last contest came earlier this year at the end of January, with a stunning, highlight-reel knockout of formerly unbeaten, James Moorcroft. The fight was an eliminator for the British title – featuring on a local event held at the prestigious St Andrews Sporting Club. The Club have played host to a number of British title fights recently, giving Kash Farooq the platform to win the title outright over the last eighteen months, with those cards broadcast on BBC Scotland. Beating Moorcroft was the 27-year old Dumbarton-man’s most significant victory to date, but now, not blessed with hundreds of ticket sales, it’s time to press ahead.
“I suppose I’m just not a big enough name yet,” pondered the full-time Procurator Fiscal’s employee, “Iain Wilson at St Andrews doesn’t put much pressure on you to sell tickets because obviously he has members at St. Andrew’s. He’s already made money from the show mostly. It’s difficult in terms of getting exposure and getting opportunities. You need to really do it the hard way and to do it without a big promoter behind you, you’re definitely up against it. Obviously I want to box the best anyway, just to test myself. Just to be the best, do you know what I mean?”
“You’re gonna need to travel. And I always look at maybe John Simpson, from Greenock . My trainer actually coached him to win the Lonsdale Belt outright and two Commonwealth titles, but they done it all away from home, up against it in the lion’s den. I don’t feel that he gets talked about enough in Scottish boxing. He was maybe always in the shadow of Scott Harrison and Ricky Burns. But if anyone remembers him, if you look at his resume, he always boxed away from home. He boxed Martin Lindsay when Martin Lindsay was tipped to be the next potential fuckin’ European-go-onto-World-level fighter. John Simpson just went over to his backyard and whipped him, battered him. You need to take chances. Sometimes it might not go your way. But as long as you’re not getting stopped or knocked out, I think it’s a good thing.”
Harkin had grown up watching Simpson on his own doorstep – a boxer sadly forgotten by the mainstream media – dominating as an underdog, continually upsetting the apple cart. Now his time was approaching, with a final eliminator sadly delayed given the current Coronavirus pandemic. His approach to welcoming challenging fights, even on the road, was refreshing. A solid amateur, Martin had learnt his trade traditionally, now ticking over with trainer Danny Lee at Greenock Boxing Club, in the hope of securing a big fight even on short notice. He recalled sparring sessions from years ago with former British lightweight champion, Lewis Ritson, citing the Newcastle-man’s own success as an inspiration.
As the night drew in, Harkin was conscious of preparing for another day at work, explaining that balancing the day job with his burgeoning career was the most challenging aspect of boxing. I asked if he was afraid of forever flying under boxing’s radar, to which he explained honestly, “I get bad visions of that and I think about it regularly. I’ve put my whole life into this and I’ve given so much to boxing since I was eight-years old. If I’ve built all this up, can it be for nothing?”
“I’ve got dreams and I’ve always said that I want to be British or Commonwealth champion. I’ve never looked too far ahead but I’m good enough to win the British and Commonwealth. I’d love that. But negative thoughts creep into my head. You know, I’m 28 this year. This is a young man’s sport, but I’m going about it in the right way, I just need the opportunity. I just need that one chance. I honestly think about [never getting my opportunity] pretty often… It’s puts me in a bad mood, but I just need to keep reminding myself that I put exciting performances on. The only aspect I’m lacking is exposure.”
His explosive stoppage wins over James Moorcroft and Ally Black spoke for themselves, engaging the wider boxing public after both clips went viral on Twitter. Harkin has announced himself as a danger to the fighters protected by powerful promoters, and was only too aware that it could cost him opportunities. Doing things the right way – climbing the British rankings and winning board-mandated eliminators – was his only choice. Martin, his fighting father Robert (dubbed the ‘Nobbin King’ after thrilling crowds in the eighties) and his wider team are left hoping that route will pay dividends, but they’re immersed in a sport known for creating its own rules.
“It frustrates me that you see all these kid-on boxers, Mickey Mouse fighters that are all for show on Instagram. They have hand-picked fights and padded records, but I can’t let it get to me. That’s never going to be me – I want to have proper fights. I just keep saying to myself that I’ll get my opportunity, and then I’ll show them. I’ll prove it and I will get there. I’ve said to my manager, I only want 50/50 fights now at this stage. I’m going to take a gamble now. I need an opportunity and if it doesn’t work out then at least I know.”
“I didn’t choose boxing – I feel that boxing chose me,” finished Harkin, addressing the idea of his life without the sport. “Without sounding soppy here, it’s learned behaviour for me through my dad. It’s a scary thing to think about because I’ve never done anything else. All I’ve ever done was devote myself to boxing; training, training, training. I honestly think boxing will retire me. I’ll never retire from boxing. That’s what it means to me. I really think it’s in my DNA.”
With his next outing unknown, Martin understood that he’d have to rebuild the momentum gained earlier this year. He wants what’s fair and is willing to chase it, preparing to fight on enemy soil. The sun sets behind Dumbarton rock and the town is left waiting for its first, notable boxing champion. Working hard for opportunities has never worried Harkin and his approach to boxing is lined with cautious optimism. In setting himself challenges, remaining determined to achieve his goals unfazed by the potential of defeat, he sits, waiting patiently on his phone ringing.
Now a parent himself, the unbeaten challenger wants to fulfil the boxing ambitions that have spanned two generations of Harkin fighters. Some had narrowly eluded former pro, Robert, a keen observer at all of his son’s fights. Robert, now 57, had lost by only two points when fighting future World title challenger, Pat Barrett, for the British title in 1989. Nothing would make Martin prouder than seeing his father’s name up in lights – better late than never.
Interview written by: Craig Scott
Follow Craig on Twitter at: @craigscott209