“I felt up to that point that I’d underachieved in my career. I felt that I was better than what I’d done. I hadn’t fully shown what I could do due to injuries and other factors. But this just felt like justification for everything.”
These are the words that Joe Hughes uses to describe his 2018 European super-lightweight success against Andrea Scarpa. Brought over to Florence for Matchroom’s inaugural show in Italy, he is convinced that the promoters saw him as a credible if easy mark for their home favourite.
What followed was a points victory that should have been much wider than the split decision verdict might suggest. To local observers, it may have appeared to be a win against the odds, but anyone familiar with Hughes’ extraordinary story knew that it was just another day at the office.
A victory registered from the hazardous location of the away corner in a country not revered for the mathematical exactitude of its judges – a title that Hughes’ home country is lately doing its best to snare – is the latest chapter in a life that has specialised in proving people wrong. That he has done so whilst wearing a modest smile only serves to add to the appeal.
Some 23 years before Hughes entered the Teatro Obi Hall, he had accompanied his father to a local martial arts club. Just five-years-old, the boy who loved the cheesy Power Rangers television show was unaware that he was being duped into undertaking a form of unwanted physiotherapy. The little boy with Erb’s Palsy – a condition attributed to nerve damage caused during childbirth and resulting in arm weakness or paralysis – was reluctant to perform the dull exercises detailed by his doctor’s, and Hughes senior identified this rough and tumble environment as a covert way to get his son to start moving his injured arm.
From there, Hughes graduated to a boxing gym as a shy eight-year-old. “It was never done with any idea of ever being a boxer or to ever have any fights or anything. It was all just to make my physio fun and something I would actually do,” Hughes tells Boxing Social of his introduction to the sport.
“It was a slow burn and I definitely wasn’t a natural, that’s for sure. I was always sort of tough and got stuck in, but when I was starting out, I couldn’t even hold my right hand to my chin; my arm was that weak. I used to get hit loads in sparring because I just couldn’t hold my hand up.”
But unperturbed Hughes just “worked and worked at it” slowly building up his strength and technical ability over time. “To begin with just winning a fight was a massive deal. Then it just snowballed and I started winning and picking up titles at area then national and international level,” he recalls. He followed this up by boxing for England [winning five out of six bouts] but the disappointment of missing out on selection for the 2010 Commonwealth Games rankled, especially as he had won that year’s senior ABAs, and proved to be the catalyst for Hughes opting to turn pro.
Now after 10 years and 24 fights in the paid ranks, Hughes finds himself at a career crossroads. He turned 30 in the summer and, despite his best efforts, has not recorded a victory in three attempts since that sparkling winter evening in Florence. He speaks a lot about “frustration” as well he might, considering the physical challenges that life has thrown at him, but he is a stranger to self-pity and this word is only ever used in the context of boxing politics.
He is all too aware of how the future landscape can change abruptly in his chosen sport, especially when you lack a big promoter. Starting out he had his first five fights under the promotional banner of Frank [now Kellie] Maloney, but following the split, he describes himself as being “sort of on the outside ever since”. A situation that has necessitated most of his big fights taking place on someone else’s show, far away from his home in the picturesque market town of Malmesbury, 20 miles outside of Bristol.
Even when armed with the European championship belt, he was compelled to defend his title on a Matchroom show in Liverpool against local favourite Robbie Davies Jr. That he lost his coveted title, and his second shot at a Lonsdale Belt in the same evening, via what was a hotly disputed decision is perhaps his greatest source of “frustration”. Following a hard-fought and highly competitive contest, it was Davies who carried a heavily swollen eye and a broken nose emitting streaks of blood into the celebratory television interviews; whereas Hughes left the Echo Arena with nothing but an unblemished face.
Although defeat hurt, Hughes’ understanding of the vagaries of the fight game meant that it really didn’t come as a surprise. “Going into the fight, I thought: ‘I’ve got to win this so clearly to actually get the decision’. I watched it back afterwards and I thought I’d done that. Lots of people on social media thought I had won as well, but I didn’t get the verdict. One of the judges actually scored it 10-2 to Davies as well [Birmingham’s Terry O’Connor],” reveals an incredulous Hughes.
“It was extremely frustrating because it not only cost me my title, but it cost me a hell of a lot of money as well; especially with two kids to feed at home. That was a big setback for me both in terms of my boxing career and financially as well. It just felt completely unfair. But I know by now that I have to win it twice as much as the other guy to get the decision.”
That final sentence is one that will resonate with every fighter that doesn’t shift bucket loads of tickets and lacks the protective shield of a big promoter. A dirge for those that graft and grab every unfavourable opportunity, as the living they scrape is casually upturned on the whim of all too often myopic judges.
Not surprisingly, the Hughes’ team asked for the rematch, but their request was bypassed and ignored. With nothing on the horizon, and following a potential match-up with Lewis Ritson falling through due to an injury to his back, Hughes signed for another tilt at the European title against Spain’s Sandor Martin in his home city of Barcelona.
He lost by a unanimous decision in a performance that he candidly describes as “the worst of my entire life; amateur or pro”. Hughes (17-6-1, 7 KOs) begins to reference a difficult camp and injuries that derailed his preparation, but opts to cut himself off because he doesn’t want to be seen to make “the usual excuses”. He does however admit that: “I only took the fight because, if I didn’t take it, where would I be if I pulled out of two fights in a row.” A further pointer to the precarious terrain that Hughes and his kind have to operate in.
But the defeat last December did cause the 30-year-old to question his continued participation in a sport that has provided him with some terrific highs and dispiriting lows. It was only the second lockdown and its intendant boredom that persuaded him to get back into the gym and to give it another go. The result was a WBO European title match-up with Sam Maxwell on one of the early behind closed doors shows back in the summer. Despite a decent two months’ preparation time it once again ended with the bitter taste of defeat. “I personally thought I’d just nicked it,” says Hughes of the relatively close unanimous points verdict. “Looking back over the punch stats I landed my shots in more rounds than him, but obviously he was a lot busier than me. I’m not arguing it. I wasn’t robbed, but it could have gone either way.”
Yet Hughes – who is coached and managed by father-in-law Andy O’Kane – is under no illusions as to where that latest defeat now leaves his career. “It may look on paper like I’ve lost my last three, but in reality, it’s only one fight. One really close one and another I definitely didn’t deserve to lose. But in boxing people don’t look at it like that,” he says.
“I’m in a position now where I want to still be fighting at European level, but now it’s unlikely I will be offered anything at that level or the sort of fights I want. I feel like I will have to take something either at short notice or one that I don’t want because it’s not at the right level. It doesn’t mean they will be easier fights either. It’d be against some up and coming kid for bad money, which is not ideal at this stage of my career. But that’s the reality of where I am now, so I’ve just got to get on with it.
“Even if I won, they will say the other guy was all hype and I know I’ll get no favours from the judges. If I take one of these fights and I deserve to win and the judges don’t give it to me, then I’ll be absolutely nowhere. I’ll just have to wait and see what comes in and judge each fight on its merits. But I know I won’t be receiving any opportunities that favour me.”
Boxing is a hard enough sport without a big promotional brand behind you, even more so when you have three straight defeats on your record. Hughes knows that, for now at least, he will slip into the opponent class and that breaking out of it will be exceptionally tough when the system is so routinely calibrated against people like him.
But despite it all, his career has in many respects been a remarkable triumph against adversity. He has achieved success at Area, English, and European level mostly with the use of only one arm. Erb’s Palsy has left him with a right-arm three inches shorter than his left and one, which he finds exceptionally difficult to deploy consistently between the ropes.
“I can see when it’s a good time to throw it,” says Hughes of his right hand. “But there’s like a gap between my brain computing to my arm due to nerve damage. It’s just not automatic when I throw it. I can see the shot, think about throwing it, and then it’s too late. It’s just not second nature to me. It also takes longer to come back when I do throw it, so you can leave yourself open and get caught.”
However, Hughes can still see the upside to what for many would be a permanent barrier to a successful career in elite-level sport. He credits it with giving him a left-hand that is far superior to what it would have been had he possessed two fully functioning arms. Also, because he uses his right so infrequently, it can sometimes equip him with an additional element of surprise. “I’ve had times when I’ve been a few rounds in and haven’t thrown it. Their left hand has just dropped completely because they think: ‘What’s the point?’ I will then catch them with a sharp right hand,” he laughs.
Twice Hughes has fought for the British title and, on both occasions, he has taken exception with the judge’s verdict. Before his questionable points reverse to Davies, he had held defending champion Tyrone Nurse to a draw back in 2017. “I felt I deserved to win that fight. It was a good competitive fight but I was confident I had won it at the end and after watching it back later.
“You know they always say that getting a draw away from home is a win anyway. But I obviously didn’t get to walk away with the belt,” he recalls wistfully. Once again, his team requested a rematch but Nurse went on to defend against Jack Catterall and Hughes was frozen out.
Despite his success, the question of what Hughes could additionally have achieved in boxing with the full use of both his arms is an interesting one to ponder. It is a question that loitered nervously in the corner of the room throughout Boxing Social’s conversation with the Malmesbury man. When it was finally asked, he responded in a manner that was both measured and emphatic. “If my right was as good as my left, personally I think I would be world champion. I was at European level with one arm, so why couldn’t I be world champion if I had two. I think that is realistic,” he answered, with a logic that is hard to dispute.
“But if I had never had the disability there is a good chance, I would never have been a boxer. I only started because of it. I try not to look at it in a negative way. No good can come of that. I’d probably just be doing a normal job without it. I became a boxer because of my arm and not despite of it.”
It is a positive glass half full mindset that the 30-year-old is determined to carry into every aspect of his life and committed to sharing with others to make a difference. He takes obvious delight in being a role model for children suffering from Erb’s Palsy and his success in the ring has proved to be a beacon of hope for worried parents across the country. “I get a lot of messages from parents who have babies with Erb’s Palsy; saying things like: ‘What you’ve done in boxing gives us hope for our 10-week-old baby that’s just been diagnosed’ – it’s really touching and a big motivating factor for me,” he explains.
“I have a platform, it isn’t massive, but I’m proud of being able to help people. I’ve been helped loads of times in my life, so why shouldn’t I help others in the same way.”
Joe Hughes is such a positive role model in a sport that desperately needs them – inside the professional game at least – that it is hard to believe that he doesn’t have a bigger name. Tough and pugnacious, it is true that his knockout record is far from explosive. His unique style, finely honed through years of sweat and compromise in the gym, may also not be the stuff of poetry. But the journey, from a small boy who couldn’t lift his arm to the champion of a continent, certainly is. Perhaps his story owes less to poetry and more to a Greek myth, so otherworldly has been the outcome.
As Hughes gazes down the track into the final hard yards of his career, his pride is self-evident. Yet, in many ways, he is politely scathing of many elements of the sport. Some would simply deflect this criticism by saying that he is “too nice” but that would be ignoring the fact that decency and integrity are virtues to be respected. Whatever the truth, these personal experiences have jaundiced his view of professional boxing, but not his love for a sport that has taken him to the highest level.
“The time I have spent in the pro game has put me off of it really,” he concludes. “I like the sport, the actual boxing, but everything that comes with it; the politics and business side of it is horrible and I don’t really want to be involved in it [post-retirement] to be honest.
“I’d prefer once I am out of it to do it from the periphery and stick to teaching amateurs and people for fun. Just helping everyday people stay fit and healthy. The side of the sport you don’t see on television. I can make a difference that way.”