“I’ll never say never, and I never announced a retirement. In my head I want to do it, but my body, I don’t know… It’s heartbreaking when you think you’re training for a fight, you’re so looking forward to it and then you canny’ do it. But never say never. Fuck it.”
Greenock’s John Simpson (26-11, 11 KOs) – notoriously tricky to locate in recent years – harbours the belief that he could still lace them up again, six long years after beating Lithuanian journeyman Simas Volosinas in his last professional fight. In fact, after our interview he texts me his new number, excited at the fact his return to fitness has gained momentum since we first spoke.
“Watch this space,” he signs his message off, unable to fully close the door on a career long past its sell-by date. Now 37, Simpson had some electrifying performances, but still feels blighted by plaguing, controversial defeats after approaching boxing with the honesty it rarely reciprocates.
His career was a compelling one, from experiencing immense highs when capturing the British title and upsetting popular fighters in dramatic fashion, to suffering from inactivity and indiscipline, acting like a self-confessed “fucking nutter” between fights. Simpson was a bit of a throwback; anytime, anywhere, with his tarnished record masking his prowess as a proper fighter. He doesn’t look back with regrets and, when talking to Boxing Social, he explains that, in hindsight, he probably over-achieved.
“I was about 15 when I started boxing, so considering what I done in the pros, I think I did quite well for a late starter. I won the Western District Junior title and the Scottish Junior title. I had another season after that where I was put out by the eventual winner, and then in my last season, I won the Western District and the Scottish Seniors. I boxed for Scotland internationally after that, and then won a medal at the Four Nations as a Junior and a Senior.
“I never made it to the Commonwealth Games with Scotland, so I thought, ‘I’m gonnae turn pro,’” explained the former IBF world-ranked featherweight. “I boxed for the British title three times before I eventually won it! Most people would have just chucked it, but to be honest, it was all I had. No trade, no exams, no nothing. It was great while it lasted and I fucking miss it to bits every single day; I canny’ stop thinking about it, to be honest.
“I went into the sport saying that if I fought for the British title, I’d be happy. I done that twice, I won it outright, won the Commonwealth and won a title above. I just didn’t think it would be over so quick; I thought I’d be boxing for another few years, but the injuries put us out; the elbows and the shoulder were done. It is what it is, that’s what was meant to be. The only thing I’m a bit ‘sour grapes’ about is some of the judges’ decisions I had in the pros. I think I could have gone a bit further.”
Simpson was involved in some of the best domestic scraps of his time, beating Martin Lindsay in a thriller in Belfast, stopping Paul Truscott twice, and brutally knocking out Paul Appleby in their rematch. But on at least three occasions, he considers himself unlucky to watch his opponent’s hand raised. A pair of tight decision defeats to Liverpool duo Stephen Smith and Derry Matthews and a loss in his first British title challenge to Dazzo Williams are just a few of the results that clearly still bother him.
It could have been different, sure, but he wouldn’t ever have wanted things handed to him. He grew up in Greenock, Inverclyde, a tough, no nonsense Scottish town known for its ship-building trade situated on the south bank of the River Clyde. Together with his first trainer, Greenock-native Danny Lee, he worked his way up the British rankings, often from the discomfort and uncertainty of the away corner.
“Even when I was the champion, I was fighting away from home in front of English referees and English judges, you know. You’re up against it, but I wasn’t with the house promoter; I wasn’t with Eddie Hearn, and I was up against some of the promoter’s golden boys – you’ve got no chance, really. If it was me that was with the house promoter, I’d have won those fights hands-down, but it’s just the shite we have to put up with. It’s just boxing, isn’t it?
“I fought everybody and anybody: Derry Matthews, Steve Foster, Andy Morris, Stephen Smith. They are boys that I could have done without. I was champion twice when I fought Smith, so anybody else would have body swerved him. If I wanted to fight on the house show and get paid, I knew I had to fight them. If I was promoted by Frank Warren, I’d have gotten easier opponents and probably went further, but it made me the boxer I was.
“Eventually, I beat some of the golden boys: Paul Truscott, Martin Lindsay, it came my way a couple of times. I never had the perfect record – I worked for my wins. But what chance did I have?” Simpson asks rhetorically, thinking back to those decisions that clearly stick in his throat over 10 years on.
“That’s what doesn’t sit right with me; I didn’t get the right end of the stick a few times and I’m thinking about how good it was back then, but I should have won those fights. How much better could it have been? I should have been European champion at least – I was good enough. If I lived the life, I could have been a world champion at super-bantamweight, but I never.”
In reminiscing, he touches on living the life. Simpson was known for partying – and partying hard. With dates never quite cemented for scheduled bouts, money would burn a hole in his pocket and freeloaders in a small town aren’t shy to take advantage of a modest, local celebrity.
The two-time British champion isn’t a bad guy and locally he keeps himself to himself, but his reputation as the last man standing would hinder his professionalism, and ultimately add to mounting issues with existing injuries and matchmaking. Boxing is a tough enough career for those fighters who remain in the gym and stay true to strict nutritional plans; for better and for worse, that just wasn’t John Simpson.
“Everybody wants to know you, particularly because I was on the telly all the time; I had about 20 fights and most of them were televised. So, you’re pretty well known in the town, and everybody knows you’ve got a wee bit of money in between fights, so it was fucking murder. The money’s done and it’s back-and-forth. You weren’t fighting for months, and then you get into the routine of drinking every weekend, so it’s hard to stop. It was mad. Ricky Burns is different – he’s in the gym the whole year, but that’s not me. I liked a bevvy [drink] and I liked to let my hair down.
“I would go nuts, aye; I was off my nut. Nobody knew where I was for weeks. I say to myself now: ‘Would I do anything differently?’ But I’d probably do the same again because I’m no’ right in the head when I’m drinking. In between fights, I was just bonkers and out partying, which I should have done a bit different. I just don’t know if I would – I can’t say for sure. I just want to party forever; but I’ve been off it for a month or so now; I’m trying to be a good boy, that’s what keeps the missus happy.”
Despite beating Volosinas in a homecoming staged at Greenock Town Hall, his career hadn’t ended the way it should have: “I fought at lightweight for my last two fights and those were on four weeks-notice. Tommy Coyle and John Murray, both great fighters. Those two fights, I was a lot smaller, and I never did myself any justice. Nobody really wanted to know me after that. I was supposed to fight Josh Warrington actually, but I fucked it. I got paid good money for that Tommy Coyle fight, but between November and New Year I was just on the bevvy, I couldn’t fight Josh Warrington, not a chance.”
So, where is John Simpson now? What is he doing with himself? Strangely, his life after boxing isn’t far removed from former rival and friend, Paul Appleby’s. Both men steer clear of social media, a fascination they witnessed the inception of whilst fighting at the top level; and both men work with scaffolding, grafting every day on building sites or yards. It’s quiet and predictable, but the Greenock-man admits he’s in a better place now than he was at the height of his fighting career. Normality can steady a sinking ship.
The future could see his son Brandon, 16, taking up boxing after a little teenage hiatus of his own. The father of two boys tells Boxing Social that his son has bundles of natural ability and hits extremely hard – but he won’t be that pushy father.
Simpson told me of a recent phone call with Scotland’s only three-weight world champion, Coatbridge’s Ricky Burns, and was buoyed by Burns’ enthusiasm for a potential Simpson curtain-closer. Fighters disappear without announcing their retirement, but often retirements announce themselves. Life on the straight-and-narrow seems to suit him; he sounds healthy and full of vigor. Training to improve his fitness is great, but the mental solitude and fallout from competing again could reopen old wounds.
Deep down, Simpson knows it: “I keep saying I’m gonnae try it – but I don’t think I’m gonnae be able to do it, I’m quite sad to say. I’m all full of good intentions at the start of the week and then after a day’s graft I’m like: ‘Fuck that’. I just look forward to my tea and bed, to be honest with you. I’m happy; I just live my own life and I keep myself to myself.
“I wore my heart on my sleeve; I was a warrior. I was never the guy that shied away from fights and sometimes that paid off, other times it never. I should and could have gone further than I did – partly that was my fault. But I’m settled now and hopefully that’ll last.”