Gloucester is that rarest of places in England where the oval ball reigns supreme over the round one. Like neighbouring Bath and Worcester, Rugby Union is imprinted in the city’s DNA. So dominant is it in the local psyche that other sports barely have a chance to breathe when all the attention of the local populace is cast on Gloucester RFC and their Kingsholm home.
Not surprisingly amidst this backdrop, professional boxing has slowly been allowed to fade from view. The last hurrah was provided by local boy Johnny Melfah. A better than able practitioner who fought some of the biggest names on the domestic middleweight and super-middleweight scene in the late 80s and early 90s.
Melfah may have had a record that included as many losses as it did wins but this unfairly masks the truth that many of those reverses were recorded against men of the global stature of Chris Eubank, Sam Storey, Nicky Piper, Steve Collins (twice) and Herol Graham. Melfah’s unsuccessful challenge for Graham’s British middleweight title at London’s York Hall, proving to be the high watermark of the Gloucester man’s career.
But tellingly, in a 26-fight career, Melfah appeared only once in his home city. A stark reminder of just how distant the lure of the professional fight game has been in these parts. Following his retirement more than 25 years ago the pro boxing banner has largely been placed into suspended animation.
Intermittently, its colours have been gathered and held proudly aloft by honest blood and guts journeyman like Andy Harris, but the decades had come and gone since Gloucester had anyone even threatening to dine at domestic boxing’s top table.
The imposing presence of Jon Pitman has his own story. Gloucester through and through, there was once a time when he sought to make his own mark on the flimsy pages of his home city’s professional boxing annals. A junior ABA finalist he was all set to pursue a career in the paid ranks before a serious motorcycle accident curtailed his chances.
“After the accident, it all caught up with me,” recollects the owner of Gloucester’s Fight Factory gym. “I’d trained from age 11 to 20 flat out. I didn’t ever smoke or drink or do anything wrong, but equally, I didn’t maintain my body properly either. I was really ignorant about how to look after myself. It was always balls-to-the-wall training, no proper warm-ups or stretching. I’d just walk in and start punching. I’d pick up injuries and just plough through them.
“But after the accident, it all caught up with me. I think I’d just burnt myself out. I should have had a year out of the sport to get myself right.”
But instead, Pitman, with his dream of a professional boxing career fading from view, went “completely off the rails”. Where he had previously been wholly dedicated to training, he now filled the gap with the pernicious allure of booze and drugs.
“I started working the doors and just got sucked into a life of doing all of the wrong things,” he admits.
Pitman is remarkably candid about these times. The lost years where he watched his life gradually spiral out of control and not only couldn’t bear to look at himself in the mirror but also couldn’t even face watching boxing on television. “What they don’t tell you about drugs is that before it gets bad, you’re gonna feel amazing,” he says with the resigned smile of a man who has now overcome his demons.
“The cocaine addiction was such a gradual thing. Like many people, I thought I was in control of it but I wasn’t. In the end, I hated what I’d become. I had no confidence or self-esteem. I just became a shadow of the person I once was. Drugs just stripped me of anything about my personality that was good and I felt that I was in such a massive hole that I’d never be able to get out of it. But in the end, I’d just had enough of being who I was. I wanted better for myself and my family.”
It was finding this strength of purpose that put Pitman on the restorative road to counselling. Attending sessions every week for a year he demonstrated the necessary fortitude to finally break the habit. It was at this point that boxing, as it so often does, artfully squeezed its way back into his life. “I started holding the pads for a couple of mates in the gym. One day I got offered a little room in a unit, and I thought I’d do a few one-to-ones in there. That’s how it all started and in the space of a month it progressed to me hiring the whole unit,” he recalls.
Pitman credits the remarkable growth of his gym on his early tapping into the boxing for fitness market. “Back then if you went to a gym you had to be focused on boxing as an amateur. If you didn’t fit that 11-25 age bracket you really weren’t welcome. The clubs were all about their amateur boxers. I wanted to change that and have somewhere where anyone could just come in to exercise and socialise. The fitness classes grew and everything just took off,” he says.
Pitman now has a highly successful gym with more than 400 members. Despite his focus on opening the door to anyone who is interested in improving their fitness or who just wants to be part of the wider community he has created; he has at the same time coached numerous boxers to an avalanche of Western Counties titles across all age groups and levels. But not surprisingly, especially close to his heart are the small band of fighters that he is guiding through the rough and complex terrain of the pro ranks.
Starting 10 years ago with local-boy Danny Carter, who he took to an unsuccessful tilt at a Southern Area title, he later stepped in to support Andy Harris. Cut straight from the familiar journeyman cloth of ‘have gloves, will travel’, Harris fought 77 times up and down the country in a seven-year career whilst recording just three victories. But Pitman credits his involvement with the durable Harris as fully allowing him to cut his teeth as a professional trainer. “I took on Andy after about 10 or 15 fights. We had some great times on the road,” recollects Pitman.
“As a pro trainer starting out if you can get your hands on a journeyman, it is good experience; as you go through everything that can possibly go wrong in a ring, week in week out. With a ticket seller the fights aren’t so close together, so it’s a slower learning curve. Whereas Andy would take any fight at any time.”
Pitman has steadily grown his small and close-knit pro stable with the addition of 4-0 super-welterweight prospect Max Mudway and Shabir Haidry; whose professional debut has been delayed by the Coronavirus induced lockdown. Both are locally-based fighters and Pitman takes obvious pride in having guided them through the amateur ranks. In a city short on boxing heritage, he has effectively taught them the game from scratch. “The kids here don’t really come from boxing families like in the big cities. They are all rugby families around here,” he says.
“You don’t see many kids that come in with any experience at all. We just don’t have those type of kids in this area. You’re literally growing them from the beginning and going on a journey with them. There’s plenty of work that needs to be done, but it’s so rewarding.
“I can help steer them away from the same problems I have faced in my life as well,” he adds.
It is this sentiment that is as central to Pitman’s purpose as the forming of champions inside of the ring. It is a mantra followed by gyms up and down the country from the relative rural climes of Gloucester to the graffitied brickworks of densely packed inner-cities; boxing maintains its place as a positive and restorative influence. Regrettably, one placed on hold, for now at least, by lockdown.
But the shining light in his Gloucester Fight Factory gym, and perhaps the one that has gradually provided it with a grid reference on the wider boxing map, is British and Commonwealth super-lightweight champion Akeem Ennis Brown. The 25-year-old known by everyone as ‘Riiddy’ is the brightest example of one of those lads who walked into Pitman’s gym looking to learn to box.
“He came in with a group of mates,” remembers Pitman of his first sighting of the now unbeaten 14-0, 1 KO fighter. “He didn’t really want to follow the rules; he just wanted to come in and spar. But I wouldn’t let him and made him keep coming back.
“You could tell right from the start that he had a natural talent for it. But my earliest memories are of just how tough he was. He wanted to spar everybody, no matter what size they were or how old they were. But more than anything it was his self-belief that stood out. He would tell me he was going to be a world champion. At first you don’t really listen, but as the journey has gone on you start to think: ‘How far can we go?’”
The latest staging post on this journey was the much anticipated British and Commonwealth title success that was belatedly achieved last summer against Philip Bowes. Following two earlier postponements, both fighter and trainer were relieved to finally get it over the line. The delay was just the latest blip in a career, containing no easy fights, and defined by the necessity to do everything the hard way. “Riiddy has had no favours from anyone,” admits Pitman of a journey that already includes successes over the likes of Chris Jenkins, Glenn Foot and Freddy Kiwitt.
“Yet at the same time he really could have had much easier fights, but he has chosen not to,” admits Pitman. “He orchestrated the Glenn Foot fight himself [in Foot’s Sunderland backyard]. He’s always wanted to take risks and I have had to hold him back at some stages. He just doesn’t get up for easy fights. He needs the fear and to be turned on by the fight. The better the opposition, the better you will see of him.”
A theme that is set to continue next month (March 26) when Ennis Brown is destined to put his titles on the line against Sam Maxwell live on BT Sport. His Liverpool-based opponent carries an identical 14-0 record in what is just the latest example of Ennis Brown “doing it the hard way”.
Whatever the outcome, the journey will continue for a champion who was once a kid larking about in the gym and his trainer who once had his own dreams of success between the ropes. Bad choices and bad luck may have eroded those dreams, but Pitman has a second chance with Riiddy. Their bond is a special one and remains unbreakable. “Riiddy is part of my family. We’ve been through thick and thin together in and out of the ring,” he reveals.
“In the past, there were so many people telling me I was wasting my time with him; that he’d never amount to anything. You know, that he doesn’t have the discipline and whatever. But I’ve always believed in him. I always knew there was more there. He’s got the whole package to make it all the way.
“To take someone from nothing to where he is now is a dream come true. When he won the British and Commonwealth titles it was like, ‘Whatever happens now no one can take that away.’
“It was a massive moment in my life.”
Main image and all photos: Courtesy of Jon Pitman.