It might be the hardest of sports, but boxing only lasts 12 rounds. Mental health battles, however, have no final bell.
Or so thought Jordan Gill on June 30th as he sat slumped in a field after sinking a litre of vodka. It was his first-ever taste of alcohol and, he was hoping, his last. Suffocating darkness had closed in from all angles. His defences were shot, and no amount of footwork could get him free.
“It was a combination of things,” he says now having first revealed his struggles in an emotional post-fight interview in Dublin just days before. “I’d broken up with my wife. I’d left Sheffield after 10 years. The disappointment of not achieving what I set out to do after the Martinez loss. I was at home for two months after that fight doing nothing and going mad. It all just pushed me to think I can’t be arsed anymore.”
It was a passerby who “saved” him. Gill told no one, even his Matchroom promoter Eddie Hearn, so when the offer to fight Michael Conlan in Dublin came along not long after, he thought he would have one last roll of the dice. Gill is not the first and nor will he be the last boxer to be given life by a sport that can just as easily take it away. Just six months after that darkest of days, he has found contentment.
“It’s been one thing after another for me but I feel better than ever now. I’m confident at 130lbs and targeting major titles and IBF top dog Joe Cordina.”
When we speak, Gill is in a white transit van, his eyes still underlined with the blue-brown bruises inflicted by Conlan. It’s the day before his new 6,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art gym opens in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, and he’s on his way to do a final afternoon’s hard graft before the doors swing open for the first time. When he started working on the project 10 or so weeks ago, he thought he would be in there every day, taking sessions, connecting with local kids, and unearthing potential future champions. Instead, his victory means he’s on the lookout for someone else to run it day-to-day while he stays in shape and prepares for big fights in 2024.
Back in Dublin a few days prior, Gill, who was coming off a bruising fourth-round knockout loss to Kiko Martinez, had been brought in as the away fighter for what was meant to be a victorious homecoming for Irish hero Mick Conlan. Although he was “very confident” he would win this first fight at super-featherweight he admits “you never know, so it’s good to have things like the gym in the pipeline.”
Gill was on top in the fight almost from the off, moving forward and throwing punches with mean but calculated intent that abandoned the tight, technical style he favoured before. “I know Conlan, I know his shortcomings and [me and new coach Barry Smith] had a good plan and clear instructions to approach the fight,” he says. “I know he’s not efficient and that he’d leave gaps. I knew I had to push him hard and make him work.”
The plan worked and in the third round, Conlan’s backside was getting more closely acquainted with the canvas than he had envisaged. “It was on my terms even when he had success. I tucked up, let him work and tire himself out.” Though the former Olympian rallied, Gill remained on top until referee Howard Foster stepped in to end the fight in the seventh and save Conlan from the sort of sensory short-circuit that befell him in recent contests with Luis Alberto Lopez and Leigh Wood. “This was the best fight I’ve fought,” he beams. “He has that pedigree and I went to his backyard. It was hostile. To get the win in those circumstances is even sweeter.”
For much of Gill’s career, he has been fighting not just the man in front of him, but several other more elusive opponents. He infamously pulled out of a fight at the end of 2019 due to what he said were health issues and which were referred to by his then-coach Dave Caldwell as “the shits”. Further medical investigation found it to be a serious underlying thyroid problem which he has since overcome. Even last February, when he knocked out Karim Guerfi to win the European Featherweight title in thrilling fashion with his back on the ropes and ear drums perforated, he had gone into the fight with “dodgy knees and a knackered hand” which has since been operated on.
After that, as the now 29-year-old Gill grew older, the challenge of making the 9-stone featherweight limit became more gruelling. “My hormones were all out of balance and that affects your sleep,” he says, “I was only getting two or three hours a night which is OK for one day but not for weeks at a time. I was destroyed by the time the fights came around.” That is, in part, why he struggled so much against Spanish veteran Martinez when relinquishing the European featherweight title just over a year ago. Looking back now he admits he should have “maybe moved up two or three years ago.”
During this first fight week at the new weight, Gill could sense the extra energy inside of him. Instead of being locked away, moody and staving hungry, he socialised and, “even if I do say so myself, I was a pleasure to be around.” It showed in the ring too. Gill fought with a new sense of strength and had the energy to work harder, faster, longer.
Gill has always had an amiable demeanour. He’s never engaged in verbal back and forth, always remained humble and often seems happy and upbeat, which is why his post-fight confession last week was not only a shock but a stark reminder that depression ducks no one. His relationship with Dave Coldwell had always looked more like father and son than fighter and trainer so it was a surprise to many when the Rotherham man was not in Gill’s corner for the Conlan fight. Happily, the pair still talk, and they may revive their professional partnership in future, but there came a point in the last year when Gill had to make a change.
The Cambridgeshire native had spent some 10 years living away from friends and family up in Sheffield after moving North to turn pro aged 17. “I slept on the floor for 10 months before I could afford a bed,” he laughs. “Me and Dave had great success together. I can’t thank him enough for what he’s done for me but after 10 years I needed to be at home.”
Gill, who has his own not-for-profit children’s charity and is a mental health ambassador for The Bobby Copping Foundation, admits that he has “learnt a lot” about himself this year. He never intended to share his struggles in the ring that night but the moment took him and now he is happy to have received “thousands” of messages from people who have had similar difficulties.
“I think when you’re given the platform, you should share those things and make it understandable for everyone,” he says. “We’re all human. We’ve all got two arms and two legs. We’ve all got a brain that doesn’t work right sometimes. It’s important to know everyone has dark times that you can overcome and get through.”
There is no world title for winning mental health battles, but with that now fight behind him, Jordan Gill is well on his way to getting the belts he always dreamed of.