“I’ve just walked in the door; they’ve just come back from nursery, the two kids. Dad life’s good, you know. I do everything for these two little boys – everything. That’s why I’m doing this, for these boys and for me’ missus…”
It’s just shy of five years since I last spoke to Josh Kelly (10-1-1, 6KOs), and back then, things were very different. He was still with his (now) wife Remy, but the pair hadn’t yet become parents, and weren’t quite married. Now, they rarely blink, with two boys running riot, enjoying the fruits of their parents’ labour, stronger as a unit.
Back then, before stopping Tom Whitfield at the Walker Dome in Newcastle, Kelly was focused on beating stablemates Mitchell Smith and Charlie Edwards at computer games, FIFA, or Call of Duty from memory. And he escaped the common room to chat to this writer, while whooping and hollering perforated the Adam Booth squad’s living quarters. The background noise remains – though the perpetrators have become significantly younger.
After destroying an overmatched Whitfield with a series of beautiful left hooks, Kelly remained unbeaten. That too has changed. He suffered defeat after eventually meeting foe, David Avanesyan, cut, bloodied, and stopped in the sixth round of a see-saw contest. Now, Kelly is preparing to launch the second phase of his professional career: the rebirth.
While he faces more detractors than he had previously, he feels blessed to be fighting in front of a terrestrial television audience on Channel 5, after signing to Sauerland-fronted Wasserman Boxing. On May 13th, he returns, fighting on the undercard of the British middleweight title fight between Denzel Bentley and Linus Udofia, but form is temporary, and class is permanent. His opponent is Xhuljo Vrenozi, a tough Albanian fighting above his level.
“My aspirations haven’t changed. I still believe, I believe that I will win world titles, 100%. It’s a matter of when. If I can take the right steps moving forward, at that right time, do the right things with my support network etc. then. There’s no reason why not,” the 28-year old explains.
“I’m flying at the moment. I feel like I’m in one of the best places I’ve been, and everything is on the up. I was ready to fight by the end of last year, but things got shifted. Obviously, Channel 5 have come on board, so I thought, ‘Why not wait and see? A couple of months won’t hurt.’ Channel 5 is massive, terrestrial TV, so I may as well wait for that opportunity, and I did that.”
“This is huge, and I thought I’d snap that opportunity up. Eddie [Hearn] offered us’ to renew me’ contract. I went over that deal and put Channel 5 against it, and the Wasserman’s offer was the best for me personally. You need to be selfish in this game sometimes, and I just wanna crack on and I’ve taken that [offer].”
Whilst his record and his number of familial dependents may have changed, his thick, Northeastern accent hasn’t. Kelly retains that ‘every man’ lilt, using “mate” and “bro” when speaking to the media. He’s been doing this for years now, but hasn’t lost his warm, welcoming nature, laughing along with questions, and searching himself for answers. Perhaps a modicum of that youthful, inexperienced zest has gone, but that’s boxing, right? Fighters begin to understand the dark trade and swallow items subtly left out of contracts, broken promises, unanswered phone calls. You can only put your faith in the process for so long. It soon serves its own expiry.
“A lot of things were going on around the [Avanesyan] fight, but as a boxer, you never mention those things. Because no one ever wants to hear an excuse, d’you know what I mean? Only people close to us’ will really know what’s went on. At the start, you just keep people close to you. You keep moving onward, you keep your feet on the ground and keep your spirits high. That immediate thing was, the people there that were around us’, they were trying to help us’ get back up. I mean, I had a lot of personal things to sort out; I had to go away and get that stuff done, and after that it was just like, ‘Right, you’ve lost. The greats of this sport have lost.’ And you just have to crack on.”
“A lot of people…” Kelly hesitates briefly, “Ach, I’m not sure. I’ve never really looked into it that much. I’ve never looked into what people have been thinking or which way they look at us.’ I try and keep meself’ one-track minded, me. Keep meself away from opinions. People’s opinions can decay your mind; you have to believe in yourself.”
“People’s opinions don’t mean anything if you believe in yourself, and until you finish when it’s all said and done. It’s like the man in the mirror. You’ve gotta look in the mirror and say, ‘Have you done everything you need to do to fulfil your potential, have you tried your hardest to?’ If I can say that, then what regrets have I got? You can’t live with regrets. Nothing. The way I perceive it, people can think whatever they want about me, but I’d describe myself as a slick boxer who just wants to entertain. That’s it.”
That loss to David Avanesyan, painful and unexpected for Kelly back in February of last year, has refocused the former Commonwealth champion. It was a rough lesson to learn, being stopped midway through the bout and having to suffer the insufferable ‘I told you so’ from British boxing media. But he’s come through the other side.
“Sometimes there can be hiccups – and there was. Everyone seems to be avoiding Avanesyan now and I’m the only guy that’s boxed him, that tells you something. It stands for something. There wasn’t much to change. A few things. I haven’t got as far as I’ve got by not doing what I’ve always did. There were a few things that had to be added and a couple of things to take away, everything is balanced, the vibe is good in the gym, training is good. You know the saying, ‘A happy fighter is a dangerous fighter?’ That’s me.”
Kelly continued: “If I’m happy, I’m one of the most dangerous fighters on the night. I started planning quickly and now I wanna get meself’ back to where I know I can be, quickly. He [Avanesyan] was a fringe world title contender, and I’ve boxed a few of them already in my career and haven’t really been given the credit for it. I fought Carlos Molina, Ray Robinson, I won a Commonwealth title in me’ seventh fight. I was moving that fast I think people just sorta’ expected us to keep going through these kids.”
They did. We did. And presumably, so did Kelly. Boxers wear a cloak of invincibility – they have to. But once it’s torn off and illusions are shattered, they reveal themselves. And although Josh Kelly hasn’t been making excuses, shouting from the top of a mountain, or proclaiming injustice, he has still been hurting. The difference between Kelly and some prospects – despite varying public opinion – is that he understands the sport of boxing. And in understanding that life after boxing can be troublesome, the North East’s talent has stumbled upon something quite unique.
“We’re in a good position now. We’ve just been verified on Instagram, so people know who we are, and we’ve just won Best Takeaway in the Southeast of England, so we’re not playing in that kind of field either. We made moves, man, and this year could be a big year for us.” He’s talking about his catering venture, Burgers, Wings & Ribs, an idea sparked from friend Jack Shaw and supported by the fighter and fellow co-investor, Neil Austin. Shaw purchased a second-hand, run-down double decker bus and kitted it out, and the rest is history.
The trio are flying, and Kelly couldn’t be happier with his progress outside of the ring: “Everything is moving in the right direction. Jack, he’s the push behind the business, he gets everything sorted, really. I do a lot of the social media stuff, help build the brand, network through my name and my things, and it can be huge. We’re on the cusp of something really great. This year can be a big year. Obviously when you’re boxing, you can’t have food. So, when you’re done, you look for the nicest food to have, do you know what I mean? This is up there.”
For now, though, it’s dieting and slinging punches. With Vrenozi within touching distance this Friday, ‘PBK’ is focused again and enthusiastic about his future. It’s refreshing to hear him talk about being hungrier than he was back then, when he’s never had any food taken off his plate. He knows how that feels now, and he’s waiting to feed again. Stopping short of calling anybody out, he conceded that one man he’d fancy sharing the ring with is fellow Northeast, boxing cult hero, the ‘Sandman,’ Lewis Ritson.
“I’d love to fight in the Stadium of Light. There’d be a potential derby there with Lewis Ritson if he wanted to step up. He could come up a weight, I could come down a weight; you don’t see any of those derbies yet in the football, so, that’s a huge thing we could do there. If that manifests itself in the future then it will, but definitely a Stadium of Light fight in the future. Soon. Next few years.
“It would be unreal. I miss the north, I miss Sunderland. I feel like Sunderland is my city, the city where I grew up, the city where I learned everything and where my family live, me’ mum and dad. My kids and me’ missus are down here, me’ work is down here, so this is where I am. But it’s nice to get up and visit Sunderland and to go and watch a football game now-and-then. I just love it.”
While he faces a decent test this weekend at the O2 Arena, London, Kelly knows what’s around the corner: “I think in the next year or two, I’m gonna be extra busy and that’s a good step forward. Basically, getting the right fights in, moving forward, and making those strides towards to world titles. Anything less [isn’t good enough]. In the amateur sport, I reached the pinnacle by going to the Olympics and there’s no reason why I can’t do it as a professional. I’ve got a good professional style and with a little tweak here or there, I can do it. I know I can.”
Reaching the end of the call, I’m reminded how much time has passed. Commotion in the background, kids shouting, his wife Remy holding the fort. The youngest of his two sons “has some fire in his belly,” he explains. Josh Kelly isn’t the unblemished golden boy from the GB Olympic crop anymore, he’s experienced, he has responsibilities and has to convince himself that he belongs back at the top of the table. He has something to fight for now, though, something real. A father, a husband, a homeowner, an entrepreneur. A lad from Sunderland still living his dream. Still a fighter.
Image: Leigh Dawney/Wasserman Boxing