‘If you want loyalty then buy a dog,’ read an Instagram post from Shane McGuigan, reproducing an historic phrase famously coined by manager, matchmaker and promoter, Mickey Duff. It followed McGuigan’s abrupt and anything but amicable split from Edinburgh’s unified 140lbs champion Josh Taylor and was another reminder that relationships between fighters and their extended team are often threadbare. And that, in boxing, things don’t often change.
Manchester’s Lee Beard – an integral member of Ricky Hatton’s coaching staff during the chaos of the mass travelling crowds and championship mega fights – knows only too well that boxers have their heads turned at the whisper of promised wages and greener grass. Dogs are far more loyal than fighters, but the respected trainer tells Boxing Social that he continues carefully selecting both.
“There’s a lot of people breeding [dogs] for the sake of it, but I think you’ve got to study the breeds properly. You want good genetics; you don’t want too many flaws, especially with the hips. I get all my dogs tested for any issues they may have just to make sure they’re all clear. If they ain’t clear, I don’t breed them because it’s not right, is it? There is a big market for it now. It’s just about doing it the right way; I go through old school bloodlines,” he said.
“I’ve always had dogs. I used to have German Shepherds and I had a Rottweiler. I bought a dog from Germany, a big German Shepherd, and his dad was a two-time champion showjumper. Paid a lot of money for him, but he had a heart murmur when he got over here. I love dogs, so I don’t have them in kennels or anything like that. That breeder was just going to get rid of him or sell him on as a pet, but I wanted to keep him. I didn’t breed him myself, but he died at eight.”
It takes 10 minutes for Beard to talk boxing at all, but his passion for working with premium American Bulldogs is a glimpse into the studious, determined character of a man schooled under the tutelage of Billy Graham, another of boxing’s unique figures. We started the call slightly later than planned, after he’d been observed eating dinner by a couple of hungry friends: “They sit there at your feet ready to chew your fingers off. I have to eat as quickly as they do.” Thankfully, no fingers were lost.
Since the glory days of travelling to Las Vegas with the Hatton camp (Beard was also Ricky’s brother Matthew’s head trainer), he has moved stealthily underneath boxing’s radar between some of the sport’s most influential cities, and he has worked with talented fighters and network giants such as Showtime in the United States. He’s still asked about his time with Ricky Hatton regularly, it’s par for the course.
His current stable, including former GB Olympian Qais Ashfaq, Indian boxing sensation Vijender Singh and the game, personable Macauley McGowan are now his primary focus. But in understanding where and how he’s been spending his time, it becomes apparent that Beard prefers to get on with things, rather than update his followers on every meal and movement.
“I’ve never been one for all the publicity stuff, me,” admits Beard, 45. “I know it helps, and I know people use it to their advantage. I’ve got a lot of people around me like my assistant and my boxers, they say I should post more boxing-focused stuff, but that’s never been me. Now, if someone comes on the scene for 30 seconds, talks the talk and their social media looks good, they’re coach of the year, aren’t they? There are some good coaches out there who don’t get a sniff because they don’t focus on their social media, because they focus on what’s going on behind closed doors in the gym.
“With Ricky [Hatton], I could just see how distracting it all could be. I remember one time; HBO were doing the 24/7 series and we had these microphones clipped onto our belt and wired up through the t-shirt. I understand it. They want controversy – that shit sells. To me, I’m a trainer, I should be focusing on the fighter winning the fight. The fighter should get all the media side of stuff and they should enjoy it. There’re other things happening that we try and hide; we try and stay calm or steady the ship. Maybe camp hasn’t went well or sparring hasn’t been great, so we have to try and protect the fighters.
“One of the HBO crew said they were gonna take the mic off me because I kept switching it off,” he laughs, “I just said, ‘Yeah, take it.’ If we lose the fight, then that’s that. I wanted to focus on the fighter – bollocks to the television at that point, you know. Look 10 years ago I said boxing had changed, five years ago I said it, and it’s changed again since. If you look at boxing 10 years ago, five years ago and now, it’s changed twice. You’ve got these YouTubers out here now and it’s like a circus act – but it sells, don’t it?
“Remember even for the Mike Tyson, Frank Bruno fight? Social media wasn’t there, everything was so different. It gives everybody a platform to sell themselves, which is good, I suppose. But there should be more fights being made then. You’ve got undefeated records which have been built up, but some lads don’t get a sniff sometimes. Then, a social media guy comes on to the scene and they end up getting ahead of people. It’s not fair.”
Beard, originally from Salford, Manchester, found himself elevated from unproven, aspiring boxing trainer to recurring cast member of a Vegas-based pay-per-view week. Working with Billy Graham and Kerry Kayes had given him a solid grounding in the sport and an opportunity to soak up knowledge built through blood in British boxing gyms.
A lot of things were new to him after transitioning from a taekwondo background though, especially the attention and scrutiny he received online. As he became more of a first team player for Team Hatton following Ricky’s split with Billy Graham, his credentials were questioned regularly on fans’ forums that, based on our conversation, he’s probably never read.
It was all about learning and through working with the ‘Hitman,’ he became something of a coincidental apprentice to Floyd Mayweather Sr. Mayweather Sr, an enormous personality unafraid to scream his opinion down the lens of an HBO 24/7 camera with or without an official invite, took Beard under his wing. They say opposites attract and while the ponderous, calculating Manchester-man prefers to work in the shadows, his time with The Bronx-native was invaluable.
“I hit it off with Floyd; I loved the way he trained fighters. He’s very, very old school and I like that – I don’t like the gimmicky shit. I like the way he teaches, and he breaks things down; he can see a fight really well. Freddie Roach is the same, brilliant and a pure tactician. He was just good to be around.
“You can learn a lot from those situations when you’re coming up as a coach. Everyone has seen the Mayweather pads, but they had a reason for what they was doing. There’s a reason behind that – it isn’t just flash pads, because we can all do that, do you know what I mean? It’s good for social media, but there’s a lot of technique behind what they’re actually doing. You don’t see that they’re great coaches and their knowledge is just massive, you can’t buy it.”
Trips to the States became more frequent and sometimes difficult to juggle for Beard, often mistaken even now as a US resident. After working with Baltimore’s troubled light-welterweight Tim Coleman – whom he led to an IBF USBA title – he was contacted by the management of Dominican Republic star, three-time world champion, Joan Guzman. They liked Coleman’s style of fighting when watching him beat Mike Arnaoutis in New York and wanted the man responsible to join them on trial. Beard gleefully obliged.
“They were asking about me because of the way Tim was fighting and the game plans,” he explained. “They were impressed by things, so that’s how I ended up training Guzman. It was a great experience because technically, they’re very smart, skilled fighters. It brought me on as a trainer working with a fighter of that level, learning things – it was a brilliant experience. They were just so different to the British fighters; it’s a different style altogether. Working with Guzman, it was difficult in one aspect, but you’re talking about training a guy who was a world champion.”
Working with Coleman, Guzman and Argenis Mendez amongst others gave Beard the chance to carve out his own reputation, away from the drunken punters chanting ‘Blue Moon,’ and the memories of the tougher nights later in the career of one the UK’s favourite fighters. He took a lot of stick in the aftermath of Hatton’s defeat to Manny Pacquiao, with fans questioning his background and his heightened responsibility in camp.
Escaping the shadow of Manchester, his work garnered respect and his career as a head trainer picked up pace: “It’s good in a way [the travelling], but I know it might have made me look a bit scatty an’ that. I had a lot of wins – a lot more wins than losses and people know that. I’ve got big wins in the away corner all over the world and those are good memories. I never really thought about that, but the reality of it is that we’ve been the away guys and that’s the difficulty. When you go to South Africa, Mexico or wherever else, it’s not easy to be the guy in the away corner and come away with the win.
“Guzman, how can I explain it? It’s just next level technique, he’s just so good defensively – a genius. He did stuff that was just unbelievable. It was like when I was working with [Argenis] Mendez, it’s that Dominican style. Even though he [Guzman] was tall and rangy, they both had similarities in the way they approached things. I’d been around Floyd, so I liked that kind of style anyway, that’s my kind of style: skills, defence, counterpunching. They were just geniuses at it.
“It was difficult to train Guzman in one respect because of the language, although it was better than Mendez, because he didn’t speak English at all. I don’t know how the hell that worked out! He learned English through Google Translate, then I was talking to him at night, teaching him English. The first three months I was training Mendez, I think I spent it teaching him English,” laughs Beard, paying tribute to boxing’s ability to function as a universal entity.
For now, Beard’s base is Manchester. He spoke about missing out on domestic recognition in the past with flights across the Atlantic thinning his footprint on British boxing. Now, with a nice blend of seasoned professionals and potential title challengers, he is ready to return to the biggest stage when the opportunity presents itself.
A recent stint with former starlet and Boxing Writer’s Club Young Boxer of the Year (2015), Mitchell Smith, led me to Beard’s Instagram page, and Smith is just another fighter flocking to his Manchester gym in search of a thorough teacher. The pair have high hopes, but Beard knows about the trappings of success and the illusion of social media. He needs fighters who’ll do the work – his way.
So far, Smith has impressed him, and he remains enthusiastic about their partnership: “There’s a good career there for Mitchell; promoters are definitely gonna be interested in him. He’s flying, he really is. But he has to keep doing what he needs to do. He needs that positivity. He’s such a talented kid, but the door just seemed to close quick, didn’t it? Working with him, I just know there’s a few things we can add to his game. And I don’t say that to sound big-headed, I think just with my style, I like my fighters to control the range and fight in the pocket as well. With that added to his game we could have a really good fighter on our hands.”
Beard closes by telling Boxing Social of his proudest achievement. His son, Adrian Gonzalez, knocked out Jon Kays for the WBO inter-continental title at Manchester’s MEN Arena back in 2015, extending his record to 12-1. But Gonzalez hasn’t fought since. He explains that Adrian has found trouble outside of the ring, taking breaks from boxing and mentioning a return intermittently. But on that night, the stars aligned, and the trainer/father could talk for hours about what it meant.
“It was a long process and I’d been training him since he was eight or nine-years old. He was running into some sticky situations outside of boxing, because when people do well, there’s a lot of people in their ears and young lads get influenced, as you know. Adrian turned pro and made his debut on the Hatton-Malignaggi undercard when he was just 17, but he wanted to turn pro young. He was training with Floyd Mayweather Sr. The thing with Adrian was, it was a case of getting him to the right stage.
“He didn’t want to fight journeymen. He was more alert and more switched on for a 50-50 fight, that’s what he was like with Jon Kays, he was on it every day in the gym. It’s a shame because he got into a bit of trouble, and it’s all kind of stopped from there. I’ve had some good nights when we’ve put a lot of work in with different fighters and I’m proud of them all, but that night was my proudest.”
Beard isn’t concerned about following McGuigan’s refreshed advice about ditching fighters for dogs; in fact, he finds himself in the unique position of breeding talent in either species. Boxing isn’t a sport famed for loyalty; it wasn’t in Mickey Duff’s day and it isn’t now. But after years of travelling for tough, uncertain victories in the away corner and finessing his own attributes as a trainer, Beard deserves respect.
“Greatest sport in the world…” he dangles teasingly before I counter, “most confusing at times.”
“I said that because every time I do, the other person always carries it on [with something else]. It is crazy, isn’t it, boxing?”