There are two sides to Blackpool. The focus is on the bright lights, and hustle and bustle of the seafront. The holiday brochures only show you want they want you to see. But the decay and dereliction of the back streets are not in full view, holidaymakers and locals avoid them in equal measure.
The life of a professional boxer can fit that narrative. On the way up, everyone is your friend, the invites and friends are plenty. But on the way down, the invites drastically reduce, former friends show their true colours. Once the gravy train has crashed, with no further use, boxers are discarded, avoided and ignored. Memories fade, the good times are forgotten, people in the inner circle go elsewhere; they cross the street, pretending not to see or just pretending to be real.
The tale of Blackpool-born former heavyweight contender Mathew Ellis is one such story. Ellis turned professional with lofty ambitions, world titles the aim, and the attached expectation. A life in boxing was very much on the cards from an early age.
“I had a good upbringing, not a rough background or anything like that. I have got four sisters and a brother. My parents were strict but they brought me up the right way with good manners and things like that,” Ellis told Boxing Social.
“I started boxing when I was six with my dad. I was about nine when I first went into a gym, around 1982. When I was born, the first thing my dad said was, ‘My son is going to be the heavyweight champion of the world’. So, in his head, he already knew what he was going to do with me. He loved his boxing, he was boxing mad. My dad had a few fights but he never took it any further, he was a very big, powerful man.”
Ellis’s father, who sadly passed away a few years ago, was his trainer for much of his early career. The driving force for his son, the inspiration to box.
“I had my first fight when I was 11, I got the best boxer of the night and it just went from there,” said Ellis. “Before I knew it, I was the schoolboy champion. Not a lot of people know about my amateur career. I won the Junior ABAs, I won the Boys Club and the Golden Clubs, I got a gold medal at the Multi-Nations. I became No.1 in Britain and got picked for the 1996 Olympic Games.”
Ellis then made a decision which he would later say was one of the worst choices he ever made. He was told he would be absolutely crazy if he turned down the chance to go to an Olympics, and that is exactly what he did. The temptation to turn professional was too great and Ellis made the switch from the amateur game to the paid ranks.
“When I won the gold medal at the Multi-Nations, I went to another tournament in Finland and I got robbed of the gold medal,” he recalled. “My dad and I had a long talk about it, it is something I regret now, but I had a good offer to turn pro; I got a five-fight deal with ITV. It is one of those decisions I regret the most. I wish now I had gone to the Olympics, just in itself it would have been a great achievement.
“You ask anyone in boxing, I had a good chance of winning at those Olympics, I was a very good amateur. I used to live the life, I never had a girlfriend, I never had a drink, I used to live in the gym. My dad was in full control, not in a bad [way] but in a good way. I believe that is why I got to where I did as an amateur. But in the pro game, I never fulfilled what I should have done. My dad lost control of me, I went with the ITV deal and moved to Liverpool and he said that was a big mistake.
“When you have got 10 professionals in the gym, you are not getting that one-to-one attention. You can have times when you would just be hitting the bag for an hour, you could do that at home. I believe I massively underachieved as a professional. If I had stayed with my dad I believe I would have been a world champion.”
The promotional machine was in full force at the start of the journey. Talk of being the first billion-dollar athlete, models hanging on both arms, the James Bond theme playing him out with matching attire.
“I don’t even know where all that came from. Before I knew it, I was walking out in a tuxedo with Page 3 girls on my arm ripping my suit off,” remembered Ellis. “My dad said, ‘What the hell is going on?’ In a way it was good publicity but at the same time, it sort of turned into a bit of a freak show. I believed I was already there. Before I knew it, I was a big star. In Blackpool, I was opening shops up, to the front page of the Gazzette, traffic wardens wouldn’t give me a ticket, I could park the car where I wanted, so in my own mind I was already a superstar and it went to my head.”
Ellis started his career well enough, quickly going to 4-0. But there were already signs of trouble. The early dedication, the solitude of training, would soon start to fade. A shocking stoppage loss to Yuri Yelistratov stopped him in his tracks.
“I wasn’t training, I was living the dream. I had all this money, I was on ITV. I had never had a girlfriend and suddenly I had all these girls around me. I wasn’t bothered about boxing, it had all gone to my head,” he said. “I was driving around in a Range Rover thinking I was all that. I was beating good heavyweights on 50% of my ability. I went to America and beat a fighter called Ricardo Phillips, a tough opponent, I went to his backyard and beat him. When I got beat, my dad took over my training for the rematch and I destroyed him in one round.”
But the revenge win would only paper over the cracks. Despite remaining unbeaten for four years, Ellis was struggling. The sport became a job, a labour without love or passion. The wins kept coming, but already the end was drawing near.
“I fell out of love around the time I fought Harry Senior [W8] in 1998. I didn’t want to do it anymore,” said Ellis. “I stuck at it because I had nothing else in my life. I was getting peanuts to fight and I wasn’t getting anywhere near to boxing for a title even though I had 18 wins and only one defeat. I was ranked No.3 in Britain and never got a title shot. From that fight on, I just didn’t want to be in there anymore.”
Ellis managed to keep his winning run going for several more years after the Senior fight. A mixture of decent solid professionals and the usual carrousel of opponents, but things started to badly wrong in 2002. Ellis would lose 13 fights and only record three more victories until he eventually called time on his career in 2018. There were periods away, time spent in America, high-profile defeats to the likes of Audley Harrison, Tyson Fury, Tony Bellew and others.
The fight with Harrison came at the wrong time in May 2003. There were distractions, personal problems, little or no training, advice ignored to cancel the fight. Ellis hurt his shoulder in the bout, which needed several operations, after Harrison stopped him in the second round. The injury persisted, motivation waned, he took fights he shouldn’t have taken, money the primary objective rather than any remaining ambition. A defeat to Matty Askin in 2010 saw Ellis leave the sport for five years; a comeback in 2015 proved fruitless before one last throw of the dice in 2018 where he retired for good on the back of six straight defeats and a final resume of 20-14-2, 9 KOs, which fails to tell the whole story.
Ellis lost everything, his relationship ended, he lost his business, his house. He had a mental breakdown and ended up sleeping in a one-bedroom flat. The drinking spiralled out of control, training sacrificed for one more for the road. All the early promise, all the hype at the start of his career long forgotten. From a local superstar to being ignored and avoided, friends went missing, the cruel side of boxing which rarely gets exposed.
All love for boxing had long left Ellis, beaten down by his inner demons, personal turmoil and the politics of the sport.
“I saw the bad side of boxing, there is a lot of corruption in boxing. The money was terrible, they treat you like dogs,” said Ellis. “I was a big name in Blackpool, I had a security business and I could make more money in one day doing that, and that was just me sat at home on my phone.”
Thankfully, Ellis seems in a much better place these days. The love for the sport has returned; he’s now coaching fighters, enjoying training again himself and even talking about having one last go in the sport that promised so much when he first turned professional. The regrets are plenty; turning down the opportunity to go to the Olympics, not taking a break from the sport when he needed to and, most of all, not listening to his father more.
The common theme all the way through our interview was his love for his late father. If Ellis hadn’t been tempted by the bright lights, and stayed with his father through his entire career, the story might have had a completely different ending.
Main image: Tom Hevezi/PA Archive/PA Images.