Maxi Hughes: Painting a better life

When the gloves go on and the ring walk begins that’s when he will feel some butterflies.

Fighting in front of 20,000 people in Leeds at Headingley Stadium on Saturday isn’t a daunting prospect for Maxi Hughes. It’s his job, well his other job. It helps pay the bills just like his other day-to-day life as a painter and decorator.

“I’ve learned how to cope with the nerves over the years,” he tells Boxing Social. “You just get used to it. You understand it’s part of doing it. You’re going into the ring to have a scrap with a bloke who’s trying to take your head off. It’s just your body’s way of telling you be alert, be on guard.”

The average man on the street would feel twitches and the sensation of somersaults in his stomach if he got into a scrap because it’s unfamiliar territory. Not knowing what could happen or the pain that you will endure is uncomfortable to say the least.

They say boxers aren’t human because of what they do. A blood sport for our entertainment. It is not normal. But a lot of fighters, such as Maxi Hughes, are very relatable to you and I. Down to earth doesn’t begin to describe the Yorkshireman whose popularity and reputation is growing thanks to a career momentum which leads him to Headingley Stadium this weekend. We asked Hughes what does make him nervous.

“I wouldn’t say it’s nerves but being a painter, I hate having to go to new jobs. When they send me an address and say you’ve got to go to a new job, I hate having to turn up into car park, it always seems like the workers are stood in the car park staring at you coming in. Then you’ve got to get out, find your way to site office and walk in.

“There’s normally three or four lot of site managers and they’re all talking, laughing and joking and that. About 50% of the time, one will look at you and say, ‘What’s up can I help you?’ Most of the time they let you stand there till you say, ‘Excuse me is anyone going to see me?’ And that’s what I hate. I don’t think it’s nerves, I think it’s being a bit anxious. Other than that, that’s one thing I can’t stand is having to go to a new job. 

“Obviously, with this other job fighting in front of 20,000 people, that doesn’t even enter my mind because I’m that focused on what I’ve got to do in the ring. Other than that, I am a shy person. During the early days at school the teachers pulled my mum to one side and said, ‘I think your son might need a bit of extra help, he just won’t speak, he won’t communicate, he’s an introvert’. She would say he might need some help; he’s just being himself.”

When the 31-year-old southpaw won the British lightweight title in March, impressively against Paul Hyland Jr, it had been the culmination of years of efforts to get his hands on a Lonsdale Belt. Twice he came up short against Martin J Ward and Sam Bowen but his performance against Hyland not only won him the title but showed he is more than ready to leave the domestic level behind.

The success meant celebrations when he returned to life in Rossington. Hughes visited a local working men’s club to show his newly acquired championship, but it wasn’t long before he was brought back down to earth as he explains.

“It was rammed with everyone in the village, and they were all expecting me. It was a nice day; everyone was out in the beer garden, and it was packed. I was anxious about walking in. Luckily, I went in behind my brother and one of my mates and I gave my belt to my brother. I said you carry it in, you walk in first and I’m going to walk in behind trying to slide in unnoticed. Once I was in, I got a bit of a standing ovation that were it. I got comfortable because it was my pals and that but the initial walking in and being spotted, I hate anything like that.

“Initially, it was brilliant and then my mates being who they are, and their sense of humour, it didn’t take one of them long to stand up and chant, ‘Maxi is a wanker’. You think you start floating and then your feet are quickly put back down again!”

The laughter faded when attention turned to Saturday night. Hughes is in the biggest fight of his life when he faces Jovanni Straffon on the undercard of gym-mate and friend Josh Warrington’s shot at redemption against Mauricio Lara. It’s Yorkshire against Mexico times two with the proud boxing nation having done a good job recently of coming to the UK and causing a few shocks.

While Lara landed multiple attacks on Warrington in February taking himself to a ninth round TKO victory, Straffon walked through James Tennyson in just two minutes to out-gun the Irish puncher and win the IBO lightweight title. Straffon’s left hook and desire to continually inflict damage with every punch scream danger. Hughes, with 5 stoppages in 23 fights, isn’t a fool. Fire with fire isn’t in the phrasebook. He is banking on his skillset and experience to take down Straffon.

“I did watch the Tennyson fight,” said Hughes. “I was surprised by the outcome, but I don’t think it was the 100% James Tennyson we’re used to seeing, to be honest. Looking at his record, the lad [Straffon] can punch. I think regardless of that result we’d have looked at his record and thought on paper his record suggests he can punch. We’ll approach it the same way, don’t stand and trade with him, don’t give him chance to set and start unloading shots. It’s just about being clever and making the adjustments when we need to.

“I know some unknown Mexicans have come over recently and caused some upsets but at the same time a lot of people are making a big thing of it because there’s also a lot of Mexicans who have come over and didn’t do anything. Last Fight Camp, Kash Farooq absolutely schooled a Mexican [Luis Castillo] and his record was similar to Straffon’s. I think he’d only lost two fights, a lot of stoppages but he was no match for Kash Farooq, a unanimous decision where he won every single round, bar one judge where he won nine rounds. Archie Sharp boxed one last time out, did a job on him. Paul Butler had one on deck, absolutely schooled him. Obviously, the Mexicans have the tough name, and they are tough and can’t be underestimated. At the same time, they’re not all elite, all Canelos, Marquez or Barrera. They’re naturally tougher and come from lot more humble places than the UK but they’re still only human. I’m mixing at a good level and I’m not getting battered so I’m showing levels that I’m at and I’m improving with every fight. I think it will all help me on fight night.”

Should Hughes be victorious against Straffon then he becomes IBO lightweight champion. Regardless of how well liked and respected he is there will be those on social media that will disregard the title on offer. And on one side you can’t blame them. A fifth governing body trying to turn a quartet into a quintet of world titles. It’s overkill and some media and fans are sick of it.

Hughes is well aware of the ‘stick’, as he described it, that will come his way. He agrees to some extent that there are too many belts in the sport.

“For example, the WBA having a Regular champion and a Super champion. I do think that should be merged as one,” he says.

He realises that there is an argument that the sport has become devalued, and the IBO title does not have the recognition that some of the other four do. But there is a flip side to the criticism, and it comes from the fighter himself, the man who goes through the ropes attempting to make a better life for his family, to leave behind the overalls and paint brushes in the face of potential hellfire against a Mexican with bad intentions.

“I’m not going to turn it down and say I’m only going to fight for a WBC, forget your other belts, I’m not fighting him because I want the WBC,” he says. 

“It’s still a world title. The money’s good so obviously I can’t turn that down. The opportunities that are going to come after it… it’s my hard work being paid off. It’s a world title, not one of the main four but still a world title. It’s the opportunities I’m able to get after that. It should hopefully rank me among all four sanctioning bodies, and it just boosts my overall profile.

“I do agree with people it is a bit hard to follow with WBO Global, International, European etc. But as a fighter you work towards stuff and these opportunities get put in front of you. You can’t turn them down, that’s the way boxing is. It’s controlled by the hierarchy, so you just got go with it.”

For all the good boxing provides there is always a mess left to clean up, or in some cases a mess that has had every detergent squirted on it but will never go away. As Hughes said, there are some opportunities that a fighter can’t turn down. Family comes first, bills have to be paid and if this can open up a door to bigger and better opportunity then why should he say no to it. The fault lies with others. And if a fighter does end up only winning a WBO European belt then that may wind up being the greatest accomplishment of their career. It can take pride of place on the mantlepiece, something that the kids and grandkids can admire. One man’s idea of clutter can be another man’s idea of treasure.

“I’m just looking now at my WBC International on the mantlepiece and it’s a well-made belt,” Hughes says. 

“It’s an achievement of hard work and what I had to do to get that. It makes you proud. That particular camp [to fight Viktor Kotochigov] in question went okay. It was a bit tough, but they were days where I was knackered, and I couldn’t be bothered. But those days you didn’t want it, that’s your reward for sticking to it and pushing through.

“I signed a contract whereby winning the fight I automatically enter a deal with Eddie Hearn, I become a Matchroom fighter, then the money goes up quite significantly for myself. Winning it is like a pat on the back. There you go, this is for all your years hard work, this is your treat, your reward for it. Biggest fight of my career, absolutely, and it would mean the most winning it and I can make my life a little bit easier for me and my family.”

Main image: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.