There are many paths to a world title. Some are easier than others, especially if you have big backing behind you, yet the aim of the game is not just to fight for one but to win it and make it work out for you in the long-term.
As mad as it sounds, you could even try adding other world titles to your world title in a bid to unify them and become universally recognised as the main man in your division. The governing bodies won’t allow it, though, so you also get to fight against them as well and the fans are the winners as we get lots of opportunities to talk about fights that either won’t happen or will happen too late. We also get to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to keep up with the ebb and flow of the various belts. This is what got us into boxing in the first place, right? Who needs the fights when you’ve got the politicking and the chance to create multiple audit trails?
Back in relatively simpler times — albeit a time when the average fan was already fed-up of the multi-title era, how little did they know — Bill Cayton and Jim Jacobs set the perfect template for guiding a fighter into contention up at heavyweight when they took Mike Tyson to his first slice of the world crown, the WBC belt that he ripped away from Trevor Berbick in two back in 1986.
Tyson’s pre-title run was a compiled of decent names with a healthy smattering of former solid contenders and trial horses. Cayton once told reporters that if you had the money then you could get anyone to a world title shot, they wanted to make sure that their fighter not only fought for the title but earned good money for his crack at Berbick and then capitalised on the win.
For a while, the Jacobs-Cayton-Tyson axis worked smoothly. Then Don King dropped in to inject a little chaos and the rest is history. It is pure speculation to ask how Tyson would have fared if he had opted to stay on a steadier path, what is beyond any doubt is that his road to the WBC title was the pitch perfect preparation for the challenges to come.
Unlike the likes of Tyson et al, Burton-on-Trent’s Neville Brown (who retired in 2000 with a record of 32-8, 26 KOs) did not have the luxury of big time backing or a long gestation period when he got to fight Steve Collins for the Irishman’s WBO super-middleweight title in Ireland back in 1996.
Brown held the British title down at middleweight — a title he defended five times in total — but when offered the chance to fight Collins he jumped at the chance. You could even argue that he jumped a bit too soon as once the offer was made and accepted, he found out that Collins wasn’t the only huge hurdle that he would have to overcome.
“My British title win against Shaun Cummins got me to that fight,” said Brown when talking to Boxing-Social about the biggest night of his boxing career. “People thought Collins would be too strong for me, but I was thinking that now I’ve finally got the time and the sparring I needed for a big fight.
“I had just moved into my new house. It took me three-months to get it going and all moved in. Then three days later, I get a call from one of Frank Warren’s lads saying: ‘We’ve got Steve Collins for you’. I’m thinking: ‘What?! THE Steve Collins? I’ve made it!’ I’m thinking about how it will be at super-middleweight so I can do the weight, train and make a good account of myself. It was at that point I realised I didn’t have a trainer, but I’m thinking that I can just phone Brendan Ingle and work with him again. I’ll have months to get it right. I’ll have the time to train properly. I can make a real go of it.
“Then I’m told in the next breath that I’ve got four weeks, not three months, and my brain is turning it over. They tell me that if I don’t take it, they’ll go to the French or European Champion for it. What else can I do but take the fight? The phone goes down and I’m just thinking about the fact I’m fighting for a world title. I can also eat what I want.
“I ate too much in the end, though, as Brendan pointed out a few weeks out that I was already 11st 8lbs. I’d made the dumbest decision ever. I thought I’d not have weight issues, but now I had weight issues. I had also told Brendan I needed head sparring. Not to spark people out, which I did when I first started in the game, I just like to work with people and that is what sparring is. It isn’t fighting, it is helping each other out.
“So, I got very little sparring in because it was mostly body sparring. This meant that my head movement was rusty. There weren’t too many pads as well, and I liked pads — if I’m going to hit anything hard it will be the pads or a bag. In Sheffield, we did something called the lines, where you aren’t encouraged to punch as hard as you were focusing on movement and technique.”
Despite the short notice, the differences during his training camp and the looming challenge of Collins, who had twice beaten Chris Eubank, Brown went over to Ireland with a philosophical outlook. They had brought him in as the opponent, everyone knew that, yet it was now down to him to show Collins and his team that they would have to think again if they were expecting an easy or early night of it.
“Next thing I’m over there in Ireland to fight Steve,” he recalled. “In my mind, you need three-months minimum for a fight like that as you want to train. You are hungry and full of desire for it, but you need recovery time between working different parts of your body to avoid fatiguing them. By two months, you’ve had the training and recovery, by three you are firing and right up for a world title fight. The things we did had their place, but it wasn’t good for my style of boxing. But I’m there now, it is a world title fight and I want to put in a good account of myself.
“You’ve also got reporters on the phone saying: ‘Does it bother you that Steve gets hypnotised before a fight?’ I said, ‘No’, as we all hypnotise ourselves in some way. We either talk highly of ourselves, like Muhammad Ali did, or tell ourselves negative things, They have an effect on us either way.
“Next thing you know, I’m there having two breakfasts before the weigh-in, getting myself a little pot belly, and then next thing we are getting ready for the weigh-in. At the weigh-in, he’s as dry as anything and he pulls me in for the handshake to try to intimidate me. I twist his wrist a little and say: ‘I’ve got nothing to lose, you have!’. I walk away feeling as cool as fuck, but actually I’m shitting myself. When I left the room, I got the nerves and shakes — he had done his job.
“Despite that, by the time I got to the next day, I wasn’t fazed. I knew I wasn’t going to win it, and I also didn’t want to get pushed about and pushed over in a round. I’m in there with this rough, tough bugger in Steve, who became a friend after the fight.
“I weighed in under the limit for the weigh-in. I was a bit heavier on the night. Even though I was carrying the little extra weight, I hadn’t realised how big he’d be when he got into the ring — he was absolutely massive. I thought: ‘How has he done that overnight?’ Maybe it is because the weigh-in was an early one, so he had a lot of chance to put the weight on. No wonder he was spinning me around when half landing — he was like a heavyweight.
“Steve had a very weird, clumsy way of throwing the right hand. It is hard to explain. I was ducking from a shot after a good start in the first, got caught on the head, went down, more off-balance than hurt, and I’m thinking: ‘You dick — how did that happen?’”
“I realised I had to have a go back at him as they were looking to stop me,” he added. “As it went on, I got more success as I could then read what was happening. Remember, I had six good rounds in me, but you needed 12 to fight a fighter like Steve. The extra weight helped me hang in. Plus, I knew how to handle and read him. I didn’t dance around like Chris did, I stayed close to him where I felt safe and could have a little battle.
“You soon realise that it is hard to stay away from him because he is so big and ungainly, yet he can still close you down, so that is why you try to get inside where it is a bit safer and you can tire him out more. My brain was thinking that if I could get something from the fight, even a close defeat, then I could get him again and get 12 weeks to prepare.”
Brown’s lack of a long training camp led to him fighting in spurts, stealing breathers whenever he could in the hope that Collins’s unforgiving and remorseless relentlessness would ease as the rounds progressed. It wasn’t to be. Whenever he thought Collins was tiring, the titlist would come raging back, and he did just that in round 11 to end the contest.
“I thought he was getting tired inside around the 10th, but then he does a great thing by coming out strong in the 11th and I’m spun by a punch, again, and I’m down, again,” said Brown. “I wasn’t hurt — I’d tell you if I was — but it was a big effort to get up by that point. Then I get put down again. I get up and walk in thinking I’ll get close, and he throws some big, glancing shots that makes the referee jump in. I’d planned to save enough to go big in the 12th, but it wasn’t to be. I really enjoyed the whole experience, though.
“After the fight, I’m called for a drug test, which is fair enough despite the fact we’d had one before the fight. I find that I’m too dehydrated to pee. I’m drinking Coke, eating fruit and am famished. I did the test after about 45 minutes. Everyone had left, but I’ve got this buzz and I’ve still got it as I’m driving away. The Irish fans are treating me so good you’d think I’d won the fight.”
The cliché of leaving it all in the ring came true for Brown that night. In order to fight at 168lbs he had put on a lot of artificial weight. The lack of a full training camp meant that it was more akin to flab than muscle. As soon as the sweat started to fly out of him as he laboured under the bright lights of the ring while also trying to repel Collins’s charge then so too did the pounds. All in all, he estimates that he lost over a stone in weight that night courtesy of the Crash! Bang! Wallop! Steve Collins Weight Loss Plan.
Ironically for a fighter who had struggled to make the weight in the past, Brown found himself hitting one of the lowest weights he could recall getting to once the spit and sweat had settled on his world title tilt. “I’m walking past the hotel mirror and I notice I’ve got a six-pack, I look like I’ve done a workout,” he said.
“I’d lost over a stone in the fight. It is why I’m now so into the safety aspect of making weight. For years, I’m trying to get weight off. Now I know you do it by eating and drinking rather than starving and dehydrating yourself. I felt trim that night. The fight of my life and I feel trim afterwards! I got on the scales and I was 10 stone seven pounds — for years I’d been trying to get weight off and had not been that light since I was 16.”
The world title wasn’t to be. However, the 55-year-old has been enjoying his retirement since turning it in after a stoppage defeat against Sam Soliman in 2000. He has launched the Neville Brown Philosophy programme to help people understand the importance of eating, training and living healthily, something that was underlined in his personal life when his mother struggled with and then later died of cancer. Brown firmly believes that a poor diet is one of, if not the, chief building blocks of ill-health.
Brown wants to spread the message far and wide and it is this, rather than his former career, that drives his thoughts these days. Still, he does still have a few regrets when it comes to his time as a professional. “There are people in Burton-on-Trent who know I boxed, but never saw me box,” he said, a little wistfully. “I didn’t get the promotion. I was pretty sure I’d have brought a crowd in on a regular basis there and professional boxing is all about bums on seats.
“I look back at boxing and believe I should have done more, but it is all politics and whether your face fits. I knew I was a handful for any opponent. After I retired, I also looked at the physiology and psychology of boxing — the way we did things back then just to get into the ring. The way I used to make weight was disgusting.
“You get told you’re fighting the next week and get told to, ‘Train harder’, so you do. Then you get told to stop eating and drinking, and your metabolism breaks down before you are going out to fight. It was rife in boxing back then. You end up with no energy, no metabolism and are expected to train even harder. It is impossible.
“I used to be half the man I was by the time I got to the fights. I was in a bad way seventy percent of the time. You spend six-weeks working hard then destroy it all in a single week by dieting to make the weight. I started listening to my body when I retired — that is when I came up with the Neville Brown Philosophy.
“All some boxing training teaches you to do is to attack yourself, attack the bags, attack the runs, and then you get a pat on the back — we need to move away from that. I’d do a thousand press-ups in training as an amateur only for the coach to ask for 10 more. Why do that? That was just overcooking. After all that, you attack your mates in sparring and guess what? Getting punched really hurts as we are not designed to be hit. Sparring should be about learning, not fighting.
“We are soft tissue creatures — we bleed and we heal. Don’t try to prove you can take a punch, either, as I’ve seen too many friends do that only to struggle to string a sentence together after they retire. Then they are just left out there by themselves. The brain isn’t designed for boxing and especially when we dehydrate ourselves the way we did back then and some still do now. We need more balance. For example, I was told to go hard in every session so after the morning session you’d have to go as hard again in the evening session — you just can’t do that to yourself.”
As mentioned above, Brown’s decision to educate people about living correctly was prompted in part by his mother’s death. He is also involved in a campaign called Inspire Health — Fighting Prostate Cancer after discovering that African Caribbean men are twice at risk from that particular form of cancer. Sadly, the pain of his mum’s death was exacerbated by the fact that her cancer went undiagnosed for three years. Brown was angered by the oversight, by the lack of time and forward planning that was denied to them as a family, but now hopes to use her passing and their experiences to help others.
“My mum was a small woman and was eating bad, sugary food so she put on a lot of weight,” he said. “I’d ask her what she was eating and tell her that all foods had hidden sugars and salts in them, even the bacon she liked to eat. She had got remarried and went to the hospital as she needed to go to the toilet all the time. We asked questions and didn’t get the answers.
“They’d given her 10 days to live due to an inoperable tumour. It was so big it was resting against the bladder, which had caused the problems. She lasted for six-months. To watch your parent go through that is the most incredible thing as you are watching them suffer. The biggest head fuck was not knowing what she’d be like every time you went into the hospital, if she’d be happy or barely hanging on.
“That is why I do what I do. We are losing synch with ourselves and our bodies. Very few people out there know about nutrition. We need to be happy. We need to look after ourselves and when the time comes you need to be courageous knowing you are leaving this place. It is like having a fight. We are dying every day. You’re not the same person you were a year ago. We all age. Every cell in our body dies and is reborn. I want to teach people how the body works so that I can help them. I do it in memory of my mum.”
It had been a two-hour trek through an interesting, topsy-turvy career yet the time had flown by. In fact, the only downside was the thought of transcribing it — if you know, you know. Brown may not have won the world title, he may have either underachieved or overachieved, depending on your perspective, yet the most important thing is that he found other things to channel his energy into post-boxing and is still punching above his weight.
Main image: Alamy/Reuters.