“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” – this truth once proclaimed by a Chinese proverb has now been bastardised by a million internet bores flogging their own saccharine brand of off-the-peg faux inspiration.
You can often find these same words decamped to dusty, sterile corners of a multitude of offices up and down the country. They hang forlornly on the wall in cheap frames, their presence merely to motivate the anthill, but in the rare moments when they are not ignored, they become instead a subject of ridicule. Something once thought provoking and meaningful has somehow become Americanised and repackaged. Its substance reduced to a mere empty slogan.
To such an extent, that these days when you do find someone authentic; whose past, present and future genuinely embody the pathway of these eleven words, it is humbling. Somebody who has successfully reclaimed them from the prattling jaws of gap year students and huckster life coaches, but whose authenticity means that he would never think to proclaim them himself.
Shabir Haidary’s story can only be described as one of spellbinding gravity. A personal journey that is light years away from the typical Saturday night X-Factor contestant ‘journey’. We now increasingly live in an age when seemingly everyone is on a ‘journey’ – mostly without ever leaving their couch.
Haidary left Afghanistan as a 12-year-old child refugee. He endured fear, loneliness, hunger and biting cold, before exiting a lorry in Gloucester and beginning a new life. That could be his own less succinct Chinese proverb and for many at least that would be the end of the journey. By itself it is surely enough.
When Boxing Social asks Haidary for more details concerning those troubled days he politely declines to offer them. “Do you mind if we just talk about the boxing instead?” he proffers.
As we spoke on the phone a couple of weeks ago, the situation in his native Afghanistan was once again emblazoned across newspapers and television news channels. Each station throwing out its own vivid descriptions of the country’s unquenchable descent into chaos, as its populace desperately sought to escape the Taliban’s increasingly deadhanded grip. The panic that we view vicariously through the safe medium of our television screens is one that the 22-year-old has seen and experienced first-hand. “It is hard to watch. Afghanistan is my homeland. It is difficult watching the news and seeing what is happening. It still gets to me,” he allows himself to reveal in a rare moment of public reflection.
“If you look at the chaos now and everything that is happening there; it’s the same reason why I left. People leave for security and an opportunity to reach their goals and to be able to even have the chance to set a goal. To not have to worry whether they are going to be alive the next day or not.”
Yet more than the toughness of his back story, it is the knowledge that he has family and friends still back in Afghanistan enduring those same fears that drives him to achieve more. “Now my life can be easy here if I want it to be, but I chose for it not to be,” says Haidary. “Because I know that I’ve got goals and ambitions. There are things that I’ve got the opportunity to achieve, so, I must grab them with both hands and try to achieve them all
“Though I am safely out of Afghanistan the road ahead isn’t easy; its hard. I really want to achieve something. I want to do something in my life.”
For Haidary, his background in Afghanistan is central to his identity, as is the fraught journey that ultimately led him to a new life in Gloucester. But still he refuses to be defined by it. If anything, it is the acknowledgement that he has a chance to fulfil his dreams, when so many others in his old world do not, that fuels his progress.
Haidary will make his debut against fellow debutant Constantin Radoi tonight on the Neilson Boxing card in Swindon, that will also feature former Commonwealth cruiserweight titlist Luke Watkins. For Haidary, the chance to prove himself in the paid ranks has been a long time coming. He should have hit the pro games nursery slopes early last year, but Covid-19 has frustratingly denied him until now. Trained by Jon Pitman at the Gloucester Fight Factory Gym, he enters the fray with a solid amateur pedigree behind him. Along with winning an ABA Novice title, he is a three-times Western Counties champion, and winner of a Midlands Box Cup.
The provincial small hall route that Haidary is embarking on is not one traditionally paved with readily available riches. The 22-year-old will be supplementing any earnings in the ring with his current day-job as a personal trainer. “I’m a qualified boxing coach as well. Every day I’m teaching people how to box and I’m learning and training myself,” he says of his full immersion in pugilism.
“I’m doing a Strength and Conditioning course at university as well. I’ve finished my first year and have now started my second. Everything I do just revolves around boxing. I wanted to go to uni, but I chose that course specifically because I thought it might help my boxing ability later.”
It is an obsession that begun eight years ago following his first ever visit to Pitman’s Fight Factory. “The first time I went along I was paired up with someone in a jab/slip drill,” he recollects. “The other kid was more experienced than me and every time I tried to jab him, he was just slipping and countering me back with a punch. That first night all I did was get punched in the face. But ever since then I fell in love with the sport.
“Within two to three months of me starting off, I was going training five times a week. Really, ever since that first visit, I have put boxing first in everything I do,” he adds
With that same level of focus and commitment Haidary is aiming for at least three fights before the year is out. The plan is initially to campaign at featherweight, but with him finding that he can manage his weight relatively comfortably, he is in the enviable position of having a plethora of options available to him. “I walk around at super-feather, but really I can do anything down to super-flyweight,” he reveals.
“I haven’t really tested myself yet in terms of losing much weight. I haven’t really gone that low, so I’m still kind of figuring out which is the right weight for me. But I think I could be going down to super-fly for British titles and things. Bantamweight is also within reach as well. I just need to go down and see how I feel. I’m testing the water a little at the moment.”
The Gloucester man is keen to point out that he is cut from different constituent parts when compared to his peers. “I’m not the normal boxer that you usually see on television. I’m different; I’m very individual,” he says convincingly.
“I do things that you shouldn’t be able to do: if I want to fight; I can fight. If I want to box; I can box. If I want to shift my stance, I can do that comfortably as well. I’m kind of an all-rounder; I can do whatever takes my fancy on the night.”
If this sounds familiar it is because Haidary has grown up watching old footage of the indescribable former featherweight world champion Naseem Hamed. The self-proclaimed ‘Prince’ was noted for his unique style, which not only made him utterly elusive to his opponents, but also enabled him to lever power punches from all angles. “My style is a little similar,” he concludes. “But it’s a little different as well. I don’t want to be an exact copy.”
These differences are likely to extend outside of the ring also as the polite, measured, West Country tinged voice on the end of the phone presents itself as the opposite of Hamed’s motormouth bombast. But Boxing Social cannot resist asking Haidary whether he is tempted to ape Hamed’s famous magic carpet entrance tomorrow night. “I wouldn’t say I’d be doing the carpet and that. But the ring walk and everything else will be unique,” he says enticingly.
With the experienced Jon Pegg acting as his manager, and with the ever-present Jon Pitman in his corner, the 22-year-old is convinced that he has a winning team behind him. Pitman, of course, having achieved much recent success in leading Haidary’s stablemate Akeem Ennis Brown to British and Commonwealth honours, ahead of a highly controversial points reverse to Sam Maxwell last month. It is a close-knit gym where fighters and trainer have all grown and developed together, as blow-by-blow they have gradually reinvigorated professional boxing in Gloucester.
“Akeem started with Jon [Pitman] from when he first wore gloves to where he is now,” muses Haidary. “They’ve had a very hard journey themselves. But Akeem’s journey with Jon is going to help the likes of me and all the other boxers that are going to come out of Fight Factory. They’ve paved the way for us.
“Jon’s experienced now with Akeem and all the big fights, so that will make it a lot easier when it comes to my time.”
Not surprisingly, Haidary is placing no limits on how far he thinks he can progress in the sport. English titles are mentioned, all the way through to European and world honours. With continued effort and application, he is comfortable that he can get to where he needs to be.
After all, he has completed the hardest part already.
Main image: Connor Elliott.