By Richard Hubbard
“You could have an MP and a guy who has just come out of prison and that one love for boxing will make them friends”
BOXING GYMS HAVE traditionally offered something of a safe haven for many of society’s strays, a sanctuary that steers wayward youngsters on the straight and narrow, while also providing a regulated release for pent up aggression. Discipline and respect are key watchwords in these churches of pugilistic worship.
Billy Long, a self-confessed booze-fuelled street fighter from Chelmsford, kind of got his objectives all wrong when he ventured into a boxing gym for the first time at the age of 19.
Not for him a desire to channel his obvious aggression into a noble art, or establish the humble values the vast majority of boxers exude. No, for Long, he fully admits he just wanted to improve the odds for when the next pub fight broke out.
After being outmanoeuvred by sparring partners he held considerable physical advantages over, the penny dropped for the Chelmsford chancer and he was hooked, probably literally as well.
“I started boxing for all the wrong reasons,” said the now 27-year-old, who is undefeated in four pro contests. “Everyone says they walked into the gym to change, I didn’t, I walked into the gym to try and benefit myself out on the streets and become well known.
“What happened was, I walked in there as a massive lump and started getting worked over by little 60kilo fighters. I thought ‘wow, what I am doing?’, but it interested me so much that I gave up that life and left it behind to focus on my boxing.
“I’ve not really looked back since, although I’ve had a few hiccups, but the only time I’ve had problems in my life since has been when I have stopped the boxing and got back on it. I’ve got three kids now and I am a changed man – boxing is my life now along with my kids and my wife.
“I was a scrapper! I’m probably still known by a lot of people as a scrapper, but I am tee-total now even though my family have got pubs and wine bars.”
Growing up in such an environment, Long concurs, was pretty much like being a kid in a sweet shop.
“Yeah it was, most people grow up kicking ball, but unfortunately I grew up kicking a ball with a little beer in my hand with my dad.
“It was happy days until I’d get drunk, go smash a few windows and get into fights… I’m much happier now sitting inside a gym and then walking home to see my kids. I don’t agree with what I used to do no more.”
As is so often the case in this sport, the super-middleweight campaigner confirms boxing tamed his wild side and he preaches respect with complete sincerity. Even though he competes in the toughest individual pursuit of them all, for Long, boxing is about comradeship and he believes rotten apples are quickly rooted out and discarded.
“Oh massively, it is a cliché and I used to watch boxing and hear stories of how it changed people’s lives and think what a load of nonsense! It is just one of those sports, if you are an idiot or a dickhead in boxing you will get found out, simple as that. You get found out, you get your arse handed to you and get kicked out of the gym.
“There is only a few idiots in boxing and they are on their own, I don’t believe they have training partners because you won’t find a group of idiots in a boxing gym. You might have one but they won’t last long.
“It is the only sport where you can have say a police officer, a gangster, a publican and a school teacher in the same room getting on. You could have an MP and a guy who has just come out of prison and that one love for boxing will make them friends – and we’ve definitely got that down here at Legends Gym.”
You could say Long has taken an elongated route towards what was his primary goal of competing in the professional ranks. He has gone from unwanted amateur to the unlicensed circuit to nomadic amateur to, finally, punching for a living.
Finding himself not warranting the attention of the coaches at his first amateur gym prompted him to transfer his still unrefined skills to the paid, but officially unregulated arena, where he emerged triumphant six times over.
Unlicensed boxing has its knockers, with many of us still holding a vision of smoke-filled warehouses with shady characters and corruptible combat. Of course, the modern day reality is very different from such perceptions.
“I started off and walked into an amateur gym,” Long takes up the tale of his journey, where the next stop is the Copper Box on April 30. “What happened was that they didn’t really give me any time or believe in me. I was 19 walking into a gym and I guess, looking back now, they thought I was rubbish.
“So I went on the unlicensed scene and from there a few people took note of me and I went back to the amateurs.
“Everyone has got this vision of unlicensed boxing being in a big barn with load of smoke going off and two big geezers wearing jeans, trainers and no gloves on. Let me tell you it is not like that, unlicensed boxing has moved on, it is more like the pro circuit where everyone knows who everyone is, there’s MCs, referees, judges etc.
“It is poor man’s pro boxing, just for the guys who don’t suit amateur or are too old and not good enough to go pro. So they go and box unlicensed and, fortunately enough for a few of them, they make a name for themselves in it. Luckily enough, that happened for me, I went on to the amateurs and now I am pro.
“I boxed amateur in Denmark, Sweden, Spain and England, losing two and winning the other 10, stopping about five.
“I had one cage fight as well, which I won, as I am quite a good wrestler as well, believe it or not,” added Long with a little chuckle, before conceding that unlicensed boxing is probably not for the purist, with wild haymakers being the weapon of choice.
“Oh my god yeah! I’m not going to lie, I wouldn’t call unlicensed boxing technical, you get some real haymakers flying about and half of them don’t know what a jab is. If they do, that is because they are eating it! So the ones who can throw a jab tend to win the fights.”
And win fights is what Long has done since doing it for real in the pros. The rationale behind his decision to turn over he he explains is down to simple economics and the opportunity to live a dream.
“I’m going to be totally honest with you on the reason,” he stated. “I’ve got three kids and they need feeding. I was working and doing all the hours thinking I just want to have a crack at my dream.
“I did just that. I had a few problems with my manager at first, I moved over to Andy Ayling and since then it has been brilliant. I take my hat off to him and can’t thank him enough – whatever he says gets done.
“I just wanted to provide for my kids and that is exactly why I turned over. Amateur and unlicensed boxing doesn’t pay and I wanted to put some food on the table.
“I am under the guidance now of Andy, fighting on Frank Warren shows and lucky enough to be on BoxNation. So I’ve got a great platform and it is all down to me now to keep winning, step it up and do it impressively. At the end of the year we will assess things, work out what happens from there and see if there is the chance of any sort of title.
“I am happy fighting on these big shows, I am on the Billy Joe Saunders undercard next and I can’t really ask for much more. A happy fighter, I’ve always said, is a dangerous fighter. I am happy at the moment, I feel like I am back at school! You ask any parent or anyone what they would rather being doing than working and they say they would like to be back at school. That is what I feel like.”
At the riper than average age of 27 for a rookie, Long doesn’t really feel the need to jump on the fast track, pointing out that modern boxers are regularly still jabbing and moving in their mid-thirties or more.
He suspects too that soon he will be able to showcase why he has titled himself as Billy the Bomb.
“When you start seeing me take on better fighters you will see what I am capable of. When you are fighting people who just want to survive it is hard and they don’t get stopped a lot.
“One fight at a time though, I’m not saying give me a prospect now because am I ready for it? We’ll find out when it comes to it. I’m learning every day and living my dream.”
The dream is being played out in front of a particularly healthy following hailing from Chelmsford, even if the natives from his own little village in Writtle, where his family own a popular pub, give his fight nights a swerve – perhaps because they have seen him in action too many times in the past.
“I am the only professional boxer from Chelmsford although, funnily enough, not many people from the boozer come and follow me. It’s mad, I’m from a little village and everyone knows who I am, but hardly any of them come. I suppose it is because I used to be a little f**ker and they probably still think I’m that little shit!
“I’m not, time has moved on and I am a humble guy now. I know a lot of people around Chelmsford and get a lot turning up for me each time and I can’t do it without them. I have made a promise that I will bring a title back to Chelmsford for them.”
That sounds like a rewarding Long-term plan!