By Richard Hubbard
“When you become world champion, you’ve got that bullseye on your back”
THE JIMMY EGAN Boxing Academy in Wythenshawe just over a week ago celebrated a graduate becoming a world champion for the first time. In just under two weeks, Jimmy Kelly Jnr is confident of making it a double.
First to the big belts was one Tyson Fury following his tactical dismantling of Wladimir Klitschko in Dusseldorf, now Kelly firmly believes he will add to his hometown club’s roll of honour after he settles a domestic score with WBO super-welterweight champion Liam Smith at the Manchester Arena on December 19.
“They’ll have one in two weeks as well!” stated Kelly with considerable conviction, before reflecting on his friend and former teammate confounding the critics and rocking the heavyweight landscape.
“Tyson did fantastic. A lot of people bet against him, but Tyson is erratic and his movement is erky-jerky. Klitschko throws when he knows he is going to land and I thought he wouldn’t be able to do that with Tyson, he’ll wait, wait and wait and before he knows it he’ll be behind.
“I thought Tyson would’ve got the stoppage towards the end but in the rematch I think he will get the stoppage in the last third of the fight.
“Me and Tyson were there for a good five or six years together and we both won titles. We were quite close and he’s always been sound, Tyson.”
Kelly hopes the voice of the heavyweight champ will be among those cheering him on against Smith if he isn’t taking in sunnier climes and suspects the main event of the evening might just clinch the deal.
“I asked him and, after having such a lot on, he might be on holiday, but if he is about he’ll be there. I think with Andy Lee and Billy-Joe Saunders on he will want to be there.”
Kelly clinched the vacant WBO Inter-Continental crown in October against Martin Fidel Rios on the same night Smith gained full world honours for his demolition of John Thompson on the same bill. It wasn’t long afterwards he got word that his name was in the frame for Smith’s first defence.
It wasn’t the only domestic deal he negotiated around that time.
“I remember it was a Thursday and I had just got the keys for my house” he recalled. “I had literally just walked out of the estate agent and Lee (manager, Beard) rang and said ‘how would you feel if the Liam Smith fight was offered to you? Would you take it?’.
“I said yes, but I thought he was supposed to be fighting (Shane) Mosley. You know what Lee’s like, I thought he was just joking about, but he said it was between me and Carlos Molina. I said ‘I’m here, just let me know what goes on’ and a week or so later it was done and dusted.
“If I’m honest I thought they would probably go with Molina because he is a bigger name and obviously he held the IBF title a couple of years previously. So I thought they would go the Molina route, but then I got the Golden Ticket and was over the moon.
“I was excited more than anything, it is a massive opportunity being a world title fight. I was a bit, like, blown away, but then I was straight back down to earth. I expected just to be in the queue to face Liam, but Frank (promoter Warren) and Lee obviously spoke about it and felt it made sense. It is a fight I am well capable of winning.”
Smith had previously been a little prickly over domestic rivals mentioning his name in connection with potential contests, but Kelly insists it simply comes as part and parcel with his newly-trodden territory.
“The thing is, I’ve said it all along and I’ll say it until I am blue in the face, if you are champion of the world, why won’t people want to fight you? Am I supposed to say I want to fight some journeyman from the other side of the world? I’ve got ambition and, when you become world champion, you’ve got that bullseye on your back.
“People will want to fight you, it’s just natural. It is the same with Tyson Fury, he won the other day and now everyone is calling him out – Joshua, Haye, Wilder – they have all come out of nowhere saying ‘I’ll beat him’. It is what it is when you’ve got the best prize in the sport. People have dreamed of it since being in the sport, working their way up, and when it is within touching distance you are going to want to fight for the title.”
The champion being a bit catty in the press conference to announce the bout did not come as a surprise to the challenger. An understandable line of questioning after his October victory resulted in the two names being publicly linked with a night on the canvas.
“Not really, I knew he didn’t like us from before as he said I called him out. The question was asked after the fight, I’d won the WBO Inter-Continental and would I fight Liam because it is the belt that is under his one, so I said yes. In my eyes that is not calling out.
“So I thought he’d be a bit miffed with us and stuff like that, but it is boxing and it is what it is.”
Smith described the prospect of a punch-up with Kelly as simply ‘wages for Christmas’, not deeming the 23-year-old a demanding assignment or deserving of a shot. However, Kelly counters by pointing out Smith wasn’t a silent partner in the selection process.
“He had an interview after the press conference and he said ‘I chose Jimmy Kelly because I know I’m going to beat him and he’s been picked for a reason’. On the other hand he is saying I shouldn’t be in there and don’t deserve a shot. As a world champion what does that say about you? You saying that I’m not ready and I’m not good enough, yet you’ve picked me. Is that what you’re about, wanting to pick easy fights?
“To me it said a lot about him,” added the six-footer, who agrees that his part of the deal is to accept or decline the chance offered, not to justify it.
“I was offered the opportunity and I know that he says all I’ve done is won a couple of youth titles, but I won the same title against Rios that he won in April and he says I haven’t won a credible belt. A lot of fighters have won youth belts – Danny Garcia, Chavez Jnr, Alvarez – and I know I haven’t gone down the traditional British route, but you get to your destination no matter what route you go down.
“I never had a promoter so I thought the only route I could go down was to pick up a youth belt, grab a rating and just try and force people’s hands from there. As far as I’m concerned it’s worked.”
The Rios victory was his debut performance under the management of Beard and the promotional banner of Frank Warren – arrangements that have quickly paid dividends for the 16-0 Manchester boy, who was previously pretty much an independent trader of punches.
“It was my first fight so things have happened quite quickly and from doing everything on my own virtually, I think it is a credit to myself. Everyone has been with a promoter, but I have had one for one fight and that was my 16th and I managed to get myself in the top 30 of the WBC off my own back.
“When people turn round and say to me that I don’t deserve this opportunity I tell them that I’ve had to do things the hard way, sell tickets and fight for money that is not that great just to try and get myself up there. For one reason or another I did not get the chances, but I signed with Lee and things have happened quickly.
“It is my sister Rebecca’s birthday on the 19th and we took her out for a meal last year and if someone had said to me that a year to this day I would be fighting for a world title I would have said ‘no chance, that’s not happening’. But this is boxing and things change quite quickly.”
Kelly’s fortunes may be on the up, but he has not become an overnight success story, winning 62 out of 69 amateur fights, collecting five ABA titles (two schoolboy and three junior), as well as England honours.
“People don’t know because I’ve not been at the forefront of promotions. I’ve just kept myself to myself, I don’t have to start slagging people off to get out there. I’ve just done my own thing, but the pedigree is there and I am a good fighter.”
With seven KOs to his name, including three out of his last four, Kelly’s punching may be eye-watering, but it is his appearance that tends to catch the eye outside of the ropes. He has before been labelled the ‘Clark Kent of boxing’ when he dons his suit and specs, a look more akin to academic pursuits than pugilism.
For Kelly, stepping out in his Sunday best, makes him stand out from the crowd and he likes to ‘make the effort’ for the future Mrs Kelly.
“It was a conscious decision,” he revealed. “The thing is with training throughout the week and being out and about, I just live in tracksuits and am a bit scruffy, but when it comes to a Sunday or taking my missus out on a Saturday night, I make the effort. She works hard as well and it is nice to get dressed up, put a suit on.
“I wore glasses for reading when I was a kid and, when I look at pictures, I looked dead young and I thought I would keep the glasses. I’ve had them since I was three years old and just don’t want to let go – even though I can do. I think it is a part of me, who I am, and if I took my glasses off I don’t feel like it would be me – I feel a bit naked so I keep hold of them.”
Kelly proposed to his other half Jehan after his fight in October and, true to form, there were not grand gestures after claiming a shut-out decision in the ring. He preferred to wait until the mayhem had subsided before taking a knee.
“Everyone else goes out after a fight when I just want to go home to sleep. I thought we would go back home and when no-one was about I would propose. It went from thousands of people watching me to me and her – our close little unit – and I proposed and she said yes.”
So another key date beckons in Kelly’s diary, but he first has important business to take care of on December 19th.
It is perhaps fitting for someone who revealed in recent questionnaire that his place of birth was a laundry cupboard at the local hospital, that he now intends to take Smith to the cleaners.