By Richard Hubbard
Jordan Thompson ultimately aims to occupy centre stage in the cruiserweight division but, had circumstances panned out the way he originally intended, Centre Court was to have been the field of dreams for this strapping 6ft 6in athlete.
Now 23, the 5-0 banger from Manchester was ranked in the top ten of British tennis at the age of 16 before he reached not so much break point, but breaking point.
For the son of former multi-world karate champions Geoff and Janice Thompson dawned the realisation that his mixed race face simply didn’t fit in the snooty clique that is British tennis.
The putrid whiff of subtle racism eventually overcame him and forced the young hopeful to abandon his dream of fulfilling what was an undoubted potential.
Thompson doesn’t apply any topspin when looking back on his experiences, ones that resulted in him kicking all sport into touch for 18 months at the age of 18 before his fighting instincts were rekindled and channelled towards a career in the ring.
“There was a big lack of opportunity and chances for someone of my stature,” said one of the recent influx to the Frank Warren stable. “I didn’t come from a background without opportunity, but I wasn’t an upper class kid, even though I am well-spoken and my mum and dad have brought me up with manners.
“I would say I wasn’t accepted in the British tennis scene.
“For sure my face didn’t fit, no. As much as I would try and make it fit, that was a big struggle for me. Even in school, being mixed race with a black dad and white mum, that brings challenges in itself.
“Sometimes I would be not black enough to fit in with this group and then sometimes I would be too black to fit in with that group. I’m just in between aren’t I? The best of both kind of thing.”
Diversity clearly hasn’t caught on where British tennis is concerned and a failure to embrace young talent from all walks of life is a damning indictment on the system, one which hardly yields champions on a frequent basis.
Thompson readily acknowledges the prejudice he encountered was not blatant, but detectable all the same, as well as totally demoralising.
In youth tennis you must rely on your opponents to honestly call the shots as line judges are not employed at this level. This is where Thompson lost all trust in the upper crust.
“I would expect it more in the tennis world than say football, which is a bit more diverse and a world-wide sport,” he reasoned on not getting an even break. “Tennis is worldwide too, but it is a very upper class sport.
“You’d think and hope they would be more educated though.
“Another big thing for me was at these tournaments you used to call your own lines. One thing I look back at now and it goes over and over in my head – it was one of the main reasons I gave up tennis.
“I live in Manchester and they aren’t really many tournaments up north. So I am travelling all the way down south – Torquay, Newquay, Bournemouth – to then get ripped off by someone saying that ball wasn’t in. The whole place knows it’s in and, at the same time, you’ve got to keep calm and be the gentleman.
“I went through a year of continuing to try because I felt so bad that my mum and dad had invested their lives into me playing tennis, which is the most expensive sport out there with so much travelling and no income whatsoever.”
It was when his admirable composure was beginning to be lost that he realised the game was up. Game, set and match to the losers, you might say.
“I started to lose my cool on court and it started to get to me too much. I just felt that if there was a dispute on the court and the referee came on, there was only one way the argument would go. So I just felt beat before I’d started.
“It got to the point where if someone cheated me, I’d be like ‘alright, whatever’ and wondered if I needed to start cheating too. I am not that kind of guy though because I would be cheating myself.
“I was getting too irate and thought I was kind of becoming what they are stereotyping me to be, so it was time to stop.”
Thompson admits that he walked away without lamenting his lot to the tennis authorities – or the bodies that provide funding to the sport.
‘I wasn’t accepted on the British tennis scene. My face didn’t fit. There was prejudice….but boxing has given me back my self-belief’
First of all, he doesn’t believe he was in the right emotional state of mind to present his case coherently, while he had also witnessed firsthand the treatment suffered by another player who did make himself heard.
“No I didn’t. I do wonder if I should’ve, but it was a case of the way I would’ve gone about it as I would have had to do it in a very professional and respectful way. At the time that wasn’t my mindset at all.
“Saying that, there was a black kid called Isaac Stoute, a young kid with dreadlocks who was an exceptional player. Him and his dad went through the same problems I did, but they were very vocal about it, to the point when they would come with signs to tournaments saying ‘no to racism in tennis’ etc.
“I saw the way they got treated and his son just became targeted. It was bad enough for me, but they were out for this guy. His dad was very active and outspoken about the problems and he ended up getting banned from tournaments and couldn’t watch his son.
“He got labelled as a troublemaker and I didn’t want that. I thought I would keep my mouth shut and try and grind through it, but no, it just didn’t happen.
“I then went through a year and a half of doing absolutely nothing.”
Thompson’s father Geoff is the founder and executive chairman of the Manchester-based award-winning Youth Charter for Sport, which carries out valuable work using sport as a vehicle to inspire disadvantaged young people away from crime, drugs and gang-related activity.
He certainly comes from a talented family. His sister Francesca is a trained ballerina and brother Luke, also an accomplished youth tennis player is about start an internship in New York’s Wall Street.
Having given up on courting his tennis dream, Thompson himself admits he could have found himself teetering on the brink of wrongdoing were he not to have found an alternative outlet for his energies.
“I think combat kind of found me, that is how I would best describe it, I didn’t go looking for boxing,” he recalled. “I was brought up in a combat family and my mum and dad always did a bit of pad work with me and taught me how to punch and defend myself.
“One thing I have learned from my dad is that you have got to play the game and play it smartly. Don’t let the game play you and I felt that was beginning to happen as I was giving up tennis and not doing anything. I felt I was becoming a product of the system.
“With my dad doing the line of work he does, I was like ‘wait a minute, this is becoming a bit ironic’. I feel like boxing came and grabbed me and said I was not going down that path.”
A little twist of fate is that Thompson’s now trainer, Haroon Headley, is a graduate of the Youth Charter, although neither of them made the connection straight away.
“It is crazy and a very, very small world. I didn’t actually meet Haroon through my dad, I met him in a gym messing around on the floor doing MMA and he came in and said I should come down to a proper boxing gym.
“I mentioned it to my dad, they made the link and now it is one big happy family.”
The family did encounter a bit of turbulence last year when Thompson was caught up in the middle of an acrimonious boxing divorce.
Headley operated as part of the Lee Beard training team in Manchester, but took the decision to branch out on his own and was followed by both Thompson and Jack Catterall.
Splits with trainers are rarely without heartache, but for Thompson, sticking with his boxing mentor was a natural chain of events.
This didn’t really make it any easier in terms of continuity and the parting resulted in him being inactive for five months when he should have been clocking up the learning fights.
“I don’t look back on that situation too much and try to look to the future, but it was mad because a lot of boxers never go through what I did after just a few fights.
“It was a lot to go through and it was a very stressful period of my life because, when you are just starting your career and had your first few fights, you’ve got that buzz and feel of winning, the crowd and doing your family proud.
“Then there was a gap where I wasn’t fighting or even training because there was nowhere to train and I was doing my own thing.
“It was an emotional time because it was a very messy divorce with a lot of parties involved as well as loyalties.
“My decision was very easy so that wasn’t hard for me, but it was awkward more than anything. There isn’t a bad taste left in my mouth, but I can only speak for myself.
“For me to have stayed with Lee wouldn’t have made sense in any aspect. He is a great technical coach but, for me, I’m the type of guy who needs to really get on with someone to have that working relationship and train with them every day.
“I’m not saying I disliked him or anything, but we couldn’t really relate.
“People do fall out in boxing and it is about looking out for No.1, but for me it about not burning as many bridges as possible and keeping doors open.
“It has slowed me down a lot and I’ve had only one fight since the breakup, when I should’ve had four or five, but everything happens for a reason.”
Since winning his fifth fight in November, Thompson, whose quickfire dismissal of opponents has earned him the ring sobriquet ‘Troublesome’ , has signed up to boxing’s New Era under Frank Warren, which provided him with a timely fillip after emerging from such a traumatic period.
“Exactly, I have signed with a big name promoter and it is amazing for me. That gave me a massive boost.
“Boxing is an up and down sport, the highs and lows are ridiculous and I am nowhere yet! I can’t imagine what it is like when you get up there.
“I have wondered if I really want to do it, not the training or the boxing, but all the politics and drama. Then you get a couple of things happen, like a sponsor showing his interest and belief, then signing with Frank Warren and that giving me an extra boost.
“These things have given me that extra drive and motivation to keep pushing through.”
Jordan will make his debut for BoxNation and BT Sport on the bumper Manchester Arena card on April 8 and he can see only big things ahead with a promoter who prides himself on nurturing champions, as opposed to plucking them off the peg.
“It is a really big opportunity and they are definitely in competition with Sky Sports now. BoxNation getting BT is massive.
“That is what I like about Frank, some promoters like to take what they can already see, whereas he is ready to invest his time and energy into something can’t be sure about. He has taken a big gamble with me because I’ve got no amateur belts or pedigree, so for him to put me on a contract is a massive thing and the amount that has done for my confidence was second to none.”
Thompson happily acknowledges that, in fighting terms, he is still dipping his toes in the shallow end. The deep end, however, holds no fears and the former tennis player is not lacking when it comes to, well, balls.
“I have not been tested. I’d like to be tested and I say to Haroon ‘I want to fight him now’ and when I come to watching the Haye-Bellew fight, I will be like ‘I want to fight him’.
“I’m that kind of guy and I love a challenge. If you threw me in with a lion now I would believe I will come out on top. I’ve got an inner belief in my heart.”Tags: Jordan Thompson