By Richard Hubbard
It did seem a little strange to be discussing the approach to a career crossroads with a fighter who is the proud owner of a 16-0 record.
Crossroads might not be calling it quite correctly, but Tommy Langford is perhaps poised at a T-junction, deliberating whether to put his foot down and accelerate uphill towards the promised land or to bide his time and go round the block a few times.
Stick or twist?
Langford holds a pretty strong hand in already being the Commonwealth and WBO Intercontinental champion, as well as being ranked in title territory at No.2 by the aforementioned governing body.
The Birmingham-based middleweight knows he must play his cards wisely on his professional journey and accepts the preferred route is probably one where he proceeds with caution, but ‘no’ is not a word that comes easily to the lips of fighting men when opportunities present themselves.
Langford, who defends his Intercontinental strap for the fourth time against Ronny Gabel at the Cardiff Ice Arena on Saturday, has navigated himself into pretty much pole position – or at least the front row of the grid – for a mandatory shot at champion Billy Joe Saunders, but taking a more windy scenic route is also a temptation for the 26-year-old.
Indeed, he must figure highly in the thoughts of the Board of Control stewards when it comes to determining who is the next mandatory challenger for the British title held by Chris Eubank jnr, while the EBU title is currently vacant.
“I tend to agree with that but I would say I am under no pressure to do either thing,” said the Devonian on playing his cards right. “They are all opportunities for me and, with Eubank being the British champion and a name and a scalp, if that got offered it would be a big publicised fight and one I believe I can win.
“So that is an option and if it is the case that being mandatory comes off – then fantastic. Then, at the same time, with the WBO, fighting for the world title is not something I would turn down. If it is thrown my way then I am 100 per cent going to jump in and take it.
“I’m in a position where, yeah, it is stick or twist, but I’m open to both of those options and neither of them frighten or worry me and it is something I have got to look forward to.”
A fighter is rarely in full control of his own destiny and doesn’t get to pick and choose when title shots or career defining fights come along. What Langford does want to have a handle on is not just making himself ready to face the obstacle presented by the champion, but also the challenges that lie beyond.
He doesn’t fancy entering into elite level with just a puncher’s chance of success and without the tools to enjoy a lengthy reign at the pinnacle of his division.
“Of course and once you do step up to that level I’ve always been told you can’t go backwards, you can’t go dropping down and fighting people below you so it is important that until that shot comes off that I take advantage and get the learning fights if they come my way.
“In my opinion though, you don’t turn down world title fights if they are offered to you and especially if they are winnable. I think the most important thing is that when you fight for a world title you don’t just want to be thinking about that fight. You win that fight and, fantastic, you are world champion but, regardless of anything, you want to be able to deal with what comes at you afterwards.
“You want a career path, not just to win a world title, but to defend it and maintain it. That’s where the learning fights come in and that is the real argument for taking my time.
“I’ve got no fear of stepping up and fighting for the world title and I do believe I can win it, but it is dealing with everything once you have and they are occasions and experiences that have to be learned and dealt with, hopefully previously to that.”
Langford is still not thinking particularly long-term when it comes to taking his tilt at the top, with his career planning only really stretching as far as next summer. What he does want to be is a worthy and respected contender in a fight that captures the imagination of the public.
He has no wish to be viewed as a routine defence for anyone.
“Obviously the fight on the 16th and do the job there, then in the autumn or winter look at either the British or European – then look at the world scene in the new year, in 2017. I suppose in the next nine to 12 months I want to be in a position to fight for the world title.
“In that time it is very important to get that British title, or the European, whichever one becomes available or is a makeable fight, then that’s what has to be done because it would sort of cement me in a position to fight for a world title, as opposed to just jumping up.
“It is a case as well of, more than anything with world titles, is they have got to be built up right. Potentially, I think a fight with me and Billy Joe Saunders is a fantastic fight when it happens. If you do it too soon I don’t think you do the fight the justice it deserves.
“If in nine months time I am still undefeated, having hopefully won the British or European on the way up and he is still world champion, it is a big fight then that would get a lot more attention and would sell a lot more.
“That is the real thing about that fight, when the right time to do it is.”
Strangely enough, if the fight were to happen in nine or so months time, it would be roughly about when the Hawthorns, home of his beloved West Brom, would be available to stage it.
“Exactly! That would be sweet wouldn’t it? You’ve got to take advantage of those time frames when they come along.”
Murmurings surfaced on social media recently suggesting Langford was in line for a final eliminator for Billy Joe’s treasured belt against the tough Georgian Avtandil Khurtsidze.
He is aware of the proposed match-up, but it is not one which particularly appeals were it to become a genuine option. Also, when the time comes, Langford wouldn’t require mandatory status to book a date with Saunders given they come from the same stable.
“He is the No.1 ranked in the WBO and is a horrible fighter – I have looked at him and he is well beatable though. I don’t know what has come of that, I haven’t heard any more, so I am not sure where that has gone.
“Billy Joe is with Frank Warren and is world champion. If he stays world champion then why take those gambles and, let’s be honest, he is not a big name who is going to get me well paid as he is an unknown fighter. A horrible fighter to fight, a good fighter, but not like fighting Eubank in an eliminator where everyone would be talking about it, he is unknown.”
Part of Langford’s rationale for remaining on the learning curve lies with his laboured performance last time out against Lewis Taylor in claiming the Commonwealth crown.
It wasn’t his finest 36 minutes of work and the two rounds he was deemed to have lost to the Dronfield man were incredibly the first to be marked against him over 16 contests.
It was an examination he needed to pass, if not with flying colours. Defences of his WBO belt have enhanced his CV since its capture in July of last year but his record has been absent of significant tests against top British fighters who bring with them a guarantee of ambition.
Similar motivation cannot always be banked on when imported challengers emerge from the red corner.
“I think that is something I learned a lot from in that fight because, while the Argentinean (Cristian Rios) I fought back in October came with a real intention to upset the applecart, apart from that with the imports you never know where the motivation lies.
“They’ll take a win if it comes along but, once you start bludgeoning them and hurting them, you don’t know if they are too happy to stay in there.
“You are absolutely right, the British scene is a lot tougher, they are out to win and make a name for themselves and take an opportunity. I think I underestimated that, going into the fight I got it mentally wrong with my approach.
“It is all very well me being champion, but you have got no God-given right to beat anybody and I went into that fight with the mindset of ‘I’m too good for this kid’ rather than thinking he’s coming to have this and I’ve got to be on form.
“As a result I made mistakes, I got caught too much, it has been said that my defence was too leaky. It was and I can’t deny that. I have also learned that you have got to stick to a gameplan and be solid. As soon as I got caught early in that fight, not with big shots, just silly jabs, it was like he has hit me so I’ve got to hit him back – I reverted to a mentality I had as an amateur.
“I thought I had got rid of that. It is easy to get rid of it when you are fighting against foreign imports that you don’t know much about who haven’t got the added incentive of being involved in a domestic clash. I’ve learned that from the fight that you have got to be 100 per cent on it, especially against fellow Brits.
“I made mistakes, I went in there thinking I was going to do this and that. I am not a big puncher, I can punch hard enough, and really I should have been happy to go in there and outbox and outfox him, then break him down and maybe the stoppage would’ve come.
“The way I went in there looking for things and trying to force the issue, it was the wrong way to approach it. Thankfully I’ve got a good engine that can pull me out of sticky patches.
“You don’t want that at the top end though, when you are looking at the world elite, it is the ability to make people miss that really differentiates them from the others.”
So with Taylor making such an impression, Langford and his trainer Tom Chaney saw to it that more of the same was quickly added to the menu.
“Funnily enough, I was happy with the title but not the performance and all the work I did in camp I never carried out, so it was important we eradicated that quite quickly. So I’ve actually had Lewis in doing some sparring with me in this camp and it has been brilliant. I have corrected some of the mistakes I made.
“So it is not so much the boxing side of things, because I know I have got that in the tank, it is dealing with the mental aspect better. If you are talking about fighting the likes of Saunders and Eubank with the media attention that would go with it, you need to be able to deal with that better.
“That is the real key when you step up a level, being able to stay calm and relaxed, while doing your thing.”
Langford will be next doing his thing at the Ice Arena on Saturday. What happens after that remains to be seen for now, but don’t bet against this Baggie adding to his belt collection before too long.
CALLING THE CARDIFF TUNE
Over a number of appearances now, Langford has marked himself out as one of BoxNation’s most impressive pundits. He calls the shots with eloquent clarity and is happy to call it as he sees it, with no fudging of the issues.
So with the Channel of Champions screening one of the most eagerly awaited fights of the year on Saturday, Langford popped on his pundit’s hat again and offered his take on the British and Commonwealth title clash between the unbeaten pair Liam Williams and Gary Corcoran.
“I am a good friend of Williams, I do a lot of sparring with him and have in the past, so I am going to say him anyway! But looking at them stylistically, Corcoran in his own right is a very good fighter – he is tough, fit and very, very busy in the ring. He does get caught quite a lot and Williams can punch.
“You haven’t seen it in many of his fights recently because he has got rid of them so quickly, but Williams is a very good backfoot boxer and I think that he will outbox Corcoran and break him down.
“I do see a Williams stoppage, but with him not having done the rounds leaves an unanswered question. If Corcoran can take him late it will ask one, but I see a mid to late rounds stoppage, to be honest.
“I have sparred Corcoran once and he is a good fighter, very fit, very active and always on you. So that will be the test for Williams because he is so on top of you and strong on the inside.
“If Williams can get the space, use his feet and stick to his boxing with a cool head, then I think he will outbox him and gradually break him down. If he gets too mixed up on the inside and gets involved in the rough stuff trying to fight Corcoran too much, that is where he will find it harder because that is what Corcoran will want him to do.
“He wants to be working you over, messing you up and it does frustrate you, it really does. It will be a good fight, a great clash with them both being undefeated and highly ranked.
“Fair play to them, it is a great fight and I delighted that it has sold so well.”