Dust mites. Even the tidiest of homes have them. You find them floating about in gyms too, which is not a huge surprise as it is alleged that they are partially composed of bits of dead human skin. Boxers wrap and care for their hands, but after a few rounds of punching the friction on and within the wraps will turn them into the equivalent of cheese graters so that when you take them off they will serrate the top layer of epidermis before sending it floating out into the air. Movement stirs them up, creating magic carpets of dust when they float across a beam of light.
At times these shards of dust can seem so dense you can almost reach out and touch them only for them to disperse like the dreams and hopes of so many fighters who have graced the sport. Visible injuries and scuffed knuckles creating barely visible human remains that are a small indication of the fact that the very act of training brutalises boxers.
The windows at Kerry Kayes’s former gym, Betta Bodies, would cast a light onto the area where fighters used to train under Billy Graham, when the boxing gym was called The Phoenix, and Joe Gallagher, who moved his Gallagher’s Gym in for a while before Bobby Rimmer took over.
On sunny days, so rare in Manchester, you could see the shards of grey created by the dust as you made your way down the little corridor of space between the ring apron and the outer wall before walking through them to get to the office or to stop for a chat with whoever was working the bags.
During his British and European lightweight run, you would often see John Murray working away on the bags, creating a fresh batch of mites for the sweat-drenched air. From the outside looking in this was Murray’s absolute peak, the age when experience is added to physical gifts to create your prime years.
In reality, his body had already started the process that is known as “breaking down”, the accrual of damage picked up from training day in and day out for year after year. The wear and tear sustained through various training camps and those cruel camps that end up being pointless due to a fight getting spiked or pushed back. Known as “The Murray Machine” throughout his career, Murray was starting to feel the effects of this process back then.
If Floyd Mayweather can go to 48-0 whilst barely losing a round yet still complain that boxing was “breaking him down” then it is only logical that Murray, a pressure fighter, began to wilt away from the public gaze of fight night, as so many fighters do.
“Boxing is boring. I miss the characters, the ones who make you think: ‘This kid is going to kick off’. When I walked to the ring I was menacing, I looked mean and like the kind of angry man that you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.”
“I started to feel it,” he said when speaking to Britishboxers.co.uk about his career. “Little injuries that you can’t shake and pain in my (right) eye. It’d flare up and get all red and teary after sparring. People would ask what was wrong with it, but I just put it down to sparring.”
Following his retirement, cataracts created a grey film over his vision and a detached retina added insult to the injury. Eight operations later and Murray is still waiting to find out the exact long-term effects of his boxing career. He would love to lace up the gloves and spar again, but even that small pleasure has been taken away.
“I used to spar all the time with my personal training people,” he said. “The last time I went for an eye check-up they told me my retina had detached again and I was in surgery that night. I’ve had two more surgeries since then, so I can’t spar again.”
“Fingers crossed, yeah,” he said when asked if the operation ordeal is over. “I have fortnightly check-ups for three-months because there’s a 98% chance that if it doesn’t detach after then it won’t detach again. But if it does it does, there’s not point whinging about it—you just get on with it.”
Murray sees shadows out of that eye, depth of vision is not great and it will never be the same again, but he has put it behind him to look ahead to his career as a trainer. However, there were signs that his career was taking a toll after his EBU defence against Andrey Kudryavtsev (W TKO 9), Murray complained about a pain in his head after that one, and his right eye looked angry and red.
Never one to be mistaken for a Fancy Dan, Murray gave it his all in sparring and more so when he fought. He told me that the sport is unsentimental when it comes to the demands it makes of you from an early age.
“We’re just young men, kids—I look at 18-year-old pros now and they look about 12,” he said. “I was 18 myself when I turned over—it is just madness. You take a young boy, get him fights and he makes money. It is a brutal business. Kids are doing what adult men do. I was out sparring men, pros like Gary Hibbert.”
Since his retirement, the 29-year-old has concentrated on his own stable of fighters rather than slavishly following the sport. He puts this disconnect down to one key factor. “Boxing is boring now,” he declared.
“I miss the characters, the ones who make you think: ‘This kid is going to kick off’. When I walked to the ring I was menacing, I looked mean and like the kind of angry man that you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.
“That’s why I liked [Michael] Gomez and [Anthony] Farnell, fighters who might kick off at a weigh-in. There’s nothing like that anymore, no real characters. For me, they’re all ‘Yes’ men. It is all: ‘Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir’, so it bores me to death.
“I know some of the lads, they’re alright but a bit boring. I want someone to come out and get a bit of a buzz going with the fans. I want a next Gomez to come through, someone to entertain me inside the ring and outside the ring. We need the Ricky Hattons, fighters who could go out with the lads after a fight and is just one of the boys.” Murray once claimed he could defend his belt “Standing on my head” – pic credit: “Big” Al Stevenson
At this point, Murray paused for thought and looked at the flipside of the equation, saying: “Maybe boxing has moved forward, though, and maybe it is more professional now than it was 10 years ago. The same with football. You couldn’t be George Best and play in the Premier League, you’d have to be right down to work. It might just be moving forward, but it’s a shame as I did like it to be a bit like the WWE—some good guys, some bad guys and more fun.
“Tyson [Fury] is probably the last character left; he is Marmite, you love him or you hate him but that’s what boxing needs, characters. I might be the training equivalent of them lot, cause a load of aggro in the build-up to fights.”
“You have to enjoy it while you’re in it. Every now and then, a memory will pop into my head and I’ll smile about it. It’s good that I enjoyed that time. I had a good mentality, I could control my nerves and I used to think that nothing much will change if I lose a fight, the world will keep spinning around and tomorrow will still come.”
Former foe and current WBA lightweight titlist Anthony Crolla once told me that Murray gave him one of the best pieces of advice he has received and it was a simple one: enjoy fight night. Crolla admits that he would get nerves before fights yet Murray told him to savour every moment of being in the ring as your career can end at any time.
“You have to enjoy it while you’re in it,” reiterated Murray. “Every now and then, a memory will pop into my head and I’ll smile about it. It’s good that I enjoyed that time. I had a good mentality, I could control my nerves and I used to think that nothing much will change if I lose a fight, the world will keep spinning around and tomorrow will still come.
“I used to tell myself that no one cares about this little fight in Wigan, it doesn’t mean anything in the bigger picture. That used to calm me because it was only relevant to me. I never suffered from nerves. I used to be able to relax, crack jokes and enjoy it. Joe used to get nervous, I’d say: ‘Joe, you’re going to have to leave the room before you make me nervous’.
“I can understand, there is a lot of build-up and you feel under pressure to perform, and where do you go if you don’t perform? Good ones cope with the pressure, get through the bad times and move on. If you can’t cope you won’t be the same fighter.”
A focussed Murray marches to the ring. Photo by “Big” Al Stevenson
As he told BB in Part One, the former fighter turned trainer has put bad vibes behind him and hopes to turn his gym into a hangout for Manchester’s boxing fraternity as well as producing his own line of starlets via his recently accredited amateur club. It is the start of a new path for Murray, he misses fighting, and many miss his fights, but he has seamlessly settled into the next best thing. If he is as successful as a coach as he was as a fighter there will be more nice memories to look back on.
Murray talks about some of the fights that defined his career.
Lee Meagre (W TKO 5 for the vacant British lightweight title): “They said I was an underdog for this. In truth, I was overlooked for most of my career. I don’t think I was really rated as a fighter or respected as much as I should have been.
“They’d always say it was a 50-50 one, then I’d smash the kid and they’d make a load of excuses about him being old, past it or not as good as people thought. Then they’d say my own boxing isn’t good enough, my defence wasn’t all that, but I’d still go out and smash it—I did that here.” Jon Thaxton (W TKO 4 for the vacant British lightweight title):
“I’d like it to have continued a little bit longer, to have put him down rather than have the ref [Howard Foster] stop the fight. I felt it that night. It was building up to a top performance. It was premature, but the writing was on the wall as I hurt him every time I hit him, which, to be fair, was maybe a sign of his age and what the ref was thinking. Plus the ref is a lot closer to the action.
“Then again, the refs didn’t mind it when I was getting my head bashed in in my losses. I was on my feet every time I lost, no one minded seeing me get a right good hiding. My eyes would be swollen, nose gone and I’d piss blood after every loss. I probably could have done with a ref jumping in!”
Brandon Rios (L TKO 11 for the vacant WBA lightweight title): “Walking out at Madison Square Garden was my moment. My song, Johnny Be Good, was blaring and I thought: ‘This is it now, this is my moment’—I wanted to enjoy it.
“I walked out and saw the second tier and thought ‘Wow!’. Then I saw another tier of people, it was massive, but I still managed to spot my mates who had come over from Manchester in their ‘Here’s Johnny’ t-shirts. That was one of my fondest memories. I’ve boxed in Vegas twice, once at the MGM Grand, but that was it by a long, long way.
“He was a bit nasty at the weigh-in then told me it was just his fight face when we talked after the fight. I understood, it is not all kissing and cuddles when you fight. We were going to fight the next day so you expect it. Then you have a fight, shake hands and have a beer together.
“I tried to absorb it all, but my memory is shocking, I wish I could remember more. Probably getting punched in the head for years didn’t help. I used to try to take in those unbelievable moments. I remember fighting in America and seeing Ronald Winky Wright saying ‘Come on, Murray’ as I walked out. It was mad.”
Anthony Crolla (L TKO 10 for the WBO Inter-Continental title): “I was just being a character (when referring to himself as ‘Feeling violent’ pre-fight). I wasn’t a nice man. I was trained to have a fight, not to be nice, so I was training to be a nasty man and that’s how I acted. That’s why I said that, I was feeling violent because that’s what I’d been training to do.
“I’d been nice, it had go me nowhere so I had to start being nasty to get what I wanted. Maybe my career would have been a lot different if I’d been like that the whole time. If I knew then what I know now, I’d have been a lot, lot worse than I was and more entertaining. Boxing is an entertainment business, people like the bad guys and you have to be one sometimes to make serious money out of it.
“I started too fast in that one, maybe I could have done with a few more fights to warm-up after being off for so long, but I took the opportunity. It is funny, I sometimes watch my defeats back when they’re on TV and I always expect myself to win them even though I know I lost. I’ll think: ‘There is no way I can lose this from here’ then watch it happen. It’s weird.”