By December 2012, Manchester’s John Murray was at a crossroads, literally, his boxing license had been revoked due to a failed brain scan on the eve of his aborted comeback fight against Gavin Rees and he had to join a pipe digging crew to make ends meet. Adrift from the sport that had defined him, the money he secured in his WBA world title fight with Brandon Rios sunk into a house that he no longer lived in, he had gone from forging his own road in the sport to creating space for gas pipes.
Previously, Murray would have found solace in one of his legendary nights out, but the thrill of youth had passed, partying was out of his system just when he could no longer funnel his energy into the sport he had once loved yet had grown to hate.
The Manchester-based fighter had often told me about his deepest fear, the possibility that he could walk away from boxing in his 30s with: “My head bashed in and nothing to show for it”. During that tough December, the thoughtful fighter’s darkest prophecies came close to the brink of becoming his daily reality.
Roll on a few years and the man dubbed “The Machine” due to his joyful, stoical stoniness whilst beating people up is about to tackle former gym mate Anthony Crolla, 27-4-1 (10), at the city’s Phones 4U Arena.
The failed brain scan was the result of a swollen pituitary gland. Murray was deemed fit to fight last year and returned to action with a fourth-round TKO over Michael Escobar in Manchester in November before blasting out John Simpson in two in Glasgow in March to set up the Crolla fight.
Now the grateful recipient of a second chance, Murray is relishing every moment of the Eddie Hearn-promoted occasion, he knows just how quickly things can change in this sport. “I enjoyed that,” said Murray when speaking to BoxingScene about Thursday’s final press conference.
“I won’t be happy with a points win on Saturday, I want to knock him out. I’m hungrier than I’ve been in my career. I’m vicious, I’m violent and I can’t wait. I spent some time away from boxing and have realised how much I enjoy stuff like this. I’m going to enjoy the fight on Saturday. I can’t wait. This is the best shape I’ve ever been in. I had a reputation for being a party boy. Every rumour you’ve heard is probably true. I’d be partying up to two weeks before a fight then weigh in and knuckle down to win.
“It became too easy for me. I kept on doing it then, later on in my career, I lost to [Kevin] Mitchell [L TKO 8 in July 2011] then went for a world title. Although I trained hard for it, you can’t undo all that good living in a few months. Now I feel good. After Rios [L TKO 11 on Decmber 3 2011 at Madison Square Garden], I went on a six-month bender, got it all out my system, got bored of it then got myself into cracking condition for the fight with [Gavin] Rees. I had a long training camp, so I was gutted when that fell through and was taken away from me.
“I thought I wouldn’t box again, so I am thankful for this second chance. I couldn’t go on living the way I was. I’m not a kid any more, I’m 29 and feel I’ve benefited from my time out the game.”
He added: “It ate away at me. I know the mistakes I made in both those training camps and am confident I can make the most of this chance I’ve been given. I feel better than ever, my body is better than ever and I’m better all-round: better in the gym and at home, living cleaner and healthier.”
Murray has reunited with nutritionist Kerry Kayes; he bounced straight into the gym after the win over Simpson and cooks for the fighters he is training to impress on them the benefits of clean living. The irony of this turnaround is not lost on him.
“Nutrition plays a big part of it,” he said. “I can’t believe I had the career I did living the way I did. I’d eat clean from Monday to Friday, but eating once a day or something, then weekend would come so I’d grab a curry or a kebab. The fight would come and I’d win easy or by knock out. I can’t understand how I did it, it was sheer hardness and bottle, which I’ve still got in the bank, but I’ve got another string to my bow now by living clean and eating right.
“I’ve found that I’ve got a lot more energy in training. I am making weight but am not starving. I am near the weight. I ate four times yesterday, had breakfast today and am still only a few pounds away—I could make the weight in an hour if I needed to. It’s made a huge, huge difference. I’m passing this on to the lads that I’m training.
“I can’t regret anything that’s happened, it’s helped make me who I am today. I like who I am. I like where I am up to. I can get to a world title with a win over Anthony on Saturday and am confident I can get there.”
Murray’s epic partying reached a number of peaks both at home and abroad before petering out. Now living with his partner, Jodie, and their baby daughter, the 33-2 (20) fighter isn’t burning the candle at every possible end these days.
“It ran its course,” he said. “I’ve been pro 11 years come September. I was a young man who didn’t want to miss out on being a youngster. All my mate’s were at uni’ and partying, so why wouldn’t I want to?
“People can say what they want, but I kept winning and had a youth as well. I won’t retire from boxing then go on a bender for three or four years like some fighters do because they feel they missed out on their youth. I’ve got it out my system. I’ve had a good life and am very happy. I am happy with every choice I’ve made because it’s put me where I am now.”
Murray had to lose everything to appreciate what he had. It quickly dawned on him that the next time he hit someone he could wind up in prison rather than Madison Square Garden. When the truth crowded in on him, he steadied himself before building a life beyond boxing. Recent events have been the icing on the cake.
“No, I’d lost everything as a boxer then,” he said when asked if he ever thought he’d fight again. “I am a thoughtful person, so I was thinking about my next move and where I’d go. In those two years out, I did a lot of thinking. I got into personal training then set up my own pro stable to pass on my knowledge, so I’m proud of myself because I didn’t have to come back to boxing. I was glad to get the all clear, but I was comfortable in life and am just glad for this second opportunity.
“I was boxing just for a living before. I used to think: ‘I just want to get this fight out of the way and go on the piss with my mates’. It was torture, but I’m just focused on boxing now. I’m loving boxing again. I go backstage and just enjoy being around. Things like this just used to be a ballache, but now I enjoy it all. I’m as hungry as I’ve ever been and want to take it all in.”
“It was a hard time in my life,” he said, his mind turning back to his days on the roads. “I sank all my world title money into a house. Then I lost the house as well when the girl I was with kicked me out off it and took it away from me when we split up. Then I failed my brain scan. It was a low, low point in my life—some people wouldn’t have recovered. I proved my strength. I picked myself up, dusted myself off, wiped my mouth and said: ‘No, get up’—if I win this I can put myself right back into contention for a world title.
“It would have been easy to throw in the towel. I wasn’t happy. I couldn’t let it stay as it was and just have had that (first) career. A lot of people slag me off. At the end of the day I was very successful and they don’t like it. They might think: ‘How can he be as successful as he is when he’s out on the piss?’ They didn’t like it and they don’t like me, but I don’t care—I’m a good fighter who is living cleaner and is happier than he was at any part of his career.
“I’m just looking out for me now. If you don’t like me you don’t like me. If you do you do. It doesn’t bother me. When I came back six-months ago, who thought I’d be here now? A good win against Anthony on Saturday puts me right back into contention.”
Crolla and Murray have worked one another’s corner in the past. Old habits die hard, let’s hope they don’t impart advice to each other during the clinches. Murray laughed then said: “I don’t think I’ll slip into: ‘Anthony, come on. Pick it up. Pick it up!’. Nah, I’ll just be focused.
“We’ve shared each other’s corners. We are close, good mates, but it will be different on the night. I’m a programmed machine when I go in there. Anthony’s my enemy and I’m confident of winning.”
Murray has cut a bullish figure throughout the build-up. The former WBC Youth, English, British and European lightweight champion hails from Ardwick. Anyone who has walked those streets knows that, from Ardwick to Ancoats, the people who live along them are suppose to be grist to the mill, support staff at best, but some of them refuse to bow down. They fight and sometimes destroy themselves in that fight, and will continue to do so. Two of the town’s best fighters will fight for your attention and entertainment on Saturday night, bashing away at each in the process before shaking on it.
Win, lose or draw, Murray will come out of the fight knowing who he is, where he is at and where he is going in life, and that he’s in a better place for this self-awareness. He has already weathered the biggest storm he could ever face—everything else will be smooth sailing in comparison.
On Saturday night, the challenger will go out and do what he loves to do, and he loves to fight. At one point he had lost that love, the recent perma-smile on his face suggests that it feels good to be back. Always an authentic type of a character, he is content in himself first and foremost, which means that he no longer cares about what other people think.
“I’m just answering the questions that I’m asked,” he declared, aware that the answers are not to everyone’s taste. “I just try to be the best I can be, and me at my best beats Anthony at his best.”