After winding through the Lancashire country roads on a wet and glum Thursday morning, far too many Paracetamol than is good for my liver rumbling around inside me thanks to a dreadful toothache, I eventually pulled into a pebbled, pot-holed road at a nondescript industrial estate in Chorley, about to meet one of the North West’s most down to earth, likable and well supported boxers.
As a fighter, Michael “The Lurcher” Jennings had been something of a staple among the thriving North West British boxing scene of the noughties, training out of the fabled Collyhurst & Moston Gym under legendary Manchester fight trainer Brian Hughes, winning both the English and the coveted British welterweight titles in 2005, and challenging future Hall of Famer and current WBC middleweight champion Miguel Cotto at the legendary “Mecca of Boxing,” Madison Square Garden in 2009.
After being stopped on a cut 18 months later to a then up and coming (and current IBF 147 lb world champ) Kell Brook, the plan for Jennings was always to box on, however a recurring shoulder injury which would later require surgery eventually put paid to those plans, and the Preston born fighter was forced to focus instead on family and his growing security business – that incidentally helped provide the security for his friend Ricky Hatton’s ill fated November 2012 comeback against Vyeschlav Senchenko.
However, fate often has a way of setting us on unexpected paths, and as Jennings began to accept he would have to settle in to life away from boxing, it was mere happenstance that pulled him back in to the game he loves and had given so much of himself to over the years.
A call to help his brother Dave and some friends with their training soon snowballed into something bigger, and after they initially opened the gym as a non-profit organisation to help get local kids off the street, things have begun to really take off.
The two have already established a small stable of professional fighters, including Blackpool’s English cruiserweight champion Matty Askin, middleweight prospect Jack Arnfield and the seasoned Manchester middleweight Matthew Hall.
Alongside housing a thriving amateur set-up that is attracting interest from boys county wide, Jennings Gym is really starting to put itself on the map, with 31 lads now carded and boxing from the club, with high hopes and a focus on investing in them for the future.
I popped down for a chat amidst a busy morning session in the gym to talk with the Jennings brothers about their fighters and the current set-up, and with my toothache now thankfully beginning to subside, it was clear I had walked into a gym buzzing with the anticipation of future success.
Hello lads, thanks very much for having us down.
Mike J: “No problem, mate. Thanks for coming.”
Looking around I see a few faces!
MJ: Yeah, we’ve got Matty Askin, Blackpool, we’ve got Jack (Arnfield), Blackpool, Matthew Hall, Manchester and Robin (Deakin) over there! He’s Essex!
(NB: A separate interview with “Rockin’ Robin Deakin will follow this feature next week.)
A few things to talk about then! I guess we’d better get started on just how this all came about. As far as you’re concerned Mike, after the (2010) Kell Brook fight, your intention was to box on?
MJ: “Yeah, I had no plans to go into training at the time. (After Brook) I wanted to box on and I was training at Joe Gallagher’s, I did a stint up there, but my shoulder just wouldn’t hold up. It’d be alright for the first couple of weeks of training and then it got worse and worse and you can’t fight like that.
“I’m one of them who has to be 100%. My mind has to be 100%. I’d always trained hard but it was this one niggling thing with my shoulder and (it got to where) I couldn’t spar, anything, and I knew that I had to call it a day.”
So how did it come about? As you said, you had no plans to be a trainer?
MJ: “No, not at all. I had no plans. To be honest with you it was our Dave who were (amateur) boxing, and a couple of his mates were boxing, so they just asked me if I could come down and hold the clock, do a bit of timing for them and it kind of ended up being me (the one) training.”
So it snowballed from there then? Starting with the amateurs?
MJ: It did yeah, it were us just wanting to do something for the community and the local kids really, get them off the street and such so they’re not out causing trouble. We (now) train the amateurs at night, we’re really busy with the amateurs. We’ve got 31 kids carded up on the amateur side and considering we’ve only been going 2 years, this is our third season, we’re getting kids from all over the county, it’s not just Chorley.”
That’s some rapid progress really.
Dave J: “Yeah, it is and we’re really pleased with how it’s all going. As he said, we actually don’t get too many from Chorley but we’ve had kids from Manchester, Blackpool and we do get kids from Preston too.”
How is it getting sparring for the lads up here then?
MJ: “It’s pretty good actually. We do different bits here and there and we do a lot with Everton Red Triangle (gym) as well. We go up there a lot, they come down here a lot and they’re some proper top lads there.”
DJ: “Yeah, they’re doing a lot of what we want to do. They bring these kids up through the amateur system and see them on through, and I’d say that’s what our long term goal is really.”
MJ: “Definitely. The plan is to get them when they’re young kids and bring them right through, hopefully turn pro and then go on to do well in the professional ranks. It’s working on the fundamentals when they’re young too. You look at successful gyms, especially in the amateurs – a lot of the lads all box the same way….
DJ: – “Yeah, it stands out a mile don’t it? (They have) a good defence, that’s what we want to work on (for our kids)….
MJ: – “(They) get them throwing a good jab, throwing combinations and moving their heads, get them doing things right from a young age. That’s what we are trying to do too, gradually get them doing things right and developing our own style, really. That’s important to us. Doing it from the ground up.”
Obviously developing and retaining links in boxing is crucial isn’t it, especially for your lads now and in the future?
MJ: “Exactly, yeah. There aren’t any gyms we can’t work with really. I mean I never really fell out with anyone with when I was a professional. If anything when I was professional I was a good networker, always taking numbers down because you never know when you might need someone. I built a good (security) business too through it, through knowing people through boxing really. It’s done a lot for me, boxing.”
DJ: “Yeah, and it’s not just about the actual boxing. It’s about learning from the other side of things too. It’s about getting yourself ahead.”
Amateur or Professional, I guess it’s about trying to pass some of your experience of the “business of boxing” down to these lads?
MJ: “The good and bad things about boxing. With management and all that I was pretty unlucky in some ways with some of the things I went through. I mean I got lucky in others, but it’s only really through hard work that I did what I did, and that’s what I’d like to pass down to the lads most. You have to work hard.”
Let’s talk about the pro’s and Matty Askin (18-3, 11ko). He was your first fighter and you’ve been with him a little while now. Do you feel he’s steadily improving?
MJ: “I do, definitely. I’m not just saying it but technically I think he’s improved lot. He’s athletic, he’s got speed, he’s got power and he’s got a good boxing brain. It’s inactivity with Matty, what he really needs is to do is get that ball rolling. Once he does get that ball rolling, I’m telling you now, I honestly believe he’s going places. He needs them rounds more than anything, get that ring rust off. He has to stay busy, get that ring experience.”
DJ: Matty would get back in every two weeks if he could and he’d box as often as he were allowed to, but sadly it doesn’t always work like that.”
I felt he was a wee bit unlucky in March’s Ovil McKenzie fight, challenging for the British title…
MJ: “Well, a couple of the commentators had Matty up but especially with the point deductions (2 for Askin, 1 for McKenzie), he just didn’t do enough, and you have to remember Ovil McKenzie’s the champion, it was in his hometown sort of thing – you have to go down there and rip it off him.”
DJ: “He started really well and he boxed well, but we’re not one’s to dress it up as something it weren’t – but it’s another learning curve for him. He’s had a win since and the ball is starting to roll now.”
MJ: “He had the win just last week (TKO 2 v Tamas Bajzath) and that kid had done 8 rounds with (heavyweight) Gary Cornish, who’s boxing Anthony Joshua. I mean I’m not saying anything like that, and I think Joshua wins that fight if you know what I mean, but Matty destroyed him. I honestly think that when it clicks with Matty, he’ll be a big name in the division.
He’s got a fight for October 17th defending his English title against Lawrence Bennett at the York Hall. What are your thoughts?
MJ: “I’ve had a look at him (Bennett). Listen Matty should beat him, he should easily beat him, but he’s just got to get it right on the night. We’ll work on the right things in the gym and the result will come.”
What do you want for him after that fight?
MJ: “We want him to win that Bennett fight and get that defense under his belt, then I’d rather he just did an 8 rounder in say November to keep busy. After that I’d like him boxing 4-5 months later, looking towards getting another title next year, because believe me, he can do it.”
Let’s talk about (middleweight) Jack Arnfield (18-1, 4ko). Fans last saw him in Prizefighter back in February on the Brian Rose/Carson Jones 1 bill. He was beaten in the 2nd fight that night (SD) by Cello Renda, correct?
MJ: That’s right. I thought he won it to be honest with you. Even more so when I watched it again the other day. Yeah, it was a close fight but I did think he’d nicked it. Like Matty (Askin), Jack’s had problems with inactivity and injury in his career. We’re arranging some sparring for him as we speak, with some decent lads too.
This is your first fight with him isn’t it? How did it come about that he came to your gym?
DJ: It was as simple as he fancied a change I think, and he gave our kid a call and asked if he could come down and train. My brother said yes and it’s gone from there. He’s got the right attitude and that’s important.
So what’s next for him?
MJ: He’s boxing on October 3rd against (Preston’s) Mick Hall (12-1, 1ko), who he beat in the last Prizefighter. There’s a bit of needle there between the two of them, which makes it better, a bit more exciting and a bit more interesting. I’m confident he’s going to beat him again.
Matthew Hall (26-7, 16ko). A former Commonwealth champion at 154 lbs.He certainly knows the game and recently had a win after two years out following his loss to Billy Joe Saunders. It must be very beneficial to some of the younger lads in the gym, having someone with his experience around?
DJ: Without a doubt. Matty is an old friend of our kid back from when they were at the Collyhurst and Moston gym together, and don’t forget he’s still only 31!
So how he did he get involved in the setup?
DJ: It was again as simple as him giving my brother a call and asking if he could come down for a session. He’d made the decision he still had more left to give and we believe he does. Him and our kid share a similar work ethic and when he came down he liked what he saw and he stayed!
What would you like for him in the next 12 months?
DJ: We really believe he’s got enough to go on and win the British (160lb) title. He had a good win after a long lay off against a tough and durable journeyman (Dan Blackwell) and we were made up with the improvements we saw in him.
MJ: His defence was brilliant that night and that’s one of the main things he’d been working on since he came to us. We go back a long way me and Matty and there’s a lot of mutual respect there and we’re pleased to have him here with us. He’s still got more left without a doubt.
Finally, you trained under respected Manchester trainer Brian Hughes for a long time – a man with a long association to the sport. You also briefly saw Joe Gallagher up close – the next generation of British trainer if you will. What have you learned from guys like Brian and Joe that you try and apply to your own game as a trainer?
MJ: “I learned so much from Brian especially, I was with him twelve years. If anything it was how he explained things to his fighters, got things across and that’s what I try to do. Break it down, take something down to pieces and then build it back up.
“It’s important to teach things so anyone can grasp it – that’s the key to being a good trainer, it’s if you get things across to people. You have to get people to understand the basics and then they can build on it. Without that, there’s nothing you can do. You can’t then progress to the technical stuff.”
DJ: It’s drilling it in too and getting them to understand it over and over.
MJ: It’s exactly what our Dave just said, and that’s something Brian made us do – practice, practice, practice, over and over until it becomes natural. We’re ready to the put the work in and we are looking forward to expanding and building a thriving and successful gym – for everybody we train, amateur or pro.
You can follow me on Twitter @Undilutedpoison
You can also follow Jennings Gym: @jenningsgym