Danny Flexen hears how British champion Tyrone Nurse became the stylistic antithesis of his trainer dad.
CHRIS ASTON coulda been a contender, although he refuses to dwell on the possibility. It was only after years of receiving harsh responses that Aston, a former martial artist and late starter in traditional boxing, realised he had been asking entirely the wrong questions.
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Fit, tough and aggressive but lacking guile and mobility, Aston in the early 1990s was an analogue fighter as the sport entered the digital age; by the time he became a fully paid up member of the evolution, Chris’ career was over, bar a final few meagre paydays. His belated enlightenment appeared a tragic waste until the disciple turned evangelist and Aston started to spread the good word.
“Someone pulled my record up recently and said, ‘You got stopped here, stopped there,’” Aston recalls, in deep Yorkshire brogue, regarding a 5-16-2 ledger that features 10 inside-schedule defeats. “The truth is I never got knocked out and never got more than two days’ notice for a fight.
“I was in a gym where there were a lot of tricky, clever fighters; I couldn’t deal with them. I never thought they were tough people, I thought they were cowards! It weren’t until years later when I started losing a lot on cuts, I realised that if I didn’t start moving my head and moving my feet it wouldn’t stop. I just thought it were about being fit, tough, having it out with somebody; all the subtleties of boxing went over me head. By the time I was 40 and retired I were a really good fighter.”
Several apt students came under the tutelage of a reformed fistic luddite now extolling the virtues of nuance, but the most promising pupil could be found closer to home and, as such, became a captive audience. Both Aston and his son, Tyrone Nurse, insist the latter was never pushed into boxing, but he is certainly a product of his environment. Aston showed his boy rudimentary skills from the age of five, conducting unique pad sessions in their living room and garden, while the young, wide-eyed boy observed a conveyor belt of local talent passing through his childhood abode.
“Mark Hobson had been round one dinner time, and he said, ‘Oi soft c***, when you gonna start fighting?’ I said, ‘I’ll come tonight and chin you.’ I’d trained it in the garden, so I knew boxing to an extent so maybe it were just a case of seeing what it was like for real.” —Tyrone Nurse
Having also witnessed the tail end of his father’s career, did Nurse really have a choice but to enter the family business? “I just remember him coming home with the odd black eye,” Nurse tells me of the final stages of his dad’s career.
Tyrone’s speech is far more languid that that of Aston, who perennially seems one nagging thought away from embarking on a rant. Nurse is altogether more relaxed, a distinction reflected in their respective boxing styles.
“I remember sitting down and watching some of his fights but I didn’t really pay any attention. He used to put gloves and pads on, mess about, take me and my mates on them, so subconsciously I took it in but I didn’t see it as his job. I guess he were teaching me the fundamentals of boxing without me knowing, and before you know it we were having Royal Rumble spars in the garden.
“I never went to a proper amateur gym till I were 12, my dad had Parks Gym in Bradford, a couple of pros — James Hare, Dale Robinson — and I were 10 when I started going there. I spent a year training, then I got carded up out of Mexborough. From the first time I went into the gym, the atmosphere and everything got me. Dad never took me, it was me, I said, ‘I’ll come gym tonight with you, dad.’
“Mark Hobson had been round one dinner time, and he said, ‘Oi soft c***, when you gonna start fighting?’ I said, ‘I’ll come tonight and chin you.’ I’d trained it in the garden, so I knew boxing to an extent so maybe it were just a case of seeing what it was like for real.”
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Surrounded by the type of slick, evasive operators Aston favoured, with the zeal only a convert can muster, Nurse flourished. A child sparring men, Nurse grew with each beating and gradually came to hold his own while pocketing more cash than most school kids. Boxing ultimately consumed him, as it had his father.
“I were about 8st [112lbs], so Dale Robinson was probably my main sparring partner, when I were about 13,” Nurse explains matter-of-factly, as if all teenage boys pit their pugilistic wits against Commonwealth champions as part of the school curriculum.
“It was hard work with Dale, he put those left hooks in to the body a bit tasty like. Going to high school, I was sparring Carl Johanesson and getting a tenner a round for four rounds, Steve Foster Jnr for weeks when he fought Derry Mathews, Steve Bell, [Anthony] Crolla, I’ve been mixing with them lot for years, Amir Khan at 17, Shinny [Bayaar], Choi [Tseveenpureev], [Isaac] ‘Argie’ Ward, when I were 14 and had taken the day off school, he asked how many fights I’d had. I were getting paid to spar, bought me new trainers every week, and I made a couple quid selling single fags at school.”
Happy to encourage his peers in their lung-busting vice, Nurse himself maintained a clean lifestyle, physically at least. The tall Huddersfield lad knew where he wanted to go and who better to navigate the journey than his dad, already a mentor at home and a boxing man through and through? Critics may carp at the idea of a former ‘journeyman’ — as they will deem Aston, however unfairly — having much of substance to teach a reigning British champion aspiring to the next level.
“Me dad just liked a fight. He was always a rough, come-forward, give-it-his-all type. He didn’t learn any of the cute stuff, the fundamentals. As a kid being brought up in Britain, most watch Ricky Hatton, but me dad put on videos of Roy Jones, Sugar Ray Leonard, they were who I was brought up watching. We worked a lot on head movement, always slipping, stepping off, ‘Move your head after this.’ He had James Hare who was quite slick himself and a lot of that influenced me as well.” —Tyrone Nurse
Paradoxically, it is precisely Aston’s own failings that have informed his philosophy as a trainer and accelerated the ascent of his son, from small halls and the ‘opponent’s’ dressing room to the British super-lightweight strap and a statement deal with new behemoth on the boxing block, BT Sport.
“Me dad just liked a fight,” Nurse outlines. “He was always a rough, come-forward, give-it-his-all type. He didn’t learn any of the cute stuff, the fundamentals. As a kid being brought up in Britain, most watch Ricky Hatton, but me dad put on videos of Roy Jones, Sugar Ray Leonard, they were who I was brought up watching. We worked a lot on head movement, always slipping, stepping off, ‘Move your head after this.’ He had James Hare who was quite slick himself and a lot of that influenced me as well. The shoulder roll stuff I picked up myself but the other evasive things were drilled into me from a young age. I actually did some training with Hatton years later and he emphasised head movement and slipping. Just like me dad, he were learning from his mistakes.”
These days, Nurse is a father himself, to 14-month-old Penelope and a new arrival, due in July. Cliched as it may sound, fatherhood has altered his outlook and the future looms large and increasingly important. Nurse was once keen to secure a Lonsdale Belt before moving on to test himself against the elite, but the idiosyncrasies of modern boxing have conspired against him. Touted contenders Ohara Davies and Jack Catterall, both of whom possess fringe belts — in some cases a safer and more lucrative route to glory — have withdrawn from nominations to challenge Nurse who, the rules decree, must have a mandatory defence on his resume’ if he is to keep that coveted belt permanently.If the 27-year-old retains against Joe Hughes on April 22 in Leicester, he will have the title win and three successful defences that form the other part of that equation. Having captured the vacant championship against Chris Jenkins — the mandated opponent for abdicating king Willie Limond — at the second time of asking, following a draw, Nurse will consider himself exceedingly unlucky if he fails to leave the sport with that revered trophy.
“Quite a few online have said, ‘It’s a bit unfair, they should just let him have it’,” Nurse points out, more bemused than genuinely irritated. “How many other champions had two mandatory challengers pull out back to back? There are fighters out there who’d take it. Davies said there are fights out there for bigger money. If that’s why you wanna box, fine, but I wanna win belts and leave a legacy. I’ve got to the point now where I’m bored of waiting, I’m ready to f*** it off. It’s not like I’ve got loads of miles on the clock, I’m 27, I live the life, so I can always come back and add the notches I need.”
Having recently signed with Frank Warren and, by proxy, BT Sport, Nurse can now relinquish the British title with realistic hope of rapid progression. His last five contests have been on shows promoted by current market leader, Matchroom, bossed by the ubiquitous Eddie Hearn, but the Essex-based army surprisingly retreated from the battle for Tyrone’s services.
“A lot of people thought I were signed with Eddie but I never was; I was getting stick left, right and centre online: ‘Why did u do that?’” Nurse says of signing with Warren, a veteran with an indefatigable flair for reinvention, boxing’s Bowie or Madonna.
“Everything was right with the offer, the amount of fights a year, the money and the plans he had. I spoke to the ITV lot around the same sort of time, and I think dad went back to Matchroom; Eddie weren’t interested. He had quite a monopoly on boxing before, Warren had Boxnation but it’s not a channel everyone knows; BT has changed everything.”
“He possibly thinks he knows a little better than me sometimes. But there’s a time when you have to have it out, decide who’s the boss, somebody has to make decisions.” —Chris Aston
One thing the global giant has not affected is the fighter’s trademark humility and his close, albeit occasionally fiery relationship with his dad. If Nurse makes it all the way to the summit he’ll owe an even larger debt of gratitude to the straightforward ex-pro with the losing record who has shrewdly moulded Tyrone into his antithesis.
“I’ve always been close to my kids,” Aston reflects, and his sincere warmth feels a little incongruous from this belligerent, hardened man. “Because I boxed I worked part-time so I took them out every day, played with ‘em, Tyrone used to come jogging with me. I spend as much time with him now as I did then. We probably train together seven-eight times a week.
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“We’ve argued a few times, obviously my career and his career, there’s an understanding that he is a better fighter, but he also understands I coulda been a lot better than I were. He possibly thinks he knows a little better than me sometimes. But there’s a time when you have to have it out, decide who’s the boss, somebody has to make decisions.”
Aston is that somebody and, for a smart man who cracked the code only once his own mission had ended, Nurse represents his shot at redemption. Chris coulda, woulda, shoulda been a contender but Nurse can yet be a champion and that means everything to the man in his corner.