‘Old school’ Gavin Gwynne gives up work to focus fully on boxing

‘Old school’ Gavin Gwynne gives up work to focus fully on boxing

By Dewi Powell: A year ago, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic crippled the Welsh boxing calendar and there has been little reason to smile since. 11 Welsh professionals have fought but context is key – only three of them have occupied the home corner and the majority have faced uphill battles.

That’s why Gavin Gwynne’s (13-2, 3KO) seventh round stoppage of Sean McComb (11-1, 5KO) was so celebrated in February. After a year of relative nothingness, the only shame for Welsh boxing was that the celebrations were confined to virtual forums during another lockdown. Gwynne’s crowning moments as Commonwealth lightweight champion were a welcome metaphor for never giving up on yourself, even amidst challenging circumstances.

“The way I fight, I was never going to go unbeaten in my pro career,” conceded Gwynne, whose two previous tilts for major domestic honours ended in defeat to Joe Cordina [UD12] and James Tennyson [TKO6] on high profile Matchroom events. “I’ve learnt from them losses. I had two big fights and two losses. I knew something had to change because I wasn’t going to get to that level if I kept on doing the same things. I’m always willing to learn.

“It’s a big thing now, everyone wants to be unbeaten. It’s not going to happen. You’ve got to be really special to go unbeaten. Look at the likes of [stablemate] Lee Selby. He had a loss on his record and he still became world champion. It’s not a defining thing, losing. You’ve just got to learn from your mistakes.”

Gavin Gwynne Tony BorgThe key theme from the British title disappointments was that Gwynne refused to get disheartened, instead he chose to focus on what he could take away from the experiences. That hunger to learn, along with other raw ingredients, was first honed by Richie Bebb at Trelewis Boxing Club. Their time together was completed by a call up to the national amateur squad and a senior Welsh title. The hunger was then harnessed by Tony Borg when Gwynne turned professional and he crammed even more into a short space of time, capturing another Welsh title with a gruelling decision win against the game veteran Henry Janes.

“I’m only going to get better. These boys who are boxing at the [domestic title] level, they’ve been boxing since they were 10 or 11 [years-old]. I’ve only been boxing nine years,” said 30-year-old Gwynne, who recognises he was an unusually late starter and he remains determined to catch up. “I was willing to take fights that other fighters weren’t. I stepped up straight away. In my sixth [correction: eighth] fight, I fought Henry Janes. It was a tough fight to take at the time. It was a great learning fight for me and it was a close fight. If I didn’t have that fight there and then, I would’ve carried on doing what I was doing, fighting journeymen and going nowhere.

“I’m going to continue to get better until I’m 35 and retire. I think I’m improving all the time in the gym. Tony [Borg] always says it to me in the gym, I always want to learn. I enjoy it. It’s a passion of mine.”

Gwynne was 15 when he left full-time education at Lewis School Pengam and he began boxing a few years later. Whilst his enthusiasm for fighting grew, punishing routines saw him sandwich training sessions either side of daily shifts on building sites across South Wales. Soon, his dedication to meet an ever-demanding schedule progressed alongside his amateur and professional careers. It afforded little space for rest or recovery. Instead, it required all of the willpower Gwynne could muster. When the time came to fight for titles, the self-employed tradesman backed himself with his own savings to become a full-time fighter. Local sponsors also came on board to help him extend the spells he spent solely in the gym or on the road.

As soon as fights finished, Gwynne would be back on the tools. There was no red carpet rolled out after his title wins, either. Yes, he’d be told “well done” and his peers were visibly proud of him but he’d be brought back to earth when colleagues quickly followed it up with directives to “get the job done ready for concreting.”

Friday, however, was the last time Gwynne expects to lace up his steel toe-capped boots for the foreseeable future. He’s made the decision to put his carpentry career on hold so he can prioritise boxing and maximise his potential. It’s likely the presence of his big personality will be missed on site but the 6/1 odds on offer before the McComb upset means there can’t be too many complaints amongst his colleagues – especially his dad Martin, who pocketed over £4,000 from bookmakers.

“Me and my fiancé [Louise] have come to a decision. I’ve only got a couple of years left in boxing, say five years. We’ve come to the decision that I’m going to be giving up work,” said Gwynne, who has also recently invested in himself by deciding to pay for a specialist strength coach, nutrition experts and a physical therapist to maintain his mobility.

“I’m going to be full time. That’s me done [working] until I’ve done what I want to do in boxing. I think it’s the right time to give up and focus on my career, give it 110%. It showed in the last fight, I had 15 weeks off work and being full time showed in the fight. Before, I would’ve had six or seven weeks off and that showed in my two last championship fights [the losses to Cordina and Tennyson].

“I’m putting shutters in, I’m putting concrete down. The other day, I think I did 20,000 steps by 2pm. I’m on the go constantly. It’s not an easy job. Obviously, we want to earn money, so the more work you do the more money you earn. I’m the type of guy, I won’t stop until I do what I need to do.”

Gavin GwynneMcComb was the latest person to find out just how much Gwynne will persist. As soon as the first bell sounded to start their fight, the Welshman literally ran on to the front foot. The method – which can be easily overlooked amidst the madness – was that McComb was an international amateur and more comfortable with a long range, slower paced fight. Despite standing at six foot, Gwynne is deceptively effective up close. Coupled with the insurance of a sturdy chin, he felt equipped with enough tools to pursue a dogfight.

The skills it takes to come through roughhouse fights aren’t usually pleasing on the eye, usually because they feature a constant series of even exchanges. Whatever the perception of Gwynne’s approach, it undeniably worked from the off. McComb was cut over his left eye in the first round, hurt with a body shot at the close of the second round, bleeding from the nose in the third round and cut over his other eye in the fourth round. It goes without saying that the southpaw – the first Gwynne had faced as a professional – had his own moments but Gwynne’s corner had a lot of reasons to be content with the flow of the fight.

“The plan was to cut him up in the first round. Tony [Borg] said to me, ‘we’ve got to cut him so they’re working on negatives in the corner, they’re concentrating on a cut or a bleeding nose or something like that.’ It went to plan. I couldn’t have done anything better in that fight because everything went to plan,” said Gwynne, evidently still satisfied with the first phase of the fight.

“If I didn’t hold on, he’d have been spinning off and turning with angles. I was trying to be sneaky and he [the referee] did notice a couple of times. I was holding his hand inside and bringing the uppercuts in, those little cuffing shots to cut his eyes and get him all marked up. They were just old pros tricks, really. It’s what I’ve learned from my harder fights.

“The first couple of rounds, the plan was to tap him, not put everything into the shots so he didn’t mind getting hit with them and stay in the pocket, stay close to me. Then in the later rounds, I put more meat on them and he’s tired, he can’t get away.”

It was Gwynne’s turn to bleed in the fifth round when he suffered one of the weirdest cuts seen for some time. Ducking under McComb’s counter, the back of his head accidentally collided with an elbow. A day later, lightning struck twice as Josh Kelly suffered a similar injury in his European title challenge against David Avanesyan. It opened a river of claret that gushed down Gwynne’s back. The grey shorts were soon turning the same colour as his red gloves and boots. A narrative had developed with the EPSN+ commentary team that it was a tussle between Gwynne’s quantity and McComb’s quality as the fight descended into a blood bath. Concerns were briefly aired in his corner, too.

“The cut was tiny but the blood that come out was mad. I was covered in it,” chuckled Gwynne, who initially thought it was caused by a rabbit punch. “In the corner, Chris [Sanigar – manager/cutsman] was worried because I was losing a lot of blood. He thought it might affect my performance, I might have started to feel a bit drained because of the pace I set.

“I heard someone, I think it was Derry Mathews [in McComb’s corner]… I could hear a voice go, ‘he’s feeling the pace now’ and I shouted ‘I don’t get tired’ back at him. I didn’t even start opening up until the end of the sixth round. I think I hurt him right at the end of the sixth round and I thought he was going to go down. In the corner, Tony [Borg] just said, ‘put it on him, there’s nothing left in him.’ And I got the job done.”

Gavin GwynneThe conclusion, when it came, was a curious incident. Sensing a shift in resilience, Borg banged the canvas and audibly commanded Gwynne to turn the screw. Seconds later, the boxer was just as vocal himself and he clubbed his chest to invite McComb to unload. It was a menacing gesture and the Irishman had no option but to oblige. McComb desperately whipped in a pair of body shots, only to see them bounce off Gwynne’s guard.

The last stand had misfired and McComb, now drained of hope, was bent over in a prone position. Gwynne dispensed a six-punch combination, mainly hooks and uppercuts, and it was enough to unearth McComb’s breaking point. Bloodied and tired from the most intense inspection of his three-year career, a wilting McComb turned away and walked to his corner. The submission was cemented when McComb briefly waved to the referee to signal the end. Gwynne, who reacted by bundling into the back of McComb and pushing him through the ropes, then recoiled in celebration.

“He knew his punches weren’t having any affect and he was getting tired. I think he did quit,” said Gwynne, using the dirtiest word in boxing to describe the surrender. “That was down to me being ruthless. I wasn’t going to let anyone beat me. Someone else could’ve come in the ring and helped him out but it would’ve still been the same outcome. I’d have beat them both up.”

Gwynne, upon the referee’s final intervention, ran to a neutral corner and leaped on to the ropes to release an avalanche of emotion. The shouts of celebration were returned from the onlooking balcony. Akeem Ennis Brown, the British and Commonwealth champion at super-lightweight, was joyous for his occasional sparring partner. Gwynne vented pent up frustration from a four-month training camp. Earlier dates in January and February had been scrapped due to COVID-19 and he feared he was destined to miss out on the opportunity.

The second cancellation – which had been set for Dubai until international travel restrictions were imposed – almost broke Gwynne’s spirit. He admitting to crying in a corner of St Joseph’s Boxing Club in Newport and it took Borg’s intervention to rationalise the situation. It was just a matter of time, Borg reassured, and he was right. The eventual moment had been a long-time coming and it was worth every second of waiting.

“You need a level of dedication to stick with it,” said Gwynne. “I was putting my body through everything and I mean everything. I was coming home and going straight to bed because I didn’t have anything left after giving it everything in training.

“What a feeling to win that belt. I’ve finally won a major title. All the years of hard sacrifice, blood, guts and tears… it was mad. I can’t explain the feeling. It was like taking drugs.”

The scrutiny of McComb’s decision to submit was just as intense as Gwynne’s pressure in the ring. The result was barely an hour old when social media posts emerged that showed McComb had strongly condemned other boxers who decided enough was enough in the middle of a fight. In the coming days, McComb offered a cluster of confusing – and some contradictory – explanations. One of those was that he’d chosen to fight Gwynne’s type of fight. The truth was that he’d been given little choice in the matter and the attempts to undermine Gwynne’s win weren’t very convincing.

“That’s just him feeling sorry for himself,” shrugged Gwynne without a trace of sympathy. “I don’t know if that makes him feel better. He can say what he wants because I’m the one with the belt and that’s all that matters to me.

“We’re in a dangerous sport and I’m willing to go out on my shield in there. Tony [Borg] knows I’ll never give up in there. You’ve seen me against Tennyson. He was hitting lumps out of me and the referee [had to] call it off in the end. I’ll never go down and just give up. He’s in the wrong sport if that’s going through his mind.”

It’s only recently dawned on Gwynne that he can, in his own way, follow in the footsteps of his local heroes, the likes of; Jimmy Wilde, Eddie Thomas, Howard Winstone, Johnny Owen and Kerry Hope. The win over McComb has been a source of pride for Gwynne’s community and he’s beyond proud to have placed the Merthyr Tydfil borough back on the boxing map.

Gavin Gwynne“I’m going to be getting more belts and putting Merthyr right back on the map,” said Gwynne. “’I’ve won a major title. Howard Winstone, I look up to guys like that and my name is going to be down in history with them. It’s a great feeling. When I first started boxing, I never thought in my wildest dreams I’d be mentioned in the same sentence as them.”

In between leaving the changing room at the Bolton Whites Hotel and returning with the Commonwealth strap, the amount of notifications on Gwynne’s phone had completely drained its battery. Nobody was happier than his son, four-year-old Arlo, who now greets visitors to the family home with his new belt.

MTK Global, who promoted the fight against McComb, retained an option on Gwynne. It means he’s guaranteed his third fight during the pandemic, a valuable luxury given the scarcity of boxing shows at the moment. The Dubai-based outfit also promote Maxi Hughes, the half-Welsh Yorkshireman who captured the British title last week. The pair have shared similar paths, both paying their dues in the away corner against solid opposition, and a meeting between them is a natural matchup. It’s likely Gwynne will stay busy beforehand, but he’s available for a unification of the main domestic honours if it’s formally put on the table.

“I really rate Maxi Hughes. Fair play [to him], he’s had a couple of wins on the road and he’s one of them guys who stays ready and takes his chances. There’s a respect [between us] because he never gave up.

“I wouldn’t say no to any fight. I’m an old school fighter and I’ll fight any man. It doesn’t matter who you are. I don’t care about my record, I just want to fight. I’d rather be busy and fight for titles than just be in the gym bored.”

Images by Gavin Gwynne and MTK Global.

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