Richie Woodhall looks back on his career and the excruciating realisation that it was over
Richie Woodhall was speaking to Elliot Worsell
“WINNING the world title was, without doubt, the best night of my career. I’d just been beaten by Keith Holmes, had an operation on my arm that threatened to end my career, came back against Bernice Barber, and had to change my style because I could no longer throw the straight right hand like I used to. The elbow operation put a stop to that, so now I had to kind of throw it more in a hook motion.
It was frustrating because the old one-two was my best weapon and now I was unable to throw the straight right; a go-to punch for me. If I threw the right as a bent-arm punch – a hook – I felt no pain, but as soon as it went straight, I’d feel a shooting pain go through my elbow. To throw this new right hand I had to adjust my style in order to get inside and up close. Normally I’d throw the straight right from long distance and use my height and reach to make sure it landed. But now I had to operate that bit closer to my opponent to cater for this hook.
My dad was probably one of the biggest keys to my success. He said, “This (Thulani) Malinga is tailor-made for you, son,” and I said, “Well, I’m going to have to go to him, Dad.” I then watched my dad shake his head. He goes, “Oh, no you’re not. Don’t have that in your head. Trust me, he won’t have any respect for you. You’re coming up from middleweight and you’re unproven at this new weight. You watch. Malinga will come at you.” I couldn’t believe it. I went, “Are you joking? He’s not going to come after me, Dad! He doesn’t fight like that.” My dad stuck to his guns, though. He said, “I’m telling you now, Malinga will take the fight to you because he doesn’t have any respect for you.”
It was like he had a crystal ball really. Malinga did come forward and he did walk on to my jab and right hook all night. Other than that, it’s the crowd I remember more than anything. They were so loud; I’d heard nothing like it before. I think we fought on a Friday night because I was watching an episode of Coronation Street just before the fight – I used to love Corrie – and my mate rung me and said, “Are you here yet?” I said, “Nah, I’m lying on my settee watching Corrie.” He goes, “Well, the queue to the Ice Rink is so long it’s gone right down to the car park. They’re nearly in the tennis and racket centre.” I wasn’t fussed at all.
I said, “Okay, well I’ll be there once Corrie finishes.” He laughed his head off and then put the phone down. It was a very surreal moment just before my world title fight, but that’s what I was like that night. I took everything in my stride and was confident. When I eventually got there, the noise from the arena could be heard outside. It was mad.
After the fight I couldn’t pee for hours so the drug-test guy came back to our house and didn’t leave until about two o’clock in the morning. Everybody is still around and buzzing at this point, and I remember taking my two dogs for a walk, on my own, until about half past three. We went through these woods and, at times, I had no idea where we were going. They talk about the calm before the storm, but this was the calm after the storm. It was a really strange experience; I just went over the fight in my head and tried to let it all sink in a little.
Most fighters will tell you that after a 12-rounder you don’t really sleep all that well. It’s not easy getting to bed despite the fact you’re tired. So much has happened and the adrenaline is still wearing off. But walking through those woods was magical to me. It was all I wanted to do. I didn’t want to drink; I didn’t want to party. The silence was beautiful. I just let the dogs take me wherever they wanted to go that night. I had all the time in the world. It was pitch black, silent, and it was bloody great.
Looking back, though, winning the world title ended up being an anti-climax. I remember coming home, sitting down with my missus – she never went to the boxing – and she goes, “Do you want a cup of tea?” I replied, “Yes, please.” I used to love a nice cup of tea after a fight. No other drink, just a nice cup of tea. Anyway, after she brought me the tea, and we sat back down and watched a bit of telly, I said to her, “What am I going to win now?”
After you become a WBC champion, everything pales in comparison. That was the title my boxing heroes Muhammad Ali and Marvin Hagler had won and, I tell you what, a part of me flipping died that night. It was the beginning of my title reign but it was also the beginning of the end as far as my career was concerned. I was never the same after that night. The drive and intensity disappeared from me there and then and it never, ever came back. Now I knew what they meant when they said it was hard getting to the top and even harder staying there.
That’s why I really admire guys like Joe Calzaghe and Carl Froch because they were able to go to the well time and time again and carry that same drive and intensity into each and every fight. After the Malinga fight, I wasn’t able to do that. I was mentally strong when I was boxing and when I was training – I could out-train anybody, I didn’t care who they were – but once my lifetime ambition of becoming a world champion had been completed, I wasn’t the same man anymore.
It was never about money for me. If Frank Warren had come to me and said, “Look, Richie, I’ve got you a title shot against ‘Sugar Boy’ Malinga but the only problem is I can’t pay you a penny,” I’d have given him a big hug and replied, “Frank, that’s fantastic. Thank you.”
I would have taken the fight just because it was for the championship of the world. My missus, though, put me right. Once I asked her what I was going to go for after winning the title and she said, “Well, you’ve got to do it for the kids now.” That was the reality check for me.
But you’ve got to remember, I’d been boxing since the age of seven, had my first fight at 11, had 110 amateur fights, went to the Olympics, did plenty of squad training, and all the rest. I hadn’t stopped. Now I was at the stage in my life and my career where I was 31 or 32 and it wasn’t easy anymore. I had fallen in and out of love with boxing and it was becoming more of a chore to get up in the morning, go running, and then go the gym. I started thinking more about what I was going to do at the end of my career. Negative thoughts entered my head. And you know then that the clock is ticking. You know then that you’re on borrowed time as a world champion. So I was very much prepared to lose my title.
A year after losing my title against Markus Beyer in Germany, Frank Warren, out of the blue, comes up with the idea of me fighting Joe Calzaghe, who was and still is a big mate of mine. I went, “Yeah, let’s do it,” knowing full well it was a massive task, both physically and mentally. It does annoy me, however, when people ask, “Did you really think you were going to win against Calzaghe?” I usually look them straight in the eye and say, “Oh, yes, I totally believed it.”
Back then I had every reason to believe I could beat Joe. It was only his seventh defence against me and I wasn’t a bad fighter myself. I’d been a world champion; I’d done things as an amateur. I had every right to be confident.
For large parts of the fight, too, I was making it competitive. In fact, we had a chat after the fight and Joe said, “Oh, I was so frustrated. I just couldn’t get to you.”
I was a bit disappointed after the fight and it did feel like an opportunity missed. I thought, “Someone will get that right one day and beat Calzaghe.” I exposed little chinks in the armour that could have been opened up properly by a better fighter than me; maybe someone who punched a bit harder. Then again, without blowing my trumpet, there aren’t many of those fighters about. It’s tough to find someone who had the skills I had, and the dimensions I had, who could also punch really, really hard. Joe certainly didn’t come up against anyone like that during the rest of his career.
What I admire most about Joe is that he worked out and handled every style that was put up against him. No matter what anyone says or thinks about Calzaghe, he figured out every style he faced. You have to be a hell of a fighter to do that.
I remember, once the Calzaghe fight was over, my dad in the changing room looked into my eyes, put both his hands on my hands, which were rested on my legs, and said, “It’s over. You’re finished.” I just nodded my head and said, “Yeah, Dad, you’re right. You’re right.”
My dad later explained that he didn’t see the fight in me that night against Calzaghe. He detected there was something missing and I understood what he meant. I really did. Once again, he was spot on. Mentally, more than physically, I’d come to the end.
I didn’t argue and didn’t even think to myself, Well, let’s take a few days to let it settle and think it through. Once my dad said what he said, I was done. My brother was within earshot at the time and I remember him boll**king my dad a little bit. He said, “Hey, don’t say that. Let the dust settle and see what he thinks.” In a way, he was right, it was very immediate, but the writing was on the wall regardless.
Fairly soon after the Calzaghe fight, I had a meeting with Frank Warren and he said to me, “I’ve got you a WBU title shot against Toks Owoh,” which didn’t impress me much. I didn’t like the idea of fighting for the WBU title. I’d have rather he said, “I’ve got you a British title shot.” Still, I told him I’d go ahead with it and started preparing to fight Toks Owoh. Quickly, though, I didn’t feel right. I’d always had niggling back pain – for the five or six fights before Calzaghe even – but it usually meant I just had to do a few more stretches after sessions. I battled through; it was never a big deal. I remember the pain became greater while training for the Calzaghe fight, though. I could still handle it – I just got on with the training – but I was more aware of it. It was more noticeable. After agreeing to fight Owoh, I felt the pain in my back during only my second run in my training programme. I was about four miles away from home, halfway through an eight-mile run, and the pain in my back got so bad it was the first time in my life I had ever stopped on a run. I was pi**ed off because I was four miles from home and was thinking, Why couldn’t it have gone half a mile from home?
I had to walk the entire four miles back home and it was the longest f**king walk of my life. Even when I walked, I was getting pain in my back. It just wouldn’t go. I rang my brother up and said, “My back is really bad.” He butted in and said, “Well you’ve had it before. Just…” and I said, “No, it’s really bad.”
My brother then came to my house, took me straight down the hospital, and I had an x-ray immediately. The specialist said I had two cracks in my lower spine. He said, “What the hell have you been doing?” He had no idea that I boxed and I proclaimed my innocence. He then said, “Do you run a lot?” I said, “Yeah, five days a week.” He then asked me if I ran on roads, which I did, so I nodded. “This is due to running on hard surfaces,” he said. “You’ve got two fractures in your lower spine and you need to stop running and take six months’ rest.”
Now, as a fighter, that doesn’t really leave you much else. You’ve got to run. People said to me, “Why don’t you go on the bike or swim?” Nah, not for me. You’ve got to run. For my style of boxing, I couldn’t do without running. No way.
I started to panic a little once I realised I was finished. You think, What the hell am I going to do now? I was only 32 or 33, so still young. I had no other trade. I had a few quid, yeah, but I wasn’t that wise with my money. I should have bought some property instead of listening to the wrong people and making a few wrong decisions. Fighters tend to struggle making the right decisions financially. It’s not a strong point. And when you’re earning decent money, people come from everywhere and want to be your friend and help you. The advice I give young fighters now is this: when you start earning your millions, take a step back and look at who has come into your life and is earning a few quid off you, then ask yourself, “Do I need him around?”
Boxing had been my life for so long and I knew it was going to be tough to replace. I started to think, Shall I just take the six months off and come back? But then I realised this situation was only going to flare up again and would never really go away. I’d never feel as good as new again. I’d never feel young and ambitious again. I had to accept the fact I was a 32- or 33-year-old man and accept where my life was now heading. It wasn’t going back towards a boxing ring. You can’t box until you’re bloody 70-odd, so it must come to an end sometime.