In-depth with Joe Hughes: Champion against all odds
By Ian Aldous: On Saturday March 30th, at the M&S Bank Arena in Liverpool, British and European super-lightweight supremacy is up for grabs, live on Sky Sports in the UK and DAZN in the U.S. European champion, Joe Hughes (17-3-1) and British champion, Robbie Davies Jr. (17-1) put their respective titles on the line in Davies’ home city. Fighting in the away corner is nothing new for Hughes, who punches almost entirely with his left hand due to Erb’s Palsy. This week, Malmesbury’s finest boxer took some time to talk with me about the biggest fight of his career.
IA: March 30th, it’s you and Robbie Davies Jr. in a massive encounter for the British and European championships. If someone had said to you that you’d reach this point when you turned professional, what would you have said to them?
JH: I would have been happy. I’d always aimed to be at this sort of stage, definitely with the British (title) at the very least. Obviously, to have won the European was the icing on the cake. I’d definitely have been happy, but I would have expected it at the same time. I’m really excited about the fight.
IA: He’s only lost once and that has since been avenged. How highly do you rate Robbie?
JH: Very highly. He’s a very good boxer. It’s a big achievement to have won the British title and, like you say, the one fight he did lose, he came back and stopped him in the rematch. You could definitely say that was more of a blip than (that) he wasn’t as good as the other kid. He’s tricky and switches stances a lot. He’s awkward, quite slick and he can fight as well. He’s got a decent knockout ratio, so he’s got it all really. It’ll be a good challenge.
IA: He’s obviously the home fighter and part of the Matchroom stable. Does it feel as though you’re being brought in as a sacrificial lamb for Eddie Hearn and his guys, if you know what I mean?
JH: (laughs) Well, you could say that I suppose. To be honest, it’s like that every single time I fight now. I’ve done that God knows how many times! That was the case in Italy when I won the (European) title. It was Matchroom Italy launching the Italian brand and they obviously wanted to start it off with a launch pad for some of their Italian fighters and I spoiled it a bit for them (laughs). This time the show’s in Liverpool and built around all the Liverpudlian fighters, and again, I’m planning on going in there and ruining it a little bit for them. Hopefully I get a fair crack of the whip and that’s all you can ask for. I mean, in the ring, it makes absolutely no difference where it is, to me anyway. It can sometimes play on the judges and referees and things like that subconsciously with the crowd, but hopefully it’ll be fair – I’m sure it will be. I’ve got to do my job and not worry about all that sort of stuff.
IA: You mentioned November of last year and the night in Italy when you defeated Andrea Scarpa for the European title. That left hand landed all night long! Were you surprised at how comfortably you dealt with Scarpa?
JH: Sort of. I was surprised at how easy it was. I did expect it to be a bit more tricky, but I was confident going in there that I was able to land the left hand well and the jab even though he had that advantage in height and reach – so do most of my opponents. Especially as an amateur, I fought a hell of a lot taller and rangier guys but I’d still out-jab them. I’ve worked on that left hand so much in comparison to most fighters. I knew if I could beat him at that, there’s no way he was going to beat me in close. His inside game was almost non-existent in the videos that I had seen of him. If I could beat him at long-range and get the better of him there – that was his only possible chance of beating me. When I was getting the better of him then – that sort of sealed it in my head.
IA: You say that you sealed it, how on earth was it only a split-decision in your favor?
JH: (laughs) Crazy. Going over there, we were almost expecting to be ‘stitched up’, if you know what I mean? If it was close, I was expecting it to go his way. In the fight, it didn’t feel to me like it was close. I felt like I won pretty much every round. There were a couple of rounds where he was a bit more active than he was in the other rounds. Normally at the end of a fight, relatively close, even though if I’m confident I’ve won, I’m still worried. I’m never that confident in the judges that they’ll give it to me. I’ve been on the bad end of a few decisions – especially in the amateurs. Decisions that I felt were wrong. So, I’m always nervous. But this time, even with it being in Italy, at the end of the fight before they announced the decision, I was 100% confident that there was no way they could possibly rob me of it. When they said it was a, ‘split’ I shit myself (laughs). How could they possibly rob me? But I thought they were going to do it when they said it was a split (decision). Thankfully they didn’t (laughs).
IA: It wasn’t your first shot at the European title. You competed well with Anthony Yigit who’s a world-class fighter. Did you think your chance to win the European belt had gone after that fight?
JH: I didn’t expect another shot at it so soon. I didn’t perform anywhere near my best against Yigit. It was relatively short-notice and I had only just had some surgery on my left arm, which is the only one I really use anyway (laughs). It was a shot at the European title, so I was going to try and take it with both hands. I just wasn’t really 100% prepared. I’m not saying I would have beat him or anything like that. He won fair and square. I thought I’ll have to go back and rebuild to try and win the British title then push on again. But, when he gave up the European (title) to box for the world title – the EBU put me and Scarpa forward for the vacant belt. As soon as I found out, I started training. I was ticking over all year, to be honest, waiting for something to come up and when that came up that it was going to happen – it knocked it up a gear. It was all-or-nothing for me at the time, in my head. I was trying to get another shot at the British (title) and it just wasn’t happening. I had a couple of eliminators that didn’t happen. I thought after I drew for the British last time (against Tyrone Nurse), I’d become the mandatory and get another shot at it, but it hasn’t happened. But the European came up, which is obviously bigger. And now funnily enough, after winning the European – now I’m getting a shot at the British!
IA: Other than winning on March 30th, what goals do you still have in the sport? How long do you plan to fight on, after all, you’re still only twenty-eight?
JH: It seems like I’ve been doing this forever and I suppose, to me, I have been since I was a little kid. I am only twenty-eight and I’ve still got plenty of time realistically. I’m just going to keep going until (laughs) I can’t go anymore. I hopefully win this fight and then go for a world title shot. With the European title – the next step is a world title. That’s definitely my next goal. Fingers crossed, I win this one and the British title is a lovely title to have. Hopefully after winning this next fight, I’m not overlooking Robbie at all, but in an ideal world, I beat Robbie and get a world title shot against (Maurice) Hooker in the summer. If everything was up to me – that’s what would happen.
IA: It’s well documented that you suffer from Erb’s Palsy, causing your right arm to be three inches shorter than your left. When did you realize that you might be able to box to a very high level despite barely using your right hand to punch? It’s quite incredible really.
JH: Thank you. I started off just doing boxing as physio and my dad sort of tricked me into it and I just really enjoyed it. I never really in my head thought of becoming a pro when I first started. Eventually I won a few national titles and boxed for England. I think I was about fourteen when I won my first national title and at that stage I thought to myself, ‘I’m doing alright’. In my head I started to think about it more seriously to do as a profession. At school there was never anything else that I wanted to do as a living. I kept winning as an amateur and won everything you could domestically against the odds. Doctors said I wouldn’t be able to do it (turn pro). I remember after I won that first schoolboy title, going to see a specialist as I regularly had to growing up. They congratulated me for doing that, but said, ‘don’t get your hopes up on going any further, there’s no way you’ll be able to go pro’. Not technically because the doctor didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, but just physically he said, ‘the shoulder will not hold up’. They originally said I’d be arthritic in the shoulder in my very early twenties and in my opinion the exercise has helped to stop that because it feels completely fine at the moment. Probably when I retire it’ll seize right up and I won’t be able to move it anymore (laughs). When they said that to me, it was almost like, ‘fuck you, I will do it’. And I have!
IA: You’re no stranger to being in the away corner and guiding your own career. Do you ever wonder how things might have panned out with the backing of a big promoter?
JH: Yeah, sometimes. I try not to dwell on what could have been. I just crack on with what has happened. When I first turned pro, I went with Frank Maloney and at the time he had Sky TV behind him, everything was going well and then within a year or two of me turning pro, he lost it all and disappeared, went off to Portugal and had a sex change! Everything went tits-up really. It’s funny how things work out. When I first turned pro with Maloney, David Price had all hopes on him becoming the next heavyweight champion. He was top of the bill on all Maloney’s cards and I was hidden away on the undercard and now I’m fighting higher up on the card (Price also competes on the March 30th card). It’s funny how things work out. If I would have turned pro with Matchroom straight away, where would I be now? I don’t know. It might not have worked out. I feel like sometimes doing it the hard way, when the tough fights come, you can take them and win them. If I wasn’t used to fighting away all the time on the road and always being the opponent, when this fight came up in Italy – I might have froze. I don’t dwell on it – it’s worked out this way anyway.
IA: Finally, what can we expect to see on March 30th?
JH: I think it’ll be a cracking fight. I think the whole show will be really good. I’m quite disappointed I can’t watch it. In my fight, I think it will be a real exciting fight. I think our styles will gel well and we can both do it all, (laughs) well I can do it all with one hand. It should be a really entertaining fight. Obviously I’m confident I’ll win and he’s confident he’ll win. Whatever happens – it’ll be a cracker.
Liam Smith will make his long-awaited Liverpool homecoming on March 30 when he takes on Sam Eggington at the M&S Bank Arena, live on Sky Sports in the UK and DAZN in the US. Super-Welterweight rivals Anthony Fowler and Scott Fitzgerald put their unbeaten records on the line when they meet in one of the most eagerly-anticipated domestic clashes of the year. Also on the bill, newly-crowned European Super-Lightweight Champion Joe Hughes clashes with Liverpool’s British Champion Robbie Davies Jnr in another tasty domestic showdown. Popular Heavyweight David Price fights in Liverpool for the first time in nearly three years as he looks to make a fresh charge on the Heavyweight division following his recent win over Tom Little at The O2. There’s also action for rising Liverpool Cruiserweight talent Craig Glover and ‘Miss GB’ Natasha Jonas, with Liverpool Super-Lightweight Tom ‘Fazza’ Farrell aiming to impress in front of his home crowd and undefeated Super-Lightweight Ged ‘G-Man’ Carroll looking to improve to 10-0.
Tickets for Smith vs. Eggington priced at £40, £60, £100 and £200 (Inner Ring VIP) are available to purchase via the M&S Bank Arena (www.mandsbankarena.com), Matchroom Boxing (www.matchroomboxing.com) and StubHub.