It took Tony Borg almost 40 years of graft to become an overnight success in boxing.
The fight game has been the central feature of the diminutive Welsh trainer’s life since he first laced up at the tender age of seven. However, it wasn’t until his flagship fighters, Lee Selby and Gary Buckland clumped their way to British titles, just a week apart, in 2011, that the fight cognoscenti finally started to acknowledge Borg’s knowledge and talent.
Senior Welsh ABA champion at just 17 and a Welsh Area challenger in the pros, the ‘no nonsense’ 48 year old currently fronts the St Joseph’s gym in Newport; one of the hottest stables in Britain.
Ahead of Buckland’s crucial British super-featherweight title defence against Liverpool’s Stephen Smith in Cardiff this Saturday, boxing writer Glynn Evans spoke to Tony about his 12 year association with the ‘Dynamo’.
Remaining tickets are available from the Cardiff Motorpoint Arena Box Office on 02920 224 488 or Eventim on 0844 249 1000 or www.eventim.co.uk
Watch the whole ‘Red Mist’ event – headlined by the unmissable WBO World Light-Heavyweight collision between Nathan Cleverly and unbeaten Russian KO king Sergey Kovalev, plus Gary Buckland’s British Super-Featherweight title defence against Stephen Smith and Commonwealth Light-Heavyweight Champion Ovill McKenzie’s rematch against Enzo Maccarinelli – live and exclusive in the UK on BoxNation (Sky Ch.437/Virgin Ch.546) from 7pm. Join at www.boxnation.com
“I’ve known Gary since he came to my amateur gym (St Joseph’s ABC) when he was just 14 years old. He’s always been a very quiet, shy kid outside the gym – still is – but in a spar or a contest, he’s the toughest man I’ve ever met. He’s no bully in the street but, if ever he was pushed, he’d take your head off; a proper hard case!
As a young amateur, he’d just walk through everybody and he won the British Boys Club’s title. He simply wasn’t affected by the shots coming back at him. There was no way he could spar boys his own age so I put him in with my seniors, then later, established pro champions like Dazzo Williams and Steve Robinson.
Being a travelling boy, Gary had no interest in boxing senior in the amateurs. He wanted money. I told him if he just wanted cash he’d need to find another gym but if he was interested in having a career and becoming a champion, he’d have to do things my way.
He’d got by in the amateurs solely on his toughness but to compete with the pros I knew we’d have to add extra. He’d not last too long with that style against grown men with the little gloves on.
For a period, I stopped his heavy sparring and just stuck him in with sharp young amateurs on the specific instruction that he couldn’t hit back. He began to learn to move, slip and role, evade; develop defence. Today, after a hard 12 round championship fight there’s barely a mark on him. He’s particularly clever defensively when he’s fighting inside.
Though Garry is very popular, he tends to mix with his own community, the travellers, and as he wasn’t out drinking or in the clubs, he struggled to sell tickets. Still, he profited from a really solid apprenticeship, often fighting away from home early on, and it’s really benefiting him today.
He fought guys like Martin Watson (wpts10), Ben Murphy (lpts6), Craig Docherty (wpts10) and Henry Castle (wpts10). Then he beat Sam Rukundo – an unbeaten Ugandan Olympian who no one else would touch – over 12 rounds in Stoke. In the corner, I was wincing myself from the body shots Garry was taking but he got through.
The other big problem early in his career was his weight. He’s only just 5ft 6in tall yet won his first title, the Welsh Area, up at light-welter. He then insisted on having his next contest up at welter. I reluctantly consented, expecting him to struggle and learn his lesson but he pole axed the kid in the first round!
I think the penny finally dropped, regarding his weight, when he challenged John Murray for the British and (vacant) European lightweight titles in 2010. We were offered the job at just three weeks notice. Gary told me his weight was one thing, I agreed the job, but when I actually weighed him he was over 11 stone!
I was very keen to withdraw but Gary pleaded he might not get another chance. Garry’s one of those naturally fit kids who can bang out 12 rounds of sparring straight off but we spent the whole camp, dieting and dropping weight. We did hardly any sparring.
Garry was stopped, still upright, in round 11 but it was a blessing because it proved to him what I’d been preaching, that he wasn’t a lightweight. He hardly bulked up after the scales whereas Murray must have been close to 11 stone in the ring. Afterwards we got a lot of compliments for Garry’s toughness and bravery but I knew Garry had shown just a fraction of his ability. We all let ourselves down a bit that night.
When the opportunity was presented to enter Prizefighter at 9st 6lbs six months later I was 100% confident that Gary would win, despite a really strong field. But after his first bout (a unanimous three round decision over ex England amateur captain Stevie Bell), I was very disappointed with the way Gary had just followed Bell around the ring.
In the changing rooms after, I ripped into him; told him he’d let me down badly, boxed like a novice amateur. I stressed if he repeated that in the semi against (then reigning British super-feather champ) Gary Sykes he’d get embarrassed, then I walked away to let Garry dwell on it, have a sulk.
It worked because he absolutely exploded when the time came to warm up on the pads and I’ve never seen him walk to the ring with such purpose. He was punching his own face! Sykes lasted just 45 seconds!
Then, in the final, he hurt Derry Mathews very badly (wrsc2).Look what Derry’s gone on to achieve subsequently.
Since beating Sykes in a return with the (British) title on the line, Gary’s blossomed into a really good 12 round champion, successfully defending against Paul Truscott and Stephen Foster Jnr. Not many have to beat a better quartet than Sykes ‘Trussy’, Foster and ‘Swifty’ (Stephen Smith) to capture a Lonsdale Belt outright.
Too many reach British title level then take their foot off the gas and go flat. But now Garry’s tasted success he’s famished for more. He wants to defend in style, win the Belt outright, advance to the European and world. (Reigning British featherweight king) Lee Selby’s the same. They push each other.
My gym is absolutely buzzing at the moment. In addition to Gary and Selby, I’ve a string of other unbeaten pro prospects plus three amateurs – Joe Cordina, Sean McGoldrick and (Olympic silver medallist) Fred Evans – on the GB Podium squad.
In addition to the quality apprenticeship I spoke about, Gary gets top grade sparring week in, week out against these young hungry kids on the way up. Spar hard, fight easy. Him against Selby is very intense, pulsating to watch. But I make sure no one gets hurt and we ease off a fortnight before the fight so that they enter the ring fresh.
The prospect of winning the Lonsdale Belt outright this Saturday is a massive, massive incentive to Gary. In fact, if he was offered a world title fight, I honestly think he’d insist on making this final defence first. Since he was a kid, looking at the posters of champions with the Belt at my gym, he’s been infatuated by it.
I’ve followed (Saturday’s challenger) Stephen Smith since he was a 15 year old in the schoolboys and I rate him very highly. He won a Commonwealth Games gold medal and a bronze at the European Seniors which shows his class. He’s a natural. He hails from a family of fighters and he’s a very clever tactician.
Though I found a way for Selby to beat him, this is totally different. Gary and Lee have very different styles. I predicted Selby would stop him in eight but never thought he’d knock him out as brutally as he did. You have to give ‘Swifty’ a lot of credit for coming back from that. That was the type of knockout that ruins careers.
But Smith hasn’t had the pro apprenticeship that Buckland has had. Other than Selby, his only opponent of note was John Simpson and both of those fights were extremely close.
A lot depends on what Smith brings on Saturday. I know we’re coming to fight hard for 12 rounds. Gary Buckland has never been in a boring fight in his life. You can’t stand off and be clever with Buckland. You can’t hide and move for 12 rounds. He’s just too strong.
Steve Smith’s a very good British level fighter, possibly even European level but Buckland is an exceptional talent. If he comes through this, I seriously expect him to be fighting for European and world titles within 12 months. The better the opposition, the better he’ll perform.
No doubt Steve will try and stay with him as long as he can but I expect Gary to win clearly on points something like eight rounds to four but, if Smith gets over confident, he’ll get nailed again. Either way, there’s gonna be a lot of tears in the Smith household on Sunday morning!”