Leading trainer Gary Lockett has experienced more highs and lows than most. One of British boxing’s unsung heroes, he spoke to Oliver Fennell about everything from being lucky to death in the ring
MY social media feeds swell with mentions of Tyson and Jones Jnr; of bareknuckle brawls and boxing basketball players. Celebrity sells. Beef begets box office. Middle-aged men can charge pay-per-view for an exhibition. Pugilistic novices can create cults of online personality, and seemingly every big fight comes packaged with some potty-mouthed push-and-shove.
There seems little mainstream appetite for the story of a humble, hard-working and honest man, and certainly not for a self-proclaimed “realist”. Realism is irrelevant in an age when Jake Paul is calling out Canelo Alvarez and Mike Tyson does bigger numbers than Tyson Fury. But for me, a meeting with Gary Lockett offers a timely antidote to the madness.
The former middleweight world title challenger is now one of Britain’s more respected trainers. At his gym in a Cardiff suburb, he quietly but seriously presides over a no-nonsense stable of pros whose reputations are built on hard work and technical excellence rather than gimmicks and immature internet exchanges.
The dangers of the latter approach were starkly exposed on the undercard of the Tyson-Roy Jones Jnr exhibition, when a “celebrity boxing” match with a contrived grudge ended with basketballer Nate Robinson flat on his face in front of millions of viewers. As he lay unconscious, the commentators reminded us: “You don’t play boxing”.
Lockett knows this better than anybody. “I saw someone get beaten to death with fists,” he says. “That doesn’t sit well with me.”
He is referring to the terrible night of September 29, 2016, when Scottish boxer Mike Towell was fatally injured in a fight against Lockett’s charge, Dale Evans.
And that came just six months after Lockett’s own fighter, Nick Blackwell, also suffered a brain injury, in a British middleweight title defence against Chris Eubank Jnr.
Those two events mean Lockett has the unenviable distinction of having been in both a winner’s and a loser’s corner when serious head trauma has curtailed a contest, a career and, in Towell’s case, a life.
“Probably 99 per cent of coaches will go their whole career without being involved in a fatality or a brain injury,” says Lockett. “I saw two in six months.
“After what happened to Nick, I didn’t know if I could face it [cornering a boxer again].
“The first one back was Liam [Williams vs Gustavo Alberto Sanchez, 10 weeks later]. I was very anxious; nervous in a way I hadn’t been before. I was like that for the next three or four fights.”
Eubank’s win over Blackwell was one-sided; the punishment protracted. Blackwell was withdrawn by the ringside doctor in the 10th round, officially because of an eye injury, though a more serious problem was rapidly developing – his brain was swelling.
Minutes after the fight was stopped, Blackwell fell unconscious and was rushed to hospital, where he was placed in an induced coma. He was resuscitated a week later, but the effects of that night continue to reverberate for both boxer and coach.
Given Blackwell was well behind on points in the late stages of a contest in which he’d taken a lot of punches, Lockett as the chief second who kept sending his man back into battle was an easy target for the critics. But while he remains haunted by what happened, Lockett stands by his strategy on the night.
“He was under the cosh, of course he was, but at no point was Nick hurt,” he says. “After round eight we were having a laugh in the corner. He was a knockout puncher so there was always a chance he could catch Eubank.”
For anybody who has been in involved in a serious injury or fatality in boxing, it is a desperately difficult thing to come to terms with. For an uncommonly sensitive soul such as Lockett, being blamed by strangers on social media compounded his anguish.
“That night was the worst of my life; it will never leave me,” says Lockett. “Nor will the criticism I received.
“The commentators never said it should be stopped. No boxing people criticised me afterwards, but Channel 5 is a different audience. They’re casual viewers; they saw this happen and they wanted someone to blame. The finger was pointed at me and the referee [Victor Loughlin].”
In an awful coincidence, Loughlin would also be in charge of Towell’s final moments in a ring, with Lockett again looking on from just feet away as boxing exacted another heartbreaking toll. Evans won by a fifth-round stoppage; Towell died a day later.
Lockett describes the events of that night as “a horrible, horrible situation; the worst thing that can happen in boxing”, but otherwise respectfully refuses to go into detail, to spare Towell’s family the pain of a reminder.
Clearly, it is part of his character that Lockett strives to be inoffensive. Several times during our interview he either politely declines to answer a certain question, or asks to speak off the record, to avoid upsetting anyone. On a professional level it’s a touch frustrating to hear some fascinating insights but be unable to publish them, but on a personal level it is endearing that a man in the hurt business is so keen to avoid hurting people’s feelings.
Even as generic and innocent a query as “who is your favourite Welsh boxer?” is met with caution. “Can I not answer that?”, Lockett asks. “I don’t want to fall out with anybody.”
In his heyday, Lockett himself was a Welsh fans’ favourite. A TV-friendly aggressor with power and accuracy in both hands – and most notably a left hook which earned him his “Rocket” ring name – Lockett compiled a 30-2 (21) record, culminating in a challenge for the genuine championship of the world.
But by the time he faced the daunting June 2008 task of attempting to unseat a prime Kelly Pavlik in Atlantic City, Lockett claims he had already “fallen out of love with boxing a couple of years before”.
“Fighting at elite level is an uphill battle anyway, and my dedication was waning a little bit,” he says.
Even so, Lockett gave it his best shot, taking the fight to Pavlik and firing hard at a man who fired harder than anyone in the division at the time. Three knockdowns in as many rounds prompted the towel from coach Enzo Calzaghe, bringing an end to both the fight and Lockett’s career as a competitor.
“I felt I had a good first round,” recalls Lockett. “I just got caught at the end of it with a really good right hand. The bell went and I was seeing stars, and they never went away. That was testament to how hard he hit. I couldn’t see the shots coming after that first round, so I had to take a knee to gather my thoughts.”
All three knockdowns came from Lockett taking a knee. Harsher critics than I may castigate a fighter who voluntarily seeks a count, as we saw on that bizarre weekend I met Lockett, when fans piled praise on Tyson and Jones but lambasted Daniel Dubois for “quitting” against Joe Joyce when enduring the agony of a shattered eye socket.
Nobody who saw Lockett fighting through a gruesome eye injury of his own in a 2002 war with Belarusian tough guy Yuri Tsarenka would accuse him of being a quitter, not after a swelling grew and grew as the fight wore on and eventually burst open in the 12th round, coating the right side of his face in gore – and yet there he was, pushing forwards to the final bell, still searching for a win that would be denied him for the first time as a professional. No, thrice taking a knee against Pavlik was strategy, not submission.
Regardless, for Lockett the defeat simply provided confirmation that his fighting days were done, at just 31. “I could have come back at domestic level, but for me it wasn’t worth it,” he says. “I’d been fighting for 22 years [amateur and pro].”
Suggesting he fought Pavlik at a low motivational ebb might sound like an excuse from anyone else, but Lockett is entirely honest about his place. “I wasn’t scared to get in the ring with him,” he says of a man with a frightening 33-0 (29) record fresh off two consecutive wins over Jermain Taylor. “I knew if I hit him on the chin, I had a chance.
“But I’m a realist. I was a good European-level fighter, and Pavlik at the time was elite.”
Boxing can be about timing as much as talent. Plenty of good European-level fighters have won world titles by facing the right opponent at the right moment. Lockett may have added to a professional trophy cabinet that is limited to WBU middleweight and WBO Intercontinental light-middleweight honours had he come up against someone less formidable than a peak Pavlik. But, remember, he is a realist.
“At the time [of the Pavlik fight], the WBO’s no.1 contender was Sebastian Zbik,” he says. “I could have waited to fight him for the vacant title, and I could have beaten him, but would that have really made me world champion? Nah.”
Lockett seems content to have challenged the division’s genuine king and to have beaten some good names. Among them, world-rated Australian Kevin Kelly, whom Lockett knocked out in four rounds soon after suffering a bad cut; Tsarenka in a rematch; domestic dangermen Gilbert Eastman and Lee Blundell, both stopped in short order (one and three rounds, respectively); and Ryan Rhodes in 2006 in what was Lockett’s signature victory, getting off the floor in the eighth to win a unanimous decision after 12 tumultuous rounds.
Incidentally, Rhodes was more powerful than even Pavlik, according to Lockett. “That was a very difficult fight,” he recalls. “Pavlik was heavy-handed but Ryan was very sharp and in terms of one-punch power… oof!
“That was the toughest fight of my career, but Ryan and I had known each other 13-14 years and had lots of respect for each other before, during and after. That’s how it should be, and I want my boxers to be like that.”
The transition to his second career as a trainer was a seamless one– albeit one that was unplanned.
“I was going to concentrate on property,” he says, “but [Swansea prospect] Ricky Owen asked me to help him out, and I found I really liked it.
“That was in 2009 and if you told me then that in little more than 10 years I’d have had this many champions, I’d have been very happy.”
Lockett and Owen would work together for a few fights – all wins – and as his reputation grew, so did his stable.
Liam Williams’ rise was conducted under Lockett (they have since amicably split), while former world champions Gavin Rees and Enzo Maccarinelli enjoyed late-career renaissances with their coach from Cwmbran.
Currently, Lockett’s students include British welterweight champion Chris Jenkins, prospects Nathan Thorley, Rhys Edwards, Maredudd Thomas and Ben Crocker, and 2018 Commonwealth Games competitor Kyran Jones, who is awaiting his pro debut. He also manages former WBC flyweight title challenger Jay Harris, who is managed by his dad, ex-British and Welsh featherweight monarch Peter Harris.
Lockett’s humility prevents him claiming his fighters’ accomplishments as validation of himself as a trainer. “I’m only as good as the boxers I have,” he says, “and in that regard I’m very lucky.”
Now 44, financially comfortable and vicariously enjoying the successes of his students, there is no chance of Lockett fighting again – but arguably his most famous charge is itching to give it another go.
Former WBO cruiserweight champion Maccarinelli’s career looked in tatters after a controversial 2012 stoppage loss to Ovill McKenzie, but with Lockett he hit a three-year run that saw Maccarinelli gain revenge over McKenzie, challenge Jurgen Braehmer for the WBA light-heavyweight title, and knock out Roy Jones Jr in Moscow. Maccarinelli retired in June 2016, but rumours have been swirling in recent months that he may fight again at 40. Lockett confirms this – but don’t call it a comeback.
“No, no, it’s not a comeback, it’s just one more,” he insists. “I’d be completely against a comeback.
“He had 50 amateur fights, now he wants 50 pro [Maccarinelli’s record is 41-8]. If I don’t work with him, somebody else will, and he’s one of my best friends. Just one more, I’m fine with that, but it has to be the right opponent.”
What happens if he does well and wants to carry on, though?
It’s a rhetorical question that Lockett leaves dangling. For most boxers, “just one more” is rarely enough. Look no further than Tyson and Jones for evidence of that. Lockett, at least, retired on his own terms, and as a result is now content.
In that, he is a rarity. Social media may suggest otherwise, but being a realist has its advantages.