Story of a champion that leaves even Clinton Woods himself humbled

England's Clinton Woods celebrates his victory over Mexico's Julio Gonzalez in the IBF light-heavyweight title fight at Hallam FM Arena, Sheffield. (Picture: Peter Byrne/PA Wire)
England's Clinton Woods celebrates his victory over Mexico's Julio Gonzalez in the IBF light-heavyweight title fight at Hallam FM Arena, Sheffield. (Picture: Peter Byrne/PA Wire)
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For Clinton Woods, the former light heavyweight champion of the world, the sport of boxing was a way to make a living, it was an escape, it was his saviour, but it was never his passion.

One of the hardest men the city of Sheffield has ever produced had no soft spot for an art form that chose him, but was never his first choice.

Roy Jones Jr.,left, punches Clinton Woods during the Light Heavyweight Championship of the World Match in Portland, Ore., Saturday, Sept. 7, 2002. (AP Photo/John Gress)

Roy Jones Jr.,left, punches Clinton Woods during the Light Heavyweight Championship of the World Match in Portland, Ore., Saturday, Sept. 7, 2002. (AP Photo/John Gress)

Woods was happier training than he was trading blows in the ring, even if boxing saved him from a life of pub brawls.

He was 21, father to a six-year-old he never saw and spiralling downwards quickly amid a flurry of drugs, alcohol and nights behind bars when his mother intervened, saving him from himself and begging him to find a purpose.

“I was working on building sites. Four brothers and we all worked on building sites,” begins Woods. “Where do you go at that age after you’ve done a day on a building site? You go to the pub. I was in the pub Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday.

“I’d boxed up to the age of 15 as an amateur, won regional titles, represented Yorkshire, but then I got a girl pregnant, left school and quit boxing. I was embarrassed.

I was a good ticket seller, that’s all. My mates would come and I was enjoying the fight nights, but I only ever thought as far as I’ll get beat one night and that would be it.

Clinton Woods

“I lost the love for boxing. My love then was working and going out for a drink.

“I’d boxed so long as an amateur that I missed the fighting side of it and I took it to the pubs. I never caused trouble – but I seemed to attract it.

“I was getting locked up at weekends. I got beaten up by bouncers in Chesterfield; had cigarettes stubbed out on me.

“My belly was hanging over my jeans I was so unfit.

Clinton Woods, left, of England, and Antonio Tarver, right, exchange jabs during the tenth round of the IBF/IBO light heavyweight championship boxing match on Saturday, April 12, 2008, in Tampa, Fla. Tarver won a unanimous decision. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

Clinton Woods, left, of England, and Antonio Tarver, right, exchange jabs during the tenth round of the IBF/IBO light heavyweight championship boxing match on Saturday, April 12, 2008, in Tampa, Fla. Tarver won a unanimous decision. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

“Then I got a letter shoved under my door from my mum, saying she cried every night that I went out.

“It worked. I went back into boxing just to get fit again.”

Little did Woods know it at the time, but his mother’s tearful intervention would mark the start of a journey that would take this hard-nosed fighter from a blue-collar area of the Steel City to world title fights in Hollywood.

Within months of re-joining a gym, Woods had been spotted by aspiring promoter Dennis Hobson and his life was about to change.

Great Britain's Clinton Woods celebrates his win against Jamaica's Glen Johnson in the IBF light-heavyweight title bout at the Bolton Arena, Bolton. (Picture: Malcolm Couzens/PA)

Great Britain's Clinton Woods celebrates his win against Jamaica's Glen Johnson in the IBF light-heavyweight title bout at the Bolton Arena, Bolton. (Picture: Malcolm Couzens/PA)

“The boxing seemed to come back quickly; the movement, footwork etc,” recalls Woods. “Dennis Hobson said what about going pro? I just laughed and shrugged my shoulders. The next minute he’s giving me papers to sign.”

Woods won his first 18 fights as a professional.

“I was a good ticket seller, that’s all. My mates would come and I was enjoying the fight nights, but I only ever thought as far as I’ll get beat one night and that would be it. There was no pressure on me so I kept winning and winning until I eventually got the big one, when I was chucked in against a kid who was fancied to beat me.”

That was against Mark Baker at Wembley Arena for the vacant Commonwealth super middleweight title in December, 1997.

Woods won, vindicating the faith placed in him by his trainer Neil Port, another granite-jawed hard man from the Sheffield fight scene.

“Neil was the only person who said I would do anything” says Woods.

“He said I’d be British champion. I asked him to stop because he was embarrassing me.”

That lack of self-belief followed Woods to Oregon and a fight with future hall-of-famer Roy Jones Jnr. “It was a bit of a fairytale, but I wasn’t ready for Roy Jones,” admits Woods. “He was beating kids quicker than it took him to defeat me, though. I lasted six rounds.”

Another world title shot would follow 14 months and four fights later against Glen Johnson in the first of three epic fights with the Jamaican.

The first was a draw, the second three months later in February, 2004, was a defeat that would also prove a turning point.

“I thought I was finished after that second fight with Johnson,” remembers Woods. “But it was a doctor that changed my perspective. I told him I was tired all the time, even before training I was tired. He tested me and found I had an iron deficiency.

“I started having iron injections, I got a nutritionist, a guy to work on the weights with me, and everything changed.

“It was unbelievable. It was that click-of-the-finger moment and I was a different fighter.

“Prior to that, I just went to the gym, trained and went for a run. No one did any weights with me. I was just playing at boxing.

“I’d been a bit old-school. I trained really hard, but the way I was training I needed to put something back in.”

The rewards were obvious and a year later Woods won the vacant IBF world light heavyweight title against Rico Hoye at the Magna Centre in Rotherham.

His third defence of the title pitted him against Johnson once more and this time, Woods prevailed. “I still have bruises from that one,” he winces.

Woods defended his title one more time before a fight with Antonio Tarver in Tampa, Florida, in April, 2008, would prove a step too far.

“The only regret is I didn’t pull out of the Tarver fight,” says Woods, who left the sport two fights later with no self-reproach.

“Everything went wrong in the build-up, my manager should have pulled me out. I was champion, for the money I got it, it was stupid.”

Woods retired in September, 2009, after 15 years, 48 fights and 42 wins.

His story from prison cells to world championship bouts is enough to inspire any youngster in need of a change of direction.

He has even put it into book form, Into the Woods, a cathartic process for some but one the fighter himself admits was a difficult process.

“When I first started I wish I had never bothered, just because of how some of the stories would have made me look,” he says. “I was worried some of the stories would be frowned upon.

“But I hope some kids read it and see that you can change. I was a little toe rag when I was 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 – but I changed my life around.

“Even though I never really fell in love with the sport – it was the training I loved – I don’t know what I’d have done if I hadn’t got back into boxing.”

Giving a little something to back to boxing

After trying his hand at a variety of business pursuits in the years after his retirement, Clinton Woods went back to the sport of boxing for the next chapter of his life.

And eight years after his last fight, the 45-year-old is teaching boxing exercise to the people of Sheffield.

“It’s doing really well,” he smiles.

“I’ve got people of all walks of life coming in and doing pad work, circuits etc – from divorce lawyers to farmers. I really enjoy it.”

Part of the appeal for Woods is that he is giving something back to the sport that gave him so much, helping teach discipline and the channelling of aggression in his home town. Kids and adults attend the classes with Woods playing a small part in helping youngsters avoid the troubled start to life he endured.

“I would definitely advise kids to go into boxing,” says Woods.

“I get calls every day from parents asking if I do kids’ sessions because they have a child who needs to get rid of some aggression.

“I think boxing is brilliant for that. It’s a great release.

“Someone asked me the other day what advice would I give to someone becoming a pro boxer, and that would be to get a job first. Do what I did. I worked, then I trained.”

His relationship with boxing even now is still a functional one.

“I don’t watch that much boxing. It’s not bitterness – if I watch boxing now it’s on YouTube watching the great fights of the 70s and 80s. For me that era will never be beaten.

“Look at their faces, they looked like animals. Now the boxers are there to selling tickets.”

INTO THE WOODS – The Story of a British Boxing Cult Hero, by Clinton Woods and Mark Turley published by Pitch Publishing Ltd is available now via pitchpublishing.co.uk