Headingley IBO title victory shows boxer Maxi Hughes was right to return to the ring

Just over three years ago, lightweight world champion Maxi Hughes was ready to walk away from boxing for good.

Just champion: Yorkshire fighter Maxi Hughes celebrates his victory over Jovanni Straffon earlier this month at Headingley, to claim the IBO lightweight title – just over three years since he called time on his boxing career. Picture: Steve Riding

The recently-crowned IBO king, from Rossington in Doncaster, did temporarily hang up his gloves after losing a British super featherweight title contest against Sam Bowen at the King Power Stadium in Leicester in April of 2018.

Within six months, he decided to return to the sport and 15 months after his defeat to Bowen he was back in the ring in his home town of Doncaster.

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Hughes admits he didn’t want to leave the sport on the back of a defeat and his decision to step back through the ropes was more than vindicated earlier this month as he produced a perfect and dominant display to claim the IBO lightweight title with a thrilling win over Mexico’s Jovanni Straffon.

Winning feeling: Maxi Hughes is declared the winner of the IBO lightweight title after his fight with Jovanni Straffon at Headingley. Picture: Steve Riding

And he is now arguably in the form of his life.

Prior to his world title win on the undercard of Josh Warrington’s rematch with Mauricio Lara at Headingley, the 31-year-old had won his last four contests and picked up the WBC international title and British title in his two fights preceding his meeting with Straffon.

“When I lost to Sam Bowen, out of all my defeats that one hurt the most. I had just had enough,” said Hughes, who now lives in Wakefield.

“I was mentally burned out as well as physically burned out.

“I only took the fight because it was a British title fight and it was good money but I had outgrown super featherweight.

“I actually saw a picture of myself from that weigh-in and it doesn’t even look like me.

“It got too hard and I had outgrown it. I thought I would win against Sam Bowen but it didn’t go my way.

“I just spat my dummy out with boxing altogether. I didn’t know whether I would come back or not.

“I did walk away for six months but I thought that there was still something I could do – I was only 28. I didn’t want to go out like that so I decided to get back into it. I am glad I did.”

Less than two weeks after being crowned a world champion at Headingley – Hughes was back on the building site.

For most of his professional career, which started in 2010, Hughes has worked as a painter and decorator alongside boxing.

He did give himself six weeks of full-time training to prepare for his title bout with Straffon but soon after the high at Headingley, it was back to the day job for Hughes.

“I am almost a semi-pro boxer,” laughed Hughes.

There was a time in his career when Hughes was able to concentrate on boxing full time but admitted: “I was getting the fight money which was covering the time off.

“I decided a few years ago, because I didn’t know what other opportunities would come, that I would keep working.

“It meant working extra hard in training. So for the last three years, until the last fight, I have worked right up until the fight.

“For Straffon, I gave myself six weeks of full-time training.

“I had known about the fight for about 15 weeks before it happened.

“I was still working but I was already training so those last six weeks were more than enough. That was about getting my rest and recovery right.”

Hughes produced the performance of the night as he was crowned world champion at Headingley three weeks ago.

The proud Yorkshireman, who used to attend Headingley to watch his beloved Leeds Rhinos, feels he took his chance with both hands and when looking at the scorecards, it is hard to dispute that assessment.

Hughes had Straffon, who won the IBO belt with a stunning first-round knockout against Belfast’s James Tennyson in May, on the ropes for almost the entirety of the fifth round.

The bout did go the distance with one judge scoring it 119-109 in Hughes’s favour while the other two scorecards had the fight 120-107 in favour of the Yorkshireman.

“To put on that performance – it was one of those great, career-defining nights. Sometimes fighters get those and I believe it was mine,” reflected Hughes.

He continued: “I implemented the game-plan perfectly.

“Other than the fifth round, when I threw a 400-punch combination and didn’t connect with many!

“Other than that, the fight went just as Sean [O’Hagan, his trainer] had explained it and planned it. It was a good, all-round performance and one I am really happy with. I feel I can improve on it as well, I feel I can do better than that.”

Hughes cut a composed and confident figure in the build-up to his meeting with Straffon.

He had lost five of his professional bouts but feels he has made sure to learn something from each of those while the pressure of protecting an unbeaten record leaves him with one less thing to worry about whenever he steps through the ropes. When asked what it takes to come back from a defeat, Hughes said: “It takes a lot of soul searching and a lot of resilience.

“There is a lot less pressure because I am not protecting a perfect record. It is something less to worry about. Because of those losses, I have learned and gained experience which has helped me get to this position that I am in.

“Now I have got this experience, I am using it and it is paying off.”

Two days after his IBO title win, Hughes was signed by Matchroom Boxing, one of the sport’s leading promoters.

On the announcement of that deal, Matchroom chairman Eddie Hearn said that “we feel there are plenty of more chapters left in this incredible story”, as Hughes eyes a unified lightweight title contest.

The lure of a deal with Matchroom was simply another form of motivation for Hughes to leave Headingley with a world title around his waist.

“When I signed the fight contract, it said that if I won I would automatically earn a contract with Matchroom,” continued Hughes.

“That was another small motivation to make sure I got the win. There is already talk of the Devin Haney fight, that would be fantastic if that came off.

“I just want to let the dust settle and get back into training to keep myself ticking over and then let that phone ring to see what names are thrown my way.”

American Haney was the first fighter Hughes called out after his win over Straffon.

All other lightweight title holders are based in the USA and Hughes added: “That is one of my goals, to fight in America. Everyone knows it is the Mecca of boxing and that is where the bigger fight purses are.”

Whatever comes next for Hughes, he certainly won’t regret that decision in 2018 to lace his boots back up and put his gloves on again.