“I’M about to switch on and turn into beast-mode,” Denton Vassell says with a warning quip as he arrives at his dark and atmospheric gym after another long day of work at the bank where he has been based in Manchester the past eight years. There are only a few days left before he steps into the ring this Friday night to risk his perfect 20-0 record, and Commonwealth welterweight title, against another unbeaten fighter in the gifted but troubled Frankie Gavin.
As Vassell recounts the routine activities of a typical day at one of HSBC’s headquarters, it’s difficult to imagine Funtime Frankie bringing the same concentration to opening and closing accounts and dealing with customer queries. Gavin would surely struggle to last a week in an everyday job that Vassell has kept for a year longer than he has been a professional boxer. The British champion has enough problems warding off his demons without having to endure the humdrum life of an ordinary working person.
Vassell, however, is different.
“It actually helps me,” he says of his full-time day job. “Of course you think about a big fight a lot the closer you get to the contest. But working at the bank takes my mind totally off it. It calms me down. So that has to be good. And as soon as I finish work I’m down at the gym. Here they see something they don’t ever get at the bank – the beast.”
Stripped down to stark boxing gear, and with his imposing physique rippling with the kind of mean intent that helped him stop another talented and undefeated British fighter in Ronnie Heffron in his last bout seven months ago, Vassell offers a brooding prediction. After he has been asked how he will feel a few hours before the opening bell rings at the Liverpool Olympia, Vassell nods intently. “I’ll be fully charged up, oozing with confidence, oozing with energy. I’ll be ready to explode.”
He doesn’t sound much like a bank administrator now for it’s obvious that Vassell has a passion for old-school boxing. Before and after work, as he explains, “I’ll watch some of my favourite fighters. It’s always raw and old school. I like Mike Tyson, but I’m really into Jack Dempsey and Rocky Marciano. I love Sugar Ray Robinson, too, but it’s mostly Dempsey, the Manassa Mauler, and Marciano. It’s so interesting – the way they weren’t watered-down fighters. They make me think of the Colosseum when gladiators gave people what they wanted to see – blood and death. I’m not wanting death, but I like real action in the ring. That’s what Dempsey and Marciano and Tyson gave you. It was exciting, especially in the old days, when they went 15 rounds. Why can’t we fight 15-rounders these days? It would give people their money’s worth.”
Vassell was initially influenced most by Tyson because, “when I was a kid I was small and I had no confidence. Then I started watching Tyson knocking out these big heavyweights and I began to mimic his style. I also copied his look and walk to the ring. I hate all them tassels fighters wear nowadays. I wear black and on the back it says Quiet Storm. I’m not flamboyant but, in the ring, I bring the storm.”
The difficulty in fighting a stylist as slick and elusive as Gavin remains. Vassell will bring his stormy force to the ring but Gavin is adept at slipping away while landing counters that chip away at the confidence of less stylish opponents. He is clearly respectful of Gavin’s skills but Vassell insists that his own abilities have been underplayed. “I’m slick and elusive myself,” he argues. “People haven’t seen my range of skills. They say I’m just about raw power but there’s much more to me than that. I box well – and I’m fit and strong and fast.
“But where I excel most is with a sickening work ethic. If you and me get into something then either you’re giving up or I’m willing to die. That’s always been my way. I train to that pinnacle point, even if it feels like I’m on the point of collapse, because it pays off. That’s why I’m supremely confident because my preparation for this fight has been the best it’s ever been.”
I first met Vassell last November when he was training in a corner of this very gym in Openshaw, not far from the centre of Manchester, before his crucial bout against Heffron. Shannon’s gym, which is located in a rambling old building full of deep shadows and rare shafts of light, was overrun that evening with camera crews and national newspaper reporters eagerly returning to boxing while following Ricky Hatton’s comeback. I felt for Vassell because no-one seemed to notice him hitting the heavy bag. Everyone’s attention was locked on Hatton as he drove his abused body back into fighting shape just weeks before his conclusive loss to the tough Ukrainian Vyacheslav Senchenko.
Those were momentous weeks for Hatton – but they were also of great significance to Vassell. He had been out for almost a year, with less serious personal problems than those which had haunted Hatton, and he faced a swaggering opponent in Heffron who seemed certain, alongside his talkative trainer Anthony Farnell, that disaster loomed for Vassell. His own cornerman, who had been with him for nine years, since Vassell was a crude 18 year-old amateur, was understandably distracted.
“I don’t blame Bob,” Vassell says of Shannon, for whom he has such affection and respect. “If I was a trainer I’d have done exactly the same and jumped at the chance to train Ricky. It was a big opportunity for him to win his first world title as a trainer. And for me it was a good experience to see Ricky being filmed by all the camera crews while he stayed the nice, genuine guy we all know. But yeah, because he was on a week before me [Hatton fought on Saturday, November 24, while Vassell faced Heffron the following Friday] Bob had to first give his attention to Ricky. Once their training was done he would come to me. But Bob’s main problem was to make sure that, on my own, I didn’t overdo it. He would sometimes send someone over to tell me to ease off before our training session started.”
Honesty and compassion pours out of Shannon whenever he talks about his fighters and, with Vassell, he is especially open. He admits that he, too, “felt lots of sympathy for Denton. This place would be heaving when Ricky was here and as soon he finished, and it was Denton’s turn to work with me, the gym emptied. Denton would look around and, without saying anything, you knew he’d be thinking: ‘Where’s everyone gone?’ I would just say to him: “It’s not your time yet – but it will be. One day you will get the recognition you deserve.
“Of course it was a big responsibility to have Ricky Hatton, the biggest name in boxing, making his comeback with me. I put in 10 solid weeks with Ricky and we worked as hard as we could. But, at the same time, I was worried about Denton. I knew Ronnie Heffron was extremely good and he and his trainer were convinced they were going to destroy Denton. Ronnie had Frank Warren right behind him and, yeah, I was concerned it could go wrong for Denton.
“Then, after Ricky’s loss, I was absolutely distraught. But the next morning I had to pick myself up and go with Denton on his Sunday run. That was hard…”
Shannon shakes his head at the memory. “Denton said to me: ‘Are you all right, Bob?’ I said. ‘Yep. It’s all about you now, Denton.’ But, in private, it was a real hard defeat for me. I still think about Ricky’s fight now. Should I have said more to him? Should we have done anything differently? But with just six days between those fights I was up against the possibility of another shattering loss for one of my fighter’s. And this was Denton – who I’ve been with so long. I had great confidence in him but, as a trainer, your own belief takes a knock after you go through something like Ricky’s defeat. So I told Denton that we needed to be very concentrated. It was vital that he listened to me closely because we both needed the win very badly.”
Vassell, in the end, dominated Heffron so effectively that the stoppage seemed inevitable. His strength and heavy-handed attacks simply drained the younger fighter’s cocky self-belief. Now, at 28, Vassell is up against a far more seasoned and formidable boxer in Gavin, who is just a year younger than him and a former amateur world champion. Gavin’s past personal problems have hampered his progress but Vassell refuses to claim any psychological advantage.
“I’ve known Frankie a while, just to say hello, and we met again at the press conference. He seemed just a normal fighter. We did the hype stuff and we’ve had some banter on Twitter. He’ll be coming to win and I don’t know if any of his doubts outside the ring will affect him. Only he really knows what’s happening inside his head. We’re all human. We all have personal problems – it’s just how you overcome them and don’t let your personal demons get hold of you in the ring. To me it’s simple. Frankie Gavin is in my way and so I’m going to go through him to get where I need to go.”
Vassell grew up in the often tough area of Miles Platting, an inner-city district of Manchester, and he admits that, “there were a lot of gangs and I could’ve turned to the dark side. I did my share of bad things but boxing disciplined me. My mum and dad also brought me up right and I’ve learnt a lot from boxing. I’ve now got a two-year-old-son, Jaxon, and while I don’t see him as often as I’d like, I’m fighting for his sake.”
After he defeated Heffron, there was speculation that Vassell might be granted a shot at Devon Alexander’s IBF welterweight title. Alexander and his team studied tape of Vassell and Lee Purdy and eventually decided to offer the Essex fighter the chance to replace the injured Kell Brook in Atlantic City last month. Purdy had lost to Vassell on points in April 2010 and presented less of a raw threat.
“I would have loved that fight against Alexander,” Vassell says, “and without wanting to disrespect Purdy [who lost on a seventh round stoppage after his corner called a halt] I would not have just stood there. I would have used my strength and fitness and gone after Alexander. I honestly think I could beat him. But when I beat Frankie Gavin – not if – I will be in line for a world title fight. I know I’m in the hottest division in boxing because we’ve got so many good welterweights in Britain, and great ones around the world, but that’s why I train so hard.”
Shannon is, again, cautious and thoughtful when assessing the merits of Gavin. “I think it’s a 50-50 fight because Frankie Gavin is very talented. You have to commend Frank Warren [Gavin’s promoter] and Tommy Gilmour [Vassell’s manager] for making this fight. But sometimes you have to take a big risk and, in Denton’s case, after the confidence he got from Heffron, it felt right to push him onto a far bigger stage. We know Gavin is good but, over 12 rounds, we’ll find out some answers to questions about his mental strength. No-one has pushed him hard yet and Denton will definitely do that. He hits very hard and he’s so strong. He’s like a middleweight. We know Frankie’s got the ability but can he cope with that strength and power of a naturally much bigger man in Denton over 12 rounds?”
“I don’t need any questions answered about Denton. He’s very mature and his responsibilities at the bank help him. And, like he says, he’s a beast in the ring. It makes for a powerful combination.”
Vassell and Shannon are also motivated by the memory of the trainer’s son, Robert, who died tragically 10 years ago this month. “It’s a tough time for Bob,” Vassell says, “and while I didn’t know Robert as I joined Bob soon after he passed away I know how close they were. Robert always told his dad that he would train a world champion one day and I’d love it to be me who makes his words come true.”
Later, as darkness falls across Manchester on another rainy summer evening, the beast from the bank cranks up his training. It’s easy to imagine some ghostly figures from boxing’s heavyweight past, from the Manassa Mauler to Iron Mike Tyson, looking down with approval as Vassell resembles the old fighters who mean so much to him. Under Shannon’s watchful attention he works with fierce intensity while the sweat rolls from his face. There is not a hint of a bankers’ draft, let alone a tassle or a shimmering sequin, to be seen as he skips with an old rope, his feet blurring and his breath rising and falling as he builds towards the biggest night of his boxing career.
“I’m still keeping it raw, man,” Vassell says as he skips even harder, “keeping it real. Old school all the way…”