WHEN Lee Selby turned pro, there was barely a ripple of interest beyond the Welsh border. No million-pound deal from the BBC to launch him into a new career, as enjoyed by Audley Harrison. No big promoters and TV channels scrambling for his services like we saw greeting Anthony Joshua. No public unveiling such as Boxxer recently provided for Selby’s compatriot, Lauren Price.
But those, after all, were Olympic gold medallists, already household names across the sporting world. Lee joined the paid ranks without ever competing in a significant international amateur championship.
Even Chris Sanigar, his choice as manager had never seen him box when he signed him.
“I knew he’d won a few Welsh amateur titles,” says Chris. “But when Robbie Turley introduced me to him at a show in Cardiff, I’d never actually seen him in action.”
Trainer Tony Borg was also there and suggested that the wannabe pro came to his Newport gym the following Sunday morning, a suggestion that shocked the youngster.
“I said all my boxers trained on Sunday mornings,” explained Tony, “because it meant they couldn’t go out on Saturday night!”
At the time a few pints and a fag or two were a regular part of the Selby lifestyle, which meant a shock when he turned up to spar and found himself struggling.
“I told him the other lads couldn’t match him for skill,” said Borg, “but they were fitter because they trained properly.
“At that stage he’d never done circuits, but once he started he progressed in leaps and bounds. Whenever one of the other boys did better than him in some drill, he’d work harder so that next time he’d beat them at it.”
There were no television cameras at the Newport Centre to see him make his debut with a six-round decision over journeyman Sid Razak. His progress was steady, but unspectacular: even the acquisition of Welsh and Celtic titles meant little beyond Offa’s Dyke.
The breakthrough came when he was picked by Frank Warren to challenge British and Commonwealth featherweight ruler Stephen Smith in front of his adoring Merseyside fans and the wider Sky audience. With 12 straight wins to his name, “Swifty” was being groomed for bigger things, yet, as Sanigar puts it: “Smith was a great fighter, but sometimes you have to roll the dice – and I knew Lee was good enough.”
The lad from the Barry council estate proved it beyond doubt. He schooled Smith for eight rounds before uncorking a thunderous left to send the hometown hero crashing. No count was needed. A new star had arrived.
Four successful defences earned him a Lonsdale Belt to keep, supplemented by a brief reign as European monarch, before he turned his sights to the wider world.
“I began to take him to America,” recalls his manager. “In Vegas he trained at Mayweather’s gym and Johnny Tocco’s and later we went to Los Angeles and Freddie Roach’s place. We also went to some of the little Mexican gyms in the area – just turned up and asked to spar.
“I told Lee not to worry about who he was going to spar with – we’d pick someone roughly the same size – and just to go in and do it. And he learned not to have any fear, which stood him in good stead when he boxed at world level.”
Matchroom, now in promotional charge, persuaded the IBF to recognise a clash with unbeaten Aussie Joel Brunker as a final eliminator. Lee dismantled him with body shots and was back at the O2 seven months later to challenge belt-holder Evgeny Gradovich.
Trainer Borg was confident. “He was up against a Russian, based in America and trained by Mexicans, who never took a step backwards,” he points out. “He was made for Selby. I was elated when he did it.”
And he “did it” in style, dominating from the start. Even though a cut caused by a clash of heads meant a premature end after eight rounds, the three judges gave Gradovich just two rounds between them. Wales had her 12th ‘world’ champion.
Four defences followed, including a clear defeat of former three-division king Fernando Montiel which introduced Selby to the United States, but making nine stone had been taking its toll. When Josh Warrington dethroned him at the Elland Road home of his fanatical Leeds United fans, Lee opted to return not at super-feather but up at lightweight.
He was not to fulfil his dreams of a second ‘world’ throne. Successive eliminator losses to Australian George Kambosos Jnr, and Argentinian Gustavo Lemos – the latter last month in Buenos Aires – convinced Selby that the calendar was as unforgiving as the scales had been. After hurling punches for 27 years he has called it a day.
“He was very dedicated,” says Chris. “To make featherweight for so long he’d have to eat like a bird. I used to diet with him and sometimes we’d just have half a banana each, stuff like that.”
And the future? Selby is already an ambassador for Empire Fighting Chance, Sanigar’s Bristol-based charity, which offers hope and discipline to troubled youngsters, with boxing playing a key role.
“Give him some time,” says Chris, “but I’d like him to get a gym, maybe in Barry, and help his community. We employ 32 full-time staff and help 5,000 kids a year. I hope Lee will join us.”
“I’m proud the team I started with was the same team I ended with and I am grateful for the 14-year pro career we shared together… My management team of Chris and Jamie Sanigar, the endless hours in the gym with my trainer Tony Borg and experienced cornermen Billy Reynolds and Nigel Christian. We can all look back on a job well done.
“I tried to be a good champion and treat people with respect… I hope my career can be an inspiration to those boxers starting out on small shows that your dreams can become a reality.
“I exit the ring with no regrets, happy, healthy and with my family financially secure. Boxing has been my life and I am sure my involvement in the sport will continue… as I look to set new goals. Thank you, boxing.”