IN the days deprived of dieticians, nutritionists and day before weigh-ins, when removing stubborn pounds was a slog of starvation and saunas, not a science, Hugh Forde somehow managed to boil his long body down to super-featherweight.
The sacrifices were torturous, draining and, frankly, dangerous. Yet Hugh, near freakishly tall for the 9st 4lb division at 5ft 10ins, retained the skills and strength to win British and Commonwealth titles.
Harrowing stories about Hugh’s struggle with the scales still abound in Birmingham boxing circles. Hugh, now 56 and a Royal Mail worker, is not a part of the current fight scene and, to an extent, is Birmingham’s forgotten British champ.
That’s an injustice. Long limbed and sinewy, Hugh was a fine, tough competitor who seemed to have the world at his feet when stopping Joey Jacobs for the Lonsdale Belt in 1990.
He hit the heights despite never being a full-time pro. By day, the champ earned a crust as an office worker.
In terms of weight-making, Hugh, a father of five, suffered more than most for his success.
“The training took off some of the weight and not eating got me there,” said Hugh from his Kings Heath home. “As the years added up, it got harder, I thought, ‘hang on a minute’. But we’re professional people who do things that, physically, are not right. You push your body to the limit. Your body says no and you still push it to the limit.
“It was more the fluids, the fluids were a killer – not being able to have a full cup of tea. Even now I can’t drink a full cup of tea. I’d have a small spoon of ice-cream just to keep my mouth moist.”
A product of Birmingham City ABC, Hugh turned pro without fanfare in 1986. Guided by the Lynch brothers and Barry Hearn, he peeled off 19 straight wins, including a two round stoppage of Gary Maxwell for the Midlands belt, before facing Jacobs for the title at Wolverhampton Civic Hall. He made the most of the opportunity, prevailing in the 11th.
“Reaching that pinnacle was surreal,” said Hugh. “You spend a lifetime trying to achieve something and it happens. Not many can say they achieved what they dreamt of.
“People see you in the ring for that one night, but it’s the four or five years leading up to it.”
A glorious, golden career beckoned: there were heady plans for Hugh to gain ownership of the belt in record time. But, back then, the super-featherweight division appeared cursed. It passed from one champ to another like a hot potato. No one appeared capable of defending the crown – 13 tried, but failed. Five fell at the very first hurdle following Hugh’s four round knockout defeat to Kevin Pritchard in his inaugural defence.
“I was always well above 10 stone in between fights and making 9st 4lb was a struggle that drained my resources. In the end it took its toll,” he admitted. “In today’s world it would still be tough getting to the weight, but it would’ve been done more sensibly with the correct diet instead of jumping in and out of saunas wrapped up in plastic bin liners.
“The only thing I can liken it to is jockeys – and they don’t have to go out and do battle.”
There were other big fights, other nights of glory. Hugh’s slippery southpaw skills and long limbs continued to test the best in the brutal business.
He claimed the Commonwealth crown and gave Bristol’s big hitting Ross Hale all the trouble he could handle in a British title bid up at super-lightweight before being bludgeoned by a sledgehammer left hook in the seventh.
YouTube footage reveals how close Hugh came to an upset victory. Hale was rocked and unsteady before dramatically ending matters.
Hugh and world class Tony Pep waged war until the Canadian prevailed in the ninth.
But the flame of hunger and ambition was fading fast.
“My first child was born and that was a turning point,” Hugh shrugged. “It’s strange – and sad – to step in the ring and not have that passion and desire.
“You’re on your own in the ring thinking, ‘Do I really want this any more?’ You have to be sensible – you’ve achieved something, what else do you want?”
Hugh, a grounded family man, is rightly content with – and proud of – his achievements.
In his 1995 swansong, the Birmingham boxer was stopped in six by Shamrock Express Shea Neary, who would become one of the best in the world. Hugh bowed out with 24 wins – 11 by stoppage – in 31 bouts. “My only regret is not saving the money,” he said. “I had an office job, so I had an income, so what came in from boxing could’ve been saved, but it got spent.
“When you’re young, you think it will go on forever.
“I enjoy spending most weekends socialising with my family, watching the lads playing football – Alex in a Saturday league and Paris plays on Sundays.
“The footie’s been a welcome distraction due to the pandemic. It’s the only thing that feels normal at the moment, especially at grass roots level.”
Hugh added: “I can’t really be too disappointed about my career. It gave me a great lessons in discipline and respect for others in life.
“Stepping into a boxing ring is not a place for the faint-hearted, but if you have the ability and dedication that can be coached and nurtured the right way there’s no reason not to pursue a unique experience.”