JOE CORDINA makes this old boxing lark look easy. But the 30-year-old Cardiffian categorically claims it has been anything but. A doting father of three, the 2014 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist, 2015 European amateur champion and Rio Olympian sacrificed seven-and-a-half hard years on national service at the Team GB set-up in Sheffield and, for the past five, has isolated himself in Brentwood, Essex in pursuit of the pugilistic perfection he hopes will eventually deliver a bounty.

“I missed out completely on my late teens and early 20s, all the fun I saw mates having. I’ve never been on a lads’ holiday in my life. I’ve had to be so strict,” states “The Welsh Wizard”, undefeated in 14 paid outings since shedding his singlet in April 2017.

“It’s so hard leaving my missus [Lauren] and kids [Sophia, Valentina-Rose and Joseph]. I’ve missed birthdays, missed watching them learn to crawl, take their first steps. But I just plod on, knowing God is with me. Hopefully, long-term, I can give my kids everything they want and more.”

But the artful switch-hitter is now on the cusp of reaping dividends following his 12 years of purgatory. This Saturday, June 4, in his home city, he confronts Japanese belt-holder Kenichi Ogawa, the fifth-ranked 130-pounder in the world and the owner of the IBF strap.

“I stated in earlier interviews that I expected to be challenging for a world belt by my 15th fight and here we are. Good things happen to good people. It’s a bit of God’s work as well as mine,” he says. “If it hadn’t been for Covid and injuries, I might even have challenged in my 13th fight. People have to realise that I had an awful lot of 10-12 week camps when I was learning, developing. I felt ready after beating [Mario Enrique] Tinoco in late 2019.”

Amongst the simon-pures, Cordina carved his niche as an evasive back-foot contortionist capable of avoiding prolonged conflict at all costs. His subsequent evolution into world contender after just 14 paid assignments has therefore been impressive.

“I’m very pleased with my choice of manager-trainer,” says Cordina who fought a scheduled 10-rounder in his seventh start and a 12-round Commonwealth (lightweight) championship in his eighth.

‘Tony Sims has taken plenty of fighters to world level before me so obviously knows what he’s doing. He deserves huge credit for getting me to 12 round level within 16 months of my debut.

“As an amateur, I was a counter puncher, always moving. And I’ve retained that speed and foot movement though I’ve not really needed to bring it out yet [as a pro].

“However, I was fully aware that, with that style, I’d struggle to last four hard rounds with top pros whipping in those body shots. In truth, in the amateurs, I was knackered after two rounds so I’d always try to win the first two then muddle through the third.

“But from my earliest [pro] camps, I was sparring 36 minutes, sometimes doing four minute rounds with the likes Of Conor [Benn] and Martin J. Ward. By my seventh camp, I was sparring 14 rounds straight off. It was tough.

Joe Cordina
Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing

“From the off, Tony ordered me to study what [ex-housemate] Ricky Burns did and live the same [way]. We have a brutal run which we call the Triangle and Ricky would always say, ‘Come on, one more [circuit].’ However tired I was, I’d match him.

“Ricky’s a nice guy but, sparring, he’d hit me on the back of the head, rough me up, and I had to learn to ignore it, retain concentration. It was actually a compliment. He later explained if he stood off and tried to box, he’d not get near me. We learned a lot from each other.

“During lockdown, Tony fed me loads of tapes from top fighters, not just present day but also from the 50s, 60s, 70s and every day I’d study what got them to the level they’re at and try to include that into my arsenal. I’ve learned to sit in close, fight inside, fight going forward, punch harder. But I’ve also become a bit cuter, learned to think my way around the ring.”

During his opening two years in the profession, operating up at lightweight, Joe cruised to 10-0 while winning British and Commonwealth titles. Having cited maintaining 60KG (a shade over 9st 6lbs) for his underachievement at the 2016 Olympics, it was a shock when he opted to drop to 130lbs following a gruelling British lightweight defence against compatriot Gavin Gwynne in late 2019 (w pts 12).

“The fight wasn’t especially hard – back then I only had one [good] hand – but it dawned that Gavin was a lot bigger physically and while I could match him for strength, I sensed that might not be the case with lightweights at world level,” says the Cardiffian. “For lightweight title fights with [Andy] Townend and Gwynne, I was able to stop training the Wednesday before weigh-in. I was making weight far too easily so we gave super-feather a trial run against Tinoco. It’s not easy but I’m not putting my body at harm. 130 is the right weight for me.

“I’m now able to chuck opponents around, something I couldn’t do in the Gwynne fight. At 135, you hear of ‘Rolly’ [Rolando] Romero coming down from 180lbs. Huge! I can’t match that, strength wise.”

Over the ensuing 32 months, the streamlined Cordina performed publicly four times, prospering in a trinity of top grade 10-rounders with aforementioned Mexican hardcase Tinico (a stoppage conqueror of Jordan Gill on these shores), current European super-feather czar Faraoukh Kourbanov plus 13-0 Belgian Miko Khatchatryan, spats that helped him acclimatise towards world level.

“That’s what managers are for; picking the right fights at the right time. That’s why Tony’s the best out there,” claims Cordina, who outpointed all three.

“Each time I had to really push so it wouldn’t be a problem moving back up to 12 rounds, if needed. I spar four-minute rounds anyway.

“Tinico was toughest; trickier and harder punching than the others. I couldn’t make any mistakes. However, for rounds eight through 10 my size at super-feather began to tell and he started to wilt. Kourbanov was like a spar. I struggled to let my hands go but the 16 months out didn’t help.”
Between, he wiped out Chicago’s 10-3 Joshuah Hernandez with a single slug from his maligned right mitt, registering his eighth stoppage while dismissing doubts about his power.

“Look, I know I’m not a one-punch kayo artist but my stoppage percentage after 14 fights is not dissimilar to Devin Haney’s or George Kambosos at the same stage of their careers and no one says they can’t punch,” says Cordina whose spitefulness is undervalued.

“It baffles me. I only had one [good] hand for my last three fights at lightweight. What I do have is great timing and my punches are gonna hurt, take their toll over a 12-round fight.

“The likes of Lee Selby and Paulie Malinaggi weren’t punchers but their skillsets took them to world titles and not many have a better skillset than me. Lack of power may have been an issue with the lightweight elite but it won’t be at 130.”

Long term, the 30-year-old aspires to PPV stadium fights and, following the retirement of Lee Selby, there is a very strong case that he is presently the Principality’s premier prize-fighter. However, you’d be forgiven for not noticing such is the paucity of publicity he has generated in Wales. “It’s just my personality. I don’t like to be pointed out, don’t want to be famous,” concedes Cordina. “If I called everyone out, people would soon start writing about me. But that’s not me. Nobody has bad things to say about me because I’m a nice guy, respectful. I’ve time for everyone. I want to be liked, rather than making an idiot of myself on the tele. I just want to reach my goals, win a world title, make my money, then relax with my family. I intend bowing out with all my faculties and living a nice life.”

Like it or not, he finds himself front stage and centre at Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena on Saturday 4th June, for what will be just his fourth turn in his home country. Twice he served as a prelim act in Anthony Joshua heavyweight title fights at the national stadium but, when he headlined in a Commonwealth challenge to Birkenhead’s Sean ‘Masher’ Dodd at the city’s Ice Arena in August 2018, the hall was barely half full. Nevertheless, he anticipates a cauldron come fight night.

“The previous time, it was all a bit rushed and forced,” he claims. “Of Welsh fighters, there was only my title fight plus Sean McGoldrick against a journeyman. I’ve come a long way from that. My support base is far bigger and I expect it to be rammed. We’ve had barely four weeks to promote this but I’ve already shifted 600 tickets.

“It’s a bit stressful but you just have to embrace it. What could be better than winning a world title in your hometown? It’s a big advantage for me and I’m really grateful for the opportunity. It could be my last opportunity so I have to grasp it with both hands.

“I’ve always wanted to bring ‘big-time’ boxing back to Cardiff. Lee [Selby] was from Barry so he could’ve built in Cardiff and given young Welsh fighters some big opportunities on TV shows but instead he went with the money and defended abroad.

“I’ve already boxed twice at the Millennium Stadium and also at Wembley Stadium on ‘AJ’ undercards, plus Bramall Lane in Sheffield so now my dream is to fight at Cardiff City Stadium. I’m a big Bluebirds fan and I’ve been invited on to the pitch three times and into the changing rooms. Each time, I got a wicked reception.”

In preparation, the 5ft 9in South Walian has deployed significantly heavier spar hands in Robbie Davies Jnr, Alfie Winter and Shiloh Defreitas and, in tandem with Sims, has been deep in reconnaissance devising a strategy to overhaul the 34-year-old belt-holder who has lost just once in 29 (one draw, one No Contest) and boasts a cautionary 18 early endings.

“I’m conscious not to set plans by what my opponent did in previous fights against different opposition with different styles to me,” disclosed Cordina. “Kenichi’s got good feet going forward, a good boxing IQ. He brings fast hands and clearly he’s a big hitter.

“But I never speak of doubt. This is my chance to change my life, change my family’s life and put myself in the history books. He doesn’t seem to like fighting on the inside or going backwards. From everything I’ve seen online, he does the same things, throws the same shots. There’s a few things I intend to exploit.

“Okay, he’s won at Madison Square Garden and fought well in Vegas but he’ll find Cardiff a lot different to the US with all my fanatical home support.

“I’ve sold 150 ringside [tickets] already and those fans will be right on him from the start. They’ll not make it pleasant for him. He’s literally coming into the Dragon’s Den.

“I’ll have to fully concentrate at all times. One blink and it could be lights out for me but it’s my aim to win comfortably. I just believe my boxing ability is wider than what his is.

“A stoppage would be brilliant. That might surprise a few boxing people but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me or Tony.”