THERE is no expression on the face of Glasgow’s Kash Farooq (16-1, 6KOs) as he scans almost every table in the bar where we’ve arranged to meet. Every table but mine. It’s blank; there is no smile splitting his young cheeks from ear-to-ear; there are no tears rolling over the little bumps on his fight-damaged skin. It’s hard to tell just where he is or how he feels, a month after boxing granted an unwelcome, permanent clemency. He is lost.
Suddenly, flanked by his trainer Craig Dickson, our eyes eventually meet, and he wanders over, half-happy to have located me, half-anxious at what’s sitting opposite: the truth. And despite trying, he can’t outpunch it or masterfully slip his way to a different conclusion. Retirement – it seems – is already dragging on…
Farooq, aged just 26, announced that very retirement officially on January 8, but the reality is that he’s been dealing with the issue itself for a few months now. He was set to make his US debut on Devin Haney’s bill in Las Vegas in early December and was already contracted to face Edinburgh’s Lee McGregor in an enormous all-Scottish rematch this spring. Yet since October last year, his career as a professional boxer has been largely reliant on the contents of the thick, brown envelopes passed between doctors and specialists, from second to third opinions.
“The first scan came back, and it said we needed to see a – what was it again? A physio-…” Farooq asks, screwing his face up, with Dickson stepping in to assist: “It was the radiologist – he reviews the scans and reviews his history. He had a change [in a brain scan] a couple of years before and we got it checked out. It was nothing related to this, it was fine. The neurologist had a look at it and wasn’t happy, so he’s said, ‘This needs further checks.’”
The pair have become so close during the past five years that they finish each other’s sentences, filling in the blanks, and there are plenty of them, with dates and a plethora of medical job titles.
Farooq interjects: “Until you [Dickson] phoned me, I didn’t know what was going on. I thought, okay, we’ll need to go and see him [a neuropsychologist], do a couple of tests and we’ll be out of the room in no time. I spoke to the guy, and the price was f**king extortionate, first of all! I asked him, ‘How long am I gonna be?’ He said I’d be three hours, I was like, ‘Wit?’ I thought I was just gonna come in and touch my nose or something like that. I turned up late – I never turn up late anywhere. That was a big sign for me that I wasn’t gonna box again.
“I put my money in the parking meter; I only put a couple of quid in for an hour because I thought, ‘I’ll only be 20 minutes.’ My phone kept on going off during the appointment; my mum kept on calling me, my brother kept on calling me, I was like, ‘F**king stop calling me!’ The guy was getting pissed off. He was like, ‘Just shut your phone off.’ I thought, ‘What am I even doing here? Something is obviously wrong. I shouldn’t even be here.’
“See when I came out, I just felt like…” Farooq pauses, reliving the uncertainty. “I was myself at the time and I just couldn’t get it. Honestly, I was just stressed out and I was quite confused. He started giving me signs; he was saying, ‘What would happen if you had to retire? Should you really be boxing?’ Stuff like that. He probably knew things that I didn’t know, and it just wasn’t giving me good feelings. Before I knew it, he’d written a bad report, he’d sent it to the board, and they suspended my licence. It just went on from there…”
For Farooq, the former British bantamweight champion, the wait for a final decision forced him to confront life without boxing. Bleak, empty, and full of questions. The sport had been his life since his early teens, travelling miles after school to soak up his preferred method of education from coaches like the influential Bobby Keddie. He had fought twice in the past year, beating Alexander Espinoza (W UD) and Luis Castillo (W UD) on stacked Matchroom Boxing cards headlined by Conor Benn and Joshua Buatsi respectively. His stock was truly on the rise. And to emerge from Scotland’s small hall scene with the Lord Lonsdale Belt and thousands of admirers, he’d done the hard bit, gaining followers internationally and a blockbuster fan in promoter Eddie Hearn.
“I’ve just been thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me.’ Losing my purses, those big fights coming up. I was in a dark place – that’s where I ended up. I had a lot of money lined up; big fights scheduled at my weight. I was sitting on my bed thinking, ‘I’m only 26. I haven’t done half the things I want to do in life.’ You know, I just wanted to quietly go away. I’m very low key, I just wanted to disappear. I don’t want any attention, I just wanted people to ask, ‘What’s happened to him?’ Ah, he just chucked it?’
“I was waking up and I was just lost,” continued Farooq, who’d signed to promotional powerhouse Matchroom after dazzling in his contentious defeat to Lee McGregor, back in 2019. “The thing that was keeping me away from drink, drugs, women, that is gone now – I can do what I want. I can do anything, holidays, any of that stuff. Where is my focus? It’s gone. This is all I’ve done from the age of 14. I’ve come in [to boxing] with no education and my parents aren’t in a good position in life. The money I was gonna make was gonna set them up for good. Before you know it, you’re sitting here today with nothing. Not nothing. I’ve got my health, which is the most important thing, but I’m sitting here, and I’ve lost everything.”
Trainer and long-time friend Craig Dickson tags in, giving Farooq a minute to compose himself and almost inhale his second coffee. Dickson, himself a former professional with a record of 16 wins and six defeats, knows only too well of the dangers of the sport. He spoke of his own experience, reaching the end of his career as a ‘modern day gladiator’ as he aptly described it. And then, he spoke of the present day. The worry, the impact those hard rounds have had on his life after boxing, and his admiration for the recent work of Tris Dixon (author of Damage), which opened his eyes to the near impossibility of truly escaping unscathed.
Farooq’s premature exit from boxing – in the words of his trainer, Dickson – “isn’t a sad story.” Though the two seem to view it through a different lens. Dickson continued, “I’m worried for myself, I am. I loved fighting; I just loved it. When you’re that young, you feel invincible and indestructible. You’re in there taking punches and your adrenaline is through the roof. Combat fighters are in that game because the highs are ridiculous.
“We [together with Farooq’s manager, Iain Wilson] were thinking about the rest of his life. He’s not going to make the money we would have thought going through the next few years, it was massive. He could have done other things then. If you get that [Lee McGregor fight], win, lose, or draw, you can walk away. But we just knew, and we said, ‘Nah.’ Iain phoned Robert Smith and said, ‘Listen, we’re done. We need to protect him.’”
Farooq, dubbed rightfully ‘The Untouchable,’ found similar opinions elsewhere. But it was the final words of the British Boxing Board’s Dr Lee Riddell that settled any argument: “He gave me the reality, yeah. He said: ‘Kash, listen, it’s like you’re crossing a bridge and there’s a 95 per cent chance you’ll get through. But are you willing to risk it for five per cent? The bridge cracks and you die? Are you willing to risk the rest of your life for that?’ I know that for the Lee McGregor fight, I would’ve went all out. I didn’t wanna lose; I know he didn’t wanna lose. That would’ve taken a lot out of me. That first fight, my face was sore for a week, I had headaches, I was peeing blood after the fight.
“To be honest, I would have phoned up some guy, somewhere, to try and get an offshore licence. I’ve got a big lump sum of money saved in my bank; I’m not some guy that’s skint, so I would have tried to work my way around this and probably done it. There’s been boys that have done the same – I won’t name them. But their team hasn’t advised them properly, you know. Craig said to me, ‘F**k boxing, it isn’t worth it.’ In boxing, there’s 100 reasons why you’d want to do it and 100 reasons why you shouldn’t. See those 100 reasons you shouldn’t, they’re strong. It’s about weighing it up. Those 100 good reasons, they’ll change your life forever.”
He’s not exaggerating; Farooq and his family came to Glasgow from Pakistan when he was just eight years old, and the shy, youngest sibling initially struggled to settle in. When asked about his upbringing, and the part of Glasgow where his family were placed, Dickson heavily exhales, signalling the tough, unforgiving nature of the high-rise flats where asylum seekers or low-earning immigrants were generally housed. Life wasn’t easy before boxing, and it certainly won’t be easy after, as things seem to have come full circle.
“We’re now living in Scotstoun, and we’ve been in that area for like 19, maybe 20 years coming up. I spoke nothing at all [English-wise] when we arrived. I had to be in the language unit in primary school – that’s where you picked up little bits. We were in that unit with kids from different countries. Everybody’s English was more advanced than ours. ‘If,’ ‘but,’ that type of thing. Learning the alphabet, it was [hard]. When you’re young, it is tough. It’s difficult growing up here and it’s not ‘integration’ like it seems.
“There was a lot of racism as well, to be honest. The usual stuff. I started making friends through school. I was with other asylum seekers from Albania, Africa, Asia. We are all friends to this day. We were in the same scenario, and it was great. I enjoyed my childhood, we were always up to something. What’s happening in my life at the moment, I knew this day was gonna come. One day. I know the way it came was exceptional, but it was always gonna come. It’s like death – you can’t escape it.”
While death has no escape, boxing does – just. It’s just extremely difficult to swallow, even for the aged, hardened professionals who have taken their beatings. Never mind the slick, elusive prospects, tiptoeing on the edge of world class with an army of supporters carrying their hopes aloft. When one door closes, another does open, and Farooq has been named St Andrews Sporting Club’s ‘Head of Talent.’ It’s a role that will be subjective to begin with, without the constraints of structured working hours, contracts, etc. and it won’t infringe on his search for whatever’s next.
When asked what he thinks that could be, he tried his best to remain optimistic, explaining that the only other type of work he’d tried, albeit briefly, was delivering pizzas and working in a sandwich chain. You can tell from the nervous smiling and the gentle shrug of his shoulders, that it’s a worry for him. School didn’t suit, starting 10 paces behind his English-speaking peers and never quite grasping the curriculum. So, how would he fare in the ‘real world?’ We speak about his desirable, transferable skills, exceptional drive and work ethic like no other Dickson has coached. His dedication to detail, evident when drilling pad work over-and-over, studying tape at home.
In fact, Dickson wants Farooq to spend some time behind the books, studying at college, carving out a career path for himself. He doesn’t know what he wants to study – not yet. He doesn’t know what company he’s looking to attract, or what salary he should be aiming for; he only knows boxing. And that let him go.
“There’s gonna be more obstacles in my life still to come that will hit me like this,” Farooq predicts. “This is just another obstacle, then the next one, I’ll overcome that, too. That’s life. Your bills need to be paid. Guess what? The boss still needs you to come into work, the mortgage still needs to be paid, so I’m just trying to move on. I don’t wanna think about punching anymore. I’ve been down to the gym a few times, but it just doesn’t feel the same. Punching is hard going on your joints. I thought, ‘Maybe in a few months, years,’ but now, I’m not interested. I knew I wanted to put my time and energy into this properly. I didn’t want to be daft with it, after fights, bevvying, partying. I wanted to just burn myself out completely and walk away from boxing when I was fed up with it.”
The change in Farooq’s brain scan hasn’t left him in perilous health or in need of any serious, imminent medical treatment. But the increased risk of serious brain injury won’t permit him the opportunity to add to his existing achievements, winning the Scottish title, British title, and a couple of sanctioning bodies ranking titles. Though, it doesn’t sound as though the belts meant much to him anyway, with Craig Dickson jumping in to reveal his own shock at their current location: “They’re lying under his bed! He isn’t bothered about the British title!”
“To me, they’re just things,” the former champion explains, defending himself. “I wanted to get into boxing to get myself financially secure. See people that want world titles and this-and-that, if you don’t make yourself financially secure… it doesn’t mean anything. They’re just there. I thought, ‘I’m gonna make myself financially secure and get myself as much money as I can.’ Retirement came knocking at my door without me expecting it. I don’t have an education, I don’t have lots of money behind me, so, you know…”
He’ll get himself a cabinet at some point, he concedes, just to appease Dickson, I suspect. The pair sit and bounce off one another, laughing about their trips for sparring, travelling the length of the United Kingdom.
He’d given rounds to some of the best fighters in the world, and he’d impressed every time. Farooq recalled their time in one of the Matchroom Boxing COVID bubbles, when he’d gone to sleep the night before the fight, fully prepared and weighed in, only to wake up and hear his fight had been cancelled. Colin Bellshaw, a late arrival to the bubble, tested positive, and they were all kicked out during the heat of the pandemic. There are plenty of good – and ridiculous – memories.
Dickson closed with emotion in his tone, “He’s the best fighter I’ve ever dealt with. His talent is unbelievable. He got out what he put in. The perfect example. He’s walked away with enough [money] to start something else, his health intact, and with something to show his family. He has something to give back to his community and he’s just a fantastic example of what a boxer should be. This is a good news story for him. The Board have prevented any further damage to him. This is a new start for him. But I’ll tell you this right now, I’ll never get another Kash Farooq.”
Whether it’s a course at one of Glasgow’s local colleges or a job to pay the bills while bulking up his position at St Andrews Sporting Club, will it be enough? Probably not, to begin with. That hole left behind by a sport that takes away more than it gives to fighters won’t be filled in the next few months, or even years, you’d suspect. But Kash Farooq will get there. He’s happier now, with a smile on his face again after almost 90 minutes of catharsis. He was lost on the way into the restaurant, and in a sense, he’ll be lost on the way back out. But he’ll find himself again.
I asked him what he wanted fans to say in 10 or 20 years, if they were sitting round a table like ours, reminiscing on young Kash Farooq, the former British champion. How would he like to be remembered?
“I think they’ll say, ‘He brought something else to Scotland and to boxing, talent-wise. He was a good boxer, a good fighter, and he was honest with himself.’ I never said, ‘Aw, I’m gonna get to world level.’ I just took it a step at a time, I wanted to see how far I could go – that was all. See the guys that are successful and that are doing well outside of boxing – they’re the ones that are really winning in life. They have businesses, they’ve paid their houses off, they’re doing this-and-that, those are the guys that are winning. It’s gonna take me time to get back to what I wanna do, and it will take time to get my love back for something [other than boxing]. But I know I’ll get there.”