MATTHEW HALL’S reputation precedes him. The door to the famous Collyhurst and Moston gym is always open for the former Commonwealth super-welterweight champion. He doesn’t work set hours or have a defined role but whenever he feels like it he walks up the battered concrete steps, nods to the familiar faces and parks himself on the old bench in the sparring room he once graced. He might not say much at first but everybody knows he is there. Hall retired five years ago but in a gym full of strong personalities, he still has a presence. Eventually he will speak out or approach one of the fighters he has been watching, and his blunt but honest manner cuts right to the heart of the matter.
“It’s all bulls**t. They’re giving it the big ‘un like they’re living a lavish lifestyle and they haven’t even got a tin of beans in the cupboard,” Hall told Boxing News. “Same pattern. They need a two-month camp to beat a journeyman. It’s not right. You have to be in that gym all the time. You have to be 24-hour ready.
“We’re fighters. You can’t be walking down a street, have somebody try to attack you and say, ‘Just hold on a minute. I can’t fight you yet, mate. Give us a couple of weeks. I need a training camp.’ You need to be ready. Simple as that. It’s doesn’t matter what environment you’re in. It might not be a boxing ring or a gym. You have to be ready to fight.”
The term ‘born fighter’ is bandied about a lot these days but Hall is the genuine article. Whether they’re in the ring or on the streets, a reputation follows a fighter around but it only takes one incident, one loss of face, to destroy it forever. For a born fighter, that can’t be allowed to happen. Hall isn’t prone to making excuses. He knows that he wasted his talent. He also knows exactly why. “It’s the lifestyle. I massively under-achieved and I sit there and think about it. Sometimes it gets to me. I’m not a f**king robot,” he said.
“It’s just the way I am as a human being. Sometimes I wish I could just switch off but I can’t. I can’t let things go. You are who you are though. If the same situations arose I’d react in the same way. It might not be smart but it’s just me and my instincts. I’ve always had the same mindset that was installed in me as a kid. Seek and destroy. It’s hard to just switch that off. You can’t turn back the clock. You just have to get on with it.”
Hall describes himself as “a dinosaur” but his values and views, if not prehistoric, are typically old school.
He was barely a teenager when he came to the conclusion that it is sometimes more important to act in the ‘right’ way than the right way.
It would be easy to throw another cliche Hall’s way and describe him as a product of his environment but although he grew up quickly on the tough Langley estate in North Manchester he was raised in a household where character and brains were valued just as highly as brawn. His elder brother has a degree in chemistry. Hall could have followed him. “Academically? Yeah. But it [boxing] was just in me.”
Hall’s father knew his children would need to be able to handle themselves. A massive Mike Tyson fan, he and his friends would come home from the pub, get Hall and his brother out of bed and have them recreate the action. The living room wasn’t the place for learning skills but that was never its purpose.
“I’ll be honest, I always used to get the second prize,” he remembered. “I was younger. You wasn’t allowed to cry though. My dad used to say that if we cried we’d get something to cry about. It was good though. I enjoyed it.
“Physically, I was ready at 14. I knocked my last 12 out [as an amateur] and won loads of titles. When I was 18 I was more than ready. As you get older your mind evolves and you’ve got a better mindset. You’re smarter. When you’re young, you’re reckless. Some people mature later but I had man strength when I was 14. Obviously I got better with training and the more repetitions I did but physically I was always strong and could knock people out with both hands.”
Hall might have been a successful junior amateur and the cock of his year at school but his growing reputation meant nothing when he first walked through the door at Collyhurst. Every boxer has a moment when it dawns on them that their opponent is allowed to punch back. It can be a particularly rude awakening for those youngsters who are used to dominating people their own age.
Despite his age, Hall had tasted his own blood many times. He thrived among like-minded characters and armed with a video of Tony Ayala – which according to his trainer, Brian Hughes, contained “a million pounds worth of knowledge” – he set about transforming himself into “El Torito”.
“I’ve been a fighter from young. I went to Collyhurst as an amateur at 14 and was sparring people like Robin Reid, Anthony Farnell, Michael Gomez, Mike Jennings and Thomas McDonagh. I’d been used to bulldozing people over in the amateurs. I learned the most from Robin [who was only a year removed from losing his WBC super-middleweight title]. I got in with him and he boxed me up. At the start, I’d be getting on the bus to go to school or college and I’d have headaches because I’d took that much punishment but every time, I took less and less. That’s how you learn. You spar with more seasoned people.
“I’m not comparing myself but some people peak earlier than others. Wayne Rooney was better when he was 19 than when he was 29. Mike Tyson was best when he was young. I was knocking grown men out at 14.”
Short and stocky, Hall had to fight with more technique and imagination than he is given credit for. He would move menacingly forward, drawing leads and intimidating the other man into throwing first. He came up in Ricky Hatton’s wake, gaining experience on some major undercards as “The Hitman” captured Manchester’s imagination. As one of the most exciting youngsters in a thriving fighting city, Hall should have been ideally positioned to help pick up the mantle when Hatton left the MEN Arena behind to take up residence in Las Vegas. Hughes’ plan had always been for Hall to be winning British titles by the time he was 21. Instead, when his horizons should have been widening, he was still struggling to leave behind the street life in his corner of Manchester.
A word out of place, a sideways glance. Whatever – or whoever – started trouble, Hall felt like he had to try and finish it.
“I went 5-0 and got stabbed. I was stabbed in the stomach but that didn’t really do anything to my body boxing wise,” Hall said with typical understatement. The stabbing left him with a perforated bowel and resulted in a six week stay in intensive care. As we’ve said, Hall isn’t one for excuses.
“Then I was 16-0 and got stabbed in my lung. I’ve got half a lung now and that’s what finished me. I had a year out, came back and fought Martin Concepcion and got stopped. I was finished by the time I was 21 or 22. Getting fast tracked would have benefitted me because of things that happened outside.
“I came off Langley and had a big following. I’d say I was humble but at the same time I was quite active street wise. That’s what affected me if I’m honest. I should have probably wrapped myself up in cotton wool. You can’t change what happened. You’ve just gotta get on with it.
“I stayed in the vicinity. I should have got out of the way. I’ve always had the same mentality. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the ring or not. A fight’s a fight. I should have got out of the vicinity. It’s alright being brave and being staunch and having balls and all that but it’s not smart.”
Hall would go on to stop the unbeaten Kerry Hope and took Bradley Pryce apart inside two rounds to win his Commonwealth title but insists he was a shadow of himself. After losing his belt to Anthony Small, a late notice shot at Lukas Konecny’s European title didn’t pan out and he ended up looking for opportunities at middleweight, dropping a controversial decision to Gary O’Sullivan and a wide one to Billy Joe Saunders.
Hall’s career came to end just as the current era of wall-to-wall media coverage and hyperbole began. He still recognises the sport but hates the way that style is increasingly deemed more important than substance. Where years of unseen work in the gym are overshadowed by a 30-second pad routine on Instagram and having 20-thousand twitter followers means more than selling 200 tickets.
He has considered training fighters himself but is content to lend his opinion to the friends he made during his days at Collyhurst. It would be boxing’s loss if somebody with Hall’s feel for the sport was allowed to drift away totally but loyalty and consistency matter to him. In that regard, it’s hard to imagine him ever throwing himself fully into a business where people have become increasingly disposable and are tossed away once they have served their purpose.
“You always get people going on about it being better in their day but I do honestly believe that the generation that we boxed in was better than now. Those who were around 10 years before us will say the same thing,” he said.
“These days you put all your effort into somebody and something goes wrong, they’ll move on to another trainer and slag you. I don’t think I’ve got the temperament to put up with people like that. All that energy you’re spending on people, telling them they can do this and that and helping them and then after one little problem they’re blaming you. I’ll be honest, I’d rather put my energy into my kids.
“I’ve been brought up differently. The way the world is, I’m not a fan of it to be honest with you. I like to be in control of my own destiny. With some of these fighters it’s a lottery and you don’t know what you’re getting. There’s no money in it either really. Unless you’ve got top fighters and build a stable, there’s nothing.
“Different people like different things and I’m old fashioned in the way I was brought up and the morals I’ve got but we’re in a different generation now and you have to move with the times but you get fighters these days who would rather look good and lose than look bad and win. It’s all materialistic.”
Hall wouldn’t want to be held up as a cautionary tale. He knows that his take on what is right and wrong cost him the best years of his career and a brief spell in prison. His morals and beliefs might be old fashioned and they might not always be right but they are his. And they will remain his. He knows that he needs to make sure his children won’t need to repeat the sins of their father.
“I’ve got girls. They’re geeks. They’ve got a very good life and I push them down the education route so that they can get good jobs when they’re older. They keep me grounded,” he said. “I’ve moved off the estate. I’m just around the corner really but I want better for my daughters. I can’t bring them up in the same environment I was in. As they grow older they’re gonna hear lots of stories about what their dad was like. I’m gonna be mortified. I’m in a lot of denial with them. I don’t want them knowing anything but people talk don’t they. What do you do? I want them away from that.
“Everything’s for a reason but it’s still not nice when they’re hearing stories about their dad and what he was like.”
It’s still easy to envision Hall one day having success as a trainer. His reputation precedes him but today, at least on his quiet cul-de-sac, it might just earn him a bit of peace and quiet rather than provoking trouble. Instead of firing up the lawnmower and interrupting a quiet Sunday morning, his neighbours probably make doubly sure the Hall family’s curtains are open before getting on with their jobs.
“Nah, I don’t mind that. I’d be up and about before him anyway,” he said with a laugh. “I like normality. Neighbours mowing their lawns and people going to work. I like taking the kids to school. Niceness. I like calm because if I’m in a chaotic situation I’ll behave chaotic. That’s just the way I am.”