At the AO Arena in Manchester on Saturday night (November 18), thousands of “Stokies” will cheer for their man Nathan Heaney during his challenge for the British middleweight title against Denzel Bentley. In this interview with Boxing News, Heaney speaks about the coveted Lonsdale belt, the problem of too many belts in boxing, how his fans help him during battle, and an amateur career in which he says he underachieved.
BN: How much does this fight mean to you?
NH: In footballing terms it’s the FA Cup Final of British boxing. For me it’s the biggest thing ever. It’s something that I’ve always believed that I can achieve. I’ve got the ability to become a British champion. Many people have probably had easier routes to a British title. Denzel Bentley is a very good champion. Hopefully he brings out the best in me because I think I box to the level of the opponent in front of me.
BN: What is it that makes Denzel Bentley a “very good champion”?
NH: For him, the equaliser is his punching power. I think he’s knocked out 80 per cent of his opponents. Me and Bentley have boxed some of the same lads and I know he’s stopped some I couldn’t stop. There’s so many variables that go into someone getting stopped but that shows he can punch and he’s got that about him. I think he’s a decent boxer. I think he’s quite rangy, but so am I; I’m quite a large middleweight, so I think that neutralises that.
BN: How important was it to get the win against Jack Flatley second time around?
NH: It was great. The first time I boxed him at the Manchester Arena I felt a lot of pressure. I thought to myself, I can’t lose to Jack Flatley. In my head that fight was on the route to something. I knew he was a good fighter, but I think the way I fought in the first fight reflected how I felt. I was boxing nice, but I didn’t go through any gears. I had planned to do that late in the fight, but the cut stopped it. Then the return fight happened and I thought to myself, Jack Flatley knows what I’m about now. It’s almost like he knows how to work to my strengths and weaknesses, and I thought he’d have more of an advantage the second time. But I knew what I needed to do. The performance I put on in that fight was night and day compared to the first one. I boxed well and it has set me up for this one.
BN: When you embarked on your professional boxing career, was it all about winning a British title?
NH: No. When I first started as a professional boxer, I was 27 and I thought I’ll give myself three years as a pro. If I do something fantastic, great; if I don’t, at least I’ve got no regrets. I knew that the only way I was going to turn pro was on the small-hall scene. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sell any tickets because no-one used to go to my amateur fights, and I never wanted them to go. So, I thought to myself give it a go. I’ve seen what’s happened to other fighters in the area. You usually have a few fights, and no-one goes and that’s the end of their career. But then fast forward six years and I can’t believe what’s gone on. You said, “Was it all about winning the British title?” Well, not really, because I only did it to have no regrets. But now it is a dream of mine because I’ve got dreams to go further as well.
BN: So, after boxing for three years as a pro you were fighting the likes of Christian Schembri and then Ryan Oliver. Where did you see your career going afterwards?
NH: I’d said to my wife, “Give me three years, if I do well, I’ll keep going but if I didn’t do well, I’ll retire and never box again.” It was that Christian Schembri fight where I won my first international title. It was before Covid happened and my walkout went viral with the Stokies in King’s Hall in Stoke. About three weeks later I was signed with Frank Warren. That’s when it changed and when I became a TV fighter. Even then I didn’t think to myself, Right I’m going to be a British champion. I just took each fight as they came along. I had a two-year contract with Frank and then I got a new one with him. I boxed [Sladan] Janjanin and then that Argentinian (Diego Ramirez) who stopped Bradley Skeete back in the day and I came through that. That was a good step up. He was very, very tough, and underrated. Then came Jack Flatley. To be honest I’d always envisioned this fight [for the British title] at the football ground because that’s what they always spoke about. I know Frank’s done his absolute best to try and get that sorted. For whatever reason things have been held back a little bit from Stoke City’s side. So, Frank’s just made the fight now which I totally get. But I think, for me, it’s even better because let’s say for example I’d have gone for the British title at the football ground. It’d have been phenomenal. But Frank has promised the winner a world title shot. I know they’re lining the winner up to fight Janibek (Alimkhanuly) and, granted, I’d be a ridiculous underdog in that fight, but I’m an underdog in this fight, so it doesn’t really matter. So, for me, it’s a risk-reward thing right now. The reward is massive. It could change everything.
BN: I wanted to speak to you about belts in boxing. You’ve won a couple of international ones. The argument is there are too many belts and that they are needless. Another argument is that for the fighters who don’t go to the top of the sport winning an international belt is a big deal and something to cherish and one day look back on. What is your opinion?
NH: The international belts are something that I think are great, particularly for someone like myself. I’m not this big [Team] GB star who is given everything and will eventually get a world title shot. People don’t consider the IBO title to be a legitimate world title. When I think back to Lennox Lewis, the first belt I remember seeing is the IBO world title. One of my idols, [Gennadiy] Golovkin, had one. Regardless of the politics, it’s still something that one day you can show the grandkids and so on. If you were to get them belts and take the nights and atmosphere and the people there supporting me, there are major stories behind these belts. I’m proud of the belts I’ve won but winning the British legitimises all of them. If you become British champion, that is a legit, prestigious belt. It then gives prestige to all my previous achievements as well. The international belts give fighters opportunities they would probably never get. Some lads may never be world champions. I may never be a world champion. But I could certainly fight for a world title if I win this fight.
BN: When you are in the heat of battle and you have your thousands supporting you, how is that of benefit?
NH: I’ve heard comments from previous fighters who have said the crowd can’t fight for you. I totally get that and that is right. But the old 12th man (adage) is a real thing. Bear in mind I’ve boxed in front of thousands who have supported me, and I’ve boxed in front of complete silence behind closed doors. And I know the difference. In round one against Jack Flatley in my last fight I think I threw 150 punches in the first round. I went out like an absolute rocket. I did the exact same thing behind closed doors but my god at the end of the second or third round I really felt every bit of fatigue coming my way. In the Flatley fight I went out like mad but as you’re throwing shots, and the place erupts, you almost don’t feel anything. It’s very, very strange. I had it in my first ever title fight, the Midlands Area, four years ago (against Tom Stokes). That was a real back-and-forth fight for four rounds but every time I threw a shot in the later rounds the place erupted. Granted, there were only 400 people there at the time, but because it was in the Kings Hall it was condensed. The atmosphere was electric. It just gives you something else. Now, granted you could say the opposite if the crowd are silent and you think to yourself, What’s going on here? I hope they’re not bored. I have thought that with certain opponents. But my guys are with me all the way through; they sing all the way through. That Ramirez fight I got put on my arse in the first round [but] they never stopped singing. They literally guided me through the whole fight. It makes a massive difference. I think the opponent might underestimate how it affects them.
BN: You spoke earlier of how winning the British title would legitimise your previous successes. Does respect from your peers and other fans matter to you?
NH: This is a question I’ve had in my mind quite a few times. The only people I want to impress are my supporters, my coach, and my wife. It’s nice to impress people that don’t support you, but the fact of the matter is I’ve seen how this boxing game goes. One minute you’re Lomachenko, the next you’re a bum – I’m talking from Lomachenko’s perspective here. Everyone saw him as the best ever, and one of the best ever, but the moment he loses he’s suddenly a bum. The only people that matter to me are the people that matter to me. If people think I’m great, that’s fantastic. But if they don’t think I’m very good, I’m not too fussed anyway. It’s the people that spend the money every single time to come and watch me fight and never miss my fights and share my [social media] posts who matter the most to me. It’s nice to be respected as a fighter. Winning this title against a legitimate champion like Bentley would give me that but I know what I can do as a fighter. People’s opinions are very fickle. One minute you’re great, the next minute you’re a bum. It’s a weird one.
BN: You’re the underdog against Bentley and the expectation is that you’re in for a hard night’s work. Compared to fights you’re expected to win, how do you get to a mental state where you know you may have to go through hell to come out the other side and win?
NH: I pride myself on being physically and mentally tough. The mental side of things I think I’m very strong at. I’ve been competing for 23 years. I walked into a boxing gym when I was eight or nine. Been fighting since the age of 11 and obviously I stopped at the age of 26 after 90 amateur contests. And now I’ve had 17 pro fights. It’s something I’ve done my whole life. Even the experiences I had as an amateur, I boxed some of the best lads in the country. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was an amateur journeyman. They’d call me up the day of or the day before and my boxing coach would say, “Do you want to fight tomorrow?” I’d be like, “Yeah, of course,” and I’d be fighting lads who went on to great things in the pros. I know there’s going to be tough times against Bentley, and I’ll have to bite down on the gum shield, but that’s boxing, particularly when you get to a certain level. But I know he will have times like that. It’s not a one-way street. I know for a fact he will go through tough times as well. It’s how much you want it. I’ll be ready for whatever happens.
BN: Who were some of those guys you boxed in the amateurs?
NH: I beat Terry Flanagan and he went on to win a world title. I beat a guy called Shayne Singleton who went on to become British champion. I lost a very good fight with Tommy Langford, and he went on to do good things. I’ve had that many fights I’ve forgot. As a 20-year-old lad I used to drive 120 miles a day just so I could train at the Rotunda and fight for the Rotunda. Week in, week out me and Callum Smith were sparring partners; me and Rocky Fielding were sparring partners. I’ve got a very good amateur pedigree behind me. I underachieved massively as an amateur but I didn’t think my face fit to be honest. But I know the Rotunda really rated me as a fighter. I lost the Merseyside Final to Robbie Davies Jr, but like Robbie said, his dad was a hero in Liverpool so when you’re fighting a hero’s son in Liverpool who is very good it’s going to be very hard. But I gave a very good performance. Everything I’ve done has been leading to this moment and I’m really looking forward to it.