By Louis Evans

WHEN sawn-off Scouse featherweight Nick Ball steps inside the ring for his debut ‘world title’ challenge in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on March 8, he will do so oblivious to the wares of defending champion and veteran Mexican warlord Rey Vargas.

Preened by Paul Stevenson at the upwardly mobile Everton Red Triangle (ERT) gym in his native Merseyside, Ball routinely shuns any revision of prospective opponents, content to focus fully on his own munitions.

“I’ve seen just three rounds [of Vargas]”, confesses the 5ft 2ins former tradesman who has plastered all 19 pro adversaries thus far. “It’s all I can manage before I start getting bored. I don’t know what to expect. Any prediction would be a false answer; you never know until you step through the ropes. Whatever way I want it to go, that’s how it’ll go. I’m here to take that belt!

“Paul’s only concerned with what we can do. It’s up to us to better ourselves each day and let them worry about us! He [Stevenson] will figure out how our style can exploit them. It’s all focused on us and how we can force the action.

“No gameplans. We train to hurt.”

As an appetiser to Anthony Joshua’s big-money showdown with Francis Ngannou, the lively Liverpudlian will concede natural size and reach against the gangly but explosive 5ft 8ins Vargas, who has lost just once in a 14-year, 37-fight career. However, the Aztecan hasn’t defended his WBC 126lbs title since a July 2022 split win over Mark Magsayo and enters the Ball bout following a failed super-featherweight title bid against Texan O’Shaquie Foster. Boasting 22 early victories, the 33-year-old still presents a daunting proposition to baby-faced Ball.

That said, Ball’s catalogue wins against towering opponents – including a breakout sixth-round scalping of former Commonwealth champ Isaac Lowe on the Fury-Whyte Wembley Stadium prelims – has coach Stevenson unnerved by the challenge ahead. Sharp-witted Stevenson typically oversees the intel, allowing his pupils to focus exclusively on perfecting their own performance.

“I wouldn’t call it ‘control’ because everyone’s got a job to do. The fighter’s job is to be in top shape and intelligent; the manager and the trainer find the right opponents and develop a strategy,” explains Stevenson, who previously moulded Jazza Dickens, Kevin Satchell and Ryan Farrag into champions.

“After training all these years, I’ve learned that you don’t know [what threat opponents will bring in the ring]. You’ve got to be ready for anything.

“A lot of boxers drive themselves mad watching tapes of their opponents. They can get it wrong and give the other fella too much respect because he’s knocking everyone out. Or they’ve seen him in tough fights and think it will be easy – that’s the real danger. They [the Everton Red Triangle stable] can leave the worrying to me and focus on training.

“Sure, this fella is tough, but Nick never struggles with the height advantage. He’s been that way since he’s been a kid. His punch volume is particularly high; he never stops.

“The Foster fight was a difficult one; he [Vargas] was always in it and tried a lot of different things to stay in the fight. He had a good go, but he’s gone up in weight, and the other fella [Foster] was strong and good. He came up short, but he didn’t box badly. I liked what I seen from him. In the fight before [against Mark Magsayo], again, it was a good contest. Vargas uses his height well, but he can also fight like many Mexicans can.”

This elevation to the world stage marks a lifetime’s commitment from Ball. Underwhelmed by the ‘nine to five’ regime in his late teens, this natural scrapper deserted his father’s plastering trade to enter the pro ranks, fuelled by some well-placed faith from Stevenson. Together, over the ensuing seven years, the pair refined one of the most daring styles in contemporary British boxing, fully characterised by Ball’s high-octane dominant decision win over proven world-grade Isaac Dogboe on Queensbury’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ show last November. His suffocating work rate and heavy hands have combined to eliminate 11 of his 19 victims before the judges’ cards were required.

Nick Ball attacks Isaac Dogboe

In a gym presently bursting with talent among the lighter weights – including brothers Joe and Peter McGrail, Brand Strand and Andrew Cain – Ball leads the charge in what could prove a ‘golden era’ for the long-established gym.

His pathway to prominence has not been without its potholes.

He explains: “I was kicked out of Maghull High [School, Liverpool] in year nine for fighting. I didn’t have an ego. I was just a hundred miles an hour and couldn’t sit still. I always had to be doing something, and school wasn’t really for me. I tend to do what I want, to be honest. At the time, it got me into a bit of bother. Brad [Strand, ERT super bantamweight contender and Ball’s childhood friend] could have a go, but he’s the level-headed one out of the two of us. He’s the smarter one, too. I’d get kicked out of the class, but Brad would swerve the blame and stay in [laughs].

Ball turned his aptitude for aggro into something more positive and entered the Muay Thai fold. Then, in a brief amateur stint in the singlet of Kirkby ABC, he scooped Junior ABA and Tri-Nations titles before jacking for four years.

“I remember Paul warning, ‘The pro game’s not for everyone; it’s not what it seems.’ But I knew I was ready. I give it 150 per cent in everything I do. I’ve never looked back; it was the best decision I could’ve made,’ insists the chatty but frighteningly focused hitman.

“Paul is the best coach out there, in my opinion. He’s the best coach for me; he brings the best out of me. [In training] it’s the little things. They build up until it all comes together, and then you get the payoff. You don’t see it in the gym every day; it’s only when you look back and see how far you’ve come.

“When I first came to Everton Red Triangle, I could always fight ‘n’ that. I’ve been able to fight my whole life, but Paul’s turned me into a boxer. I can out-jab people who are six foot! And when I need to, I can turn it on and have a scrap. He’s sharpened my defence and everything. There’s no one thing; it’s lots of little bits.”

The platitudes are two-fold.

“Nick’s Nick – he’s his own character. But in the gym, he’s what I want; he’s all business. He learns fast; he’s explosive; he’s brave. He’s probably one of the most disciplined people you’ll ever meet,” admires Stevenson.

“He lives and breathes what he does, and it shows. I’ve got a great stable of fighters of all different types, but, in training, Nick leaves them standing. I’ve never seen anything like it before, and I’ve been training fighters for 25 years. I’ve never seen the levels of energy, the recovery. He comes back after a competitive fight, and after ten seconds, he’s breathing like he’s sat down watching the telly.”

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for the pair. Despite some impressive physical attributes, it took time for scholar of the squared circle Stevenson to unearth the compact Ball’s power quotient. And, following an analysis of a long lineage of undersized greats past and present, the wise old owl likens Ball to a miniature Mike Tyson or Baltimore bad boy Gervonta Davis.

“I just knew I could do something with that style,” asserts Stevenson. “I was instantly impressed with the energy and the strength of him. As he developed, there were certain turning points where I began to think we were on to something. He hadn’t boxed since he was 15, and adjusting to the pros took a little while. Around his sixth fight, he got his first stoppage. That’s when you started to see his confidence and ability change. I knew we were getting somewhere then.

Featherweights are built very differently these days. Nick has a throwback physique, which has been quite normal throughout history. I know these 5’9” to 6-foot featherweights are common modern-day, but they were quite rare back in the day. They were built like Nick – strong and built for long fights throughout boxing history.

Nick calls them [tall fighters] ‘skinny bastards’ that he’s going to snap in half [laughs]! It’s funny the way he talks about them.”

To fully garnish his obvious power and productivity, Ball adopts modern trends to strengthen his edge inside the ring further. Located just across from the ERT HQ, ‘Peak Performance Liverpool’ supervises the S&C that Kirkby contender’s superior conditioning, with an emphasis on ‘fight specific’ Cross Fit workouts.

“Its [influence is] massive. I’ve been at it for seven years now with my S&C coach, Tom Christian, and I wouldn’t go into a fight without doing it now. I’m confident in it,’ enthuses Ball.

“All my workouts are fight-specific; it’s all dead serious. It’s next-level training. In [typical] strength training, you can do your whole workout without being out of breath. In here [Peak Performance Liverpool], it all crosses over; you’re doing the weights while out of breath. And that’s exactly how it’s going to be in the fight. You’ve gotta be able to move your opponent while you’re fatigued. CrossFit covers everything.

“It’s not too intensive on the joints, but on the body, it depends on how intense you wanna make it. We always put 100 per cent in. You’re sore the next day, but as a professional fighter, you’ve gotta be tough. You’ve gotta get up the next day and go again; you’ve gotta push through.

“I’m lucky. I know a lot of people hate it, but I love to train. It’s therapy to me. When I’m training, I’m not thinking about anything. In life and in boxing, I’ve put the work in to be a world champion. You get out what you put in, and now I’ve got my chance. This routine has gotten me to this level, so why would I change now? You think because I’ve got a world title shot means I have to change things? Nah. Keep doing what I’ve been doing with the same people around me.”

Body battle-hardened, he can now transfix his eyes on the Saudi showdown. Time now to repay those who’ve invested belief in him.

“I’d be Paul’s first ‘world champion’ out of the gym,” he concludes.

“He’s trained so many fighters over the years. As a coach, to get your first world champion, it’s pretty big. Nobody ever sees all the work he puts in every day with us. He doesn’t get the recognition he deserves; he’s very underrated. But people who know boxing know he’s one of the best coaches out there. If not, the best.

“If you can’t outwork me, don’t expect to beat me. I understand that anything can happen in boxing – you’re only ever one shot away from a loss – but in 365 days of the year, you won’t outwork me on those days. So don’t expect to get one over on me on a Saturday night.”