By Declan Taylor
THERE is a long pause when it is put to Moses Itauma that the prospect of sparring Tyson Fury in the coming months is an exciting one. The teenager is a man of few words at the best of times but this is not a question which gets his juices flowing.
“Umm,” he says. “It’s just sparring. How can I be excited for sparring? I guess I’m excited about the opportunity and experience but it’s still just sparring.”
Fair point, but this will be his chance to test himself, behind closed doors in big gloves and a headguard anyway, against a fighter widely regarded as the world’s leading heavyweight when he prepares for the long-awaited showdown against Oleksandr Usyk on February 17. Another pause.
“But how do you know that?” Itauma says eventually. “How do you know there isn’t someone in Czechoslavdagestan that’s better than him but just isn’t on the scene? So yeah. Tell me, how do you know he’s No.1?”
It is suggested that Fury’s current 34-0-1 (24) resume at heavyweight, which includes a win over Wladimir Klitschko in Germany and two stoppage victories over Deontay Wilder in America must put him at the top of the tree. This one causes the longest pause yet.
“I don’t know man, I don’t know,” he says. “Obviously based on what we are aware of he is the number one but every person has a boogie man and so Tyson is defeatable, he just hasn’t met that person yet.
“Look, I’m not saying sparring won’t be good because it will be. He’s the only one of the big names in Britain I haven’t sparred yet but at the end of the day these are all just people. I’m not saying they’re just your normal average person but they are just people at the end of the day – they’ve got two arms, two legs and a brain. It’s not going to be anything I haven’t seen before.”
When you consider a 15-year-old Itauma famously turned up to spar Lawrence Okolie in his school uniform it is easy to understand why the prospect of rounds with Fury is not quite as exciting to him as it might be for others. There’s a chance he would barely bat an eyelid if his manager, Francis Warren, told him he had secured some work with Godzilla.
But Itauma’s no-nonsense responses are in keeping with what has been a clinical first year as a professional. The southpaw turned 18 in late December, immediately signed pro terms and made his professional debut on January 28, swatting aside Marcel Bode in just 23 seconds. Since that night he has surged to 6-0 with four quick and on Friday night he boxes for what is likely the last time in his first year punching for pay, at York Hall.
Itauma, of course, is in a hurry. The narrative when he turned over was centred around his desire to beat Mike Tyson’s record and become history’s youngest heavyweight champion. He has until late May 2025 to do that, and his work across 2023 must be considered small but worthwhile steps towards that goal.
His last outing came in Saudi Arabia, and he had the chance to meet Tyson, who became a belt-holder aged 20 years and four months, face-to-face in Riyadh. Itauma had told Tyson his fledgling record but stated that he longer wants to fight ‘bums’. Tyson took exception to that term and suggested there is no such thing as a bum, explaining that the kid can learn something from every one of his opponents.
“Do you know what though,” Itauma says, reflecting on Tyson’s view. “There are bums.
“Because what I meant when I said I don’t want to fight bums is that I don’t want a first round knockout job because I don’t overcome anything to do that. I want situations where I go in there and it’s not a 90-10 fight in my favour. I want to go in a 60-40, then a 50-50 and then fights where people think I’m the underdog.”
Of course, he has so far been an overwhelming favourite for his six professional contests to date. The reality is, he will be for the next six too.
A couple of days after his encounter with Tyson, the Chatham teen was in the ring, staring across at Istvan Bernath, a man born in Budapest with a seemingly decent record of 10-1 as a professional. “Just another bod,” Itauma had told me just after the weigh-in.
Bernath, 34, also boasted amateur experience of some distinction, with fights against the likes of Fury and Joe Joyce punctuating many years in the unpaid code. Itauma crushed him in 113 seconds.
“He was supposed to be a test but the test came and I passed it,” Itauma says. “It was good. It was the first time I dropped someone with a jab in a pro fight but it happens a lot in sparring. I don’t really want to give my secret away – but I’m right-handed. That’s why I have success there.
“I was expecting a little bit more from the opponent, I don’t know, it is what it is, man. The thing is, I’m not supposed to be learning in fights, I’m supposed to be learning in the gym.
“Fights are for gaining experience rather than actually taking anything on board. It’s hard to explain but you don’t go into an exam to learn, you must do the learning before you sit down to take the exam. That’s exactly how it is out there for me at the moment.”
The main man tasked with facilitating that learning away from the spotlight is, like his boxer, precociously talented and operating in a world where is the youngest in the room by quite a stretch. Dan Woledge Jnr, Itauma’s head trainer, is still just 28 years old. For context, he once boxed Cyrus Pattinson in a junior ABA final.
“Moses is my first ever pro,” says Woledge, a smile starting to form. “So I’ll learn my trade with him and then find someone who’s actually good.”
Woledge, who works alongside his dad Dan Snr, was a boxer of much promise during his day at St Mary’s ABC. He was only 20 when he first heard about young Moses.
“My dad told me you’ve got to see this kid, he’s 10,” Woledge recalls. “I went down and watched him on the bags and pads and just thought he was unbelievable.
“But at that age I’m thinking of all the buts… but he will discover girls, but he will get injured, all the stuff that would get in the way. Being good in only a small part of it. But he’s proven so far that he’s up to it and it’s exciting for everyone.”
So how does he feel about the prospect of the teenager sparring Fury?
“It will be a good experience for him,” Woledge says. “He’s [regarded as] the number one in the world, the main man at heavyweight. He’s big, he can punch, he can move, both stances and he’s an established world champion. He will learn a lot from that and we will see where he’s at.”
The third key component in the team is Warren, who was tasked with managing Itauma to a record-breaking first few years as a pro. Warren, via his company Champion Sports Management, takes care of a number of Britain’s most promising talents but Itauma is the jewel in the crown. But it is a job not without its pressure given the expectation on the youngster from the outset.
“If we want to get that record in 15 months’ time, in May 2025, which will come around quick,” Warren tells Boxing News. “Then we have to associate ourselves with a couple of sanctioning bodies to start chipping away at the rankings. It seems like a million miles away but it’s not. His first fight was January 28 and now we’re here so the year has gone very quick. That won’t stop.
“He’s got eight scheduled for next year as well so by the time he is 12 or 13-0 you’d like to think we are in the top 15 in one of the rankings, then we can look at one of the guys around that level.
“There’s no real rush, I just have to work ahead of schedule. My job is to manage his career and if that is what his goal is then I’ve got to manage that goal. I’ve got to try and get him there in the safest and most cost-effective way possible.”
With such lofty ambitions, there is every chance that Itauma’s route might end up being a largely international one at a time when there are a number of promising heavyweights within Britain alone. But should he bypass the British title early on, it will not be for the want of trying.
“The rule is you can’t do 12 rounds in Britain until you’re 20,” Warren says. “So it may well be that he is the only world champion who goes back to fight for the British title. The world is his oyster, he’s 18 years old, nerve-free and enjoying himself.
“When I talk about titles and rankings, nobody is getting carried away or ahead of themselves. It is literally just a case of starting the process. He will be going to eight rounds on December 1, he will have a couple of them and then a 10-round title fight in March.”
May 2025 seems like a long way off now but when Itauma was published in these pages for the first time in April, he had 25 months to play with. Now, it is down to 18. That is still plenty of time in a division where belts are likely to fragment during 2024, once Fury and Usyk decide who really is the best (challengers from Czechoslavdagestan notwithstanding). The next 12 months will tell us much about his chances but, as of yet, Britain’s hottest prospect has not put a foot wrong.
“This time next year I want to be looking towards the world champions, 100 per cent,” Itauma adds.
“Listen, I know I’m going to become a world champion. I feel like I’m destined for it. But I want to become a world champion when people believe I can’t do it. I don’t want to become a world champion when everyone thinks I can, I want to do it when everyone thinks I can’t.”
And if he is to get it done before May 2025, he will barely have time to pause for breath.