By Elliot Worsell


“CAREFUL you don’t cut me,” said Johnny Greaves as his cut man, Jason Fielding, applied Vaseline to his face. “I’ve got skin like rice paper.”

If, as far as requests go, that sounds unusual coming from a boxer in the presence of their cut man – whose very job it is to fix cuts, not cause them – it’s because it is. However, Johnny Greaves, in 2012, was one of the more unusual characters in British boxing, made that way by the very unusual nature of his job.

Indeed, Greaves, per the requirements of this job, arrived in Sheffield one summer night in 2012 content to suffer defeat but hoping the defeat would at least be a good one. His opponent on the night was Sam O’Maison (1-0), the fight was scheduled for four rounds, and this was to be Greaves’ 89th professional outing. His short-term goal back then was to survive 12 minutes in the company of O’Maison and leave the ring defeated but unscathed, free to fight another day. His long-term goal, meanwhile, was to make it to 100 professional fights.

One man who had already achieved that was Kristian Laight from Nuneaton. He was competing in his 138th pro fight that night in Sheffield and, as is customary with journeymen, was sharing a tiny changing room with both Greaves (3-85) and Ibrar Riyaz (4-35-1). Laight’s goal, by the way, was to soon get to 200.  “I’ll then go work in a factory somewhere,” he told Greaves. “I’m only 32; not punchy or anything.”

With his face now covered in Vaseline, Greaves, hearing this while sitting down, did no more than rub his nose and look at Laight; part admiration, part disgust. “Nobody will ever get to 300 again, no way,” he then said, referring to Birmingham legend Peter Buckley’s record-breaking achievement in 2008. “Pointless even trying. I’m done at 100. I’m fed up with dieting every week. It gets me down.”

“I feel as good as ever,” said Laight, who will, unbeknown to both, reach and stop at 300 in 2018.

“I feel like I’m 65,” said Greaves. “But aside from that, I’m great.”

The doctor appeared in the room at 5.25 pm and, clipboard in hand, was greeted by Greaves as though a friend he had just spotted enter their local pub. “Isn’t it terrible,” Greaves said, “when you’re on first-name terms with the doctor?” The doctor, laughing, then bent down, grabbed a biro from his pocket, and moved it towards the sheet of paper on his clipboard. He cleared his throat in an effort to retain an air of authority and proceeded to ask Greaves, “When did you last box?”

“Last week in Liverpool,” answered Greaves.

“How did you get on?”

“You know how I got on.”

“I know, but we have to ask.”

“Of course you do. Lost on points, sir.”

“Any injuries?”

“Same as last week.”

The doctor allowed himself to smile again. He tapped the boxer on the arm and said, “Good luck, Johnny,” before moving on to the next familiar face in a room chock-full of them.

In the meantime, Greaves started hitting pads with Fielding, only it soon became clear the cut man was not cut out for the task. Sometimes the pads would just fall off his hands, while other times Greaves would either scuff them instead of connecting cleanly, or the pad itself would be held in a position that contradicted the command being called by the person in control of it. Frustrated by this, the pair of them, Greaves dropped his head, and Fielding dropped the pads. Fielding then admitted he had never before held pads for a southpaw, to which Greaves said, “A good time to find out. Thanks.”

Interestingly, Greaves and the other journeymen would grow as nervous as the headliners in these final moments before a fight. Their hearts raced just the same and their conversations and fuses became progressively shorter as the first bell neared. Though their goal was of course different, and unique to them, the emotions experienced in the effort to achieve this goal were one and the same.

Which is to say, Greaves wasn’t nervous that night because he might lose. He was nervous because he wanted to lose the right way and because losing, in this business, is never just black and white. There are instead shades to it; good losses and bad ones.

Johnny Greaves lets the punches fly (Getty Images)

“That was never a f**king knockdown!” Greaves would later moan while having his gloves removed by Fielding. “I slipped, that was all. Couldn’t believe it when the ref gave it.”

To the surprise of no one Greaves had lasted the distance but lost every one of the four rounds; meaning, in the grand scheme of things, the knockdown and cause of his fury was largely inconsequential. It meant a five-point edge in O’Maison’s favour, as opposed to the routine four, but that wasn’t the issue as far as Greaves was concerned. What he hated about the referee’s call was how it dented both his pride and his reputation as a man rarely off his feet.

“It was okay, though, wasn’t it, Jase?” he asked.

“Yes, mate, couldn’t have gone any better,” replied Fielding.

“Ed?”

“Proud of you, mate,” said Ed Muscat, the other man in Greaves’ corner, busy tidying up.

“Went all right, didn’t it?” Greaves then asked me, his face childlike, as if my opinion mattered.

“You did what you set out to do,” I said. “Well done.”

Insecurity is of course a natural by-product of losing so often; so often that it becomes the expected outcome. However, it was still startling to hear how desperately Greaves craved validation in that moment, particularly when, to him and those around him, this was a night just like any other. Perhaps, having grown so accustomed to losing, he found it difficult to differentiate the good and the bad. Or perhaps, given his thankless role in the sport, praise and platitudes, or even just kind words, were things he had to actively pursue rather than assume would come his way following the completion of a fight, as would be the case for someone like Kell Brook, for example, the night’s headliner.

To think of it in those terms made me sad, especially when considering the fact Greaves’ main ambition, above and beyond going the distance and staying safe, was to entertain the fans and please those who were watching him. If leaving a venue with their approval, whether arriving via applause or praise, it was, Greaves said, always good enough for him.

“Wasn’t too messy, was it?” he asked, neglecting a shower to step back into the arena and watch bout number three.

“No,” I said. “Not at all.”

“Thanks, mate,” he replied; weight lifted, job done.