ASHLEY SEXTON and Tommy Jacobs are the best of friends until the conversation turns to the time they fought each other. Jacobs got the decision… and Sexton disputes it.

“I definitely thought it could have gone my way,” said Sexton. Jacobs’ version of events is: “Ash says it was close – but he knows he lost. He knows I beat him fair and square.”

That was when they were 11-year-olds – and much has happened since then. The boxing crazy boys who fought each other at a caravan park in Dover are now 33-year-old veterans of boxing – and life. Lessons learned, both believe the best days of their careers are in front of them and are matched on manager Mo Prior’s show at the York Hall in Bethnal Green on Saturday night (July 31). Sexton hopes victory over Venezuelan puncher Antonio Guzman (21-2) in their eight-rounder will lead to a shot at super-flyweight honours, while Jacobs takes on Theophilius Tetteh (19-8-2) at 168lbs.

“I grew up with Tommy,” said Sexton, “and we formed a bond. We had that fight and then won the Schoolboys together. Tommy captained the team that went to the European [Schools] Championship [in Rome in 2003] and included Amir Khan, Luke Campbell and Joe Murray.

“We were away from home at a young age and the people like Tommy and Joe became my second family. Tommy is like a brother to me and I still keep in touch with Joe and Bradley Skeete.

“We still meet up for a Nando’s.”

Murray went to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and retired without winning a major pro title, while Skeete returned earlier this year, looking to add 154lbs belts to the British and Commonwealth welterweight titles he previously held.

As a pro, Sexton was known as “Flash Ash”, a chirpy and confident character who showed his mettle to grind out a blood-splattered draw with Shinny Bayaar in a challenge for the British flyweight title in May, 2010. He also pushed Paul Butler hard over 10 rounds at a sweltering York Hall (after weighing in over the 8st 3lbs limit) and is known beyond hardcore fans for a knockout that Boxing News placed at No. 31 in the sport’s best one-punch finishes.

YouTube views of Usman Ahmed doing his best P Diddy impression on his way to the ring to fight Sexton for the vacant English title and then being ironed out in the first by a right-hand thunderbolt top three million. “They were great times and I got sucked into the party lifestyle,” admitted Sexton. “I was going to clothes shops and not having to pay for anything and when I walked into nightclubs the DJ would say my name and people would want to talk to me.

“I believed the hype. I forgot about the boxing and it was a comedown when I lost. I’m more grounded now. I don’t think I’m a rock star anymore.”

He suffered an eight-round loss to Stephane Jamoye in a challenge for the European bantamweight title in March 2013 and has scarcely boxed since.

“I was winning on points and then he cut me in half with a body shot,” is how Sexton remembers the most recent loss on his 17-2-2 record. “I never officially retired. I just needed to get my life in order. I realised there is life after boxing and I needed a career away from the sport. “After boxing there will always be my family [Sexton has five children] and I had to get everything right for them. The firm I work for, Kelly Rail, supports me and gives me time off when I need it. I work nights so get to the gym in the morning.

“There was a time when I didn’t think I could compete with the youngsters in the gym anymore, but I can still do what I did before and this time, I’m wiser and happy. I haven’t taken any punishment, there haven’t been hard spars or hard fights for five years. My body is still 26 years old. I haven’t damaged my body.”

Sexton trains at the Hodbox Pro gym under Sab Leo and Julian Leivars and it was there that he prepared for his first fight for more than five years, a points win over Jose Aguilar (16-78-5) in Spain last month.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever picked up my opponent from the airport, driven him to the hotel and then driven him to and from the fight!” said Sexton, who also trains juniors at the gym, including his 10-year-old son, Tiger. “He didn’t have any wheels. It was surreal. On the day of the fight he was texting me asking for more money and getting me to sort things out. Now I know what promoters go through and it’s not a lot of fun!”

Sexton had Jacobs there supporting him.

“The moment I told Tommy I was boxing, he said: ‘I’m there’,” remembered Sexton, who was twice outpointed by Carl Frampton as an amateur. “I told him: ‘I don’t think you’re allowed to come,’ but he was there.”

Google ‘Tommy Jacobs’ and he isn’t proud of what you find. He spent six years in prison for an attack that left his victim with a fractured skull. “I made one mistake when I was young and was harshly treated,” said Jacobs. “But I made the best of a bad situation. Boxing again was my target so I was in the gym every day I was in prison and I got loads of qualifications.

“I became a Level One and Two FA [Football Association] coach, got my PT [Personal Training] badges and a Business Diploma.”

Boxing is a sport that gives second chances – and Jacobs had to wait for his. “As soon as I came out [in 2015], my thinking was: ‘I was a top amateur, so I’m going to get signed by Eddie Hearn or Frank Warren and earn tons of money,’” said the father of two. “It was a lot harder than that. I couldn’t even get in front of the Board. They just turned me down.

“I boxed on other shows [the Malta Boxing Commission and British and Irish Boxing Authority], but to box on Board shows was always the goal. People said: ‘Why don’t you go abroad?’ but I was still on probation. If I was caught spitting on the street they would have sent me straight back to prison. I got turned down again a couple of years ago and I thought: ‘I either give up or I wait.’ I waited for my [12-year] sentence to expire.
“All that mattered was getting my licence. Boxing is all I know. I cried when I got the email saying I finally got my licence. Apart from the birth of my children that is the only time I have cried in my whole life. Boxing is me. This defines me.”

Boxing is Jacobs’ life again.

Boxing News rang him last week when he was on his way from a sparring session at the Peacock Gym to train amateurs at Willie’s Gym in home-town Colchester, named after featherweight great Willie Pep. “I also go into schools and talk to naughty kids who are about to get kicked out of school,” he said. “I use myself as an example of what not to do. It comes better from me than it does from a teacher or policeman. They can relate to me. I’m nearer their age and I say to them: ‘I know what will happen to you, you little s***s. I know it’s not going to end well.’

“The teachers look shocked that I talk to them like that, but I talk to them in a way they understand and it gets results. I get schools ringing me all the time saying: ‘We need the Tommy treatment.’

“I underachieved as an amateur partly because I had awful parents. What I needed when I was 17 or 18 was someone to shake me and say: ‘You’re going to ruin your life. You have something here, so don’t muck it up.’ I can be the person who shakes these teenagers and says: ‘Look at me, don’t make the same mistakes I made.’”

What Jacobs threw away was a bright future in boxing. Between the ages of 11 and 17, he won a clutch of national titles boxing for Harwich ABC and captained his country. “If I go to amateur shows around Essex and the South East the officials all remember me,” he said. “They all come over and talk to me. I was one of the most successful amateurs in the area for a while.

“I captained England when Billy Joe Saunders was in the team and I was his main sparring partner for the Willie Monroe fight [in September, 2017] when I hadn’t even had a fight with the Board. [The late] Brendan Ingle watched me spar Billy Joe and said I reminded him of Archie Moore. He said I could still have a long career.

“I’m 33 years old, but physically, I’m younger. I’m hoping I’ve got a good few years left in boxing. I believe I have five years minimum. There’s a chance I might find my level before then or my body might start giving up on me. But I know what level I can get to and I want to get there as quickly as possible.

“I’ve told Mo [Prior]: ‘I don’t have time to mess around. I don’t need to learn my trade against journeymen. I don’t need to be fighting Latvian road sweepers.’ I’m looking to have three fights in three months and I want to be fighting for titles by the end of the year.

“I’ve had hundreds of jobs, tried hundreds of different things. I’ve been a postman, a bricklayer, you name it, I’ve tried it. They weren’t me. I’m a boxer. This is all I can do.”