‘You don’t learn to box at 38’ - that’s some sound advice, Rio

From left, Jon Thaxton, Karl Unsworth, Sam Sexton and Graham Everett. Picture: Chris Lakey

From left, Jon Thaxton, Karl Unsworth, Sam Sexton and Graham Everett. Picture: Chris Lakey - Credit: Archant

Boxing could do with any bad press right now. Dodgy judging at massive world title fights, freak shows between gold-encrusted fighters who should know better, and celebrities who think the ability to remain fit and throw a punch entitles them to be called pro boxers.

Rio Ferdinand - adopting the pose. Picture: PA

Rio Ferdinand - adopting the pose. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

It's a job description that is hard-earned, education courtesy of the school of very hard knocks.

In the week that Leon McKenzie announced his retirement after a career on the football field followed by one in the boxing ring, ex-Manchester United player Rio Ferdinand announced his intention to take up boxing.

For Leon, boxing was in his blood: his father Clinton and his uncle, Duke, were masters of the art. When he played for Norwich City he would pop along to the Norwich gym operated by trainer Graham Everett to work out. Revealingly, Graham told me this week that Leon had to be careful not to spend too much time in the gym, for fear its lure would draw him away from football.

At the age of 39, Leon has hung up his gloves. 'As much as my mind and heart want to continue boxing, unfortunately my body won't allow me, which leaves me with no choice but to retire,' he said.

Ferdinand would do well to read those words carefully.

He isn't going to be fighting for major titles – he's backed by Betfair and his 'progress' is being backed and followed by a £250,000 reality show. So, whilst it's up for debate that this sort of PR sucks and that reality TV sucks, what shouldn't be open to question is that the sport of boxing must not be besmirched. I've known people who've said, 'I quite fancy being a football photographer ... I think I'm going to do that', as if years of training have been a complete waste of time and effort.

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Ferdinand - and the ridiculous Freddie Flintoff before him – need to think again. No matter what the level, boxing involves getting hit, as well as hitting other people. It's the downside of the sport. To deal with that, you need years of practice.

Norwich heavyweight Sam Sexton could not have put it better. 'People always ask me how I get used to getting hit and unfortunately there is no substitute for getting hit than getting hit,' he said.

There are avenues outside of the professional circles where boxing is allowed, but where careful, long-term monitoring and the very important art of matchmaking is not always as stringent as it is in the pro game.

Flintoff the former cricketer, was quickly found out and now sings for his supper – no danger there.

'It was different with Leon and Curtis Woodhouse – both footballers who had boxing backgrounds,' said local trainer Graham Everett. 'Leon was always good enough. Flintoff proved you can't – personally I think it has now become far too easy to turn pro. It always used to be that nine times out of 10 you had an amateur career. Now white collar boxing has washed everything down. Yes I have had two or three pros with me from the unlicensed circuit, but I think they are proving we made the right decision and they are much younger men.'

'Nothing personal against Rio, but it is a different ball game with boxing. It is just too tough.

'You don't learn to box at 38 years old. You can teach younger men, but the older ones don't take it in the same way.'

A gimmick it may be... but boxing could do without any more gimmicks.

Karl steps in to give Sam a helping hand

An old friend has stepped in to help Norwich heavyweight Sam Sexton with some valuable sponsorship ahead of his British title fight in Scotland.

Norwich businessman Karl Unsworth has followed Sexton's career since he first stepped into a ring as a professional, back in September, 2005.

Karl was in Belfast for Sam's epic encounters with Northern Irishman Martin Rogan in 2009.

'It was a fantastic experience going over there,' said Karl, who owns Kaja Steel Services Ltd. 'As I told Sam, I watched him go from a boy to man. There was a lot of pressure, but Sam stood up to it and proved himself by winning both fights.'

Karl was quick to step in with some valuable backing for Sam's October 6 clash against Gary Cornish in Edinburgh, when the coveted British heavyweight title is at stake.

'I knew he was looking for a sponsor and I was in a position to help him out.'