Paid To Lose: Is Being A Journeyman Boxer The Crappiest Job In Sport?

On a chilly night in April, Frank Greaves, 37, drove 150 miles for a job. That job was to fight a younger, bigger boxer for cash. He knew his chances of winning were next to nothing, but that didn’t stop him. Why? Because Frank is a journeyman boxer…

The first thing you notice on the way up to the away fighters’ dressing room is the smell. A potent blend of musty gym bags, stale sweat and Deep Heat rolls down the dim stairwell like a mist. The second thing is the sound of punches. Each blow reverberates down the stairs, drowning out the muffled cheers of 600 fight fans baying for blood inside the venue. Then a voice:

“Am I looking sharp, or are you just wanking me off?”

“Yeah,” says another, in the same cockney twang. “But you’ve got to commit to your shots, Frank. It’s a bad habit you’ve got. Let ’em fucking go, straight down the pipe. And if it does land, he’s gonna think twice about having a punch-up with you. You ain’t gonna get these days back, Frank. So go out there and enjoy it.”

Frank Greaves is preparing for his third professional prizefight at Bournemouth’s O2 Academy. He batters younger brother Johnny’s outstretched palms. But he’s not warming up inside his dressing room where he should be; there’s no space. Two other away fighters are in the 10ft x 6ft shoebox with their cornermen. So he’s outside on the landing. Here, a space about the size of a pool table, his footwork needs to be perfect. One wrong step could send him tumbling down the stairs.

It’s not ideal conditions for a boxer ahead of a big fight. But Frank – like his brother before him – is a journeyman. And he knows the score. “This is fucking Buckingham Palace compared to some of the venues Johnny’s fought in,” he says, catching his breath.

“Yeah,” adds Johnny. “There were times when I fought literally in a cowshed behind the venue with four other fighters – the floor’s tiled, you’re slipping about, it’s pissing with rain outside and I had to cross a muddy field in my boxing boots to get to the ring. The home fighters are warm indoors while we’re out there going, ‘Here bruv, can I borrow your jacket? It’s fucking freezing in here’.”

That’s how it is for a journeyman, an on-the-road fighter, or just 'the opponent'. The job has different names, but the motto is the same: have gloves, will travel. They are the men who will drive across the country, often at very short notice, for a grand… and lose. They are the pawns on boxing’s bloodstained chessboard, sacrificed to protect a king or to make way for a promising rook. They fight the ‘ticket sellers’ of the sport, prospects earmarked for the big time. Without men like Frank and Johnny there would be no Carl Froch, no Amir Khan and no David Haye. In boxing, like in chess, pawns can never be kings.

“Boxing is not a sport, it is a business,” Johnny tells us. “No promoter is going to pay for your fights out of his own pocket unless he is sure you are going to get to a level to repay him. So unless you’re a ticket seller from the off, you don’t stand a chance.”

Tonight’s promoter is Greg Steene, of Warrior’s Boxing Promotions, who has organised more than 100 shows like this. “To make boxing pay nowadays, the house fighters basically pay for the fight through selling their own tickets,” he tells us.

“They pay for the opponent and put a bit of money into the house. So, most quality journeymen are the guys who don’t sell tickets – they turn up and fight the home fighter and almost invariably lose. It’s not fixed; sometimes they do win and that can help them. But if they keep winning then all of a sudden they’re poison and nobody wants to ask them back.”

In other words, losing’s not so much in a journeyman’s genes, it’s in his interests. “If you’ve got a boy who’s super-tough, why would you match him against a boy who’s sold 100 tickets, why take that risk?” Steene adds. “It’s not good business.”

Nobody knows this better than Johnny who, with a record of 96 losses in 100 professional fights, is considered to be one of the greatest journeymen of all time. That’s because, in this business, journeymen are figures of respect, not shame. They make boxing tick, and turn losing into an art form.

“I was the guy who’d take a fight at an hour’s notice, anywhere in the country,” Johnny tells us. “I was known as the guy who never got knocked out and always lost well. I fought nearly 20 British champions, two world champions, Commonwealth champions and fought in stadiums of 20,000 people.”

For most of those, Frank was in his corner. “There ain’t many people who could do what Johnny did,” Frank chips in. “He’s the toughest bastard I’ve ever known.”

But you need more than that to live the life of a journeyman. “I’ve climbed into the ring with phlegm literally dripping off my back,” recalls Johnny. “I’ve been called every name under the sun, threatened, abused, even chased from venues. But that’s the lot of a journeyman boxer: always the away fighter, always the villain. The most hated man in the room. I fucking loved it.”

Downstairs, fight night is in full swing and the atmosphere is visceral. This is not a corporate crowd on a jolly. These are ordinary people, supporting a friend, boyfriend or son. Puce-faced men crowd about the ring hurling abuse at the away fighters, or urging the Spearmint Rhino ring girls to get their ‘growlers’ out, while trying not to spill their pints. Girlfriends totter about on needle-heels, wincing whenever their man takes a hit. The night itself takes place under British Boxing Board Of Control rules, the same rules that govern the big, multi-million-pound fights. But there are no TV cameras, no celebrities or VIP areas, though there is a guy on the balcony filming the night’s action and selling the DVDs ‘for a score’.

This is not amateur boxing or white- collar. This is pro-boxing at the bottom rung. Boxers here dream of the pizzazz of a big show, a big fight, a belt, a TV date and a spot next to their heroes. For many, this is where it starts. For others, it is where it can end. For Frank, it’s another day at the office.

“Chill out, mate, you look a bit nervous,” he chirps as he bounces about the room shadowboxing. “Me? Nah, I don’t get nerves. I was born for this.”

Frank was born on 6 September 1977 in the heart of London’s East End. Eighteen months later, Johnny came along. As kids they were inseparable, and took up boxing at an early age. Johnny was the feisty one, with Frank often having to help him out of scrapes. And it was Johnny who first entered the world of prizefighting, trading blows with fighters on the amateur and unlicensed scenes before going pro in 2007. For most of this Frank was by his side, whether holding pads in the gym, managing fights, or at locations from Dudley Town Hall to London’s O2 Arena.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him,” says Frank. “I’ve been in the lion’s den with Johnny more times than I can remember. It got to a point where I had to put my money where my mouth was.”

So, last November, he turned pro, a year after Johnny hung up his gloves. Frank lost his first fight on points, but won his second. And tonight, he is top of the card, being paid £1,400 to fight a 31-year-old ticket seller called Joe Hayes.

Does he think he can win? “Let’s be straight,” he says, binding his fists in tape. “I want to win and know I can. Do I expect to win? No. This kid’s sold 200 tickets tonight so, at £35 a ticket, he’s bringing in seven grand.”

At 37, Frank is an old sportsman by any standard. Johnny says he fought to give his two kids a life he never had growing up. But Frank has no children, lives with wife Leanne, 32, in South Ockendon, Essex, and drives a black cab for a living. If he doesn’t do it for the money, why does he choose to be punished by younger fighters in front of crowds who’d like nothing more than to see him spread-eagled on the canvas in a puddle of his own blood?

“It’s the ultimate test,” says Frank. “Fight or flight. I’m far from an adrenaline junkie but, fuck me, what a buzz. It’s like nothing else.”

Then he pauses for a moment, stops wrapping his hands and looks us dead in the eye. “Listen, all that clichéd nonsense about how you can be whoever you want to be. No, you can’t. I’m never going to be world champion – I’m 37 years old for fuck’s sake. But life is mundane. I spend most of my time vegetating in a taxi and it’s boring as fuck. Life is about experience and in 30 years’ time I’m not going to be talking about the time I dropped an old lady at King’s Cross, I’m going to be talking about tonight.”

It’s time. The other fighters have drifted home. The atmosphere turns eerily quiet. Frank’s in the zone. Even Johnny, whose usual chatter makes Floyd Mayweather sound like a grunting adolescent, is silent. A muffled voice reverberates through the walls: “LADEEEEZ AND GENTLEMEN, IT’S TIME FOR OUR MAIN EVENT.”

We follow the brothers down the rabbit warren of stairwells and corridors into the wings, behind the stage, where one of the ring girls is fluffing the crowd with a heartbreaking operatic aria, still in her low-cut leotard and fishnet stockings. It’s surreal.

Warbling done, and the fighters are called into the ring. Frank enters first through a cloud of dry ice to near silence, except for a few four-letter catcalls and chants of ‘who are ya’. He gives a theatrical bow. Then comes Hayes and the audience erupts. “’Ave the cunt, Joey,” and “Fucking kill him” are among the most discernible screams from ringside. Hayes is visibly bigger than Frank, and his muscles are more defined – not to say Frank doesn’t look in good shape. After a few final words from their cornermen and instructions from the referee, the first round of six is rung out. Hayes instantly launches into a flurry of punishing blows.

“Get off the fucking ropes, Frank,” Johnny can be heard yelling over the crowd’s deafening roar. “Work that jab, Frank. Keep moving!” Frank seems to hear him, bouncing nimbly around most of the punches and throwing a few of his own to counter. The round ends with a clear victory to Hayes. Round two is more evenly matched. Frank throws more punches and looks lighter on his feet. At one point, he even dances away from Hayes, gives a grinning shrug of the shoulders and mouths the words, “Is that all you got, mate?” Judging by the crowd’s reaction, he might as well have pulled down his shorts and defecated in his opponent’s spit bucket.

It is quite apparent Frank is way more than just cannon fodder. He is quick-footed, fast-punching and difficult to hit. He is a great boxer. Still, by the end of the third, red patches have formed around his kidneys and a dark bruise below his right eye. The fourth and fifth rounds are kinder to Frank. A fan may well have awarded him both. By the sixth both look weary, and with the final bell, they stumble back to their corners. It doesn’t take long for the referee to call them to the centre of the ring. He takes Hayes’ hand and raises it. The decision is unanimous.

Back in the away dressing room, the atmosphere is far from sombre. It’s almost as busy as when we arrived as other fighters pile in to congratulate Frank. “That was a great fight,” says one. “Well done, mate.”

Frank’s lost none of his sense of humour: “What? For being a fat cab driver a year ago?”

“He was, an’ all,” agrees Johnny, grinning from cauliflower ear to cauliflower ear. “It was a bit emotional, though, to be fair. But I couldn’t be prouder. Now, it’s been a stressful night. I need a lager.”

He goes to look for an off licence while the postmortem continues. “It was tough, I knew I was in for a fight,” says Frank. “There were a couple of times where I felt like saying, ‘Will you just fuck off mate, don’t you know I’m 37?’ But it’s frustrating because in the gym environment, I’d have boxed his tits off. And I know I won at least a couple of those rounds.”

Others nod in agreement. “But with the adrenaline and the crowd, it was always going to be tough mentally. That’s what it’s like fighting on the road.”

It doesn’t really matter to Frank that he lost. Yes, he says he’d like to have won, but there’s something far more important at stake: reputation. He may have lost but he lost well. He fought with skill and heart and, above all, put on a great show. And that is a golden ticket to any promoter with a war chest of untested fighters and pound signs for pupils. “If I’d have won tonight, they would probably have cancelled my next fight,” he says. “So every cloud…”

It’s past midnight. The crowd’s gone, a lone man is dismantling the ring, and it’s a three-hour drive back to Essex. Johnny’s returned and has a four-pack of Tuborg under his arm. “Who’s up for a good piss-up and karaoke in the back of the car?” he says, waving his beers. “Not tonight, John,” Frank replies as we walk towards the car park. “The promoter’s offered me another bout in a few weeks so I’m back in the gym tomorrow. You know I never drink before a fight.”

Frank and Johnny train fighters at Peacock Gym in East London. See peacockgym.com

Photography: Greg Funnell