Josh Baillie: “For someone who’s ‘only’ won a Midlands Area title I’ve got a fair few stories to tell.”
By Oliver McManus
Few fighters retire from the sport after 12 fights spanning three continents: even fewer have boxed a future world champion in their fourth pro bout. And only of them is a Midlands Area champion.
That brings us to Josh Baillie, a likeable lad from Cumbria, who announced his retirement earlier in the year. Rewind twenty years and he began by telling me how quickly his unshakable love affair with boxing spiralled.
“I had a bit of weight on me, right, and I was very self-conscious about that so I’d try my hand at a load of different sports. My grandad used to box and he’d tell me stories from his time that got my imagination going so I walked down to Workington Town Boys Club but it were shut: I was 14 and I was thinking ‘oh, that’s it, the dream is over.’
Then I heard some lads in my class were going and they told me they were going that night so I was tagging along, nothing was changing my mind. As soon as I walked in I just fell in love with it, and every boxer says that, but that feeling is impossible to describe.”
From that first venture down to the local gym, Baillie developed an innate desire to fight. Those early days bore an eerie resemblance to how his career would unfold, as the 34 year old explained.
“I was hooked from day one and I’d train like an absolute lunatic every day. We went out to Denmark in a Box Cup having had four fights and lost two then I’ve come away with a gold medal and that’s when I first felt like I was good at the sport.
“Looking back, my first ever fight pretty much summed up my whole career: I was boxing away from home, against a good kid, and he got the decision in one of those fights where, really, I should have got the decision.”
Shortly after leaving college, Baillie spent some time up in the North East with “a bunch of city lads” as part of a boxing academy. From there he would return to Cumbria with an electrical apprenticeship under his arms. Working full-time hours and attempting to juggle the pressure of boxing saw the youngster often drifting off in his work gear as he sought to catch up on sleep.
For a long time Baillie had harboured ambitions of turning professional but timing and, well, life experiences pushed back that debut until he was 28 years old. Reflecting on that late start, Baillie said he was looking for stability before taking the plunge into the paid profession.
“I had 58 fights as an amateur and my goal was always to turn professional but I’d been travelling. I was out in Australia working my socks off and I wanted to get my residency out there before turning professional, that was a big thing for me. Once that was sorted I moved down to (fellow Cumbrian) Darren Askew at Toowoomba Gym where (Michael) Katsidis boxed out of.
“I’d been going around Thailand and Cambodia for Christmas so I wasn’t in the best of shape but this lad had pulled out of fighting on a few weeks notice and I couldn’t say no: I’d got in the gym for a couple of weeks and that was enough for me.”
A first round TKO win out in Australia set the ball running and confidence flowing. The well-travelled fighter revealed he’d often struggled with self-assurance but boxing often forced him into scenarios where he needed to back himself.
“I was moving around a lot in Australia and there’d be matchmaking sharks who were telling me they’d get me a huge following, thinking I was naive, and I’d try and get my head down. I remember being down in Adelaide and I was sparring with this pro, he was 69kg, and I’ve had to pinch a gumshield, borrow a head guard and gloves and the first thing he says to me is “hey bro, you’ve got a pierced lip.” I said “nah it’s alright, just don’t hit me in the face” but that just shows you, I think, how much I wanted to learn from the sport.”
Three fights later and Baillie fought in his “most memorable” bout: a seemingly innocuous six rounder against Can Xu. At the time the pair held a joint record of 5-3 and no-one was touting Xu as a future WBA featherweight world champion.
“The fight in China (stands out) because it was a close fight: I lost by a point, in China, so I guess you can draw your own conclusions from that. Bloody hell it was a hard fight and we went to war for six and at one point I’d jumped on him thinking we’d hurt him but he survived the round and we were both just letting the shots fly. It was a televised event but I’ve not been able to find any footage of the fight anywhere.”
It was interesting to hear Baillie say that, even after their fight, he couldn’t necessarily tell the heights that Xu would reach. Rather it was a case that of their styles gelling to produce a vicious six rounder.
“It was his strength and work-rate that stood out, for me, because he was fighting at my pace and he wasn’t taking a backwards step. I was so knackered after the fight that I didn’t really think “oh wow, he’s something special” but I knew we’d been in a special fight.”
Throughout Baillie’s career there is a clear theme running through: as he had said on his first day at Workington Town Boys Club, “I want to fight”, and he took every opportunity presented to him. Talking of the opportunity to fight in China, Baillie delivered it in his stride despite the continually, and brilliantly, baffling turns to his career.
“I’d cornered Daz’ fight in Queensland just before Christmas and another coach from Queensland had mentioned they might be off to China early in the new year: I basically told him to get me a fight against anyone at super-feather or lightweight. I’d gone back to the UK for Christmas and got a call from my manager offering the fight. I’d only got to China four days before the fight and I didn’t have a clue how to make weight so it was a horrific few days – worst of my life. I recovered well but I look back and think ‘if I knew how to make weight properly, could things have been different?’”
Yet whilst the experience of boxing out in the far reaches of Asia remains the most vivid there is nothing, emotionally, to top Baillie’s Midlands Area triumph. After five years as a professional, and once being turned down by the BBBofC to fight for the English title, the phone rang with Errol Johnson at the other end. Leo D’Erlanger, Errol’s fighter, needed an opponent for the and, as ever, Baillie relished the task at hand.
“I’ve always tended to box away and against good lads: I wouldn’t want to box for a mickey mouse title against a knock-over so to win a legitimate boxing title, away from home, meant so much to me. I got two and half weeks notice for the fight, story of my career, and Glenn (Smith, coach) knew I was serious because I’d taken a week off work for this one!
I’d won a challenge belt against Manny Zaber (8-0, at the time) on his home show but this was a completely different level of feeling.”
Josh Baillie has always been determined to fight and win titles but, more than anything, the past two decades have been about creating life-long memories. The experiences he’s had as a result of boxing go hand in hand with the ups and downs of fight night. Reflecting on his career will always bring up hypothetical “what ifs?” but Baillie bows out of the sport with more than enough to show for it.
With the Midlands Area super featherweight title wrapped proudly around his waist he is back making memories: but this time with his wonderful family and his young daughter.
“Part of me wishes I turned over earlier but I couldn’t have done any of it without everyone that has supported me along the way: coaches, sponsors, people that bought tickets. For someone who’s ‘only’ won a Midlands Area title I’ve got a fair few stories to tell.
“Would I rather have retired undefeated and 12-0? Not a chance.”