Akeem Ennis-Brown: “I get a buzz off people telling me I can’t do something.”
By Oliver McManus
As a four year old, Akeem Ennis Brown was already diligently plotting his path to success alongside his brother, Shugz.
His older brother would oversee Riiddy’s progress with an eager eye and would even hold bets on the cobbles of Gloucester.
That early start has seen him run with sparks of imagination for as long as he can remember: idealising about what would be. Reflecting on those simpler times, Akeem discussed with me his earliest inspirations.
“Watching Rocky with my brother is one of my first memories: I lean towards number three being my favourite but it’s a tough one between three and four. When we were kids I liked the sport but we were kind of doing our own thing, my brother was training me, so we had our own style and our own way. When I started to watch the sport it was Floyd Mayweather at 135lbs that really stood out to me. He was the fighter that kept me coming back but I loved watching old fighters, as well, like Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson.”
Humble beginnings that spurred a lifetime of dedication to the sport and an amateur record of 26-6. Not being picked up by Team GB wasn’t enough to dent the optimism of Fight Factory boxer who had set his eyes on turning professional almost immediately after his first amateur contest.
“My brother would get people to spar with me from when I was a little kid so I always throwing punches, everyday. It was how we had fun but when I walked into the gym at 14 it was a different atmosphere but I knew I could hold my own. That’s always been the thing, for me, I’m intrigued to see how good I can be and that’s what keeps me going now: just to continually test myself. After my second amateur fight I was set on becoming professional: I’d stopped my first two opponents but it was that second fight where I was pleased with my actual performance.”
And after a decade of brotherly tutelage, it was Jon Pitman who looked to shape a 14 year old Akeem Ennis Brown when he entered the gym. The super lightweight had to be patient, perhaps more patient than he would have liked, to make his paid debut: against Ibrar Riyaz in July 2015 at Cannock’s Chase Leisure Centre.
“I was just enjoying myself and thinking ‘do you know what, there could be something in this’ and once I got that thought in my mind I just sort of ran with it. I had a wild imagination and I’d make bold statements about where I’d be in five, ten years time so when I had my debut, don’t get me wrong, I was so happy to be there but obviously it’s nowhere near what you’ve built it up to be. None of that mattered though because I was still learning my craft and having fun.”
A breezy points win over Riyaz would foreshadow six comfortable victories, against perennial losers, in twelve days over a year. After 16 months as a professional fighter, the super-lightweight took a huge step up against Freddy Kiwitt. Kiwitt, at the time 11-0, was widely fancied to win the contest: I asked Akeem what he remembered from that fight.
“It was the first time I was stepping up and wasn’t being expected to win. I think Freddy Kiwitt was thinking he could wipe me out but in my head I knew he wasn’t on my level. I mean when they sent me the highlights reel before the fight I thought ‘ooo, this guy is crazy. Am I ready for that?” but I watched it a couple of times and each time I just got more and more confident. As much as I was confident until I got in the ring I still didn’t really know how I’d respond: York Hall was a mad atmosphere and that was incredible to feed off. It was a good fight and it was the confirmation in my mind that I could rise to the challenges I was going to have to face.”
Fighting away from home so early in his career could have produced some unwanted nervous energy: no more intimidating territory than the bolshy, boisterous, boiling Bethnal Green venue. The, then, 21 year old was typically youthful and nonchalant about the situation and insisted he was able to bounce off the naysayers’ doubts.
“I get a buzz off people telling me I can’t do something: so when people were saying Freddy would beat me I just couldn’t wait to prove them wrong. Of course there was less pressure than fighting in front of a home crowd but, to be honest, that’s kind of a nice pressure that channels into adrenaline: it helps more often than it bothers you.”
Given the nature of his victory over Kiwitt, 96-93 with a fourth round knockdown, you may well have forgiven the Gloucestershire fighter for expecting doors aplenty to open up for him.
Indeed over his next six bouts he boxed Glenn Foot, Chris Jenkins, Darragh Foley and Bilal Rehman, with a combined record of 66-5-4, to pick up the English, WBC Youth and IBF European belts. Domestically, though, despite those established names on his record, Akeem Ennis Brown considers himself to be deliberately ignored.
“It’s frustrating when you see the kids that people would say are above me. I don’t see other people going down the route I’ve done, taking those tough fights in succession. The way I see it is that every fighter should put their record on their line and do what I’ve done: take those challenges otherwise you’re never going to know how good you are.
“Other people don’t have that mentality but, at the same time, you don’t seem to get that respect for doing it the hard way. I know my time is coming so I don’t let it get to me too much.”
For all those frustrations there is a bittersweet irony to his prolonged wait for that British title shot.
Twice he’s meant to have faced Philip Bowes for the Lonsdale belt, and Bowes’ Commonwealth crown, and twice it’s been postponed. In November it was called off on the day with blood found in Bowes’ urine; rescheduled for March the bout has now been postponed indefinitely due to the Coronavirus crisis.
But the 25 year old looks upon the circumstances with an eerie relaxation: tainted with natural disappointment but a genuine belief he’ll be all the better when the pair finally get it on.
“I’m going to be ready. That’s why I’m surprised other people don’t take those fights earlier on because you might have all that amateur experience but you’re not earning your spot as a professional. If you can prove yourself early on in your career you get that confidence and you know you can take those steps up. I’ve looked to build myself and increase the challenges and I’ve come through them: you don’t do that by fighting these journeymen and knockover jobs.”
A warning, too, followed for the onlookers that have sought to muddy his achievements. It seems so often that once a fighter drops a decision they are suddenly ruled ‘over-the-hill’ but both Glenn Foot (Commonwealth) and Chris Jenkins (British and Commonwealth) picked up prestigious titles after their respective losses to the rising super-lightweight talent. Don’t tarnish their reputation, or his record, in the same brush, said Ennis Brown.
“People don’t tend to see the hard work that goes on in the background: they see you on the night and they make judgements based on that. But people who saw me box Darragh Foley were coming up to me and telling me how easy I’d made the fight but, let’s be honest, it was easy because I made it that way: because of all the work we’d put in the gym with Jon and the high-level sparring. And then people afterwards try to disrespect the names I’ve been in with and say they were on the slide; well Chris Jenkins became British champion after I beat him so how can he be on the slide.”
As we concluded our conversation it was clear to see where the cogs spun in the busy brain of Gloucestershire’s pride and joy. For two decades Akeem Ennis Brown has been doing his own thing, carving his own path, and he couldn’t help but audibly contemplate what he considers to be success.
Of course the belts are ultimately how fighters are judged but, thus far, Riiddy has built a reputation on names and names alone: it should only be a matter of time before Ennis Brown can continually get his hands on both.
“The thing for me is I’ve been trying to work my way into title shots by fighting ‘the names’ and more established fighters. And as much as I want those belts it’s starting to get to a point where the belts are losing value, they’re not as respected as they once were, and it seems as though anyone can fight for a vacant title.
“If I’m going to do it I want to do it properly and really take that belt off a champion and, ideally, you’d be able to collect the belts and the names at the same time. At the end of the day I want to keep proving to myself, and other people, how good I am so that means challenging myself against the very best out there and it’s the fights people remember, more than anything, isn’t it.”
Photo Credit: MTK Global