Aqib Fiaz: “He’s An Absolute Warrior. I’m Expecting A Tough Fight Because It’s 50-50 On Paper.”
By Oliver McManus
Oldham’s own Aqib Fiaz has a confidence about him that somehow comes across as softly-spoken modesty.
That self-belief is clear to understand: at 20 years old Fiaz has been snapped up by Matchroom Boxing having looked smooth as Sinatra across his opening five fights.
Fellow fighters that have crossed his path in the gym have been open in their praise of the youngster: “Aqib is going to be a huge star” one sparring partner told me before his pro debut in March 2019.
I caught up with Aqib Fiaz just a week before his sixth professional fight as part of Eddie Hearn’s Fight Camp. He began by telling me how walking into Northside Amateur Boxing Club had him falling in love with the sport from an early age.
“Obviously being a British-Asian myself, Amir Khan was a big inspiration but when I got down to Northside there was a fighter called Craig Watson. As you walked in, above the door, it said “home of British and Commonwealth champion Craig ‘The Hammer’ Watson” and I didn’t know who he was, I’ll be honest.
“He was a regular guy who you could have a laugh with but there was actually a picture in the gym of him dropping Amir (as an amateur) so then I’ve started to look up to him. It’s one thing watching elite fighters on TV but to have someone from your background, in your gym, making it on TV showed me that I could do it, too.”
Over 70 amateur bouts followed with fights for the English senior team, an English national title and nine Area belts all gracing his CV. Despite all that, seemingly natural, success, Fiaz remarked “(I) was crap when I started” but it was tough fatherly love that ignited that spark of success within him
“I was very overweight, I was shit at it, and one day as we were on our way to a fight – I’d lost a few before – my dad said ‘listen, son, if you lose this one just call it a day with boxing.’ I was only 14 at the time and I was boxing a guy who’d already beaten me so I wasn’t feeling too good but I must have thrown hundreds of punches in those three rounds and I just didn’t stop. I wanted it so bad and I kept that up for the next 30, 40 fights and only lost five of them so that was the turning point that kicked me into action.”
Five years on from that familial intervention and the teenager had his determined eyes set firmly on turning professional. Fiaz’ brother had overseen his apprenticeship years but it was a call from Nigel Travis that set the wheels in motion for his eventual debut. Travis, alongside Jamie Moore, run the infamous Astley VIP gym that Carl Frampton calls home. Fiaz recalled that first encounter.
“I’d boxed a few of Nigel’s amateur lads and got out-boxed in the first round of both before gritting my teeth and getting the win (so) that’s how Nige knew me. Carl Frampton needed some sparring and Jamie wanted amateur kids to come in, do four rounds, and just put it on Carl how you do as an amateur. I went the first time and I ended up doing six rounds without really realising but for the first two rounds I was just in awe, a little bit starstruck, but my brother gave me a slap and I got down to work.”
And whilst Aqib Fiaz had long dreamed of his professional debut even he admitted that it was beyond his imagination to have such experienced figures as Jamie Moore and Nigel Travis in his corner.
That debut arrived in March last year with a 40-36 win over Ibrar Riyaz with Aqib having sold nearly 400 tickets for the show at the Oldham Leisure Centre. Four further fights have followed and, in April, a promotional contract with Matchroom Boxing was inked. I asked the lightweight whether he’d expected his career to get off to such a flying start.
“I can speak for everyone when I say no-one expected to be fighting in these circumstances. Joking aside, I can honestly say I’ve always envisaged myself fighting on TV even when I was watching Ricky Hatton or Anthony Crolla; I’d sit there as a fat 12 year old and think “yeah, that’ll be me one day.” I’ve always had that drive and ambition so it feels as though I am the one that’s meant to be fighting on Sky, on these big occasions and I don’t feel out of place, to be honest.”
Across these opening six fights are some ambitious names when compared to your usual host of dreich journeymen: Ben Fields (fights for the Midlands Area title in September) and Jamie Speight (former Southern Area champion) have looked to probe the 20 year old. Now Kane Baker, a former Midlands Area champion and English title challenger, awaits Fiaz on August 7th. The Manchester Metropolitan University student insisted he was approaching Baker every bit as studiously as his Sports Science degree.
“Listen, I’ve prepared for this fight the same way as all my other opponents. I’ve never really had soft-touches and (at Northside) I used to train with Mark Heffron so, to train with him, you have to have some engine.
“He’s an absolute warrior. I’m expecting a tough fight because it’s 50-50 on paper but, if anything, I think they’re under-estimating me by looking at my age and experience and thinking it’s come too soon for me. I’m not expecting to just be able to do my own thing; Kane Baker likes to come forward and it’ll be a good test for every aspect of me as a boxer.”
As we concluded our conversation there was real relish to the way the youngster spoke at the prospect of getting back in the ring after such a prolonged period of uncertainty. Throughout the half hour in which we spoke there was a real sense that community was key to Fiaz’ way of life: that his success was a shared success for the people of Oldham and those growing up without much by way of local inspiration.
“You see a lot of boxers perhaps once they’ve reached the heights and got a bit of money that then they look to give back to their community. I’ve always just gone about my business, been myself, and when you see youngsters looking up to you it is an incredible feeling.
“There’s a community centre just round the corner from where I live so from the age of 16 I’ve volunteered on a weekly basis to coach a session and teach kids the benefits of boxing. These are the same kids that five years ago saw my dad chasing me around the streets to get my fitness up and they all thought my dad was crazy. Now they can see where that hard work and where that craziness can take you if you just stick at it.”