Wayne Elcock: “The discipline you need to succeed in the sport, I think I’ve transferred that into my business after I retired.”
By Chris Akers
The last time I interviewed Wayne Elcock he was in the midst of arguably the most productive period of his career. He had beaten Howard Eastman for the British title after becoming English champion in his previous fight. Though he had lost to Arthur Abraham in challenging for the IBF middleweight title, he returned to winning ways six months later by stopping Darren McDermott in his first defence.
This period came about after he split with Frank Warren and Sports Network, as he was not happy with what they had planned for him.
“I was boxing at midnight at York Hall after been chief support to Ricky Hatton and Scott Harrison,’ says Elcock. ‘To box and half past midnight when Sky were packing the cameras away didn’t appeal to me. And it didn’t seem to be changing much, so I took control of my destiny and decided to come back to Birmingham and team up with Paddy Lynch. I managed myself and worked my way to the English title, the British title, and challenging Arthur Abraham. That was all from managing myself and coming back to Brum.”
Yet Elcock’s contract with Sports Network still had 18 months to run. So in that time, he didn’t box and let the contract run its course. To make ends meet, he returned to his job as a BT engineer. The same job he worked alongside his professional career, up until his 10th professional fight.
‘‘Thankfully they took me back on and I was back on the road. This time around it wasn’t as good as the first time around.
“Back then, I was coming to fix a phone line on the Monday, and nine times out of 10, you got the Sky to go with it. The amount of people that would pull me up and ask if I was that boxer. I’d say, ‘Of course I am,’ and would sign autographs and have a chat with them. The next time I was with BT, customers were asked me ‘Have I seen you before?’ and I’d say ‘Don’t think you have mate,’ he laughs.
“After been up there on Sky Sports, to been on the tools, carrying ladders, climbing telegraph poles, it was just a means to put food on the table, while I was waiting for my contract to expire, so I could start again. Things like that in life really humble you and make you appreciate your career more as well.”
One of the benefits of managing himself in the latter stages of his career was that it allowed him the opportunity to perform in front of his home crowd. Boxing in Birmingham at that point hadn’t had many high-profile fights since the early 1990s. This was in part due to a riot that took place at the National Exhibition Centre in September 1994 during the fight between Robert McCracken and Steve Foster. This incident understandably made promoters wary of hosting major fights in the city.
Elcock was a part of helping to bring major title fights to the city. Indeed, four of his last seven fights took place in the city and of the three that didn’t, two of those were in neighbouring Coventry and Wolverhampton.
“One of my biggest regrets was never getting the opportunity to box in my hometown. Everyone always had to travel. That was something I wanted to get done and thankfully I manage to do it many a time.”
Ask Elcock what his best win was and his reply of Howard Eastman is robust. It is easy to see why. Just a couple of years before, Eastman had been in the ring with the likes of Bernard Hopkins, Abraham, and Edison Miranda and was still seen as the best British middleweight at that time. Yet Elcock produced a great performance to beat Eastman and win the Lonsdale belt for the first time. It was a high-profile win, despite the fight not been shown live on television.
“Sky pulled out,” explains Elcock. “So Paddy put money from his own pocket to put that show on. Most people predicted a four-round, five-round knockout for Howard. They thought it would be an easy night work for him.”
One of the people that helped him in the latter stages of Wayne’s career was Goody Petronelli, which as this interview took place less than a week since the passing of Marvelous Marvin Hagler seems poignant. How did that come about?
“A few years before the Macklin fight, Steve Collins came to one of my fights and said ‘Wayne, you’re a good fighter but you need that American flavour. You need to get over there and you need to work with Goody.”
Steve Collins set up the first meeting with Goody, which took place just after Wayne’s fight with Scott Dann. Elcock enjoying the experience so much that Petronelli ended up being part of his training camp.
“For a 10 week camp, I’d spend the first four weeks in America and then come back and finish with Paddy over here. So he ended up been there right the way until the end. Goody was in the background and he’d help me out in my training camp.
“A massive part of my success was working with Goody. He wanted me to come and live in Brockton. He wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t see any potential in me. If it wasn’t so late in my career when I found him and I hadn’t got commitments here and the rest of it, I would have probably made the move to America and train and probably fought out there. It just came too late in my career to do that.”
The exact location of my last interview with Elcock was at his gym. He was preparing for a local derby of sorts, against Matthew Macklin, in defence of his British crown. It was the biggest fight in Birmingham for many years, was live on terrestrial television, and featured a promising young heavyweight named Tyson Fury on the undercard. It was a fight he lost, after which he retired. Though as Elcock explains, retirement was not initially on the cards.
“I wasn’t going to retire. I would have announced it on the night if that was the case. I felt that there was still fight left in me, to be honest. I knew the reason why I lost and I probably shouldn’t have been boxing on the day. My intention was to try and get back that British belt again when I was back right and I was ready to do it.”
While waiting for the chance to regain his British title, a fight with Darren Barker came up, which gave him the chance to win both the British and Commonwealth titles. However, it was not to be.
“Unfortunately for me, just before the fight I fell ill and I have to pull out of the fight. The week of the fight, I felt I was on death’s doorstep, so I pulled out. I spoke to the board and asked them when the next opportunity to fight for the British title would be. And they said I had to wait my turn as I’d pulled out.”
No fight to aim for and nothing else to occupy himself, a vacuum was created in his life. At a bit of a loose end and with nothing on the horizon, one day someone from Solihull Council approached him to train boys who had gone a little off the rails. And the rest is history.
“I started training the young kids and enjoying that. I still think I had a few fights left in me. I still felt I was fit enough to do that. But this thing came along where I was working with naughty kids and the feedback I was getting from the parents were on the lines of, ‘What are you doing with him? He’s eating porridge for breakfast. He’s going for a run before school. This is a kid who was getting into trouble all the time. Now he’s behaving himself.’ I got a bigger buzz from that than any title I won, strange as it seems.
“I didn’t give my licence up until 2014. So I had this aspiration to still come back. I love breaking records and at the back of my mind, I thought ‘Let’s get this business going, as I enjoy coaching kids, but at the moment, I’m going to get hurt if I get in a boxing ring,’ because my main priority when I was training for my return was what I could do with the sessions I was going with these naughty boys to get them to love boxing as much as I do. I thought that it was time to get out of it, as I wasn’t thinking about me and my welfare and somebody trying to take my head off. I was thinking about what I could do to make the coaching better for the kids. So I knew it was time for me to go. I’d rather retire from the sport than the sport retires me.”
On the flip side to that, Elcock had the idea of wanting to come back and becoming the oldest British champion.
“I love breaking records and I love proving people wrong. And I think that was probably the reason why I kept my boxing licence. When I first turned professional, I looked at who was at the top of the tree. If you can’t envision yourself being that person at the top of the tree, then it wasn’t worth me starting that journey in the first place, as I always wanted to be a champion. If I didn’t believe I could do that, then there’s no point in becoming professional to do it. It’s a tough sport. There’s no way I wanted years of getting my head punched for the sake of getting punched, just to stay a professional boxer. I had to be a champion.
“I remember at 40 the guy who got the British title was a young man called Billy Joe Saunders. And I remember at the time seeing this fresh kid and thinking ‘Yeah maybe not!’ And that idea went to the bin, so I just concentrated on my business. That dream was shelved. I thought it was a bridge too far. Full respect to Billy. He went on to win a world title, which proved that it was probably the right call from me. I’ve been happy ever since in terms of working with the kids and doing the coaching.”
The vacuum was filled. He enjoyed it that much that he spoke to the council and asked if they would support him and if there was any more work in this area. He started Box Clever in 2009 after the Macklin fight.
“The two kids I trained at the start. One of the kids (the first kid Solihull Council sent to me) is still with me today. He’s my first professional boxer as well. I’m so proud to see the first kid I ever trained just turn professional. We got him back into mainstream education after he’d been kicked out of school and expelled. He just signed his pro contract last year. He was going to have his debut in March, but the pandemic has wrecked everything. He’s still in the gym training and hopefully, we can get him out sooner rather than later.”
Elcock targets kids who were like him at his age. He describes himself as a ‘naughty boy’ at school. Always in trouble.
“I came from nothing. I’m not proud of the fact that I left school with no qualifications, as I messed around too much and it was too late when I found boxing, to do anything with it. I did stay on as a sixth former, and there was uproar about the school letting me stay on as a sixth former. But by then, it was too late. There was too much to catch up on.”
He even left school with a certificate that won’t be found on the National Curriculum.
“They gave me a certificate called the Survivor award. I’ve still got the certificate. It says ‘A person that was most likely to be excluded, but survived and improved beyond recognition.’ My own life completely changed when I took up boxing when I was 14. I was hot-headed, I was always fighting and obviously, the boxing calmed me down. I was more interested in fighting England champions and trying to aspire in the boxing game rather than fighting in the school playground.”
The enthusiasm and passion Elcock has in helping is obvious in his voice. And Box Clever doesn’t just help a kid with boxing but helps them develop as a person. The process of mentoring involves the kids letting him into their lives and try and get their lives on the right track, thinking about their actions and what they are doing in life, and the things they need to do to be successful in life.
“Not everything is going to appeal. Some of the kids that we work with on the boxing program seldom do P.E. They’re not interested in that. But they’ll work like mad in a boxing session. There’s a different thing about boxing in general. Everybody loves to play Rocky. The program that I put together was called 12 Rounds. There’s a lot of things that we try to put in there to try and help on the education platform as well as growing as a person.
“For me the mindset of being number one, what it takes to be a champion, what it takes to be a winner. The discipline you need to succeed in the sport, I think I’ve transferred that into my business after I retired.”
Out of Box Clever has spawned the Wayne Elcock Boxing Academy.
“That’s the amateur boxing that was born out of Box Clever,” describes Elcock. “I go into a certain area where there are problems and go into schools where the kids have been naughty and been excluded and work a lot with them. If I go to a school in say Wolverhampton, there’s no good signposted them to my amateur gym, as it’s miles away. So I introduce them to their local amateur boxing club, which would be Wolverhampton ABC. I’ll introduce them to whether club in whether area I’m in. I take them down there personally.”
However, so successful was Box Clever, that when some of the kids from the Chelmsley Wood area, a large housing estate within Solihull associated with anti-social behaviour and crime, wanted to turn amateur, they didn’t want to go to the local boxing club. They wanted to stay with Wayne.
“I told them that I didn’t want to be in the amateur code. There were with me for about 18 months and they wouldn’t leave! So in the end I thought sod it. I’m going to have to get the amateur side going. I’m going to have to get a licence and get my amateur coaching badges and then formed the boxing academy, which was then the feeder club for Box Clever.
“What I was trying to do was take away the stigma with a lot of boxing clubs, as they’re quite daunting for anyone to walk into. I remember the clubs I used to go into, you had to get respect from the rounds you sparred from the people in the gym. I’ve been in clubs where it’s been moody as anything. But then when they see you spar, the people start talking to you.”
A novel way of dealing with kids who feel daunted by the thuds and tsk tsk sounds on the punchbag, or the smell of sweat as the kids are put through their paces, is to bring the boxing rings to them. To create a gym in the environment that they are more used to.
“The rings could be anywhere. They could be on an estate. We did an estate and got an award from the WBC and the British Boxing Board of Control for 100% crime reduction, in an area where a kid had just been stabbed and murdered. And we went in there with a boxing ring and got 100% crime reduction in that area. We’re reaching kids that ordinarily wouldn’t be reached because they wouldn’t walk into a boxing gym.”
Now Elcock is also training and managing pro boxers, two of which are Brandon Jones, who is the first amateur national champion Wayne’s amateur gym has produced, and Stevie Pitt, who was an England international as an amateur, and turned pro this year. Though kids of all backgrounds and abilities have benefitted from the work that Box Clever, as illustrated by Elcock in this next story.
“We had a kid who used to go to a special needs school who was part of the club. He never boxed for us in general. He was never going to box amateur, but he was part and parcel of the club. He was accepted into our gym and he was able to train there. That helped him in life and he’s secured himself a job now. He was young when he came to us and he’s 19 now. His mom was forever ringing me and thanking me for the change that his life took and the way it’s developed his confidence and his character.
“I get more of a buzz out of that than any title that I won. It’s not about me, it’s about we. It’s a different feeling altogether. When I was topping the bill in Birmingham or wherever and when fans were coming to watch me box, the buzz I used to get from that was euphoric. But I’ve touched those heights, even higher, with success stories we’ve had through Box Clever, and having a kid that is totally off the rails and turn him around.”
Wayne Elcock has used what the sport of boxing gave him to help better the lives of kids with little purposeful stimuli in the areas they grow up in and little avenue for change. As he said himself, Box Clever was ‘created by champions to create champions, not just in boxing, but in life.’ How this is achieved can be best summed up by paraphrasing something he said earlier: Envision yourself being that person at the top of the tree, as I always wanted to be a champion. He isn’t just creating champions in the ring but helping them climb the top of their tree outside it as well.