Determination & Glory: The Billy Schwer Story
By Ian Aldous
In mid-1970s Luton, a young boy found himself tormented by his two older sisters. Without really knowing it at the time, a young Billy Schwer made a decision that he was weak and needed to prove his toughness. Six years later having taken up boxing, now aged 11, the schoolboy lost his third amateur fight, and while in floods of tears experienced another pivotal moment that spurred him on to fulfil his potential. He would never give up in search of his dream.
Following in the footsteps of his father, a former Irish featherweight champion, Schwer boxed for England and won many junior titles in the unpaid code. A regular in senior finals at his weight and with a shade under 100 fights to his name – it was time to turn professional.
A couple of years prior, famed British promoter Mickey Duff had spotted Schwer boxing for England Under-19s and intimated that the two should work together when the youngster was ready to punch for pay, and that’s exactly what happened.
Aged 21, Schwer made his pro debut and quickly reeled off 17 wins before earning his first title shot. In 1991 alone, he competed a staggering 11 times.
“Mickey got me fighting every 4 or 5 weeks. I was very lucky that I had good management and it was a different kind of time as well,” he explained to me, reflecting on his career.
In October 1992 at the Royal Albert Hall, Schwer forced defending British and Commonwealth lightweight champion, Carl Crook to retire and surrender his belts to the new king.
“I was the new kid on the block, so to speak. I was flying,” the now-52-year-old told me. “I could have fought anybody that night; I could have won the world title, I’m sure of it. I forced the retirement and I was British and Commonwealth champion. It was an incredible experience. We had the whole of Luton town there.”
“It was a memory I’ll never forget.”
His momentum stalled in early 1993, when not for the last time, cuts curtailed his progress. Paul Burke momentarily took the titles only for Schwer to right the wrongs of their first clash, and reclaim his gold on points.
“It was fulfilling to get the titles back and avenge the loss which would move me forward to where I wanted to go.”
Five subsequent consecutive knockout victories helped him get to exactly where he wanted to go, but not before a bizarre tale of his world title fight falling through at the 11th hour.
“I was going to challenge for the world title in Hong Kong, pitched as England (and Ireland) vs. America,” Schwer said. “Me, Frank Bruno, Steve Collins and Herbie Hide; we were all fighting American opponents. It was going to be in an open-air stadium. We all prepared and trained, and went over to Hong Kong. We were there for a couple of weeks and what happened was, they couldn’t guarantee we were going to get paid. Barry Hearn was there and pulled the plug as we weren’t guaranteed to get paid.”
The event was cancelled after the weigh-in and the red-hot challenger would have to wait a little longer to compete at the very highest level.
As 1995 dawned, Britain’s best lightweight crossed the pond to challenge Rafael Ruelas for his IBF world crown, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. With Mills Lane refereeing and Michael Buffer on the mic, it was a moment for Schwer to cherish. Sadly, cuts were to prove his achilles heel once again.
“The cuts required seventy stitches in the end. Seven-zero stitches, there was blood everywhere,” he said, painting a graphic portrait.
He returned back to domestic competition undeterred by the world title loss. More wins were then suddenly bookended by a defeat to David Tetteh – his first reversal not due to cuts. It was a gut check that the proud Briton would again recover from.
Four more wins, all ended before the final bell, were adding fuel to Schwer’s reputation as a top-class finisher. He had earned himself the No.1 spot in Europe to challenge Oscar Garcia Cano for the EBU lightweight championship.
“It was voted contest of the year by the European Boxing Union. It was epic and it was touch-and-go, really, really close,” he admits. “I was behind on points when I knocked him out.”
“When I took him down, you could have heard a pin drop,” he added. “It was incredible to be crowned European champion away from home. I think I was the first Englishman to win a European title in Spain.”
With Cano vanquished in front of 10,000 of his compatriots in Zaragoza, the new champion continued his ascent within the sport and defended the title three times during 1998 and 1999, all concluded inside the distance at his home away from home, York Hall.
At the peak of his powers and a No.1 ranking with the World Boxing Council in his grasp, the WBC’s 135-pound world champion, Stevie Johnston ventured to Wembley Arena to defend his strap against Schwer. A unanimous decision defeat didn’t tell the full story as a controversial aftermath ensued.
“There was a lot of controversy after the fight because he failed a drug test,” he clarified. “He was 4x over the limit of a banned stimulant called Ephedrine. No wonder I couldn’t fucking catch him! He was a million miles an hour!”
“He got away with it on a technicality.”
Apparently, the WBC stated that the test had to be administered within 7 days of the contest. A backlog of tests between a multitude of sports meant that Johnston’s took place after that time frame and was “out of the parameters of the WBC’s ruling,” according to Schwer. The British Boxing Board of Control contested it to no avail.
An all-British clash for the lightly-regarded WBU lightweight title against Colin Dunne was Schwer’s next assignment, 11 months after the Johnston fight. It was voted the BBBofC’s best fight of 2000, but the split-verdict went Dunne’s way.
Boxing as a lightweight for an entire decade had taken its toll, it was time to move up to super-lightweight in an action that would result in Schwer’s greatest night.
“I’d been British, Commonwealth and European champion. I had a dream to become world champion and I’m very, very persistent. I never gave up and that’s the fighter within me.”
Now promoted by Barry Hearn, on April 7th 2001, Billy Schwer faced Colombia’s Newton Villarreal for the IBO 140-pound world championship.
“We had a right battle for twelve rounds,” he recalled. “I go back to my corner after 11 punishing rounds and I’m absolutely exhausted. The bell goes to start the final round and Sir Winston Churchill comes to mind, he once said, ‘History will be kind to me for I intend to write it’. I came out for that twelfth and final round intending to write my history.”
“I’m now living off the back of that. Those three minutes, I’m now 20 years later, living off the back of those three minutes as a performance coach and professional speaker, because I got the win and the championship.”
He had finally secured a world title with a hard-fought twelve-round unanimous decision. Despite the success, his life was about to change for the worse.
A blow to the back of his head in the twelfth round had caused some distress to the new champion. On the drive back to Luton, with a party in his honour waiting, Schwer was violently sick and went to hospital diagnosed with concussion.
In preparation for his maiden world title defence, he sustained a blow in sparring that caused a feeling he’d not experienced before. Without informing any of his team, he proceeded on with the fight, a decision he now refers to as being “reckless” and “stupid”.
Up on one card, down on another and level on the other, Schwer was stopped by Pablo Daniel Sarmiento in the eleventh round. The title was gone, but that was the least of his initial worries.
“I got knocked out and went back to hospital,” he described solemnly. “This time I travelled in style. I went in the back of the ambulance, sirens blaring, dodging through traffic.”
“In that moment I realised my life as I know it is over. That was when I made the toughest decision I ever made, to retire.”
Leaving the sweet science possessing a record of 39-6 with 30 wins by KO over 11 glorious years, and British, Commonwealth, European and World titles in the bag. He could leave with his head held high.
Released from hospital with his life intact, it was time to embark on life after boxing.
“The first two years of retirement were the worst two years of my life,” he admitted frankly. “I slipped into depression; my career had been taken away from me.”
He blamed himself and felt like a failure having not defended the world title or made enough money out of it. He divorced his wife and headed for bankruptcy thanks in part to the 2008 recession. His home repossessed; he had hit rock bottom.
Mental health was a taboo subject at the time and it wasn’t a topic that Schwer was wishing to reveal, despite the fact he was going through a breakdown.
“What (made) Billy the boxer become a champion was now having Billy fail in life.”
Admitting to being aggressive, domineering, selfish and inconsiderate after a lifetime spent as a fighter, he had to break himself down and rebuild.
“The default journey for a lot of boxers is the one I went on,” Schwer opined. “So many fighters and athletes have gone through it.”
“Loads of fighters end up with nothing.”
Able to reverse his fortunes, he’s now a confident, happier and self-fulfilled man, living what he calls a “10/10 life”.
Speaking at conferences, leading small group training, and writing a book called ‘Man Up’ all led to him creating a 12-week coaching programme to help others who may be going through what he suffered.
“I’ve transformed and dismantled myself and here I am. That’s what I’m sharing as I want everyone to have what I’ve got. I want everyone to feel good; to feel great.”