I WAS in Malta with the family enjoying a well-earned rest. Though I was doing some light training there, the first defence was sprung on me with about eight weeks’ notice which isn’t enough for me.
Consequently, I rushed straight into sparring and knackered the right hand the first time I landed it, in my first spar back. I knew straight away that it was ‘gone’. I snapped the metatarsal, clean break.
At the time, I had no idea of the deal with the IBF. I was under the impression I was allowed two medical extensions. I assumed there’d be a fight for the ‘interim’ title. Isn’t that the purpose of interim titles? I expected to be retained as champion ‘in recess’.
Before I knew it, I was told I’d been stripped after just four months. Then, I had a hundred things going on in my head. I’m 31, not young. I’ve suffered hand injuries for eight years. Would Eddie Hearn want to build me back up? I’m a realist. I know how this game works.
I thought: ‘I can’t afford to take time out at this stage of my career to get myself back into contention. I’ve already been to the top. That’s it. I’m done. Retired.’ Thankfully, my dad and wife said a few harsh truths and the surgeon Mike Hayton assured me, ‘[Give it] three months and you’ll be back.’ Do I do it? Fuck it, yes.
I used the time out pretty productively. [Sponsors] JD took me to Qatar for the World Cup and I saw all three Wales’ games, USA, Iran and I can’t mention the other (chuckles). That was a sore one… especially as I was in the same hotel as the England team’s families! Still, one of the best experiences of my life, something I might never get to do again.
Then, on December 9, I got married. I’ve been with the missus (Lauren) for 15 years but we kept putting it off. She finally forced my hand, held a bat to me. I’m from a huge family. Dad’s one of 20-odd, mum’s one of 14. Trouble is they don’t all get on! So it was just a Cardiff registry office affair – I was shitting myself with nerves, far more than any fight – followed by an intimate gathering at a beautiful restaurant. One of the best things I’ve ever done.
I had the op with Mike in the end of September. Mike’s very top of his field. We were acquainted through my past surgery. I trust in him fully, did absolutely everything he told me to do, kept building it up, and was back punching in three months.
Initially, it was a day on, day off. If it ached, we’d pull back. Consequently, I can now let it go full pelt. It honestly does not play on my mind. If it goes, it goes. I don’t need any warm-up. If an injury reoccurs, I’d want it to happen in a world title fight. If it breaks again, I want it to be on Rakhimov’s head rather than anyone else’s.
Two weeks into resuming sparring, I was back feeling good. In Tony Sims, I believe I’ve got the best coach in the UK. He’s a boxing fanatic. Historically, he knows who everyone fought. He’s devised a good game plan and it’s coming off lovely but, if it’s not working, I’m experienced enough to adapt. I had 180 amateur fights. I know my way around the ring.
I’m really looking forward to this fight. I didn’t lose my world title. We’re back in Cardiff. I’m happy with the purse that I’m getting and Rakhimov’s clearly happy with what he’s getting.
I’ve never felt that I’m no longer champion. I’ll enter with the full confidence of a world champion but I’ve also got a point to prove so it’s double (motivation). I’m continually visualising the show. I go to bed thinking of how I’m beating him and wake up the same.
Winning my IBF belt was at The Motorpoint Arena in my home city last June was unreal. It’s what I’d always asked Eddie Hearn to deliver. The opportunity was there. Leave the rest to me.
Going in, I knew what to expect. I’d seen Liam Williams get carried away after landing early against [Chris] Eubank Jr and hearing that Welsh crowd roar. But I’ve fought at the Olympic Games, the highest possible stage. There, I was nervous but now I don’t experience nerves. I experience butterflies which are healthy, keep me sharp.
I was always confident that I’d stop Ogawa – we knew from his past fights that he didn’t like fighting on the inside and could be hurt to the body – but it was a surprise that it took just one shot. The plan had been to get him late.
Having savoured his power in the first round, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere so if I stayed ‘switched on’, I’d gradually break his heart. That sweeping right hand was a shot that me and Tony had been working on for hours in camp. Round two, it was there to be thrown. Game over.
Unlike at lightweight, I’m physical at 130. Now, I’m a big guy in the division. My power’s definitely different. Since dropping down, in all five fights bar [Mexican Mario Enrique] Tinoco, I saw changes in my opponents’ faces whenever I clipped them clean. And, remember, I had a bad right hand going into that fight so lacked a bit of confidence, letting it go.
My third fight [at super-feather] lasted 53 seconds and in the fourth, after tasting my power first round, the boy [Miko Khatchatryan] ran for his life.
Still, I never enter with the intention of knocking my opponent out. I box to win and if a stoppage is there, it happens. I never want to get my win looking bad, chasing the spectacular kayo. Amateur and pro, I’ve always been about using my brain, being clinical. Above all, that’s what I want to be known for and, on June 4, that’s what I displayed.
I’ve already reached my goal by winning a ‘world’ title, now it’s my duty to secure my family’s future. And my hunger to do that is even greater than my desire to win the IBF title was. That makes me a different animal.
To do that, I have to get the IBF belt back, secure unification and/or get big fights with the top lightweights or any featherweights who want to step up. Shakur [Stevenson] had the cheek to call my name after I won the title then he deserts the division? I’d like to jump in the ring with him. Chopsy f***er (laughs)!
There’s a WBC title belt on show in the Matchroom office. Green’s my favourite colour so, if I win, let’s get unification on with [O’Shaqui] Foster, if he’s free, straight after. Look, I fancy myself against anyone on the planet. That’s my mentality. I’ve never shied away from any opponent in my life. I’m certainly not going to shy from someone who has something that I desperately want.
Though I’m officially the challenger against Rakhimov, I’m of the mindset that I’m entering still as world champion.
This fight was originally set for Abu Dhabi in November but it had always been my intention to have my first defence in my home town. They’d struggle to sell this in Tajikistan or even LA (Los Angeles) were Shavkat trains.
There’s no extra pressure. I’ve always craved big local fights. I’m begging Eddie to get me Cardiff Castle or Cardiff City Stadium so you have to fully embrace these opportunities when they arrive.
The Cardiff boys and girls all come out for me. I’ve got extended family from all over the world; Pakistan, Somalia, Mongolia, Maltese, Irish, the Caribbean and they all come together. Though I train away [in Essex], I can’t see myself ever moving out of Cardiff. It rocks!
I’ve always been a Bluebird and in early March, I was invited onto the pitch before their 2-0 win over Bristol City. Bristol booed but, as always, Cardiff gave me a good reception. As I was leaving, the [Cardiff] City chairman said I must come more often. I bring them luck!
I sold around 200 ringside seats for the Ogawa fight and my fans made it very hostile for him. This time I’ll do even more. Those fans are no joke and will make it very uncomfortable for Rakhimov.
Shavkat’s a world champion so I’m not going to knock him in any way, shape or form. He’s a dangerous dude. I’ve studied all his big fights; he always tries to walk opponent’s down and back them against the ropes but I ain’t gonna be there. Amateur and pro, I’ve boxed loads of top southpaws and not lost to many.
To combat Shavkat, you’ve got to be very, very fit but Tony has never allowed me to feel remotely sorry for myself in the gym. Rakhimov’s in wicked condition, very strong and brings a powerful punch but at the highest level, you need more than that.
Freddie Roach may be one of the best coaches that boxing has ever had but, the way Rakhimov fights, I’m not too sure there’s much Freddie can add to change him. All the true greats of boxing, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard, [Floyd] Mayweather beat the scrappers cos they boxed with their brains.
There’s areas Shavkat trumps me in, but a lot more I trump him in. His feet ain’t the best and my feet are what I’m known for. My hands are faster, my feet are quicker and my ring IQ is a lot higher than his. I’ve already been in the ring with the best boxers on the planet as an amateur. I’ve beaten plenty of fellas who would make Rakhimov look silly.
I win here because of my boxing brain. Hit him, not get hit back. I’m unbeaten in 15 fights against top class opposition and I don’t have a mark on my face. That’s because I use my brain, my feet and my head movement.
For me, ‘JoJo’ Diaz beat Rakhimov (the February 2021 was formally a 12 round draw). And that was when ‘JoJo’ was struggling for weight. [South Africa’s Azinga] Fuzile outboxed him for long periods, Zelfa [Barrett] was outboxing him before he got caught [in round nine].
First, I’ll outbox Rakhimov then knock him out. He’ll just walk at my hands. Zelfa dropped him walking in with an uppercut which has always been one of my favourite shots. What worked for Zelfa may work for me but there’s another five or six punches we’re also working on, plus fresh combinations.
If you just try to stay ‘safe’, Shavkat can get on to you so you’ve got to be prepared to take chances. I’m willing to do that. No one reaches greatness without gambling.
Interview: Glenn Evans