By Matt Bozeat
“FOR the past few years, I have been saying: ‘I will give it one more year,’” said the British middleweight champion. But I keep winning!
“This year really is a bonus. I have already done everything I wanted. The next few fights will be fun and hopefully I can make some decent money.”
Nathan Heaney has always been good fun.
The bare-chested singalong to Tom Jones anthem Delilah on his walk to the ring has had more than a million views and he was warned by a referee for singing during his fight with Christopher Schembri in hometown of Stoke-on-Trent in March 2020. So, singing, yes. But when it came to fighting, well, it took a long time before everyone was convinced.
“People seem to have this perception that I’m not very good for some reason,” said the chatty and honest 34-year-old. “I have been competing for nearly two decades and I’m improving. If you look at the fight behind closed doors (against Ryan Oliver in February, 2021) I’m levels above that now. I’m holding my shape better, not getting caught by as many silly shots.”
Heaney was good enough last November to pull off what Boxing News called British boxing’s ‘Upset of the Year.’ He sank to his knees and wept tears of joy at the Manchester Arena after dethroning British champion Denzel Bentley on a majority points vote. “Nobody thought I would beat Bentley,” said Heaney, “but I knew Steve would come up with something.”
Steve is Steve Woodvine, Heaney’s coach from the start of his pro career, and he became a social media star himself in the aftermath of Nathan’s win. Broadcasters TNT Sport put together a compilation of Woodvine’s in-between rounds cajoling that had 600,000 views on their Twitter page.
Heaney and Woodvine first worked together in Heaney’s last amateur bout, a defeat to Zach Parker in the Staffordshire final of the 2015 ABA Championship. Woodvine was – and still is – head coach of Orme Amateur Boxing Club and handed up to Heaney’s coach Danny Johnson during the Parker bout.
“I was boxing for Stoke Staffs,” said Heaney, “and (coach) Dave Buxton didn’t have a pro licence.
“I knew Steve had Luke Caci and he’s one of my best mates, so when I filled in the form to apply to be a professional and got to the section where it asked who my coach was, I wrote ‘Steve Woodvine’ before I had even asked him.”
Woodvine went along with the idea and Heaney’s pro career started at the grandly titled Imperial Banqueting Suite in Bilston in November 2017, with a points win over Daryl Sharp.
The Kings Hall in Stoke would become Heaney’s home venue. Heaney would say his fight nights there were “the best night out in Stoke” and if the locals’ idea of a good night out involved noise, passion and drama, Heaney never disappointed.
He would have his wobbles – especially early in fights – but every time, he pulled through over 10 rounds until manager Errol Johnson handed him over to Queensberry Promotions. They have found that Heaney’s supporters have followed him to Telford, Birmingham and Manchester.
“Stoke people are good people,” said Heaney, seemingly always excitable. “They have good hearts and will follow whatever makes the city proud.”
Times have been hard in the area known as the six towns – Hanley, Burslem, Fenton, Stoke, Longton, and Tunstall – as the pride once felt in the pottery industry that put the city’s name around the world has vanished with the closure of the kilns and an understaffed police force have struggled to cope with problems, including what chiefs have described as “a monkey dust epidemic.”
Heaney knows all of the above and tries to make his fight nights as affordable as possible. “When I get a date, I privately message the guys who regularly buy off me,” he said, “and when it’s announced, I share it (on social media). They all buy their tickets off me directly.
“I try to make it as easy as possible and as cheap as possible. If they are travelling, I post their tickets first class recorded delivery and every other ticket I drop off individually to their home address.
“I try to do two postcodes a day and there are around 40-50 drops in each postcode. I don’t do bulk drop offs. It’s a lot of work, but I enjoy it. I keep going back to the same houses. I see where they come from.”
In return, his supporters get the best version of Heaney, every time he fights. The bulk of Heaney’s supporters follow Stoke City Football Club and he knows want they expect for their money.
“I don’t mind us losing 4-0 as long as I know the players have put their heart and soul into it,” he said. “I know that if I put my heart and soul into boxing, it might not be enough to make me a world champion, but my supporters will always be with me.”
His supporters have already seen Heaney win Midlands and British honours, the win over Bentley making him only the third British champion from Stoke, after Tommy Harrison and the late Chris Edwards.
“I just knew I was going to win,” said Heaney. “Steve watched him and said: ‘If you hold your feet against him, he will punch holes in you. ‘Janibek’ (Zhanibek Alimkhanuly) used his feet for six rounds (against Bentley in a WBO title defence in November, 2022) and it wasn’t competitive, but once his corner told him to push him back Bentley came back into it.
“Steve said: ‘Move your feet’ and in the first round I knew what he was saying was right. I remember thinking: ‘I don’t think he can close me down.’ There was one round where Steve said: ‘You’re moving, but not hitting’ and I started throwing more.”
Heaney threw – and landed – enough to be ahead at the final bell by six and three points on two of the cards, with the third judge having them level.
“The odds made it sweeter,” said Heaney, married to Louise and a father to Ava (seven) and Isabella (two).
“It’s not as if I didn’t beat a legitimate British champion. There are easy fights for the British title and then there’s Denzel Bentley. If you look at the top 25 middleweights in Britain, there are some good fighters there. Denzel has to be near the top – and I beat him. I have more belief in myself now.”
Next for Heaney is a British title defence, pencilled in for March and, provided he wins that, there’s the possibility of a world title challenge this summer at the Bet365 Stadium, home of his beloved Stoke City FC.
The target is Alimkhanuly, who added the IBF belt to the WBO title with a points win over Vincenzo Gualtieri last October. “’Janibek’ isn’t a massive draw and I don’t think he gets massive pay days,” said Heaney. “He could get one if he came to Stoke this summer. I know there have been talks…
“If I fought him at the football ground, it would be the craziest dream ever coming true. If I can do that, anyone can do anything. I get messages from Kazakhstan every two or three days saying: ‘’Janibek’ will knock you out’ and I know it would be tough.”
Heaney leaves it there.
Four and a half years earlier, Heaney was similarly evasive when the local press pointed out to him how many fighters had used the Midlands Area middleweight title as a stepping stone to a shot at British honours.
“Every year (as an amateur) I used to say: ‘I will win the ABAs,’” said Heaney, “and it never happened.
“So what’s the point in saying what you’re going to do? You just have to believe in yourself. I would rather be cautious than shout about what I’m going to do.”
The furthest Heaney got in his 90-bout amateur career was a silver medal at the 2012 Haringey Box Cup.
“If you look at my amateur pedigree, you would think: ‘He will never be a British champion,’” admitted Heaney. “But the experience I gained was very important. I have seen every single style there is.”
Whatever happens in his first British-title defence and beyond, Heaney says he knows where his story will end.
“My last fight will be at the Kings Hall,” he said, “and it will be very loud.”