The Opponent: MJ Hall explains the role of a journeyman and also why he hates being called “MJ”

MJ HALL stands on the stairs of Wolverhampton’s Hangar venue seconds after the fighter had dropped another four-round decision to yet another apprentice pro. He was in good humour and unmarked.

“MJ – I flipping hate that name,” he confessed, then listened to BN’s request for an interview, laughed and announced: “I’m shit, I’m just tough.”

The tongue-in-cheek assessment does not do the man justice. Matt – the Christian name he insists on – is very tough and highly skilled at what he does. What he does is survival.

To achieve that, the Black Country journeyman has to be in tip-top condition. Matt, who visits the gym twice a day, lives the life and makes the sacrifices. One of the busiest pros in the business, he has notched up 109 professional contests since turning pro in 2017.

His near frantic work schedule can be measured by the number of contests he’s engaged in since being honoured, at Dudley Town Hall back in March, for reaching the 100-bout milestone.

There have been nine since.

Matt entered the paid ranks without an amateur background and free from illusions of grandeur. A salesman by day, he didn’t want titles, only financial security for wife Laura and their three children. He has realised that ambition through blood and bruises and is considering signing off at the end of this year.

Boxing and, in particular, a host of small hall promoters, will miss Matt.

“I never had any intentions,” he admitted. “I went in it to support my family and give them a better lifestyle. I enjoy it; if I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it. I prefer it when I’m out every week, rolling from one fight to another.

“Laura was a bit dubious for the first two years. From then, a bout became just another day.” Laura has realised her husband can look after himself.

The casual fan my simply dismiss Brierley Hill’s Hall as a serial loser – he’s won only three and drawn two. But Matt knows his role: to test boxing’s young guns, from super-light to middleweight, without upsetting the applecart. To that end, the 31-year-old is near impossible to budge and has failed to hear the final bell on only six occasions.

He is a master of the dark arts. Matt, forced to box as MJ because there was already a Matt Hall in the professional ranks when he turned over, knows how to smother, spoil and frustrate. He is, in every way, an awkward southpaw.

The pre-fight nerves left him long ago. He doesn’t care who’s in the opposite corner. “Errol [manager Errol Johnson] knows all he has to tell me is weights and dates,” he said. “He doesn’t have to tell me names.

“That’s something I’ve never suffered from, nerves. I see some in the changing room worrying. Whether you’re worried before a fight or chilled, you’re still going to hit him and he’s going to hit you. What’s the point of worrying about it? I know there are boxers better than me technically, but I live the life and go in there with confidence.”

We can thank fellow journeyman Kevin McCauley, who amassed a record of over 250 fights, for giving the game the astonishing MJ Hall.

“I didn’t have any amateurs,” he explained. “I used to go to a typical gym that had a ring. My mate was having a boxing bout for charity and he said he didn’t think he was having enough sparring.

“I said I’d help and did a bit with him. He told me, ‘you’re better than the ones I’ve been training with.’ He signed me up on the next charity show. I did a charity night and a couple of white-collar shows.

“I just wanted to lose weight. At my gym, it was weight training, and I was 14-and-a-half stone.

“I sparred Kevin McCauley and he said, ‘you’re tough, if you can get your weight down you could turn pro’.”

The pair became firm friends and trod the same career path.

“You know what, I’ve never been hit and thought, I don’t want that again,” said Matt. “Honestly, I’d take every one of those 109 fights again in a heartbeat.”

Matt does begrudgingly admit one fighter hurt him – Manchester’s Ryan Oliver who poleaxed the durable Black Country warrior with a first round right hand to the solar plexus.

“Twenty seconds in, he hit me to the body – I’d never been winded before. It took it all out of me and getting up made it worse. I said afterwards, I’ll never let that happen again.

“Technically, one of the best was Dylan Moran [the Irishman outpointed Matt in 2021] – technically very, very good.

“One guy I couldn’t land a glove on was Harlem Eubank (outpointed Hall in 2018).”

Matt knows what is expected of him. He is expected to provide rounds and experience for a young hopeful without having his hand raised at the final bell. “After my mum passed away, I won two on the bounce,” he said. “The next three or four cancelled on me because I won two on the bounce.”

That was a lesson learned, a lesson in simple and brutal economics. There’s a feel-good factor in having your hand raised, but, for fighters like Matt, it’s financially more viable to lose on points.

He, and others, represent a part of boxing free from boasts, bravado and social media feuds. Matt is too seasoned and battle hardened to be dismantled by mere ‘verbals’.

“I just laugh it off,” he said, “it’s just people trying to big themselves up. One put stuff up about what he was going to do, how he was going to stop me.

“Afterwards, he asked me for some tips and advice. I said, don’t put anything up on social media before because it will come back to bite you.”

Many hungry young fighters have been “bitten” by Matt. Whether journeymen – boxers, and let’s be honest, who enter the ring without an all-consuming desire for victory – are ultimately good for the game, whether they will provide the excitement and 50-50 bouts needed to bring fans into small halls, is an ongoing debate.

There’s no doubt they are an important part of a young pro’s education. Fans, however, want to see tear-ups not tutorials.

“I see it from both sides,” said Matt. “There are some lads who are 6-0, 7-0, 8-0 who shouldn’t be fighting me. I get that. They shouldn’t be pumped up like that. On the other hand, there are lads who are 1-0, 2-0 or who need to get back on track. They need me.”

Matt may not have won belts, in fact he rarely wins fights. Yet he has gained a regular, steady income, has earned more than many champions and is unmarked.

Surely that makes him one of professional boxing’s winners.

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