By Mark Turley: Growing up around Upton Park in the 90s, Johnny Greaves (pictured right with brother and trainer Frank) wasn’t the sort of kid to shirk away from a bit of argy-bargy. It was an area where aggression at school, or in the street, was a normal part of life. The ICF, West Ham’s infamous football firm were at the tail-end of their heyday and street violence, gang warfare and general naughtiness were rife. “As a kid I was never a troublemaker” Johnny says, “but if someone wanted to fight me, I never said no.”
That phrase should probably be tattooed over his heart, or in many years to come, written on his gravestone. Johnny Greaves has just retired after completing a century of professional fights - 100 not out. He has never finished a fight on the floor. And in a career spanning six years, whenever a promoter has called on him, he has always come through, usually at very late notice. His personal record is that he once took a fight an hour-and-a-quarter before it was due to start. He was at the York Hall as corner-man for his friend, light-heavyweight Jody Meikle, and was approached by a panic stricken promoter. “Johnny” He said. “What weight are you right now?” “About 10 stone 5,” came the reply. The promoter smiled: “that’ll do,” he said, “wanna fight tonight?”
Of course, he knew what answer he’d get. There’d been a very late withdrawal, leaving a young prospect with no opponent and the possibility of going home without a contest, despite having sold a few hundred tickets. Johnny called his wife, asked her to put his shorts and boots in a bag and jumped on the train from Bethnal Green to East Ham. He was back in the venue, with his kit, fifteen minutes before fight time. The show was saved.
Yet Greaves and others like him, and there are many, are sometimes maligned. Why? Because of those 100 professional contests, he only won four. To many outsiders, who are uninitiated in the business of boxing, Greaves is a ‘bum’, or a ‘tomato can’ or any one of a number of other insulting descriptions. “Some people have no respect” Greaves says, “but guys like me, Kristian Laight, Sid Razak, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye, there’s an art-form to being a good journeyman.”
He admits to being hurt by some of the comments he reads on Twitter, or even in the mainstream media. “When Peter Buckley retired” he says, “The Sun ran a headline that said something like ‘World’s Worst Ever Boxer Retires’, but that was ridiculous. I’m telling you Peter Buckley was one of the country’s best boxers. Sometimes he had four or five fights a month. And you know what, in his whole career, he never got badly injured. He never even got cut.”
Peter Buckley retired in 2008 with a record of 32-256-12. A brief scan of his history brings up the following names; Barry Jones, Gavin Rees, Acelino Freitas, Naseem Hamed and Scott Harrison, all World champions, all of whom beat him but couldn’t stop him. He also faced many future British, European and Commonwealth champions, with the same result. The reasons for Johnny’s admiration are clear. Buckley was a kindred spirit.
Pictured above: Johnny Greaves v Gavin Prunty, Belfast, 2010.The fact is though, that men like Johnny, throwbacks to the early days of boxing when booth-fighters and local scrappers would have a fight-a-day, sometimes more, exist today in a modern, sanitised world. We live in an era of celebrity and the down-to-earth attitude shown by most journeymen is at odds with it. People aspire to glamour. Sports stars are as much a part of this TV-driven cult as anyone. The world’s best boxers, like Premier League footballers, are on a plateau with top actors or singers and for the casual boxing fan, Floyd Mayweather Jr with his 45-0, being photographed with flash cars and wads of money, dripping in bling, is the yardstick by which others are measured. A fighter with a losing record, competing in 4 and 6 rounders on small-hill bills, for a grand a time, is therefore unappreciated, no matter how much he gives to the sport. Yet the reality is that for most fighting men, their possible career path splits very early on. Which way to go is a decision they must face at the start of their professional life.
Johnny Greaves began boxing as a 12 year old at the East Ham and Boleyn Amateur Boxing club. By the age of 14 he had been permanently excluded from secondary school for repeated fighting and “being a little git”. He had 50 fights at Junior and Senior level in the unpaid ranks, before beginning to fight for money on the unlicensed circuit run by the legendary Alan Mortlock. In this form of the professional game, he was an unbridled success, becoming British Champion in his weight class, but he remembers the day when Alan made him an interesting offer, that got him thinking. “I’d like you to go up to Nottingham” Mortlock said. “Fight a boy up there. But listen, I want you to go in there, bounce around, make it look good, but don’t win… And I’ll pay you double.” It was too good financially to refuse and Johnny did what he was asked to do, paving the way for how he would later make his name.
His unlicensed forays North of Watford also led Johnny to meet Carl Greaves (no relation) who was to become his manager as he turned full professional. “Carl phoned me up” Johnny says. “He told me, ‘this is how the pro-game works. You can box in the home corner and I’ll need you to sell 80-100 tickets. That pays for the opponent, the house and a bit of money for you on top. If you can manage that I can probably clear you £700 or so for your debut.’” But Johnny was unimpressed. “I made more than that on the unlicensed circuit. So I thanked Carl but told him I’d have to think about it. Then about twenty minutes after I put the phone down, he called me back.”
“The other option” Carl said, “is to fight as the opponent. If you want, I can put you in with Rob Hunt in Doncaster in a couple of weeks. He’s 4-0.” The financial offer was better too, without the hassle of selling tickets. “For me, it was the obvious choice to make. I knew I was never going to be a World champion, so going down the journeyman route gave me a way to make a living. The thing is, I don’t go in there to lose, I never did, but if you upset the ticket sellers then the promoters won’t use you. They’ll see you as a risk. So if you want to get rebooked you have to do enough to make the fight interesting without causing a problem. The main thing is, if you want to fight regularly, once a month or whatever, you don’t want to get injured. That was always my problem, I kept getting cut.”
“Look” Johnny continues, “You have to be realistic. I wanted a career in boxing. I said from day one I wanted to have 100 fights. I could have started as a prospect, won a few, then had a few defeats and ended up nowhere. That happens to a lot of boys. They end up retiring after 15 fights or so because they can’t sell tickets any more, but no-one wants to use them as an opponent either. I chose the role that I chose and I’ve had a decent career for six years. The best thing I ever did was deciding to be a journeyman.”
Greaves’ time on the road has seen him trade punches with some stellar names. Anthony Crolla, Lee Purdy, Ryan Walsh and Gavin Rees are all on his record. He identifies his toughest night in the ring as being when he went in with Venezuala’s Johan Perez at the MEN Arena in Manchester, on the undercard of the Haye v Harrison WBA Heavyweight Fight. At the time Perez was 9-0, with 7KOs and went on afterwards to become the WBA’s interim World champion at light welter. “The first jab that landed on my arms” Johnny says, “I could tell he was so heavy-handed. I was lucky because the fight was scheduled for 6 rounds, but it was a floater on the bill and they ended up squeezing us in just before the main event, so it was reduced to 4. I really didn’t want to lose my record of never getting knocked out, so I used every journeyman trick in the book that night - roughed him up on the inside, threw a few elbows. I even kicked him in the shin at one point! What was nice, after the fight he came into my dressing room to shake my hand. He didn’t really speak English, but he tapped his head and said ‘loco’ (crazy). I took that as a compliment.”
“The thing is, as a journeyman, you learn all the tricks. You develop defensive skills too. I’ve never contested a professional championship, but if you put me in a 10 or 12 round fight against some of these youngsters, I’d take them out. I’d let them work away for 8 rounds or so, get tired, use my know-how to stay out of reach and then open up towards the end. My fitness has always been good, even with a bit of smoking and drinking. I train every day. I love training. These prospects have a training camp for 10 weeks, 12 weeks, whatever, they train to peak for their fight. Then they have a bit of time off. But journeymen don’t have that luxury. We always have to be in shape, because you never know when that phone call will come. I normally walk around about 10st 1, so I’m ready to weigh in at a moment’s notice.”
As he looks back on his career, you feel a real sense of pride in the way Johnny talks. Its pride that some would see as misplaced, but Johnny feels they just don’t understand what they’re seeing. “People all over the country know who I am. And being the opponent, I boxed on shows I would have never been on as the ticket seller. That night against Perez, I fought in front of 20,000 people, before a World Heavyweight Championship. What a buzz! All the people out there who criticise journeymen, how many of them can say they’ve done something like that?”
Picture: Johnny Greaves final fight against Dan Carr, 29 September 2013, York Hall, by Bernard Miller.
The big 100 came up at last, on Sunday against ‘Dirty’ Dan Carr, (2-43-2) a man who fulfils a similar role in the fight business. The match had been set up purposely for Johnny’s last fight - Clash of the Journeymen.
“It was a tough one in some ways” Johnny says, “I had to sell tickets for the first time in my career! Shifted 250 though, which was nice. I really felt the pressure, to be honest. I was nervous. Genuinely nervous. I haven’t been nervous before a fight for ages. My kids were there to see me for the first time (Johnny has an 8 year old son and a 5 year old daughter). I didn’t want to lose in front of them. Imagine if I had been stopped or knocked out in my last fight! Plus it was me against another journeyman. There’s pride at stake – its one thing losing to a prospect in his back-yard, but a fight at the York Hall against another journeyman? I couldn’t lose that. And look, I don’t want to go on about this too much, but it had turned into a little bit of a grudge match. Dan Carr had been slagging me off behind my back and I could see his point in some ways, he was annoyed at the attention I was getting for my last fight, but it added a bit of needle to it. So I really wanted to win! All that’s silly anyway. They call me ‘the country’s most famous journeyman’, but it’s not by accident, it’s because I’ll play to the crowd, chuck an Ali-shuffle in the middle of a round, talk to the audience, all that stuff. If you don’t look like you’re enjoying what you’re doing, no-one else will.”
Pictured above: Johnny Greaves with promoter Miranda Carter
It was indeed a happy ending for Johnny Greaves. After six years of sterling service to British Boxing up and down the country, he finished with a win in front of friends and family at his hometown venue - an unusual experience and one that he ranks as the highlight of his professional career. “The whole thing, the audience, the result, my kids being there, everyone coming down the pub after to say ‘well done’ - it couldn’t have gone any better. It meant a lot to me.” He intends to continue with his day job as a painter and decorator and work with brother Frank in the gym, to pass on his knowledge and experience to a new generation of fighters. “To be honest I haven’t always lived the boxing life.” He says. “For a start I’ve smoked 20 a day since I was a teenager. Most fights, just after I’ve had my hands wrapped, I’m outside the dressing room having a fag before I do my ringwalk. I like a drink as well. I‘ve never deliberately drank before a fight, but I’ve taken so many on short notice that it’s happened accidentally a few times. But I know a lot about the fight game and I’d like to share that. Maybe one day I could train a couple of lads of my own, bring them along, see what happens.”
So is this really the end? “Absolutely, definitely, 100%. Even if they offered me a World title fight I wouldn’t come back.”
Johnny laughs a little bit when he says that. You want to believe him, but at the same time, you wonder. You wonder what will happen next time someone scratches from a card and he gets a phone-call. The habits of a lifetime can be hard to break. But for now, at least, the man who has never said no to a fight, intends to start doing exactly that.
Boxing News, the mainstream media, indeed the whole of the fight game should pay its respects to Johnny and the men like him. They can’t stay as boxing’s dirty, little secret forever. Let’s get real. Let’s be honest about what journeyman do and how tough it is. About how these grafters quietly hold the boxing world together, neither expecting nor receiving the adulation reserved for those who ‘make it.’ This is how the fight game works. And without journeymen, there would be no boxing.
Johnny Greaves would like to thank everyone who has seen him fight over the years, even the people who have criticised him. He would like to place on record his sincere thanks to Carl Greaves, who he says is “the best manager in the UK and changed my life for the better”. He also wants to thank his brother. “I always felt safe when Frank was in my corner” he says.
York Hall pictures by Bernard Miller for BoxRec News.
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