In the build up to the biggest night of Billy Joe Saunders’ career, I travelled to Hatfield and Marbella to talk Travellers, discrimination, the Irish, bare-knuckle boxing and fighting Andy Lee with the pride of the Romani Gypsy community
The taxi driver eyes me suspiciously in his rear-view mirror as we cruise along the leafy Hertford Road. Though my destination is located barely three miles from Hatfield train station where I’ve just jumped in his back seat, he appears a little confused.
“Holwell Caravan Park? Where is that exactly?” he asks while spinning around to get a good look at me.
“I’m not sure, I’ve never been. It’s only 10 minutes from here apparently,” I tell him. “It’s the Travellers’ site where the boxer Billy Joe Saunders lives.”
“Ohhh, the Gypsy camp. I know where you are.”
A silent pause then ensues as his eyes repeatedly flick from the road to my reflection and back again. I’m not paranoid by nature, but he certainly seems to be sizing me up.
“What do you want with the boxer, then?” he queries to reignite the dialogue.
“An interview hopefully. I’m writing a piece on him for an American sports website.”
A glance in my direction, a nod of recognition and then another long pause before he restarts and abruptly ends the conversation.
“I’ll have to leave you at the entrance. We don’t go into the campsite. There’s always trouble there so we’ve stopped driving in. There’s no lights in there, it’s very dark and….”. Here he trails off, as if recollecting something traumatic, before a concluding thought punctuated with a silent yet deafening full-stop, “we just don’t go in.”
It is half past twelve on a Wednesday afternoon so, despite a traditionally murky autumnal British sky and its ubiquitous threat of rain, I am not overly concerned by the alleged lack of illumination where I’m headed. Nevertheless, it’s part of the average taxi driver’s beat to traverse the less salubrious environs of his patch, so I find his reticence to fully complete the journey I have requested in broad daylight just a little disconcerting. For the hundredth time since I’ve taken on this commission, images from the movie Snatch flash across my subconscious.
My interaction with Billy Joe has thus far been restricted to text messages and fleeting phone calls. The Irish middleweight, and ex-Saunders opponent, Spike O’Sullivan provided me with his number and made the introduction. “He’s an absolute gentleman,” Spike told me, and throughout our limited communication so far that has proven to be the case.
Doubt can flourish in the absence of a physical confab, however, and it is true that it has taken me almost six months of asking to finally fix a time and date to meet in the flesh. To say I am nervous would be overstating it but, certainly, I’m more intrigued than usual to make the acquaintance of my subject.
As my driver speeds away without looking back, I take my virgin steps into an authentic, twenty-first century, Travellers’ site. It is immediately apparent that Mickey O’Neil’s place this is not. Where Guy Ritchie placed dirty puddles, broken washing machines, frenzied dogs with bad intentions and a ragamuffin band of truant tearaways, reality in Hertfordshire is a paved pathway with speedbumps, recycling bins, a timid yet friendly Jack Russell and shy kids passing by in neatly pressed school uniforms.
Needless to say there isn’t an ornate, horse-drawn vardo nor a grimy, beat-up touring caravan to be found. In their place are luxury mobile homes, many modified to an extent that you have to look hard to recognise they aren’t standard bricks and mortar abodes. The effect is a setting that is more Home County residential suburb than itinerant campsite. I am beginning to think Snatch wasn’t a true story after all.
“You’ll like Bill,” he tells me as he pats himself down in a two-pronged search for a cigarette to smoke and a phone to call his son. “Everyone seems to like him. I don’t know where he is now. He’s always up to something, always doing something. But he’ll have some good stories for you.”
The 26-year-old fighter soon arrives sporting a grey cotton tracksuit that adds more heft to his already substantial bulk. I often say that boxers tend to appear much smaller when you meet them in their civvies than you expect after watching their alter-egos stripped to the bare boxing essentials in the ring. In truth, this theory only holds water up to the middleweights. Once in that division you are dealing with guys around six foot tall who walk the streets weighing 175 lbs or more. Shaking a fully-blown middleweight’s hand, you’re left in no doubt what they could do to you in the blink of an eye. Particularly one with an Olympic pedigree, unbeaten in 22 professional contests, and just weeks away from challenging for the WBO world title.
We settle down for a chat in his sister’s home. If the park outside is neat and tidy, the inside of the caravan is pristine. I feel like I’ve stepped into a showroom and don’t know whether to take my shoes off or make an offer. Billy Joe apologies for his tardiness but I tell him not to worry, his old man kept me entertained.
His father was a decent amateur fighter himself. As was his brother who also fought and won four times as a professional. But Billy Joe is the one with the real talent, the truest descendant of his great grandfather, the famous bare-knuckle champion, Absolom Beeney.
“Yeah, Pickles they called him,” Saunders begins. “Years ago he used to go to the boxing booths at fairs and carnivals to fight. He was never beaten. He only passed away about two and a half years ago. Nearly 99 when he died but he’d still go to the pub, he loved a drink. He was a tough, tough man.”
Bare-knuckle fighters tend to be just that and I wonder about Billy Joe’s own experience in the rawest form of pugilism. As with many things in his life, I’d unearthed some contradictions from previous interviews in which he had at different times denied any involvement and, conversely, confessed to being a willing practitioner.
“I have been involved in them,” he now candidly admits, “but when I first started out as a pro I got asked that question a lot because of where I come from and I didn’t feel that I should really talk about it. We had documentaries made about us and they were more interested in the bare-knuckle stuff than anything else so I just said I kept away from it. But yeah, I have done it. Maybe in my life I’ve had five or six. Maybe even seven. Last one I had was when I was 16 or 17.”
Bare-knuckle boxing is intrinsically linked with the Travelling community, particularly in Ireland where it is almost regarded as a legitimate sport with an informal media and gambling industry attached. There, guys will call each other out on grainy YouTube videos and fight for fistfuls of dirty cash in front of bloodthirsty crowds. As Billy Joe explains, however, his own reasons for bare-knuckle fighting were slightly different.
“When you’re doing very well, you get a lot in the Travelling community that want to test you, trying to show you up. And I’m a proud man so I won’t have that. When you’re in a group of people and someone tries to put it on you because you’re a boxer, I say to them, listen, do you want it or not? Then that’s it, it’s on.”
The matter-of-factness of Billy Joe’s tone suggests he regards the practice as mundane and acceptable as a round of rock, paper and scissors to settle a disagreement, but he is quick to qualify and expand upon his point of view.
“I think that it’s not the right way to go about in life, nor to do it for a living. But, it’s the best way to solve a problem and a feud. Listen, there are parts of London where all you hear about are stabbings and shootings. What better way to settle something than have a fight, shake hands and forget about it?”
There is a certain brutal logic there that is hard to argue with, particularly within the context of the Travelling community where boys grow up fast and tough. Billy Joe’s two sons, aged six and eight, are already regulars in the local boxing club and it is clear that he couldn’t be happier with that.
“Well this is it for us,” he says. “In our background, as soon as you’re born you’re out running on the site and you’re fighting when you’re only as big as that [points to knee height]. But then they’re playing together again five minutes after. It hardens them up through life.”
With the friendly caravan-site scrapping, early visits to the boxing club, and the tradition of fisticuffs to settle differences, it begs the question why more boxers from a Traveller background have not made it in the professional game.
“There is a very good reason for that,” he assures me. “Traveller kids grow up following their dad’s strict commands. But once they get to 17, suddenly they have a driving licence and freedom and they don’t have to listen as much. Soon they’re looking for a few quid, so they fall into the routine of work. They marry young, have a kid and suddenly it’s too hard to catch up on the boxing – I’ll just stick to what I’m doing, they think.”
This undoubtedly plays a part, but I don’t see it as a set of circumstances dramatically different to those faced by the majority of young men in the settled community. When I push Billy Joe on whether that is really all there is to it, he soon gets to the genuine heart of the matter.
“I also think that not many young Travellers coming through in boxing have had a fair crack of the whip.”
The truth is that Travellers rarely receive a fair crack of the whip in any facet of modern-day society. The human rights charity, Rene Cassin, recently produced a paper highlighting the level of discrimination Travellers routinely face in areas of property, health, education and within the judicial system. It concluded that the cumulative effect is a state of chronic exclusion.
According to a 2014 Guardian article: “Life expectancy is 12 years below the national average, infant mortality is higher than for any other group, illiteracy rates are off the scale and 60% of Gypsies and Travellers have no formal qualifications.”
Government legislation only exacerbates the situation, as does the State’s refusal to provide the relatively miniscule one mile of land required to house every Traveller in the UK. The media must also accept a huge slice of the blame with positive Traveller stories few and far between amongst the myriad reports of bad apples or blatantly biased and provocative editorials.
A very high profile columnist, who I’d rather not give the pleasure of naming, for a daily newspaper that also deserves no free publicity, recently described Travellers as “feral humans” to her 600,000 Twitter followers. She actually misspelt the word as “ferrel”, just in case the gist of her message was not enough to emphasise her glaring ignorance.
Yet, it is sadly a view all too prevalent within British society. Perhaps ever since the 1554 Egyptians Act banned Travellers from entering England and imposed the death penalty on those that remained in the country for longer than a month. You’d be locked up for publicly describing any other ethnic group as animals and yet insults like the one above, or the more common shouts of gypo and pikey, akin to calling a black person the N word according to Saunders, have somehow become acceptable today. Billy Joe attempts to put a brave face on it but it is clear that the situation gets to him once he opens up.
“Travellers feel like they’ve always got to do that little extra bit more because when you hear the word Traveller, people immediately think, lock your things up or they’ll go missing. Don’t get me wrong, there are Travellers like that but there are non-Travellers like that as well. There’s good and bad in everyone. But they still think of Travellers as meaning rubbish and mess everywhere, pulling their caravans into your garden and not moving. People just need to look at it a little differently. To look deeper into it and see the difference.”
He tries to brush the name-calling and taunts off as something everyone has to put up with growing up, regardless of background, but I contend that personal attacks due to ethnicity undoubtedly carry more hurtful weight than standard playground bullying.
“Yeah,” he finally agrees, “and what it makes you do, when someone from outside the Traveller community does that to you, is if they think we’re all the same then we think they’re all the same too. And so sometimes Travellers lose respect for those outside the Travelling community. They’ve been getting it from outsiders so they think they’re all the same, they’re not nice people, I’ll keep away from them.”
I ask him then if he shares the dark feelings of Tyson Fury, the English heavyweight of Irish Traveller heritage who recently fought Wladimir Klitschko for the heavyweight championship and is a notoriously volatile and outspoken interviewee. In a diaphanously-veiled attack on the discrimination he faces daily, Fury declared before the fight, “Even if I win the world title I’m still going to be an uneducated, dirty, fucking gypsy bastard until the day I die.”
“That’s him, that’s the way he feels.” Billy Joe says. “He’s had it all growing up, we’ve had a conversation, he’s had all the pikey bastard this and gypsy bastard that, and I think it’s affected him. Some people can block it out like it’s nothing, like me I take no notice, but some people get involved in it. If someone said that to me on the street, I know that as much as I would want to punch him, I know I can’t. But Tyson will because he doesn’t think, or he thinks afterwards. But that’s just genuinely how he feels.”
And what of the media who keep the whole world spinning and have perhaps the greatest influence in shaping the general public’s perception of others?
“When I’m fighting someone, there’ll be their picture and a headline saying so-and-so takes on Saunders. Never the other way around with my picture. But, if there is a field of Travellers somewhere setting up camp, they’ll be all over them with pictures and trying to give Travellers bad press. And it upsets you sometimes. Where are the headlines of me fighting for the world middleweight title? Nine times out of ten they’ll find the worst thing to write about Travellers because that’s what sells the magazines and newspapers.”
The middleweight world title Billy Joe refers to is the WBO strap currently sitting proudly around the waist of Andy Lee. In a storyline twist of Hollywood proportions, Lee is a fellow Traveller, albeit of the Irish variety, and this is the first time two Gypsies will contest a professional world title. It undoubtedly adds a certain romanticism to the fight, but any additional spice based on their backgrounds is non-existent due to the mutual respect both men naturally have for one another. It’s a respect between neighbouring Traveller groups that Billy Joe insists is the norm these days.
“With Travellers, like with anyone, some will get on and some won’t. Some might mix, some won’t. We’ve a good group here, Irish and English Travellers,” he says, gesturing out his sisters’ window. “Everyone knows each other here, it’s a tight-knit community.”
Billy Joe’s affinity with Irish Travellers extends to the settled community on the Emerald Isle as well. He describes them as the best supporters in the world before offering the ultimate compliment from a Romani Gypsy: “Every Irish person I meet reminds me of a Traveller. They’ve got the same way of going on and they’re upfront with people, that’s what I like.”
His best mate in boxing today is Cork’s Spike O’Sullivan and he recalls spending most of his amateur trips hanging around with Irish lads such as Kenny Egan, Jamie Conlan, Paddy Barnes, John Joe Joyce and Darren Sutherland. Sutherland won a bronze medal in the same 2008 Beijing Olympics an 18-year-old Billy Joe fought in before taking his own life six years ago. “He was going to be something special, very special” is Saunders’ solemn verdict on Darren.
He also recounts a comical episode in a hotel the night before an amateur bout with one of the Irish team. Having tested the patience of the Irish coach, Billy Walsh, to the absolute limit with his antics, Billy Joe turned his attentions to Walsh’s right hand man, the Georgian Zaur Antia, as he strolled out of the room.
““By the way,” I said, “that little country Georgia is shit!” He came chasing after me down the corridor shouting, “I kill you, you English bastard, I kill you!””.
It is classic Billy Joe Saunders: the man’s tongue spends at least half of its time wedged securely within the darkest recesses of his cheek. Yet his faux-earnest remarks and retorts arrive with such dead-pan delivery they are often mistakenly accepted at face-value. His recent controversial opining on Katie Taylor, women in boxing, and a woman’s role in general, being a prime example.
When I ask him about religion, however, the winding up and mischievous humour is put on hold for a minute. He wasn’t raised religious but years spent in the company of his trainer Jimmy Tibbs has had an influence. The venerable Tibbs is, as well as being one of the best and most experienced trainers in the UK, a born-again Christian and he was keen for Billy Joe to at least explore his spirituality.
“He was chatting to me for months about religion while we were doing my house up and things just gradually came to me. There’s this thing called Giving Your Heart to the Lord, like becoming a born again Christian and that’s what I did. Am I a changed person? [he pauses here to consider the question before rewording it] Do I sin? Yeah [is the immediate response]. But it’s nice to know that you’ve got a belief there, you know, and I believe in God strongly.”
I bring the conversation back to more frivolous grounds as we discuss his beloved Arsenal FC and the aforementioned Snatch, one of Billy Joe’s favourite movies. He actually recalls seeing Brad Pitt on the Watford Travellers’ site attempting to master the accents and mannerisms, “no minders or nothing, mixing and chatting with everyone.”
I then reduce him to laughter with my own attempts at the Romani language and a list I have unearthed that apparently contains a diverse band of fellow Romani Travellers including: Charlie Chaplin, Mother Teresa, Eric Cantona, Penelope Cruz and, notably, Serafim Todorov, the last man to beat Floyd Mayweather Junior. He loves that last piece of trivia and so rewards me by sharing a Romani phrase and advising that if I ever hear it while in the company of a group of English Travellers I should make a quick exit. “It means they’re going to give it to you in a minute,” he explains with another chuckle.
I thank him for the heads up before taking the opportunity to explore Billy Joe’s standing in English Romani Traveller community. When discussing it earlier with his father, Tom first shook his head in awe at the amount of interest there was in this upcoming fight. He spoke of people with no previous love of boxing stopping him in the street to ask about his son, and the words pride and bragging rights repeatedly peppered his thoughts on the whole event.
Yet he also alluded to a certain amount of jealousy from certain quarters, something he was quick to point out exists in every community. It made me consider the difference between Billy Joe and the average Premier League footballer who moves out of their working class area, never to return, before the ink has dried on their first professional contract. Saunders, in contrast, is still very much part of his community and I wonder if that can be at times a double-edged sword. While it proves an undoubted and admirable pride in his roots, it also means he is there every day, with those who have a tendency towards jealously and none of Billy Joe’s talent just a caravan or two away.
“When I first turned pro, I brought a cheque home for over one hundred grand. I got a new car straight away and people were suddenly seeing me driving about in a Mercedes. Well, I kept getting pulled over by the police. Someone was phoning in saying I had a gun in the car and was waving it out the window. A lot of people in the area didn’t like it at first. But you’ve got to get used to it. If someone is doing well, they’re doing well.”
It is typical bluntness from Billy Joe, and while you could argue an over-simplification, he comes across as such an earnest person that it is hard not to believe he would be that guy, getting used to it, and wishing a more successful neighbour well.
At this point a little niece arrives on the scene, cute as a button in her school uniform, to steal her uncle’s attention. I have already taken up nearly two hours of his time so it is a natural point to end the conversation for today. As I leave I hear him interacting with his niece.
“Do you know who that man was?” he asks her. “That was Father Christmas’ son. Give me a hug or he’ll tell his dad not to bring you any presents this year.”
More classic Billy Joe…
A couple of weeks later I take a train from Madrid to Malaga and then drive along the Mediterranean coastline for forty miles until I hit the salubrious surroundings of Puerto Banús. It is here in Spain’s answer to Monte Carlo that Billy Joe bases himself for around six weeks before every big fight. The Traveller journeys 1,500 miles from the comforts of home and family for two main reasons: firstly, to isolate himself from any potential distractions, and secondly, to take advantage of the first rate facilities on offer at Matthew Macklin’s MGM Marbella gym.
“Just look around you,” he says as he finishes off his grilled chicken breast in the restaurant above the gym that prepares all his meals. “If you can’t dedicate yourself to training here, then where can you?”
And he is under no illusions that this fight, against a seasoned world champion with a devastating punch, demands a level of dedication he has perhaps not previously reached.
“I’ve been in with some good men but I reckon Andy, who is definitely the most experienced, is going to be my toughest fight. I know I’ve got to be absolutely spot on to beat him. That’s the difference between this and all previous fights when I knew I was going to win no matter what. And you can’t nick a title off a champion – I know I have to go in there and beat him convincingly.”
Saunders’ trainer, Jimmy Tibbs, agrees. Tibbs, with over fifty years in the boxing business, has been with Billy Joe from the moment he turned pro and knows him better than most. He describes his charge as a character, someone who likes a laugh, but also as focused as they come when it’s time to knuckle down. The pair have forged a strong bond over the years and Tibbs believes that the trust they have in one another is the key to their success.
“We have a great relationship and when I tell him to do something he does it. More than that, I can show him it and explain how and why I want him to do it. We talk about everything. Sometimes he comes up with an idea and I let him give it a go and if it works I tell him to keep doing it. Other times I have to hold him back because he wants to do too much. A fighter with his intelligence, sometimes you can let him go but then you need to rein him in again.”
The duo are naturally reluctant to divulge any of their game plan, particularly, given the opponent, to a writer with an Irish accent, but they exude a quiet confidence that everything is well in hand. In an effort to inveigle some info out of them, I bring the conversation round to Bill’s last notable fight, a split decision victory over Chris Eubank Junior. Saunders was at his elusive best as he schooled Eubank for the first half of that contest and when I ask Tibbs whether a repeat performance over twelve rounds would be enough to defeat Lee, he gives me an affirmative nod.
“If he does that then we’ll be safe,” he says before explaining that Bill got caught up in the emotion of it all in the latter rounds against Eubank Jr. and allowed himself to get embroiled in an old-fashioned tear up. “But he’s matured a lot since then,” Jimmy continues. “These little setbacks, Andy’s virus then Bill’s eye (injuries which have caused the bout to be postponed twice), have matured him. If life is too smooth you never really grow.”
Tibbs ended his own professional career not far off 160 lbs so I can’t help posing him the question of how he would have dealt with Billy Joe Saunders in the ring. “Good management – I’d have done my very best to avoid him!” he replies as his face is creased by a wide grin. “You certainly can’t outbox him, that’s for sure. He’s too smart, too gifted.”
Saunders himself is fully aware of where his strengths lie as well.
“I know I need to be very shrewd and clever in this fight. Andy has been in a lot of tough fights. He’s gone and won the world title the hard way and I respect him for that. A man like that is a dangerous fighter. But he’s made his name from winning fights he was losing, he doesn’t dominate a fight. He’s a good boxer and he’s a good puncher but I believe I’ve got more boxing ability than him and I’m certainly faster.”
Southpaw Saunders also takes a lot of comfort from the old boxing adage that styles make fights and the fact that Lee has often struggled against opponents who, like himself, box out of a southpaw stance. He looked more uncomfortable against Matt Korobov than against the orthodox Peter Quillin, despite Quillin being the superior fighter. He also struggled badly against the switch hitter John Jackson when the Virgin Islander led with a right hand jab.
At the same time, however, Lee drew with Quillin while both Korobov and Jackson were knocked out by the Irishman – a fate he has bestowed upon 24 of his previous opponents. I wonder does Billy Joe feel any trepidation about stepping into the ring with a man ranked as one of the pound-for-pound hardest punchers in the business.
“I don’t get nervous about being knocked out cold, I don’t care about that. I’m not worried about getting hurt. My only fear is losing. I still think about my loss in the Olympics (over seven years ago now) all the time. Whatever it is I’ve got to win.”
“I won’t think too much about the fight until the day itself. Then, when you get that knock on the dressing room door and someone says, two minutes Bill, there’s nothing worse. There’s no nervous feeling like it. I walk to the ring and I think, what the fuck am I doing here? That goes through my head every fight. But all great boxers are risk takers. They love a buzz.”
They do love a buzz and there can’t be many better ways to achieve that fighter’s high than winning a first world title in front of 20,000 of your own fans a few days before Christmas. Billy Joe sits back in his chair and smiles at the mere thought of it all.
“It’s been a very long time coming, this fight. Everyone is sick of talking about it now. We just want to get in the ring and see who the best man is. People haven’t seen the best of me yet. I’ve never really had a big, breakout performance yet but that’s what I’m expecting on December the 19th.”
He pauses then, as if envisioning it all and searching for the words to articulate the image in his mind. But sometimes an event in a person’s life is too great for words to do it justice. In the end he delivers a short and sweet surmise that perfectly illuminates the magnitude of the occasion.
“It’s the night I change mine and my family’s life forever.”