Best I Faced: Richie Woodhall
An honest professional.
How many times have you heard someone say that? The phrase is not synonymous with boxing. One could be talking about an architect or an electrician. It simply evokes thoughts of someone you can trust and former WBC super middleweight titleholder Richie Woodhall is renowned for being genuine.
That was never exemplified more than in the aftermath of Woodhall’s first world title defense, which took place in his hometown of Telford, England, in September 1998.
Following a lackluster display against countryman Glenn Catley, Woodhall grimaced when a 12-round majority decision went his way. He motioned for his fans not to cheer and in a live interview with Sky Sports in the U.K., admitted his opponent should have lifted the very world title belt he himself had worked a lifetime to win.
Think about that. Think about all the fighters and corner teams you’ve seen put on fake celebrations when three blind mice lost their way at ringside. How many more times will you see such an act of grace and sportsmanship following a prize fight?
“I was due to box (Vincenzo) Nardiello in my first defense and it got changed to Catley on two weeks’ notice,” said Woodhall, recalling a night he remembers all too well. “I was so deflated and I regret even taking that fight now because I boxed very poorly and I just wasn’t up for it.
“It was one of those fights where I thought I’d win comfortably and I disregarded Catley as a challenger. I boxed at my worst; he probably boxed his best and I was just very honest on the night because I thought he’d done enough to win that decision.”
This tale may have begun with the subject matter in losing mode but this is most definitely a success story.
As a 20-year-old, Woodhall claimed Olympic bronze in Seoul 1988, after dropping a points verdict to dazzling American star Roy Jones Jr. in the junior middleweight semifinals. Shortly after winning Commonwealth gold in 1990, he turned professional and the transition to the paid ranks brought about more triumph.
Under the guidance of Hall of Fame boxing manager Mickey Duff, Woodhall claimed Commonwealth and European titles at middleweight before targeting world honors.
The opponent was Keith Holmes, a crafty and educated left-hander from Washington, who held the WBC belt at 160 pounds. Woodhall lost that bout in the 12th and final round but regrouped, following the first of three surgeries to his right elbow, and claimed the WBC super middleweight title at the expense of Thulani “Sugar Boy” Malinga.
“Malinga’s style suited me and it’s horses for courses,” said Woodhall, who outpointed the tricky South African in March 1998. “Malinga had a great win over (Nigel) Benn two years earlier and although he’d slowed down a little, he was still a very good fighter. Nigel was aggressive against him, whereas I boxed and moved in and out of range.
“Malinga just couldn’t cope with my height, my reach and my movement. It wasn’t one of my hardest fights, although he did hurt me downstairs a couple of times. That was probably his tactics to slow me down but I had trained very hard and I soon recovered. That turned out to be a very comfortable win for me.”
Following the unsatisfactory performance against Catley, Woodhall was much better against the awkward and enigmatic Italian southpaw Nardiello, whom he stopped in six rounds.
Markus Beyer, however, was a different proposition altogether. The two-time Olympian from Germany was another left-hander but he carried more pop than Nardiello, as the champion would discover to his detriment.
“He broke my nose in the first round and got me down twice but I always had really good recovery powers,” said Woodhall, who went down again in the third before launching a serious comeback. “If ever there was a boxer who needed 15 rounds, it was me in that fight because I honestly think I would have beaten him.
“Beyer expected to finish me off after that third knockdown but he didn’t and I clawed my way back into it. As the fight wore on, I turned it around and I just needed more time. There were actually a couple of people at ringside who thought I’d got it but I knew I hadn’t because I was too far behind.”
There would be one more big fight against then-WBO super middleweight titleholder Joe Calzaghe. Having now been through three separate operations on his right elbow, Woodhall’s right hand punch was hampered in terms of delivery and it didn’t help that he had a peak version of Calzaghe attacking him from bell-to-bell.
“I couldn’t throw the straight right,” admitted Woodhall, who was stopped in the 10th-round by the future Hall-of-Famer in December 2000. “I could only throw the right as a hook or an uppercut because, that way, I was pain free. I really needed the straight right because if you’re too close to Calzaghe, you’ll get your head knocked off.
“At world championship level, if you’re three or four inches too close, you’re in trouble and I was in trouble in that fight. I had the jab but to make an impression on your opponent, you need your back hand and, although I landed a lot of good shots in the fight, the flipside was I was close enough to be hit myself.”
Being that he shared the ring with both Jones and Calzaghe, this reporter thought it would be interesting to ask Woodhall who was the better super middleweight of the two. Sorry, people, I could not get him off the fence.
“You’re asking who was best, peak against peak?” asked Woodhall, who proceeded to laugh at the prospect of providing anything definitive. “I wouldn’t like to answer that one because it’s very difficult and they both had different attributes.
“Speed was Roy Jones’ best asset and his reflexes were phenomenal. Like Sugar Ray Leonard, he had that natural ability to avoid punches. Calzaghe, on the other hand, could handle any style put in front of him. Look at his fight with (Mikkel) Kessler, where he was being caught up close, early on. He just lengthened his punching a little and Kessler, who was a great fighter, couldn’t get anywhere near him.”
Woodhall retired following the Calzaghe defeat at the age of 32 years old. Intelligent, well-spoken, well-presented – and an honest professional – he drifted seamlessly into broadcasting and, in 2009, he was hired as a performance coach for the Team GB amateur boxing squad.
Meet him today and he looks like he has never taken a punch in his life and that makes this success story all the more special. One vital part of that success, however, was Woodhall’s father and trainer, Len, who sadly passed away in July of last year at the age of 75.
“It’s rare for a father-and-son boxing relationship to work out but it did for me,” said Woodhall, his voice softening. “My dad wasn’t a sergeant major-type of figure in terms of bullying or telling me what to do. He was just a very good coach, (if) a bit rough around the edges. My old man wouldn’t mind me saying that (and) he knew boxing.
“Sometimes I would come to the gym tired and he’d say, ‘Don’t you want to train today?’ I’d say, ‘Not really, Dad’ and try to find a way out of it. He’d then leave me a while and say something like, ‘I wonder what Calzaghe’s doing today,’ basically planting that seed in my mind. He would always make me think of my opponent.
“We literally laughed our way to a world title because he was such a naturally funny man. He was like my best mate and he would always put a smile on my face. He was a wonderful dad.”
Richie Woodhall (26-3, 16 KOs) graciously agreed to speak to RingTV.com and shared the best he faced in 10 key categories.
Joe Calzaghe: He had an answer for everything I did. Calzaghe, as I said, could handle any style and that, I’m telling you, is such a rare gift.
Keith Holmes: He was as tall as me and he was the first southpaw I’d boxed with that height. Holmes was underrated, he was a very good fighter indeed and had a great jab.
Markus Beyer: He was a very short southpaw who kept making me overreach. Any mistake I made, he punished me for it. Beyer was a well-schooled amateur and I remember missing him with loads of shots early on. It was so deceiving because he was a short fella and I thought I’d just pick him off – Bloody hell, you try catching him.
Calzaghe: He was a tough geezer. I wasn’t a devastating puncher; I was more of a worker, and that showed against Calzaghe. I hit him many times but nothing affected him.
Holmes: I could feel his power throughout that fight. There were problems in the build-up with my elbow and training that I’d missed but I felt more power from him than any other fighter.
Roy Jones Jr.: The attacks were hard to detect because sometimes he would be throwing shots from the waist. The punches were outside your line of vision and some of the hooks he threw, you just couldn’t see them coming. He whipped them in really quick.
Jones Jr.: His footwork was brilliant. He won the first round and I did well in the second but when I tried to get him in the third, he just slipped away. I couldn’t believe it.
Silvio Branco: It was a European title fight and he was a clever boxer. Branco matched me for height and reach and was actually very similar to myself. He could fight coming forward and he could fight going backwards. It was never going 12 rounds; one of us was always going to go and I managed to stop him in the ninth. That was the hardest fight I ever had and we were both busted up to hell afterwards.
Sugar Boy Malinga: I hit him with a lot of shots downstairs, as well as to the head and, apart from that one knockdown I scored in the second round, he just kept coming. Malinga was a tough guy and he was in his late-30s then. I remember asking myself, ‘What would this guy have been like at his peak?’ You don’t get a win over Nigel Benn if you’re not strong and Malinga was a very tough man.
Calzaghe: As I said, he had an answer for everything. It’s a hard question because Roy Jones was fantastic over three rounds and his speed was just too much for me. If I have to go one way, though, I’d say Calzaghe.
Tom Gray is a U.K. Correspondent/ Editor for RingTV.com and a member of THE RING ratings panel. Follow him on Twitter @Tom_Gray_Boxing.
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