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Ricky Burns: The work ethic of a fighter and his greatest hits

Photo courtesy of Shabba Shafiq
Fighters Network

“I might have overachieved in some people’s eyes, but I’ve worked my arse off to do it.”

Ricky Burns talking to Kugan Cassius of iFILM London


Most people have an idea of how grueling the fight game is, but the majority only see the final product. Two quality athletes going at it for 36 minutes in a violent battle of skill and endurance. That’s the entertainment side of the business. Preparation for top physical combat takes years.

I thought I had a general idea about what a fighter went through in training. I had experience in combat sports. I worked quite hard to keep my body in condition. When I wasn’t being lazy, I could adhere to a good diet, and I was in pretty good health considering I liked to nail a beer occasionally.

In all honesty, I didn’t have a clue how hard the sport was.

Between 2010 and 2014, I was lucky enough to witness Ricky Burns in training for a succession of championship fights. The former three-weight world titleholder is an incredibly diligent athlete, and his then-trainer, Billy Nelson, is the most successful active trainer in Scotland. I learned a lot watching both men.

The gym, which relocated during this period, was only a short drive away. Whenever Nelson could stand to be in my company, which he would tell you wasn’t often, I would drop in to watch his fighters work out. That would usually be on a Friday, by which time Burns was forcing out the work after a tough week.

I saw him spar reigning and future British champions like John Simpson and Tyrone Nurse. I watched him spar future world champion Lee Selby and current featherweight contender Kid Galahad. I saw him move around with former amateur stars like Luke Campbell and Josh Taylor, both of whom came by to get a taste of the professional game.

If you like boxing, you would have paid for a ticket because the action was terrific.

There was no holding back in sparring. Burns once told me that he didn’t care what experience his sparring partner had; he would never lighten up when the gloves were on. A few weeks later he asked if I’d like to spar for a single round and I politely declined. I understood the philosophy, though. Boxing was a tough trade and there was no mercy.

On days without sparring, Nelson would put Burns through an endurance-builder. There were more than a dozen core exercises and the reps would increase from 15 to 35 as camp progressed. The exercises were performed consecutively, without rest, and Burns would finish up looking as if he’d just been thrown in a swimming pool.

In terms of roadwork, Burns would run anywhere from seven to nine miles, with each mile completed inside seven minutes. The super-fit Scotsman would have trained twice through the day before completing that distance in the evening. That was done five days a week on the fuel of an incredibly strict diet.

Burns, who takes on former lightweight titleholder Anthony Crolla in Manchester on Saturday, has benefited from all the hard work. The Scotsman has had a 16-year professional career with almost half of it on or around the world level. Now training under the tutelage of Tony Sims in Essex, England, the 34-year old veteran is still one of the hardest workers in U.K. fight circles.

It’s difficult to overstate the positive impact Burns has had on boxing in his own country, and that’s because he has delivered in the ring. From being around training camp, and from being in attendance at all but one of the following bouts, hopefully I’m able to add an extra dimension to a few of Scottish boxing’s greatest nights:

Burns (right) tags Relikh. Photo courtesy of Sky Sports

5. Burns UD12 Kiryl Relikh
Date / site:
October 7, 2016 / The SSE Hydro, Glasgow
At stake: WBA junior welterweight title

Unbeaten in 21 fights, with 19 knockouts. The naturally bigger man. Trained and managed by former two-weight world champion Ricky Hatton. Despite being relatively unknown, one always had the feeling that Kiryl Relikh was going to cause Burns problems. He didn’t disappoint. From the opening bell, Relikh attacked with abandon and showed complete disregard for what was coming back. Adept defensively, the Scotsman avoided the worst of the assaults, but he was still catching and couldn’t acquire the time or distance to retaliate. The tide slowly tuned in the middle rounds and Burns began to battle back with success. He created angles to find counters and utilized his championship experience to outsmart the challenger in the second half. Relikh had a huge 11th round but lost his momentum again in the final session. The scores were 116-112 twice, which many viewed as generous, and an unfathomable 118-110. After Burns had given the media a few quotes at the post-fight press conference, I approached him for a one-on-one interview. He struggled to speak, moved limply and looked to be in pain. I said that I would call him in a few days instead and he looked appreciative. Relikh would give former two-weight world champion Rances Barthelemy hell in his next fight, but the hard-hitting Belarusian lost a controversial decision. In two consecutive defeats, Relikh proved unequivocally that he deserves to be at world level.


Burns (right) celebrates after defeating Moses. Photo courtesy of Sky Sports

4. Burns UD12 Paulus Moses
Date / site:
March 10, 2012 / Braehead Arena, Glasgow
At stake:
WBO lightweight title

What I remember more than anything about the buildup to the Moses fight is that Burns had originally been in negotiations to face Crolla instead. In November 2011, Crolla had outpointed Willie Limond at the Ravenscraig Sports Centre in Motherwell, Scotland, which is less than two miles from my front door. The Englishman was British lightweight champion at the time and had a Top 15 rating with the WBA, however, no deal could be reached. Now, Burns was focused on Moses, a former WBA lightweight titleholder, who many viewed as a major threat. The Namibian was a slick boxer who worked well behind a potent left jab. He also carried some pop with 19 of his 28 wins coming by knockout. The 33-year-old stylist had only lost once, to Miguel Costa, and was supremely confident of regaining a world title on away soil. In terms of a 12-round performance, this was perhaps Burns’ most impressive display of boxing skill. Moses was a talented operator, but Burns was a step ahead from beginning to end. He judged distance brilliantly, out-jabbed the visitor, punished his body and generally outclassed him with a savvy display of accuracy and ring generalship. Few had expected such an emphatic victory, and Burns was now fully established as one of the best lightweights in the world. The scores were 120-110, 119-110 and 117-111.


Burns (left) under fire from Katsidis. Photo courtesy of Sky Sports3.











3. Burns UD 12 Michael Katsidis
Date / site:
November 5, 2011 / Wembley Arena, London
At stake:
Interim WBO lightweight title

I was taken aback when Burns signed on to face Michael Katsidis in his lightweight debut. The Scotsman had been struggling mightily to make 130 pounds for some time but, while the move north was necessary, Katsidis was a very audacious choice. The Australian had carved out a reputation as a give-and-take brawler who refused to take a backward step. He had lost fights but only against the best, and he was always a handful. How would Burns keep him off? If the Scotsman lacked anything it was a concussive punch. That, combined with Katsidis’ third-round destruction of London’s Kevin Mitchell, convinced oddsmakers to install Burns as a 3-1 underdog. When I saw Burns at the gym for the first time after the fight was announced, I dropped a hint that he was taking a big risk. Wrapping his hands, Burns looked up and smiled. On fight night, Katsidis entered the ring complete with traditional gladiator helmet and accompanying music. The visitor had been aloof during the buildup and exuded the demeanor of someone who had been there and done it. That outlook proved costly. Burns boxed brilliantly and had his opponent chasing shadows. A sharp jab set up an array of power shots. And when Katsidis did manage to trap Burns, he was unable to penetrate his guard enough to inflict real damage. Two judges scored the fight 117-111 with the third handing in a 117-112 tally. Burns had been punch perfect.


Burns (right) opens up on Mitchell. Photo courtesy of Sky Sports

2. Burns TKO4 Kevin Mitchell
Date / site:
September 22, 2012 / Scottish Exhibition Center, Glasgow
At stake:
WBO lightweight title

Outside the gym, Burns asked me what I thought was going to happen in his 50-50 domestic collision with English boxer-puncher Kevin Mitchell. I looked down, deliberated, and said, “I think you’ll win on points.” Burns smiled the same way he had when I voiced concern over his decision to face Katsidis. I knew then that I was missing something. Burns and Mitchell were friendly outside the ring but, as is often the case under the lights, their relationship became a moot point. This was a Scotland vs. England showdown and the passion generated by 10,000 fans was electrifying. In the fight, Burns was bigger, sharper and more effective. The left hook that dropped Mitchell in Round 4 is arguably the finest punch the Scotsman has ever thrown and there was no time for Mitchell to recover. One more knockdown and a follow up assault forced referee Terry O’Connor to stop contest. Following the post-fight press conference, an unmarked Burns told me that he had used foul language when he jumped up on to the ring ropes following his victory. He was genuinely concerned that it had been picked up by television cameras. I told him not to worry, that it would have been too noisy. In relation to his latest triumph, Burns said simply, “Nobody expected that!” He was right.


Photo courtesy of Sky Sports

1. Burns UD12 Roman Martinez
Date / site:
September 4, 2010. Kelvin Hall, Glasgow
At stake:
WBO junior lightweight title

I called Burns about six weeks prior to his first world title fight and he was out walking his dog. It was a run-of-the-mill type interview. What have you been doing in training? What are the tactics? What would it mean to you to become world champion? Now, I credit myself as being one to ask sensible questions, but I’ve been known to slip up. Burns was a 3-1 underdog and many experts gave him no shot of defeating the unbeaten power-puncher from Puerto Rico. Who would you like to fight next? That was the question. Silence. Burns can be coy in interviews, but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He gathered himself and said softly, “Tom, this is the fight of my life.” That was my cue to move on. Martinez-Burns was the first world title bout I ever covered and it was one of the most memorable. Burns survived a first-round knockdown and fought his heart out from that moment on. The Scotsman was too busy, too accurate, too versatile and too hungry for Martinez, who wore a look of shock every time Burns had success. The defending titleholder was shocked all night. The challenger jabbed and crossed the right hand at will. The left hook worked wonders, he snapped the visitor’s head back with uppercuts on the inside and generally gave him a beating. The home crowd got louder with each passing round and there was bedlam when Burns was announced as the winner. Scores were 115-112 twice and 115-113.


Tom Gray is a UK Correspondent/ Editor for and a member of THE RING ratings panel. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing