Turning Pro: A British Prospect’s First Steps Into The Professional Ranks

1. The Decision

The Holiday Inn, Stratford, London, 21st March 2019

“Go to Tokyo, represent my country, win a medal.”

He spent years striving for Olympic glory but now won’t be going. He’s all smiles as he explains the decision, any regrets overtaken by the excitement at what next. Dalton Smith is turning pro.

The decision was a matter of a single kilogram and a roll of tape. Dalton was preparing to compete as a junior welterweight until the organisers scrapped the division from the schedule, meaning one fewer spot in the team that would travel to Tokyo. The difference between 64 and 63 kilograms sounds like nothing but the contest with the scales is closely fought. As an Olympian, missing weight on any day of the tournament would have meant disqualification. As a professional, Dalton has a 63.5 kg limit and, crucially, the luxury of weighing in the day before a fight.

I wish I hadn’t been shown the gruesome photos of his mid-surgery hands. A boxer’s hands need to be trusted tools, with the delicate bones and muscle tissue enduring the impact of every punch. Three operations in two years feel like awkward question marks hanging over his prospects but Dalton isn’t worried. He and his team believe the injuries were due to the amateur rules that limited him to wrapping his hands in four metres of bandage. As a professional, he can use as much tape and gauze as he needs.

The decision wasn’t so much a change in direction as an acceleration. The Olympics matter but history is made in the battles for professional world titles. A medal means you don’t turn pro as a nobody and gives promoters plenty to work with; Olympic gold meant Anthony Joshua was a national figure who could headline the O2 Arena on debut. Dalton didn’t need a medal to convince Eddie Hearn to sign him up. Joining Matchroom is a golden ticket, with guaranteed TV exposure and chances to fight stateside.

Dalton moved from the slick well-funded coaching machine of Team GB to his dad, which sounds like a step down until you know that Grant Smith runs a world champion-producing gym. Parent-child coaching relationships don’t always work, as closeness can get in the way of the tough truths that a coach needs to tell his fighter. There are, however, success stories and Dalton talks admiringly about the Calzaghes.

It was Grant, raising Dalton as a single dad, who got his son through those “tough moments as a teenager where you think do I really want to do this?” When Dalton was nine, Grant was hit by a 56 tonne tram. After emergency brain surgery, the family were told to expect the worst but a week later, Grant signed himself out of hospital. The experience gave the Smiths their shared mantra displayed on their shared tattoos: “Never give up on life.” Dalton looks back warmly on the shared joy of his first schoolboy title. He reckons Grant demands more of him than any other fighter in the gym. They argue a lot which must be a good sign; no resentment stored up, no truths left untold.

“Sheffield’s most successful ever amateur boxer,” breathlessly declares the promotional material. It’s a statement of his roots that Dalton’s dreams start with earning a place in Sheffield history. He reels off a list of Steel City champions: “I want to be one of these names.” For all his hometown pride, his favourite is the flame-haired Mexican phenomenon, Canelo Alvarez. His admiration is founded on their kindred counterpunching, a style that Dalton believes to be the “sweet science” at its sweetest.

He respects the step-up to the pro ranks but isn’t afraid of it.

“It’s not that different. At the end of the day, you’re just getting in a ring and having a fight.”

2. The Weigh-In

Spitalfields Market, London, 19th July 2019

People standing on scales doesn’t sound interesting but a good promoter can create razzmatazz out of anything. 381 years ago, King Charles the First awarded a license for “flesh, fowl and roots” to be sold on this site. Today, among the hipster food and fashion stalls, Matchroom are selling Saturday night’s pay-per-view.

“To be on a card this big in my second fight, I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

A prospect has to keep a flexible diary. Following his routine debut win in Nottingham, Dalton was supposed to fight in Manchester a couple of weeks ago but it got postponed late. A setback at the time but it’s worked out well, giving him the chance to get on this bigger card. His bout will be part of the live Sky broadcast, guaranteeing plenty of eyeballs.

This show is all for show; the weigh-in that counts happened earlier in the day. A decent crowd have gathered, an even mix of the hardcore, the casuals and the curious passersby. The market venue works well for beer-swilling and burger-scoffing fans. A few office workers struggle through the crowd, moaning about the inconvenience to their lunchtime sandwich run. “Imagine getting big money just for saying stuff,” muses one fan as dreadlocked announcer David Diamante begins to boom.

It’s a crowded stage. Ring girls stand on either side, each with one elbow cocked and glazed grins. Cameramen and security guards mill around, while officials in terrible suits busy themselves with clipboards. Hearn stands in the middle, sharp grey blazer, shiny white sneakers and big smile, surveying his empire.

Ibrar Riyaz is a late stand-in opponent. He walks on topless and in jeans, casual as a dad doing Saturday morning DIY. He knows the drill. Defeated 165 times but only stopped on three occasions, he’s the archetypal “tough-as-nails,” “have-gloves-will-travel” journeyman. He’s frustrated plenty of prospects down the years. Dalton’s talk of wanting the stoppage has been met with wry smiles from the wise heads in his camp. He accepts that going the distance would be no bad thing, a chance to “get some rounds in.”

Diamante gives Dalton the big welcome: “The celebrated and highly decorated British amateur sensation.” While proud of his amateur achievements, Dalton now wants to hear less about them. He sees the amateurs as “done” and turning professional as “a new chapter.” This is about “starting from scratch, building up from the bottom.”

“Please welcome Dalton Thundaaaaah Smith.”

“Too Smooth” is no more; Dalton reckons he’s outgrown the name and wants to leave it behind with his amateur memories. “Thunder” was his dad’s suggestion, a tribute to the great Arturo Gatti, and who can blame Dalton for wanting to channel some of that famous Gatti spirit. “If it sticks, that’ll be the new name.”

Dalton gets polite applause rather than a roaring ovation. He’s a new name to most fans here and not a Londoner, so he lacks a local fanbase. He gets on the scales and gives the obligatory show of muscles. A big wooden crucifix hangs over the “Never give up on life” inscribed across his chest. The fighters face off for the cameras. Moments earlier, two middleweights delivered chest thumping, angry words and an aggressively waved Argentinian flag, leading Diamante to excitedly shout “looks like we’re getting a war.” No drama though from Dalton and Riyaz. They look at each other blankly and briefly and get off the stage promptly. Dalton talks of the need to “embrace” the hype but looks keen to be gone and back to the peace and quiet of the hotel. Hearn gives Dalton a quick “well done” pat on the back. 

For all the growing hype around him, there’s no diva behaviour from Dalton. While I try to thank him for his time, he’s at pains to thank me for having come. At his suggestion, we do the interview with Dalton perched on the rim of a giant plant pot. He leaves with a very solid handshake, announcing with a smile that he “hasn’t had a single problem” with his hands.

3. The Fight

The O2 Arena, London, 20th July 2019

The event’s hype hasn’t quite matched the size of the O2, with a decent crowd but some way off a sell-out. Good news for those of us in the cheap seats who get promoted to downstairs. 

There are a fair few shiny suits, sharp skirts and staggering stilettos; the tradition of dressing up for a night at the boxing is alive and well. The atmosphere during the early fights is always muddled. Friends and fans of the hopeful form loud pockets of passion, while the rest, at least those not at the bar, chat and only watch properly if there’s serious action.

Dalton’s ring walk song is cut very short. He looks calm, almost relaxed. Seconds in, Riyaz hurls a wild looping right to prove he’s not just here for the paycheck but then goes into survival mode, guard up. Dalton’s quick hands blur into extended combinations. Riyaz tentatively jabs, leaving a gap in his guard through which Dalton instantly fires a big right. After that, Riyaz throws very little but does respond to one shot with a chest thump and a battle cry, desperately trying to shake Dalton’s poise. Midway in the 2nd, a sharp upper cut bloodies Riyaz’s nose. It would be easy for a counterpuncher like Dalton to look bad against a fighter so in his shell. Instead, aggressive but patient, neatly switching his attacks from body to head, Dalton is putting on a stylish showcase for the crowd and cameras.

It’s been one-way traffic but it’s still a surprise that there will be no 3rd round. Riyaz’s corner has seen enough and pulls their man out. There goes his proud record of not having been stopped in nearly six years. Riyaz may have got a little more than he bargained for and like all good journeymen, he and his team know the difference between an honest night’s work and dangerous heroics.

In the post-fight interview, Dalton repeatedly thanks Riyaz for taking the fight at such short notice and saving his big night. Riyaz jokes that it’d be nice to have more notice next time before making the very most of his minute on TV, with an Oscars-style attempt to thank absolutely everybody.