“it’s true what they say, Donald, you do get old overnight.”
Anyone announcing their retirement before the age of 40, is likely to make me feel old. Elite sports people, though, have to remind themselves that, when the joints creak more and the appetite becomes more mature that the time may have come to stop.
So, it has been for Scottish boxer, Craig Kelly. Who, after 25 professional fights with 11 wins, 1 draw and 13 losses, he has decided enough is now enough. It was brought into focus when he went to win his old Scottish title and he did not manage to get past the 3rd round.
I first saw Craig box in one of the fights he places, “well up there with my best” and it was one of his highlights. He took on Ally Black in the Bellahouston Leisure Centre on the 26th of March in 2017 for a British Masters belt. People often deride these belts but what they do is give people a reason to box, a place to put their craft on the line and a night to parade in a ring afterwards with it round their waists – provided they win of course. It also helps to sell tickets and when people are having to shell out £40 plus regularly to support an uncle, brother or close friend that can be quite a commitment.
It is no exaggeration, and I am not alone in saying it but the fight was THE fight of the whole night. It was a night with the debut of hard hitting Craig MacIntyre and the continued upward trajectory of Lewis Ritson but Kelly went to war. Ally Black came back hard and engaged fully in that war. We got a cracker. Kelly won that night and he won in a brutal fashion as both boxers refused any quarter be given and took each other to the limits.
The next time I saw Kelly fight was when he took on Stefan Sanderson in the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Glasgow. The tables were turned, and Kelly lost. It was a brutal stoppage as oxygen was required to allow him to recover but both fights were clear examples of how much went into his career and how much he managed to contribute to the sport. “It’s been a massive part of my life” he acknowledged.
But the life of any boxer away from the Sky shows, the BT Sport competition and even the YouTube broadcasts from ILF TV is tough. Craig is also in construction and I was able to catch up with him whilst on a construction site in Airdrie. Last time round I interviewed him, he was building the Forth Road Bridge, now it was a school in Airdrie; was there ever an end to his making his ends meet? “Trying to do two things at the same time – train and work was just killing me.”
The realisation that getting food on the table, earning a living and making his way in a sport he loves, and owes had been enough of a motivation for him in the past. This time round though he was ready for the final session as a professional boxer. Ever the trooper he had fought in his last few fights whilst injured, feeling drained and the need to keep working and not have the riches associated with other boxers in his locker, made it a tough ride. “I was getting up in the morning dead early, running, going to work, getting in, barely having time for anything before back out and in the gym. It was killing me and when I was injured, I skipped sessions that meant I wasn’t really that prepared for the fights”
It was clearly the training that was going to suffer in any conflict of priorities. “In the last fight I ended up missing out on sessions, sparring and wasn’t properly prepared.” The need to earn a living does get in the way and it is a considered reminder that the boxing game is not just tough because the big boys struggle but because the whole sport needs people like Craig. His and others’ sacrifice to maintain a ring presence allows undercards to be stacked competitively so the whole evening is an experience especially if the headline fight does not deliver; Craig Kelly was always a guarantee of someone who would give their all in the square ring.
“Trying to do too much caught up with me, to be honest. I just found it too hard and the last fight got stopped, meaning I needed to make a decision. It would have been great to have got back my belt (The Scottish welterweight title he won in 2014) but it wasn’t to be.”
Boxing was for Craig more than a means to an end. As he explained over the phone, “It saved me, Donald. I have never told anyone this before and didn’t tell you but there was a time in my life when I wasn’t good. I ended up hooked up to machines in hospital but once I got the boxing going, things got better.”
And how much better they became. I remember a former grade one referee who spoke at a dinner. He asked us all of we thought he could play at the Bernabéu, make an appearance in an Old Firm game or represent his country at a World Cup. Of course, given his age and the rotund nature of his appearance made us sceptical. And yet he had achieved all three; as a referee.
It put me in mind of Kelly. He may have never been the main attraction at the 02 or fought beyond the UK but his inclusion on boxing bills throughout his career has meant that he has appeared on massive boxing event, shared backstage areas with recognizable boxers of the sport and even fought on a Sky bill – we could even claim that was overseas…
But what of that career?
It was on the 3rd September 2011 that Craig Kelly was to make his debut on the same night that Ronnie “The Shark” Clark had his second professional fight at Paisley Lagoon centre. Unfortunately, it was his first loss. On the same night, Danny Williams was in Sweden on the undercard of Frida Walberg’s super featherweight WBC title win and Jamie McDonnell beat Stuart Hall for the EBU, Commonwealth and British bantamweight title in Doncaster on the same night.
He had to wait until the 4th November was his first win at the Glasgow Hilton and it was the same bill as Ronnie Clark – collecting his third win.
His third fight was another loss when he fought Rob Hunt who was making his debut. By now most would have looked at the wraps and thrown them in the bin and not in his bag but he decided he was hungry.
It was time to get busy and in 2012 it was a year of 4 fights whilst 2013 began with a familiar face up against him – Sean Lewis. It was their second fight and unfortunately for Kelly, his second loss to him. It was a night to remember though, where he fought on the same bill as Darren Hamilton winning the British super lightweight title, Kevin Satchell getting his British and Commonwealth flyweight title but David Price posted his first loss to Tony Thompson – all at the same place – down the docks in Liverpool!
2014 was the year that Kelly got his belt, that belt. His proudest moment in a ring was when he beat Billy Campbell on points to take the Scottish welterweight title. In a competitive fight, he had tasted the canvas in the first and Campbell was cut in the fourth, but the hand raised at the end of the night was Kelly’s.
In 2015, he was the go to guy for Denton Vassell who was coming off losses to both Frankie Gavin and Sam Eggington and before he faced Viktor Platnikov for the IBF continental title. It was a form of flattery that Vassell wanted someone who would take the shots to prove he still had those shots. And whilst Craig did not mention this as a highlight, I have little doubt that those in the know, and those in the ring and at the side, knew Kelly’s value was in the heat of battle and provided Vassell with what he needed.
The years 2016 and 2017 saw a combination of opportunities and tough fights present themselves. It was the year of the Masters belt and it might have been a minor belt to many but there was nothing minor about the smile in the ring and in the papers as Kelly announced he was taking this whole damn thing slightly more seriously.
Unfortunately, it followed with a fight he called at the time, “a pinkie versus a thumb.” Kelly retires now without getting to avenge the defeat against Stefan Sanderson. “It still rankles” he told me then, thereafter and now. Sanderson was the same size on the scales but by the time he ended up in the ring, he looked like he had eaten a bantamweight in between…
Nine months later, Kelly was to fight again for his, he always saw it as his, Scottish title. Sam Ball was in the other corner and trying to make the money to keep a family whilst boxing was starting to take its toll. Kelly went down in the first, second (twice) and third rounds before it was called off in the third.
His appearance there may have, or may not have done him some good in terms of kudos as the call came for him, at short notice to get on a flight to Belfast and give Paddy Gallagher a decent contest. It was the night that Ryan Burnett won a split decision win over Lee Haskins – thanks to one elderly referee not knowing whose shorts belonged to whom! Whilst Kelly knew what the job was and took the fight to provide a decent contest and knew he was not expected to win, it is a measure of him and his professionalism that his handshakes and his appearance at the weigh in showed that he was there to contribute to the sport and not just make up the numbers. He got his TV debut and did himself credit before losing.
Six months later and he was ready to come home. Unfortunately, Martin Harkin was to close Kelly’s 2017 season with a second round knockout in Glasgow that must have hurt badly. Kelly is like many boxers, a proud man. Losing is not something he takes lightly but he knew his level, feared an end but wanted to make sure he had memories that he could carry beyond his final bell. By now he was more than aware he would never headline, but he also knew that he was more than a byline in the sport. Age had been knocking on his door – now it was demanding to be let in.
2018 saw Kell out twice. The first time he did something quite unusual – dropped the veteran journeyman Lewis Van Poetsch. It was his first win of the year on the same night that Craig MacIntyre headlined and drew the Celtic title with Henry Janes, Hannah Rankin, Iain Butcher and Ukashir Farooq were also on the bill. He won again in 2018 with another points win against Jordan Grannum.
It led to his final fight. On a strange night down the Ayrshire coast where he was on the same bill as the Lucas Browne “warm up” night when Browne “beat” Kamil Sokolowski, a couple of audience members grabbed the Daily Record headlines for fighting OUTSIDE the ring but Kelly lost his Scottish welterweight title fight against Paul Kean. In the shadow of opulence and wealth this honest grafter from Paisley knew it was now time.
“As I said, time caught up on me. I knew that time was up.” And with a simple tweet, the time in the ring, was done. There is not going to be a 26th professional fight.
What comes next – helping young and new fighters is his plan. “I don’t want to leave boxing but do what I can to help. Help young fighters, guys in the gym who want to have a career. I think I can be a good influence. I may not have fought for big titles, but I have experience.” Of that there is little doubt and now that the sun has set on one element of his career, there is little doubt there is an opportunity for it to shine on the next one.
And so that was my ending… then… and now… Craig got in touch and said, watch this space… The pro boxing career may be over but the man has plans… For a clue he called Pauli Malignaggi a blouse… fighting is what Craig Kelly does and…