|With 37 victories and two draws in 48 professional fights, two British and one European title, there is officially no harder Sunderland fan than Billy Hardy. Undefeated from 1987 to 1991, he became the longest-reigning British Bantamweight Champion of all time, and, in doing so, helped to put the city on the world map. To mark his recent retirement, we thought it would be quite nice to send someone down the gym, don a pair of boxing gloves and have a chat over a few rounds of sparring. Needless to say, the work experience kid drew the short straw.
S&C: Tell us how you got into boxing?
BH: I started boxing when I was about six or seven years old at the Hylton Castle Boys' Club. I honestly think the reason I got into boxing is because I have sticky-out protruding ears. Taxi door ears as they used to call them, trophy ears, you used to get all kinds of silly comments. It came from the fact that I wouldn't stand and verbally give someone an answer to why my ears were sticking out, I would just punch them. That's how I got into boxing. At ten years old I went back to the boys' club and really started training.
S&C: So were you always going to be a professional boxer?
BH: Certainly, I had it in my heart to become a British champion from then, but I always loved football as well and I used to play for Castleview School. I used to play left back, even though I was right footed, I don't know why, but I always used to get put in that position and even now, when I play charity football matches, I like to stay in that position. A few weeks ago, I was playing down Middlesbrough with some of the ex-footballers and I made Mickey Horswell swap from left to right back, he didn't mind. But I always knew I wanted to be somebody in sport.
S&C: So you were never any good at knitting or anything like that?
BH: No, although I have done it, but I've got a reputation to uphold so don't print that.
S&C: Describe yourself as a fighter.
BH: I'm a go forward fighter and very aggressive, I like a bit of fisticuffs. In the early part of my career that was me, protect yourself at all times and go forward. But as you get older as a fighter, it's just a case of learning your trade through different people, picking up as many different things as you can.
S&C: Is Naseem Hamed as much of a pain in the arse as he seems?
BH: Yeah, he's a twat. Outside of the ring before the fight I actually said, "Come on, let's go round the corner and sort it out." He was giving me verbal and I wasn't going to play up to his tricks, but at the last press conference we did this photo shoot on a couple of Vespas, you know, the mopeds. He kept jumping from one to the other and saying "I want this one, I want that one" like a big spoilt child. It really pissed me off. I thought, "you little bastard." We got split up, but I really wanted to twat him. The Naseem fight, I didn't get a buzz from it all, he was too… not bigoted, but outspoken. The day of the fight was a funny day, because it was the last match at Roker Park. Unfortunately, it all went belly up for me, the thing is, even though I don't like him he's a very, very good fighter in his own right. A very powerful man. He walks around a lot heavier than a normal featherweight does. I normally walk around at just under ten stone and he's closer to eleven, but he sheds the weight. I've always fancied another crack at him, but we all have a time span in our careers - it's the same for footballers - and my time was probably coming to an end. I suppose I peaked when I won the European Title, that was a good era for me, a good time, knowing that I'd fully matured both in terms of my body and mentally, and to go to France and win the European Title was unheard of. But I did it, it was great.
S&C: So was that the highlight of your career?
BH: No, the highlight of my career was obviously the Orlando Canizalez fight. It was at the Crowtree Leisure Centre in front of a local crowd and Canizalez won it controversially on points. I'm sick of watching the tape, having people round looking at it and wondering what might have been. But it's all water under the bridge to me now, I'm probably the only World Champion never to be crowned, and everyone who watched it across the world said that I was World Champion. The Italian judge gave the last two rounds as a draw, but in the last two rounds I walked it. Pound for pound, Canizalez was rated the best fighter in the world at that time and I took him on twice, so I'm proud of what I've achieved.
S&C: Were you still thinking about the first fight when you met him in Texas?
BH: No, I was mentally and physically prepared, I'd spent time training in South Africa and ten days in America, but the problem was the heat. You can try and acclimatise your mind and your body, and if you're brought up in that kind of heat there's no problem. I'm not being a racist when I say that if you've got fair skin it's very hard to go into such a country and perform at your best. You have to be born there and brought up in it.
S&C: When we interviewed you in ALS, issue 20…
BH: When I had a tash…
S&C: Yeah, when you had a tash…
BH: And long hair…
S&C: Yeah, and long hair…
BH: And sticky-out ears…
S&C: …you had just retired and said that you were pleased to get out with all your marbles, what made you go back?
BH: Having had three months off, during which time I was training the amateurs, something hit me. In the last show I took them to, I had seven winners out of seven. I saw the buzz they got off it and thought I needed to be back in there, that I still had something left in me. That was '91 and eight years later I'm still around, so even though at the time it was the right decision to retire, I also think that it was the right decision to come back. Richard Smith was my former coach in South Africa, and he had a great deal of influence in getting me back into the ring. Sadly he got murdered. He was a big influence in my career generally, and it sickens me and saddens me to think about what happened to him.
S&C With all the problems surrounding the Michael Watson incident, was there ever a time as a boxer when you thought, what the hell am I doing here?
BH: Not as such, no. I think you reflect on fights and think, "shit, what was I doing there, what's going on?" But at the end of the day you can get hurt in any sport. I mean, take horse riding, there's loads of injuries and deaths that don't really get reported, but I can honestly say that even if I haven't got out with a full basket of marbles, at least I've got three quarters. Boxing's been good to me, I'm from a family of fourteen, and it was my way of making people take notice of me, I suppose. My dad used to work every hour God sends to put food on the table and you could never enjoy the luxuries of life that you could see the smaller families having. I'm from Casteltown and I remember my dad sending me out onto the pit to get some coal for the fire and, as you get older, you pick up on these little things. I always wanted to be someone, I never wanted to be just another face in the crowd. I wanted to put myself and Sunderland on the map and I'd like to think that I did.
S&C: When you fought Paul Ingle last year you said you had to come back to Sunderland so that you could get up to full fitness, how important are your Sunderland roots to you as a professional boxer?
BH: You always need your roots, you always need to remember where you come from and where you're going to. Being born and bred in Sunderland, if you cut me I'll bleed red and white. You need to have that sort of feeling and you need the sort of people that live here to support you in the way they did. That's a big thing when you get into a fight.
S&C: What's the future of professional boxing?
BH: Looking to the future, I think that boxers are a dying breed. Kids get things too easy these days, they don't need to go and fight, they don't need to train three times a day, five days a week, there's other ways they can get money. It's a shame, because the sport needs young people to come through and not take the easy road. They may be able to get money by other means, but they can't necessarily be someone through it. The commitment's not there - kids need the triple D in life: discipline, dedication, determination. That's what Richard Smith told me and when I got that back into my head, that's what got me back in the ring. Straight up.
S&C: You were supposed to be fighting Junior Jones about now, but the fight was called off because of Sky Box Office. Do you think that TV has too much power over boxing, as it does over football?
BH: Make no mistake about it Sky TV runs boxing, but I can't really slag them off for it. I would have loved one last chance of the World Title, but unfortunately for me this hasn't worked out the way I would've liked. However, they do well for boxing generally, as they do for football. I can't really knock them because at the end of the day, it's Sky that gives people like me the chance to be someone. Perhaps there should be some kind of external regulation in both sports, someone to say what's fair and say this is how it should be. But I can't see it happening, they're the guys with the money and therefore the power.
S&C: So, how did you get into football?
BH: My sister Pat used to take me to all the games. I can't remember my first one because I was that small, I'd watch the game from her shoulders and all that. It was a long, long time ago, I mean I am 35 and I have been hit around the head a little bit. That's a great excuse, I often use it when it benefits me.
S&C: What's your greatest memory as a Sunderland fan?
BH: I suppose my era was the time of the '73 Cup Final. I still see most of them now - Monty, Billy Hughes, Bobby Kerr, Dick Malone. I was about eleven at the time and for me that's definitely my best moment as a Sunderland fan. I can still visualise now people out in the streets with their banners marching up and down, and from then it just got me. I moved to London when I first turned pro, but I still kept in touch with what was going on, I'd ring back home for results, I'd get the Football Echo sent down and it was a case of it still being there in my heart. I'm very lucky, I've been physically involved with Sunderland for twelve years - going down and training with the Lads, seeing the physio when I've been injured and all that. I used to really enjoy it, having a bit of banter with the Lads and kicking a ball about. Unfortunately, Denis Smith never signed me up which was a bad mistake from the manager. Nowadays I go down the training ground from time to time, see the physio and have a chat with the boys. As a boxer there's not much I can tell them about football, but from a fitness point of view I do know one or two things. I've been a boxer for 27 years, so I like to think some of the things I've picked up will rub off on the Lads. If there ever comes a time when they need me down there I'll be there tomorrow. Mind, they've got fitness consultants now and it's all hands on, but I'd love to do it and I'm only a phone call away. Peter Reid knows my commitment to Sunderland.
S&C: Who's your favourite Sunderland player of all time?
BH: You've got to respect the likes of Bobby Kerr and Billy Hughes, even though there's been some great players since - Gatesy, Gabbiadini - but I can't really name one because I'd be cutting my throat. At the minute it would be impossible to do in the current Sunderland side because no-one is head and shoulders above the rest. There's some brilliant players down there and they're all on a level, professional footballers doing a great job as a team. Just look at the strength of the reserves to see how well the squad is working. As a boxer it's very much a one on one thing, there's no-one there to back you up. So it's good for me to see that gel of team mates, ten or twenty lads helping each other out - it's really good. I can turn round and say genuinely to any of the Lads that they've got great support behind them, which is important because they need it.
S&C: Best Sunderland goal of all time?
BH: It'll have to be the '73 Cup Final won't it? The most memorable goal ever. One of my closest friends is a staunch Leeds fan and whenever we play golf together we always end up arguing about football. I always say to him that people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones and at the end of the day the '73 Cup Final will always come back to haunt him. I'll always hit him with that one and he'll come back with Michael Bridges this and that, but good luck to him, if things don't work out at a club then you move on, and if you do well then that's good. We know how much of a good player he is, and that's why he went for five million pounds.
S&C: So, come on then, have we got a realistic chance of qualifying for Europe?
BH: As Peter Reid said the other day it's a big headache when people go on about that at this stage of the season. All the talk of finishing top three or top five just creates pressure. I honestly feel that if the Lads finish in the top half of the Premiership they'll be happy, I'll be happy and everyone in Sunderland will be happy… especially if we finish above the black and whites. At the moment we're head and shoulders above the Mags and I'm sure we'll finish above them and move onto greater things. This is a platform that we're building on now and I honestly believe that we'll turn into one of the greatest clubs ever. Everyone who is involved in Sunderland Football Club, be it the fans, the ground staff, the office staff, Peter Reid and the board, whoever, has a part to play.
S&C: If you were manager for a day, what would you do?
BH: I think my first port of call would be to get a left winger. Don't get me wrong, Stefan Schwarz is doing a fantastic job, but he's not an out and out winger. He's filling the part now but hopefully someone like young John Oster will come on leaps and bounds. I know he's right-footed, but so was Allan Johnston. I don't think it's a disadvantage playing right-footed people on the left wing, at least it gives them an option to cut inside, but then, as a right-footed left back, I would say that.
At this point, Schwarz and Johnston's partner in crime, Mickey Gray, wandered into Springs. Billy took the piss out of him for a few minutes while he was waiting to get his hair coiffed.
S&C: So, what are you doing now you've retired?
BH: Well, last year I was singing for Children in Need, even though my voice is shit, and little Billy Fane was orchestrating everything. He turned round and said "Do you fancy being in a pantomime next Christmas?" "Yeah, yeah, whatever" I said, and didn't think any more of it. A little while ago I got a phone call offering me a part, so now I'm doing a Frank Bruno. At the end of the day I don't really think I've lost many marbles in terms of being punched around the head and I'd love to do something within the field of acting. I'm playing the part of Slave of the Ring in Aladdin at the Empire and it's taking over my life for the next couple of months. With the talent of the people involved in the production, it should be a really good show. Hopefully, it will open some doors for me, I've an agent coming to see me from Newcastle and who knows, he might be able to sort me out with some work. Aladdin's good fun but all the posters are up now and my mates are taking the piss out of the name of my character. I'm sick of the jokes, "He's behind you" and all that, I've heard it all before. But I'm a fairly outgoing character, people say I'll enjoy it and it will be good to entertain the children again.
Billy Hardy's Consumer Preferences:
Last Film: Star Wars, very good entertainment.
Last Book: I love true stories, and I'm into crime novels. Who knows, when I've finished Aladdin I may even write a book myself, I've got a few things planned, golf days, testimonial dinners and the like.
Favourite Band: I listen to all kinds of music but the last album I bought was actually 'Hits of the 80s.'
Favourite Holiday Destination: Cancun.
Favourite Female: Shania Twain.
Blondes or Brunettes: Mixture.
WBO or IBF: IBF.
McDonald's or Burger King: McDonald's.
Bitter or Lager: Lager.
Marmalade or Jam: Jam.
Tea or Coffee: Tea.
Briefs or Boxer Shorts: Briefs, I like the old sleeky numbers, even though you'd think boxers would wear, well, boxers.
Money or Fame: Both.
On the Spot Quiz (Three daft questions loosely related to football)
How many league games have we lost at the Stadium of Light?
I don't like thinking about the defeats, but I know we've only lost four.
From the point of view of a professional boxer who would you least like to fight in the current Sunderland squad?
I'd probably have to say someone like Butts, the big strapping lad at the back.
Will the Mags go down?