By Oliver McManus @OliverGMcManus
Photos Sacha Weiner @SashShots
Maerdy, a beautiful village in the county borough of Rhondda Cynon Taff, stands rather innocuously in its surroundings.
Aesthetics aside the village is a relatively beige bungalow in an area full of them. The region as a whole, about 45 minutes away from Cardiff, is often cited as a caricature for life in Wales with poverty rates the highest in the United Kingdom. For Alex Hughes, however, it is home. Plain and simple. Not only is it his home but it serves as the principal motivation for the 25 year old middleweight.
“I live right up in the Rhondda, you can’t get much further up in the Valleys,” he explained to me, over the phone. “None of us have got a lot but every one of will give their last to help someone out. I would never change where I come from, I love the place and I can’t ever see me leaving here, to be honest with you. I’m a big ticket seller as well, 150-200, I always do bundles of tickets from where I live. These guys get up at five in the morning and spend their hard earned money to come watch me box, it means a lot.”
Having started boxing at the age of eight, with a couple of his schoolmates, the thought of turning professional didn’t really click until he hit his teens. The driving force behind his love for the sport, he told me, came from a familiar source.
I wasn’t sure where I was going at that point
“As an amateur the thought of fighting used to scare the life out of me, it left me terrified. At the age of 10 I had my first fight and I found myself winning fairly easily, to be honest, but did I have any aspiration to become a professional fighter? No, I didn’t. It was always my dad that had the biggest influence, boxing wise, he has done everything with me, been everywhere, he’s the one that’s kept me in the sport.”
After twelve years learning the craft the time finally came for Bad News’ debut but it wasn’t without a hitch – more on that in a bit. When it did finally come about, May 17th 2014, Hughes told me that it was an occasion he has still yet to top.
“That was unbelievable, I originally turned professional when I was 18 (two years previous) and was meant to debut in February 2012 but I had a few issues with my medicals. To be honest I wasn’t sure where I was going at that point, I didn’t know if I’d ever box again. I was lucky enough to get things sorted and then it was on a good bill, a Matchroom card, with Nathan Cleverly and Lee Selby. I fought quite a durable guy in Mark Till (who retired in 2016 with a record of 3-25(4)-2) and I was the first fighter to stop him.
I was the first one on and it was just my family there, basically, they were going crazy when I came out. I was petrified to be honest with you, I’m quite relaxed now – obviously I still get nerves, don’t get me wrong – but that night I was petrified. Just putting on the gloves in the changing room I thought ‘bloody hell these gloves are small’, it was the thought of losing in front of my family. I hadn’t been boxing consistently, properly, for around four years, but I ended up boxing pretty well as it happens.”
Until I had everything taken away from me I didn’t realise how much boxing meant to me
A two year lay off, then, between his original debut date and when he first set foot in a professional ring. Enough to make any question their commitment to the sport. As if that was bad enough, after advancing to 10-0, an Ogogo-esque eye injury further curtailed the career of the, then, Frank Warren fighter. Out for 19 months, Hughes returned last year, teaming up with Mo Prior, to pick up where he left off.
“It had a terrible impact on me, I was in a nasty place. A real nasty place. I didn’t think I’d ever box again.”
As Alex began to discuss the nature of his injury, his hesitation was overwhelmingly evident. I interrupted merely to see if he’d rather not discuss it but, characteristically, he was willing to be open and honest.
“My eyes were terrible, a very similar injury to what forced Anthony Ogogo to retire recently, I didn’t have the eye socket damage but the muscle behind the eye was forcing me to look in different directions, doubling my vision. The surgeon said to me afterwards, she said ‘I didn’t think I’d do as good a job as I did’. She brought it back to 100% and there’s no holding back now.
I feel lucky, more than anything. Until I had everything taken away from me I didn’t realise how much boxing meant to me. I’m constantly working around on cloud nine. Losing doesn’t scare me anymore.”
With that off his chest he returned to his enthusiastic yet relaxed tone. This new found rejuvenation has been evident in his performances, as well, since his return. Three fights, three first round knockouts, he’s looked much more like a man – and I mean that in a good way – more relaxed and snappier with his punches. He told me that whilst he realises the continual knockouts probably don’t teach him all that much, the confidence they bring couple well with the lessons learnt from previous contests.
“The confidence is a massive boost for me. I know I’ve got the rounds in the tank but in the amateurs I had never stopped one person, never gave anyone a standing count. My first four fights I knocked three of them out and I started to think ‘right anyone I hit is going to fall over’. Then I had a step up in my fifth fight against Wayne Reed and I was trying to stop him with every shot for the first few rounds. That was a nasty wake up call and I couldn’t breathe for the last few rounds. After that I was scared to let my shots go, that was a good learning contest. So now that I’m boxing how I should, not being reckless, and I’m putting these people away in the first round it is just giving me the confidence I need for when I get into the bigger fights.”
For his last fight, against Wilmer Gonzalez, he weighed in at just over 11st 10lbs only to find his opponent had clocked 13st 1lb. Whereas a lesser sportsman, such as I, would have hit every buffet in town, Hughes reassured me he saved those celebrations for after the fight. The celebration, if you were wondering, consisted of a whole cheesecake. I questioned whether he would welcome a move up in weight but the immediate priorities are to collect belts at 160lbs – his eye firmly on the British belt. The man he trusts to take him there, and further, is a certain Gary Lockett.
“I met Gary when I was 16 and it was me, Gavin Rees and Enzo Maccarinelli in the gym. Obviously after 10 years any relationship is going to be good but having him in my corner, I know he cares about me genuinely. I don’t think a lot of people can say that. He’s the kind of guy that won’t give himself praise, he won’t boast about his training abilities. He is phenomenal and his gym is flying, a lot of people are picking up on that and it’s good to see him getting a reputation now.”
I just grabbed it, it was my chance
When stablemate Enzo Maccarinelli got the call to fight Roy Jones Jr, out in Russia, a baby faced Hughes was granted a slot on the undercard. The trip, he says, is one he’ll remember forever but it wasn’t just the win he collected on his journey.
“I’ve got his (Roy Jones Jr) gum shield in my bedroom wardrobe. After Enzo knocked it out, Roy threw it ringside and I just grabbed it, it was my chance. I’ve never washed that, I’d wear it everyday to bed if I could!”
Next out in June, on the undercard of Vincent Legrand vs Jay Harris, Alex Hughes is determined to make up for his period away from the sport – all told, an unscheduled 43 months out of the ring. The proud Welshman is fortunate enough, mind, to still be on the right side of his youth at the sprightly age of 25. With the right men backing him, namely Mo Prior and Garry Lockett, it looks as though the world is at his feet. Bad News doesn’t need, or even want, the world. For him his home town of Maerdy is enough.
“There’s a few of us guys coming through from around the Valleys. A little place in the middle of Wales, none of us have got anything, it’s really something special. This is my home and, hopefully, I’ll get to the top of boxing one day so to put our area on the map would be brilliant. To see people like Liam Williams bringing his belts round the gyms, showing the young lads, it’s phenomenal to see. I couldn’t ask for a better place to come from and it’s my turn to start creating memories for the Valleys that will last far longer than I ever will.”