By Oliver McManus @OliverGMcManus
Photos Sacha Weiner @SashShots
Europe beckons for Jay Harris with the 28 year old poised to battle it out for the EBU title on June 1st. The opportunity serves as vindication for the Welshman who, for the majority of 2018, grappled with the demons of inactivity.Speaking to me, over the phone, he explained to me that it was merely childish intrigue that led him down the path of boxing.
“When I was 12 years old I was friends with a boy called Josh and, pretty much, I wanted to know where he seemed to be going every evening at around five. One day he said ‘well why don’t you come with me’, ever since then I’ve been in the gym. I went home and told my dad I was in the gym, boxing, and he said he’d start training me.
Lots of people seem to think my dad pushed me into it but it was the complete opposite. Pretty much straight away I got the buzz,I remember looking at myself in the mirror just skipping away, bright red from the sweat.”
Considering himself not good enough at football to stick with it, nor tall enough to take up rugby, Harris stuck with it. Earning himself British honours as an amateur, he built a prodigious reputation. Seeking to earn himself medals on the international stage, Harris was prompted to turn professional after an irksome experience.
“When I was an amatuer I was meant to go to the Commonwealth Games (in 2014, in Glasgow) because the Welsh body put on a tournament where the winner got sent. I won that tournament but they fucking took Andrew Selby instead. I thought I was going and then I got made to box Selby, that went sour – he was ill one time – and they took him in the end. I wasn’t given an explanation, nothing off the Welsh team and I thought ‘fuck this’. Got my head down the year after, won the Welsh and the British and then turned over.
In a ironic case of poetic justice, the Commonwealth would be the first title of Harris’ professional career. An “eye-opening” unanimous decision over Thomas Essomba saw him claim the belt in 2017. Three fights and 21 months later, Harris was able to make his first defense. A frustrating period, not through any fault of his own, he explained to me just what happened.
It was mentally draining
“I was meant to face Dexter Marquez, he failed a brain scan so obviously couldn’t come over. Then it just all went quiet, I didn’t hear anything from (Frank) Warren (Harris’ promoter at the time) even though I was nagging Gary (Lockett) and was on Warren’s case. There was nothing happening and I thought “what the hell is going on”. Mo Prior chucked me on one of his shows just to keep me busy. The British title came up against Matty Chanda at super-flyweight so I took that, then it got ruled out because Matty also failed a brain scan.
Then I didn’t get a phone call, or anything. It was like I had been wiped off the fucking earth, I was constantly in the gym training but what was I training for? Nothing, I was training for the possibility of a fight, I was in a camp for nothing and it was mentally draining.”
Mo Prior had kept Harris busy in the immediate months after his title victory, with tick-over bouts in July and November 2017. It was the brick silence at the start of 2018, however, from Frank Warren that got Jay questioning his future in the sport.
“It (giving up) went through my mind loads of time. I was losing work, I was losing money. I was constantly in training and it ended up being a situation where I could earn more money by working full-time. The support of my family and my girlfriend, they made me stick at it, because I’ve been boxing since 12 so it’s a lot of hard-work just to give up flippantly. Luckily it’s all starting to come together.”
Throughout his 15 professional fights, Harris has become well accustomed to stepping into the ring with a journeyman in the opposite corner. Part and parcel of the sport, particularly when matching young British flyweights, but still a factor that brings inevitable frustration.
“You get a certain buzz for meaningful fights, I don’t really want to be fighting these journeyman. I don’t wake up dreaming about knocking someone out who’s lost 35 fights but it’s what you’ve got to go through. Most of them aren’t shit, don’t get me wrong, Brett Fidoe is a tough man and he’ll give you things to learn from. You want someone like that who will give you rounds not fucking Gyula Dodu. My nan could have knocked him out.”
Away from the routine victories over Eastern European opposition, everything has come together for the Swansea-man, who’s keeping the Commonwealth title for the time being, having been mandated for the British and European belts, already, this year. MTK Global won purse bids for mandated challenge to Vincent Legrand before the Frenchman vacated.
That’s what makes boxing so special
In steps Angel Moreno, who recently challenged for Charlie Edwards WBC world title. Harris has taken the change of opponent in his stride and, whilst dreaming of a sell-out Liberty Stadium in the future, is revelling in the opportunity of his first title shot on Welsh soil.
“It’s a massive opportunity for myself and it’s what I wanted. I wanted to be pushing on and getting as many belts as possible. I’m confident in my own ability and fighting in Wales is always something special. It means a lot that we’re starting to get some big events back there, with MTK, Chris (Sanigar) and Mo (Prior). The fact it’s happening now and I get to be a part of it, that’s what makes boxing so special.”
Harris, now a professional for five years, was mandated for the EU title last year (against Mohammed Obbadi) though the waters were murky around that but Swansea’s finest insisted the time is right to start rifling his way through the ranks. He explained his game plan with such simplicity that it was hard not to buy into his confidence. The 2012 GB Amatuer champion confessed that, should he get the win, the future was in a state of flux.
“My ambition is to get a world title shot, I will be one happy man to have fought for a world title. Hopefully after June we can start pushing on to get myself in that position. My contract is for three fights (a year) but if I need more to push on faster than that doesn’t bother me. Look, I would love to fight for the British, and me and Sunny Edwards have always said if we come to fight it would have to be worth our while – a good belt on the line and some handsome money. I’ve seen Tommy Frank saying he brings more to the table than Sunny but that’s just not true.”
Big fights on the horizon, then, for the talented flyweight but the past five years have been anything but plain sailing.
“I used to think that when you turned professional you had “made it” as a boxer but I’m grateful to understand the politics a lot better, now. When you’re low and the tickets aren’t going your way, it’s good to have people around you that you can trust. I’ve not always had that so I’m grateful to have it now. I’ll “make it” when I’m able to quit my job at Amazon and start boxing full-time. Welsh boxing at the moment is thriving, you’ve got everyone from Liam Williams and Joe Cordina to myself and Alex Hughes.
It’s now or never for me. Not just for me but for Wales, there is simply so much talent coming through at the moment that we need to make the most of it.”