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Clinton Woods: “A letter from my mum saved me from prison”

“If someone asked me about the best period of my boxing career, I wouldn’t say the world title fights; I’d say it was when I was fighting at the Pinegrove Club. The place would be packed with Sheffielders, my family and all my mates – plus I could still go out boozing in those days!”

Clinton Woods is busying himself with coffees in the kitchen of his Ridgeway home. He likes to be kept busy, as he alludes to on more than one occasion during our early exchanges, and this sense of restlessness is clear as he buzzes around the house – which he built a good chunk of himself – while dressed in his daily uniform of a gym tracksuit.

Cutting an impressively trim figure, he still looks ready to go a full 12 rounds at the shortest of notice. Even when he speaks there’s a sense of urgency, often pausing momentarily before unleashing words like a flurry of swift jabs. I feel a slight twinge of guilt when I discover that a mix-up on interview days caused the cancellation of plans yesterday and probably left him idle for the afternoon. I bet he really hated that.

The prior evening I finished reading the final draft of his soon to-be-released autobiography, Into the Woods, which he will be speaking about this month in an appearance at Off the Shelf Festival. Somewhat unsurprisingly for anyone familiar with the Clinton Woods persona, it’s a gritty, incredibly honest account of his personal life and career, both of which have been punctuated by massive ups and crashing downs over the years. The lack of pompousness and excess of a down-to-earth, hard-working ethic – witnessed both in the ring and outside it – is what many believe has led to Woods becoming Sheffield’s most-loved boxer. Indeed, he’s the only one with a plaque on the Sheffield Walk of Fame and certainly the only one with a statue to his name.

Those closely-held Yorkshire values of straightforwardness and a touch of self-deprecating humour are to be seen in abundance; in fact, just ten minutes in his company can be enough to forget that you’re speaking to an ex-world champ, not a bloke who drinks in your local or lives around the corner. “We’ll leave her in peace,” he says of his wife Natalia, who after coming in to say hello retires to the living room. We take our freshly brewed coffees to the kitchen table, take a seat and I decide to start things off in straightforward fashion by asking how he found the experience of putting together the book. “Truthfully, I didn’t enjoy it,” he says with a slightly furrowed brow. “I was worried about upsetting certain people or things not being told in the right way, but everything in there is at least honest. I think I would have liked to have said a bit more about when I was growing up as kid, though I suppose you can’t get everything in there. Overall, I’m happy with it. ”

Something that distinguishes you from other boxers is your lack of bravado, there’s none of the ‘I was born to be a champion’ attitude that you hear a lot from boxers.
Yeah, there was one trainer who used to always say to me “You’re going to be a champion one day.” I never believed him and it used to make me feel reyt embarrassed when he said it in front of people. I’d tell him to shut up.

I remember Tarver giving me a load of grief once. All I could think to say was “Er, you want to learn some manners, pal.”

In the book it seems that confidence in your own ability didn’t really come in until the later stages of your career, namely the IBF title fights around the mid-noughties. Is that fair to say?
It felt like there was three different stages to my career. I won the Commonwealth title early on and I was buzzing with that, but then I lost in my first defence to a good British fighter called David Starie. Somebody had told me to start taking creatine and it really messed with my weight. I had no idea what I was doing, really – I was eating fry-ups and burgers a couple of days before the fight! Anyway, I lost against Starie and I remember deciding during the silent car journey on the way home that I was going to pack it in. I went looking around for a few labourer jobs but ending up getting bored and missing the training. I went back to the gym and that’s when my trainer, Dennis Hobson, suggested stepping up to light heavyweight.

You speak quite candidly about your childhood in the book. The good bits are in there, but also the difficulties in seeing your dad laid-off from his job at the steelworks and some tough times with your mum too. Do you ever reflect on how those experiences moulded you?
No, not really. My mother was great with us as kids, she’d take us all over the place; honestly, we’d walk for miles and miles. She apologised to us once about how far she’d make us walk, and we had to tell her about how much we loved it. We could have great times like that, but then we’d come home from school one day and she’d be sat in the room crying. It were just one of those things.

An important moment in your childhood was when your dad bought you your first pair of boxing gloves.
Ah, it were Christmas and all me brothers got football shirts and football boots, then I ended up with boxing gloves. Me father said it was because I couldn’t play football, which was wrong actually as I always got in to teams. I wasn’t skillful but no one fucking got past me in defence!

My mates would say to me “Nah then, Clint, why are tha not getting in the paper?” I’d tell them I wasn’t bothered, but I was.

After showing a bit of promise in amateur boxing, you packed it in. There’s a bit in the book where you describe how you went down the wrong path, and it was a letter from your mother which eventually helped you to turn things around.
When I was 17-years-old I was doing Artex ceilings and started drinking with the other blokes after work. That’s how it was back then: Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday you’d go for a drink. We’d go out to The Old Mill, Shambles, and we’d often go out in Chesterfield – and that’s where I started getting into trouble fighting, as well as taking speed. I got into some real hassle with some bouncers in a club called Xanadu, they burned my arms with cigarettes, so I went back and whacked one of them. They took me outside, the coppers handcuffed me and handed me back over to the bouncers who give me another hiding. I ended up with community service, and that’s when I got the letter from my mum begging me to sort myself out. It did the trick.

Do you ever think about where your life would be if you hadn’t received that letter?
I’d have probably done a bit of prison time, but I would have just been a grafter after that. I’m not sure whether I’d have been one of those that go in and out, in and out. I’m too hyper to stay in this house, so prison definitely would not have suited me.

There’s one or two allusions to a bit of a rivalry with the Ingle gym in the book. How much of that was genuine?
It wasn’t really a rivalry, no. They were just churning champions out and getting all the fights, whereas my career was on the up and I was still getting the smaller fights. It was boxers like Naz getting on the big undercards. They’d be getting all the headlines and my mates would say to me “Nah then, Clint, why are tha not getting in the paper?” I’d tell them I wasn’t bothered, but I was. The funny thing is, in later years I probably got more recognition than all the other Sheffield boxers. My name was put on the Sheffield Walk of Fame and I have the statue in Kilamarsh. As I started winning titles and selling out shows regularly in Sheffield, things started to even out in that respect.

How do you feel you’d do in today’s boxing world, with all the focus on trash talk and pre-match hype?
I’d hate it. I always hated all that. It made me feel embarrassed because I know it’s all for show. To be honest, it’s always happened but that was just not my style. I remember Tarver giving me a load of grief once, banging the table and shouting about knocking me out. All I could think to say in response was “Er, you want to learn some manners, pal.”

Towards the end of the book, you talk about your frustration at the attitude of some of the younger kids you’ve come across in training.
It does my head in. Kids turn pro and straightaway want a sponsor. I’d say to ‘em, “Get a fucking job!” I grafted and did labouring jobs, but today you get kids wanting sponsorship without winning professional fights. It’s mad.

How did you adjust to life after boxing? It’s been well-documented recently how some boxers can find it a struggle.
I’m quite lucky, I’ve got my gym and it gives me a place to go and graft. I literally can’t employ people to help me because it kills ‘em. People come to my gym for boxing fitness, they’ll go on the pads with me and I could go through 200 pads a day. I work hard but have a reyt laugh at the same time in the gym. I’ll get kids ready in the morning, take them to school, then head to the gym for one to- one sessions. I have clients that come from all over country. One lad, from Liverpool, offered me some work as a bailiff, and it’s mad money they’re on so I thought about it, but it’d mean spending a lot of time away from Sheffield and I don’t really fancy that.

Into the Woods is out on 9 October. You can see Clinton Woods and biographer Mark Turley in conversation with Professor Vanessa Toulmin at Off the Shelf Festival on 12 October. Get tickets here

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