By: Oliver McManus
Tucked away in the corner of Cardiff, Gary Lockett is building an impressive stable of fighters. Away from the bright lights of London his proteges set to work in an unassuming manner; their hard work and patience now rewarded with opportunities aplenty. MTK Global have invested time and money into Welsh boxing, staging two title shows this year. Yet even for Jay Harris, who works in Swansea’ Amazon warehouse, their delivery is ahead of schedule.
12 months ago the flyweight said he felt ‘forgotten’ by the world of boxing with few opportunities emerging for the Commonwealth champion. His dedication to the sport, and Lockett’s dedication to his charge, has been met with ambition from MTK. Three fights this year have seen Harris pick up the European and IBF Inter-Continental titles – the latter in a pulsating clash with Paddy Barnes.
“The first round was alright, weren’t it?”, he remarked in humorous fashion, “but I think the fire was too big for Paddy. I was too big , too strong and he was throwing everything he had at me. He’s a tough guy and I expected it (the hard pace) because of how our spars were in the past. I was expecting to go to war – the first minute was a bit quiet and then it was just abuse, really. Bombs flying everywhere.”
The 29 year old is arguably used to more subdued affairs with his best wins – against Thomas Essomba and Angel Moreno self-described as “learners”. This more gung-ho style against Barnes may have caught onlookers by surprise but in truth it was closer to home for the Welshman.
“I’m a pretty come forward fighter myself so I reacted instinctively. Obviously if I felt he was coming on too strong I’d have taken a backwards step but I was feeling it. I was feeling physically stronger and that I could push him off so I knew I could stay toe-to-toe with him.
I felt so relaxed after the first round so that’s where the training pays off. Once I landed a couple of punches I was able to relax that little bit more because I was confident in winning; then the shots just rolled off that little bit easier.”
The fight itself ended in the fourth round after a sustained assault from the youthful looking Harris. For its brief duration it was an electric encounter that had the Barnes-infatuated Belfast crowd roaring with every punch. Even away from home and in ‘enemy territory’, the Swansea-man was able to enjoy the raptures of the crowd.
“It is the best place I’ve fought at. It used to be York Hall but this was incredible; sold out, the noise was ridiculous and everyone was enjoying themselves. Everyone got behind us, they appreciate a good scrap, and the people were so welcoming to me: even after the fight!”
“I knew Paddy was their number one when I signed up for the fight” he continued, “so I knew I wasn’t going to be popular. I was expecting to get booed when I went to the ring but I never got any of that. The crowd were brilliant; they support their own but afterwards they were so respectful to me. I 100% want to fight in Ireland again it was just so great.”
His spiteful performance said everything for a fighter who’s talent has been slept on for far too long. If this was considered a ‘breakthrough’ fight then it’s fair to say Harris is here to stay. 2018 was a torrid year for the, then Frank Warren fighter. A bout with Dexter Marquez was cancelled due the Guyanese fighter failing a brain scan. Then the phone went cold. Mo Prior kept Harris busy and, in December 2018, the Welshman was able to defend his Commonwealth title for the first time; 21 months after winning it.
The turnaround in just a matter of months is something that even the optimist in Harris struggles to comprehend.
“I couldn’t have imagined life being like this. The last nine months where I’ve been signed with MTK has been like a dream. Everything has just worked perfectly from the Brett Fidoe I was in full knowledge of the direction I was going – we’ve continually taken upwards steps. I don’t want to be in crappy little six rounders because I want to put on a show and I want to be in more title fights.”
Direction is exactly what was missing for the 2012 GB Amatuer Champion – “I was training for the possibility of a fight”, he said in reflection. Six years on from a debut that pocketed him £250, a long six years, it was genuinely refreshing to hear Harris say “I’m happy now.” And who can begrudge his happiness after such a slog to get there. His efforts in the ring – at long last, some would say – are now handsomely recognised.
“I’m ranked in all four governing bodies – five with the IBF, seventh with WBC, 11 with the WBO and 13 with the WBA – but that’s not happened overnight. I’m just glad I didn’t wrap it up when I was thinking because I look at those rankings and it brings a smile to my face. A world title fight isn’t a dream anymore, it looks as though it could be happening on the horizon.
My mandatory for the European, Mohammed Obbadi, is ranked with the IBF so why not get that on as an eliminator. I’m going to have to fight him either way but if we can get that as an eliminator it’ll be great and then who knows what will happen next year.”
It’s not just the Commonwealth, European and IBF Inter-continental title making splashes out of Wales. Gary Lockett, for a long time, has been spearheading the next generation of Welsh talent. A stable of talent personified in the quartet of Harris, Alex Hughes, Rhys Edwards and Chris Jenkins; speak to any of them and they’ll wax lyrical about the 42 year old.
It’s telling of Harris’ character that, when speaking about his trainer, he was keen to heap praise not only on their relationship but the work he’s done for other fighters. In particular, British welterweight champion, Chris Jenkins.
“He’s doing wonders with Chris – he’s got better and better with each fight and he’s one of the most underrated fighters in Britain at the moment. The gym atmosphere is brilliant and we’re all able to look at each other’s success. Gary is so much more than a trainer; he’s invested in all of us and he’s a credit to the sport. Even guys like Richie Garner and Mo Prior – they’re all really nice. They go out of their way to help you. It’s nice to have people around you that you can trust, that’s all it is.”
A year can be a funny old time in any walk of life – a fact only magnified by the twisting politics of boxing. Jay Harris been on the unfortunate end of that stick but how quickly the chaser becomes the chased. No longer ‘nagging Gary for a fight’ instead given the luxury of choice nowadays. His ambition, drive and desire remain the same but what a difference happiness can make.
“I’ve got loads of different options and I don’t have to chase fights anymore. I’ve got people chasing me which feels a little weird but I’m not going to complain. Anything’s possible now.”