An Interview with Joe Maphosa
To celebrate the launch of the new Nigel Cabourn Army Gym collection, photographer Neil Bedford recently met up with professional boxer Joe Maphosa for a spot of training.
Fighting in the flyweight and super-flyweight categories, Joe made a name for himself as an amateur on Team GB, before moving to the professional ranks in 2017—racking up ten wins in as many fights.
Keen to find out a bit more about the man they call Smokin’ Joe, we rang him up to talk about fighting, training and life during lockdown...
When did you get into boxing? What set you off with it?
I was 13 when I first started. I was always a fit kid—I liked football, rugby, tennis, running… and I just wanted to try it out. So I went to a boxercise class, where I did some fitness work and the coaches said, “You’ve got something about you. Why don’t you go to a gym and try it out for real?” So I went to Middlesbrough ABC, which was just round the corner, and that’s where my career started—I never looked back.
I just really enjoyed it straight away—I liked the fitness side, and the technical side—and it gave me a lot of confidence. Before I knew it I’d had my first amateur fight, and it just went from there.
There’s more to boxing than just the fights. What’s a usual day like for you?
In the mornings I get up and go for a run—maybe four or five miles—then go to work, then I’m back in the gym at night. Maybe do some technical sparring in the gym. I always try to get two sessions a day to keep myself right, and at the same time, eating good, and keeping the weight right.
That strikes me as a tough thing, trying to keep the weight right.
100%. It’s hard, especially when you’ve got loads of people around you eating what they want. I’d say that’s the hardest bit about training.
You’re pretty light aren’t you? How heavy is flyweight?
Yeah, we box at eight stone, so it’s hard to get to it, but with the right training and the right nutrition, it can be done. It’s just a case of gruelling your way through it.
And you work as well. What do you do?
I used to do PT work at the gym, but as they’re closed, I’ve just recently started doing highway maintenance. It’s a lot different to my normal job that I do, when I’m in the ring, so it was a bit of a shock to the system. But just at the moment, when the gyms are closed, it’s not too bad. Unless they’re at that level where they’re getting good exposure on TV, and have a bit of money in the bank, most fighters are in the same situation. I just did what I needed to do.
How are you finding that then?
It’s hard with the weather, as it’s all outdoors, but I’m starting to get used to it now, and I actually enjoy it. It keeps me busy—it’s better than being stuck at home—and I can still train for when I get the call.
Going back to boxing, what’s going through your head when you’re fighting?
For me, and a lot of fighters, the nerves get you as you’re walking out to the ring—when the music comes on and you’re walking out to thousands of fans. All eyes are on you, and you have to perform. The fear does build up, but it’s sort of exciting fear. You know you could get hurt, but you could also put out damage as well.
And then when you’re in the ring, it’s more of a game of tactics. You have to try and hit your opponent, whilst defending yourself. And if you can do that, you’ll win the fight. Once you’re in there, and you’ve done it for a long time, things do come in automatically. You’ll be doing stuff unconsciously—like second nature—reacting and doing moves naturally.
Do you research much before these fights—are you sat watching videos of your opponent?
Yeah, I’ve always looked at tapes of my opponents, analysing their weaknesses and strengths. I think it gives you a bit of an edge. You can never know what’s coming, but it does prepare you a bit.
I suppose you don’t want to get comfortable expecting them to do a certain thing. You’ve got to be open to whatever happens.
That’s it, definitely. My coach has always said that the number one goal is to get myself ready. If I’m 100% I’ll be able to react in the ring.
Are you enjoying it when you’re in the ring? Or is it more of a case of feeling good about it later—sort of how a marathon runner maybe feels a few days after a race?
When you start landing those big punches and you hear the crowd cheering your name, it does give you a buzz—you are enjoying yourself in there. But then, when you’re in a tough one when the other guy is coming back at you, you’re thinking, “I need to do what I need to do, and get out of here.” It’s always intense in the ring—there’s an energy or a buzz to it that I really like. There’s pressure, but it’s good pressure.
There’s not many opportunities in life for something as intense as a boxing match.
That’s it. It gets you to a level that most things can’t. It’s two guys or two women in the ring, putting a show on, trying to beat each other up for fans’ entertainment. It’s a funny one really. When I think about it like that, we’re very lucky to be taking part in the sport, and having that experience, because not a lot of people do. Especially now, in these times, it’s when you start to really appreciate these things.
How do you feel after the fight? Even when you win, I imagine you must be pretty worn out.
Straight after the fight, the adrenaline is still pumping and you don’t feel tired. So I usually stay out and chill out with my friends and my partner. But then two or three days later, that’s when you really feel it—all the aches in your back and your arms. It does take a few days to kick in, and then you need a good week or so where you don’t do anything. I just chill-out, switch my phone off and relax.
And finally eat again?
100%. We’ve got a thing up in Middlesbrough called a parmesan, or a parmo. It’s a chicken base, with bechamel sauce and cheese on sauce. It’s a Teeside thing. And that’s what I have as a cheat meal straight after. It’s greasy and cheesy… exactly what you’ve been missing for three months.
Sounds nice. It sounds like there’s a lot of discipline in all this.
Yeah definitely. It’s easy to take the wrong turn and be dragged into things that you shouldn’t be doing—especially when you’re in training. Your friends will drop you a message, “You coming out? Let’s go to the club.” You just need that willpower. Even with my family when we go for meals, I have to get something very clean, whilst they’re getting desserts. It could be easy to just go, “Oh go on then, just this one time.” But it’s not worth it. When you’re training, you need to be 100%.
A lot of people want this stuff—to be successful in sports or music or whatever, but not many have the discipline to get there.
That’s normally one of the things that lets people down. A lot of people who were with me when I was younger have left the sport, just because of that. They like to go out and have a drink at the weekend, or eat bad food. But that lifestyle and the elite athlete lifestyle don’t go together.
You’ve taken the turn at the fork in the road then.
That’s it. And when I retire, whenever that will be, I can enjoy myself and do all the things I didn’t do. Once I’ve done everything I want to do in the sport, that’s when I can relax.
How do you shut off from boxing?
I like to go for long walks. I like having a BBQ—getting the chicken wings on. And I like my short breaks—cabins and things like that—just getting out of the gym and living a normal person’s life for a while.
I imagine that’s needed from time to time. It sounds like there’s a lot of elements to boxing and the training around it. It’s not as specific as some sports—it’s a full body thing.
Yeah, it’s a mixture. You’ve got strength and conditioning, your cardio, and then there’s the boxing itself. And you have to promote yourself too. That’s basically another job, on its own.
Fights have to sell tickets I suppose.
That’s the business. Boxers now have to build their brand.
It seems a lot of life is like now. Have you got any words of wisdom to wind this up with? I know you’re only young, but you seem like a pretty wise chap.
All I can say to any young kids out there who are interested in getting into boxing… just give it a go. You never know where it can take you. It’s taken me to amazing places.
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