Colin Dunne: ‘It was a miracle if you could get an apprenticeship in any kind of trade. Liverpool was on its knees in the 80s. I wanted to make it’

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Colin Dunne
Colin Dunne didn’t know what to do when his growing body betrayed his dreams of becoming a jockey. He tells John Evans how he replaced his beloved reins with boxing gloves

EVERY athlete has moments where they are in total control of themselves and everything going on around them. The moments when even the fastest action seems to happen in slow motion. “It’s the most fantastic feeling you can imagine,” Colin Dunne told Boxing News. “I haven’t experienced everything in the world obviously but, God, that would take some beating.”

Those moments are etched in Dunne’s memory. He can still feel the thrill of elbow to elbow competition and the tightening of the reins in his hands. Yes, the tightening of the reins. Dunne isn’t remembering his high quality victories over the likes of Phillip Holiday and Billy Schwer. Those would come later. The Liverpudlian is remembering life as an apprentice jockey. 

Liverpool was almost cut adrift from the rest of the country in the 1980s. Teetering on the precipice of ‘managed decline’, unemployment rose as investment dipped. For youngsters leaving school the outlook was bleak. Sport and music provided escape rafts for some but for the vast majority, the last day of school was swiftly followed by the first day of unemployment.

At just six-and-a-half stone and unable to hold a tune, Dunne could easily have been swallowed up and lost in the malaise but his size afforded him a unique opportunity.

Dunne had never even treated the donkeys that trudge along Southport beach to a well-deserved sugar cube. Suddenly, instead of joining the masses and praying for a place on a plastering or catering course, he found himself in leafy Oxfordshire fixing nosebags for potential Derby winners.

“I was a slow maturer. I was tiny,” he said. “In the part of Liverpool where my dad grew up there was a guy called Billy Newnes. He’d been to Henry Candy’s stable yard and ended up riding an Oaks winner on Time Charter. My dad saw that I was tiny and coupled that with the fact that there was no work in Liverpool. There was the YTS and people on catering courses who couldn’t boil an egg. That’s how desperate it was. If you got on a YTS, it was all about who you knew. It was a miracle if you could get an apprenticeship in any kind of trade. Liverpool was on its knees in the 80s.

“I wanted to make it. I was from a poor family and brought up on benefits and had a massive amount of ambition. If leaving home and going into racing was going to be it, then that was going to be it.”

Apprentices the world over tend to start their career with a broom in their hand. Dunne found himself sweeping out stables rather than factory or site floors but he fell in love with the life. The priceless moments on horseback made the early mornings and endless shovelling worth it.

“They had me on a pony called Justin for about six months,” Dunne said. “Anybody who knows horses knows that ponies are the most mischievous of all the breeds and this one used to throw me off regularly whenever he’d had enough of me and you’d have to run all the way back to the yard. They’re very intelligent and know when there’s somebody on their back who hasn’t got a clue.

“I did almost two years at Candy’s and then went to Peter Walwyn’s. There was a horse there called Zamat and every time we went on the gallops this thing would piss off with me. A Welsh lad told me to give it its head and throw the reins at it. I was doing the opposite. I was gripping them as tight as I could to try and stop this thing. This went on all week and by Friday all the lads were laughing at me.

“I decided to give it a go. I had nothing to lose. It stopped still and was looking around waiting for me. I tightened the reins up and it upped the pace. I changed my hands again and it went faster. It was like going through the gears. You loosen the reins and it slows dow. It’s an amazing feeling when you’ve learned how to control a horse.

“My crowning glory was being put on the yearlings. That means you’ve got good hands and you’re a good horseman. Those yearlings are potential Derby and Oaks winners and they won’t put you one one unless you know what you’re doing.

“Forget winning The Derby or The Oaks. Just having that life,” he said. “They call it the sport of kings and people show you so much love and respect when you’re doing well. As long as you can keep your weight down, I think becoming a jockey has gotta be one of the best ways you could ever live.”

It wasn’t to be.

There tends to be a deep-seated level of respect between jockeys and boxers so it is unsurprising that their paths occasionally cross. Both racing and boxing offer smaller athletes a route into professional sport and both professions demand discipline and bravery, the willingness to persevere through injury and an all too intimate relationship with the weighing scales.

The Stable Lads boxing tournament wasn’t some novelty event. Until the year 2000, the annual fund raiser gave apprentice jockeys from across the country the chance to earn a bit of notoriety and enjoy finals night at a glitzy night at a top London hotel. 

Dunne dominated, adding his name to role of honour that includes Terry Spinks. The competition was a godsend for Dunne. As a young boxer in Liverpool, he found it difficult to find fights because he was so small. Now, it dawned on him that it would be next to impossible to get a ride as a flat jockey because he was too big. 

“I gave up the dream. I was 18 and eight-stone. That’s not a good weight to be a jockey. There was a point where I knew. You need to be a strong mature man but you also need to be seven stone. It’s not normal.

Colin Dunne
John Gichigi/Getty Images

“I won the Stable Lads three times out of four. Winning it was always a little feather in your cap with the trainer. That kept my hand in. It was like being at a pro training camp. You’d only train for about two months a year. You had a mix of lads who’d boxed and those who’d never had gloves on in their life. 

“I think it’s a travesty they stopped it. What a gift that was because it could have all gone. Being in racing I could have gone years without putting gloves on because there was nowhere to do it.”

Dunne was strong and clever enough to control a racehorse but not robust enough to be let loose as a professional fighter. Colin Lake knew exactly what he needed.

The former jockey and British title challenger was sat at the end of a Newmarket bar with a cigar and pint of lager when Dunne first met him. ‘Look, lad, if you want to come to London I’ll sort you digs out and get you a job,’ Lake said. ‘I’ll train you too.’

A few weeks later, Dunne found himself in the passenger seat of a rickety Ford Cortina on his way to Lake’s curtain tassle maker’s studio in north London. For the second time in his life, Dunne had uprooted himself from his comfort zone, leaving behind a place where he was happy but knew had limited horizons. His second apprenticeship was underway. 

Maybe Lake wanted to reassure Dunne that he was in the right place, maybe he wanted to convince himself that the young Scouser was worth the effort he would need to put in over the coming years. Whatever the reason, it is often said that the best way to get to know somebody is to share the ring with them. Dunne quickly found out that he would be learning at the shoulder of a time served craftsman. 

“I’m sat in this car driving down to London, full of life and testosterone and he’s driving me like I’m Miss Daisy. He said, ‘We’re gonna do a bit of sparring, lad. If I want you to go left, you’ll go left. If I want you to go right, you’ll go right. Oh yeah, and one more thing. You won’t be able to hit me.’

“I’m sat there thinking, ‘Who the f**k does this guy think he is?’ Older fella, drinker and smoker. I was twice schoolboy champion, won the Junior ABAs, boxed for England twice, won the Stable Lads three times. I know my way around a ring. I just thought he was having a laugh.

“We get there, he slips a pair of gloves on and lo and behold I couldn’t hit that man with bag of rice. Unbelievable. His footwork was fantastic. You’ve got Pernell Whitaker, Lomachenko and Herol Graham and hear stories of Benny Leonard and Charley Burley but at the age he was when he did that to me, I’d have put Lakey in the ring with anybody. They wouldn’t have hit him.

“I thought I was going to London to turn pro. I’d just won the Stable Lads but Lakey kept me back for two-and-a-half years. It was a hell of a long time but he timed it to perfection. Just before my 23rd birthday I turned pro.”

Whereas his first weeks at Candy’s yard were cushioned by the presence of other streetwise new recruits from Liverpool, this time Dunne was alone in a big city, working as a removal man during the day and boxing by night. Yet again it would have been easy for him to slip through the cracks, but by the time he was defending his WBU lightweight title against the quality Phillip Holiday at the most London of venues – a rowdy York Hall – in front of one of the most recognisable Londoners imaginable – Johnny Rotten, frontman of the Sex Pistols and ardent fan of “The Dynamo’”- his graduation from apprentice jockey to world class boxer and from lonely scouser to adopted Londoner was complete.

It hadn’t been straight forward. Dunne fought regularly, eager to make up for lost time. In 1996 Michael Ayers capitalised on his inexperience and stopped him in a British lightweight title fight but with Lake overseeing every aspect of his life, Terry Toole and John Hyland guiding and advising him and thousands of rounds of sparring under his belt, Dunne began to operate with that familiar feeling of control he first felt on the gallops. He would go undefeated for six years and 17 fights.

Although only a year separated them, Billy Schwer had won the British lightweight title for the second time a month before Dunne turned professional. The pair met in October 2000, Dunne desperate to be acknowledged and expand his horizons again, two-time world title challenger, Schwer, desperate for another shot. 

Dunne won a split decision after 12 rounds which are sorely neglected when lists of great British fights are compiled.

“I’ve had a number of people say that to me. It was deserving of the fight of the year,” Dunne remembered. “All respect to Billy. At the end of the fight I thought I’d won and there was no way I lost but I watched it back and its a closer fight than I gave it credit for at the time. 

“I just think other names roll off the tongue a bit easier. When people talk about the best fights of the 90s or 2000s, my fight doesn’t get mentioned. People bring up Hatton and Tszyu and Benn v Eubank but the people who count and people who know boxing – the connoisseurs of boxing – acknowledge it and that’s enough for me.

“Holiday on paper is my biggest and best win. It’s quite comical when you listen to the commentary and they say he’s on the slide. He’d only lost one in 34 and that was to Shane Mosely. I beat him hands down. That validated me as a world champion. He’d defended his IBF title six or seven times and beaten Ivan Robinson on HBO, knocked out Jeff Fenech in Australia and then gone back to America and fought Mosely. I know people call out the alphabet titles but I can hold my head high.”

Dunne couldn’t capitalise on beating Holiday after a cut eye became infected. He didn’t capitalise on beating Schwer because, well, he isn’t exactly sure. His career slowly petered out. Over the next two years, he would win six times but a superb display to dismantle Wayne Rigby on a Naseem Hamed undercard was as high profile as it got.

“This is the sad thing. I maybe regret not going with somebody like Frank Warren because he would have got me the fights. Terry Toole was with John Hyland and got me on ITV for the Holiday fight though. You’ve gotta remember, being pro from 1993 to 2003 got me the worst ten years. Bradley Stone died, Gerald McClellan, Michael Watson, Paul Ingle got hurt. There were a lot of injuries. Sky was in the embryonic stages and a lot of my fights were on Eurosport. I think the only people who made proper money were people like Lennox Lewis and Naseem Hamed. ITV only dipped their toe in the water and there was no social media.

“There were let downs in my career with fights not coming off and stuff but you’ve gotta go with what you’ve got. 

“I’m not gonna knock Terry or John Hyland, they did their best. I would like to have been involved in some of the discussions – especially after the Schwer fight. Surely it’s my right to know what they talked about? Who knows, they might have been offered fights for what they thought was low money but I might have decided to take the smaller amount. 

“I look back and I’m grateful for what I achieved.”

The circle is now complete. Dunne is back in Liverpool. The ambitious slip of a teenager who left home in search of a trade eventually got one of those precious apprenticeships. In fact, he completed three of them and returned home as a time served jockey, a master boxer and, now, a qualified electrician. He achieved everything he wanted to. Well, almost everything.

Would he rather have ridden the winner of the Derby or won his world title belt?

“It’s a good question and I can’t really answer it,” he laughed, accent as thick as the day he left more than 30 years ago. “But I think to ride the Derby winner would have been absolutely unbelievable.”

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