The Guv’nor and the reinvention of Anthony Ogogo

Boxing Scene

Anthony Ogogo was an Olympic bronze medallist who beat world No. 1 Evhen Khytrov to make his way onto the podium. Having suffered numerous injuries – including shoulder dislocations – he nearly didn’t make it. By the time London 2012 came around, Ogogo’s mother was fighting for her life in hospital and he made clandestine visits to see her. Then, having banked a bronze and become a reality TV star, he recorded 11 fights and 11 wins as a professional. Ogogo was signed to Golden Boy Promotions, as their future UK star for after Amir Khan and David Haye retired, but he suffered a freak eye injury in a fight with Craig Cunningham. 

Everything changed after that…

ON a damp backstreet in Southampton, a queue has already started to form.

It leads to the front door of a dingy nightclub.

The skies are grey and a sprinkle of transparent drizzle, like a constant mist, hangs in the air as cars and vans send spray on to the pavements.

Outside the club are rubbish bins, filled with trash and empty beer bottles, and expectations are not high when one walks through the doorway.

Inside, however, it is actually quite surprising.

It looks like a film set and the greeting is warm. 

“Pleasantly surprised by this tucked away venue in the centre of Southampton,” wrote one visitor on Google reviews. “Although the outside of the building looks like an old warehouse, the inside brings a welcoming and enticing vibe.”

That is fair.

Inside, the fans are smiling, happy and excited. There is an expectant murmur. It looks like there might be a Comic Con inside, but it is not that.

There is a ring dressed for combat. Even though there are only three ropes, an anticipation lingers in the air with the smoke from a machine, even though it feels like this is the type of place that could have hosted boxing when men in hats puffed fat cigars and the smoke hung like a fog above the canvas and below the lights above.

Unlike a boxing evening, when the majority of the crowd shows up for the main event, the seats are filled and it’s standing room only well before the first bell.

There’s a line at the bar, on a mezzanine of sorts, and you look down into the middle of the club – which often hosts live music – and you can see electric reds and neon blues, with purple and orange shards piercing the fumes.

It might smell a little damp in there, and one wall of exposed brickwork gives it a semi-industrial feeling, but no one here cares about the building or its Google ratings.

The best guesses are that on this Sunday afternoon in the British city of Southampton, there are about two or three hundred fans here to watch professional wrestling.

Behind the curtain

It would be difficult to explain what professional wrestling is to someone who does not know what it is. It is fighting but it’s not. It is not real but it is. It’s not meant to hurt but it does.

A crowd has surrounded the ring. The seats are filled, and even those who have bought seats do not have anywhere to sit but they stand happily, a pint in one hand, and a packet of Wheat Crunchies in the other. 

There is a slender corridor down the right-hand side of the ring and a few people congregate there. It is next to the gents toilet, used by punters and wrestlers alike, and it’s easy to spot the difference between the two. The wrestlers are generally like body-builders or flamingos, or somewhere in between.

The first bout pits big Josh James against Robbie X. The crowd knows the wrestlers’ music and who the performers are and they’re into it from the start. They want Robbie to win, because – as one – they chant, ‘Robbie, Robbie, Robbie fucking X.’ 

He is what is called a high-flier, and he climbs on to the ropes and launches on to James several times in an encounter that is physical and involves both of them taking turns to slam open hands on to one another’s chests, leaving them both red and marked up. 

The fans know all about RevPro, the independent wrestling company, and boo the villains and cheer the heroes. But it is more real, more visceral, at this level. 

One of my hands can touch the door to the toilets; the other can touch the ring mat, which thunders loudly every time someone crashes on to it.

It looks physical, and then Flash Morgan Webster defeated Will Kaven. That was another result the fans wanted, having spent much of the contest shouting at Kaven “You need a haircut”, clearly offended, as they were, by his red shaved mohawk-cross-mullet. 

Regardless, these were merely scene-setters. The third fight in was why a grizzled veteran off the boxing beat was taking in this new and novel experience.

The Guv’nor 

The bell rings, a Peaky Blinders-type music beckons, and Ogogo steps out from behind the curtain.

The 2012 Olympic bronze medallist – a team mate of Anthony Joshua and Luke Campbell – appears in the shadows, yellow and peach lights following his path to the ring. He stops to shadow box, his arms flexing in a sleeveless hoody, and he lifts the Union Jack proudly above his head before continuing on his way to the ring.

Ogogo climbs the steps, turns and stands on the apron to face the crowd, and he’s booed, with only a pocket of ironic cheers from somewhere near the back of the room. 

On his side of the ring he stares down ‘Dave Francisco’, a man with an unremarkable physique – not that that means anything – with long black hair, black trunks, and black tape around his wrists, and the two meet in the middle of the ring and “tie up”.

What follows is a near 15-minute performance of both wrestlers having their moments, but this is where the show-business element really comes into play. 

Ogogo, a national sweetheart after the London Olympics, who had appeared on reality TV shows including Strictly Come Dancing and Splash, was what they call in wrestling a “heel”. He is a baddie. 

As he and Francisco fight, there is a point where Ogogo steps outside the ropes for a moment’s respite; where he is heckled by a few dozen people in the crowd. He retaliates, and tells one chap with an umbrella to “shove it up his fat arse”.

Ogogo was booed for that, and the fella sat a little more uncomfortably afterwards. 

But as the bout wore on, the crowd ramped up their offence. 

“Pound shop David Haye, pound shop David Haye,” they chanted at the former boxer.

There was a point where Ogogo nearly gave in and laughed, but he did his utmost to remain stoic.

Then, in reference to Ogogo’s beginning in wrestling when he was the project of Cody Rhodes, who today is flying high in the world’s biggest wrestling organisation WWE, and feuding with – of all people, The Rock – there was a new chant of, “Cody’s bitch, Cody’s bitch” that reverberated around the 1865 club.

Meanwhile, any success Francisco had was, of course, cheered. And as he landed a flurry of punches, the crowd roared “Dave, Dave, Dave, Dave” after each one.

Then, with “Dave” in the ascendency and Ogogo on the deck, the crowd started another anti-Ogogo number. To “He’s got the whole world, in his hands” they sang “He’s got a tramp stamp, on his back”, mocking the tattoo Ogogo has on his lower back.

Ogogo’s tattoo is actually of his middle name Osezua, which is Nigerian and means “God is my saviour”.

Still, the crowd, swilling their second and third beers, and finishing their second or third packets of crisps, began again, chanting at the bronze medallist, “You never won gold, you never won gold, Anthony Ogogo, you never won gold”.

Well, he might not have won gold but he did “knock out” Francisco with a right-hander, and then draped the Union Jack over his forlorn, horizontal opponent before saluting the booing and baying crowd.

Just when you thought that was it, this guy, RKJ bursts into the ring. He’s a crowd favourite, clearly, wearing grey tracksuit bottoms and a black RevPro T-shirt.

He and Ogogo are part of a wrestling storyline – friends who have become enemies. They eventually have to be pulled apart, setting up a bigger fight the following weekend at Crystal Palace National Sports Centre.

But before the physicality, RKJ had goaded Ogogo, and the crowd loved it. He even mocked Ogogo for having partial sight in his left eye, after Ogogo left boxing behind, unable to continue after 12 professional fights when his eye was basically dislodged in a supposedly routine fight against Craig Cunningham. 

RKJ name-checks Cunningham and refers to the fight, and that’s cutting, because Ogogo was a broken man when he was forced to retire. But it’s okay, because RKJ had asked Ogogo for permission to do it. You see – it’s not real, but it is real.

It’s all very real. Ogogo was Joshua’s teammate. He was perhaps a couple of years away from fighting Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, the biggest name in boxing; several of Ogogo’s opponents and sparring partners went on to face the Mexican, and they had the same promoter in Golden Boy. Instead Ogogo was being mentored by the man who is now feuding with The Rock heading into April’s two-day WrestleMania – the biggest annual wrestling extravaganza in the world.

For Ogogo, Southampton couldn’t be more real. It was a life of sliding doors and what ifs until the wrestling escape hatch was unlocked and he threw himself through the opening.

The show goes on

There are many interesting smells in the nightclub, but as time goes on, Deep Heat starts to waft down the stairs.

It’s either from wrestlers soothing their banged-up backs, or the welts on their chests from the “chops”, or the performers still to come trying to limber up and get warm, but that didn’t deter the drinkers. 

The crowd remained invested, and Ogogo eventually came backstage to talk. He had showered, but he was topless, and we stood by the bar in a dark corner, with neon blues and purples bouncing off his body and the occasional fan asking for a picture. Ogogo obliged every time. 

For Ogogo, letting go of his boxing dream was the hardest part of his life. He has talked about the subsequent spiral, the crushing depression, and his inability to save both his career and much of his sight.

For a man who had dreamed of fighting at Wembley Stadium and the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and who has rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in sport and sports entertainment, a dark nightclub on a wet Sunday afternoon in Southampton might be a tough pill to swallow, but he is learning about how to feel contentment and enjoy a journey – both its peaks and valleys – rather than long for a destination he thinks he is owed.

Ogogo goes deep into thought when he is asked about his current surroundings.

“To be honest with you, I’ve spent years of my life following my boxing rivals, checking their results, wondering what they’re doing,” he tells ProBox TV, almost with an apologetic admission. “Billy Joe Saunders, Callum Smith, [Chris] Eubank Jr, and all these people I boxed alongside…. But being so bitter… I’m not playing that game anymore. I’m not playing that victim mentality. Why not me? What if? Ultimately, it’s not – yet! It’s not me – yet. What am I going to do about it? Sulk about it? 

“Sulking about other people’s successes is not becoming of the person I want to be. And I started doing that. I got stuck in that cycle for five years when I hurt my eye and things were going shit for me. I was jealous of success. It’s like eating poison and expecting the other person to get sick. Stop complaining, sulking, and adopting the victim mentality.”

You can hear the self-talk. This is a rut – the cycle he refers to – that cost him so much, including peace of mind. He clung on to hope of what he thought was going to happen rather than accept what had happened. He thought he was destined to be a star, rather than he needed to complete the journey to become one. 

The elevator only took him so far – then he had to take the stairs.

“I was comparing the life I thought I’d have with what I’m living,” he explains. “But that life wasn’t written out for me. I wasn’t destined for that life. That was the life I wanted and thought I had but in reality, if you look at where I came from, the family, place and experience I had as a kid, it may have been 200 people in Southampton, it may not be Wembley Stadium – yet – it may not be The Rock – yet – it may not be Rhodes and MJF [the current AEW champion who Ogogo “chinned” early on in his wrestling career], but bloody hell, I’ve lived an amazing life, which some people would give anything to have. 

“I’ve stopped thinking about what I haven’t got and what I think I should deserve and I’ve started thinking about what I do have, and I have an amazing life, and the good thing is I’m 35. I’ve still got an amazing life left to lead.”

Which brings us to Southampton. 

Starting over

Ogogo lives in Atlanta. He is an employee of All Elite Wrestling (AEW), but presently not involved in a storyline on US TV, and thus basically loaned out to independent wrestling companies – mostly in the UK – so he can get reps and matches under his belt. While Ogogo’s experience in boxing helps with some things, the wrestling world is an almost wholly new environment for him.

It might look vaguely similar – the ring; three ropes instead of four; the canvas; the crowd around the outside and the lights above, but it is not the same, and Ogogo recognises they are completely different beasts.

“It doesn’t remind me of boxing, it doesn’t,” he says, no margin for error in his voice. “It’s very different. In boxing, everything was… the industries are chalk and cheese. Other than being in a slightly similar arena, and squared circle, the enclosure to keep you in close proximity to your opponent – there’s nothing really similar. Even the rings are different. Three ropes versus four ropes… It’s not like boxing. Everything’s different. 

“It doesn’t remind me of it at all.”

In many ways, that makes Ogogo’s transition all the more impressive. He looked good in the RevPro ring. At ease; he loved riling the crowd; his moves seemed believable, and he appeared happy. It looked as though those days of torment – with boxing a lover that didn’t want him anymore – could not have been further from his mind. In conversation, however, there is always a darkness about boxing – born of regret, a shitty hand, a misplaced punch and a broken heart that has healed but carries a scar. 

Ogogo was the face of the fast-food chain Subway around the time of the Olympics. His likeness was on buses, in tube stations and on TV. He was the guy who was going to cross over. Boxing was unlikely going to be able to contain him. In the wrestling business, they call it “it”. He had “it” – an unquantifiable star power that can’t shackle someone to just one commercial opportunity.

And he bought into that as a destiny. Even now, boxing is an Achilles heel, but the injury is better. It doesn’t impinge him or his mind like it used to.

There might not be comparisons between the two professions, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t think about boxing.

“I miss boxing every day,” he sighs, trying to steer himself away from the negativity. Then he corrects himself: “I miss boxing everyday I’m in England. There is some separation when I’m in America. I do have some detachment because it’s new [being in America]. It’s different. Nobody there knows me as a boxer. The people that know me there know me as the wrestler who used to be an Olympic boxer. There’s no credence to my professional career; it’s the wrestler that trades off his former glories as a boxer, but when I’m in England I do miss boxing because there are reminders. Driving through London today I went past where I trained for three years after I hurt my eye, then I drove past somewhere I was having injections in my Achilles when I was fighting. Everything reminds me of boxing here. That’s what I did. Boxing was everything to me. Wrestling doesn’t remind me of it because I’ve got my head around that. It’s performance rather than sport, and even the fanfare is different. You can see me interact with the fans; having a little smile. It’s just fun. Boxing wasn’t always fun. It was intense, it was hard, and because of the injuries I never really got the enjoyment out of it I should have got – whereas I’m seeing this for fun. I’ve said to myself I’m going to wrestle as long as it’s fun. It doesn’t make me miss boxing – being a living, breathing soul makes me miss boxing, and those feelings are intensified when I’m back in England.”

But the job now often takes his mind off that. Boxing might be hard, but wrestling is not easy. There are new skills, tricks and nuances to learn. And there are new faces and trainers to learn from. Ogogo was always a self-confessed wrestling fan, so he knew who was who, who “beat” who and who might have topped the bill at WrestleMania 20 years ago, but being involved in it opened his eyes to a very unexpected dimension. And his Olympic medal did not have the same currency some might have expected, even though it has undoubtedly opened doors.

“I thought I would be at the top of the wrestling world by now,” he adds, with a pragmatic smile. “It is more political than I thought and hoped it would be and as a wrestling fan I never wanted to take a peek behind the curtain. For a two-hour wrestling show, I wouldn’t want to know their real names; where they lived… I wouldn’t want to know. 

“When I watch James Bond and I see Daniel Craig, I know it’s Daniel Craig but for that two-hour movie I want to believe it’s James Bond. I want to get lost in the beauty of their storytelling and suspend my belief. As a wrestling fan I was the same, so when I came into the wrestling world, I didn’t have the luxury of learning on the independents and learning the ropes. I went into a massive company and most people got there after wrestling 10, 15, 20 years, and they knew how wrestling worked. I had no idea. 

“Also, I’d never had a job before. I’d never been in an office. I never had an HR department and I didn’t know how office politics worked. There’s line managers; there’s protocol; there’s HR departments. It’s weird. It’s strange to me – that’s different. But the performance is great. It hurts more than I thought it was going to. The bumps hurt; everything just hurts. Boxing obviously hurts more, but everyone knows and respects boxers. You respect the industry because of what it is, but with wrestling, people don’t really have the respect for it. They don’t really get it. It’s not real; it’s not fake. People think it doesn’t hurt, when it really bloody does hurt.”

But therein lies the difference and the different types of euphoria from those who step inside the ropes, whether there are three or four of them. Boxing’s euphoria is in victory and survival. Euphoria in wrestling is gleaned from cheers and boos, and a performer who is roundly booed is as equally satiated as those who prompt deafening cheers, because it means you’re doing a good job. 

While the learning curve has been steep, it is one Ogogo has embraced, and it has been one he has been able to focus on fully with the acceptance that he would never fight again. 

“I love performing as a wrestler,” he grins, happy to reflect on the moment and having pummelled “Dave” merely 20 minutes earlier. “I love it. There’s two elements of wrestling I enjoy. The training, I really enjoy learning from people like Billy Gunn, QT Marshall, Bryan Danielson, William Regal, CM Punk [all major stars]; being in the ring with them and people I’ve actually stayed up to four or five in the morning to watch wrestle. When they take the time to impart wisdom to me, it’s inspiring. I’ve got to pinch myself sometimes. And I love training hard. Professional wrestling training is hard. Physically it’s hard taking the hits and taking the bumps, but as well as that, the technique is hard. It’s all hard; doing things a safe way. It’s got to look brutal, but it’s got to be safe. That’s hard. Then you’re performing in front of a hard cam [fixed camera in front of the ring], you’ve got two ringside cameras that you’ve got to perform to, and to the fans in the arena, it’s hard. There’s so much to think about. 

“Boxing, you’ve just got to go and win. Obviously any boxer wants to be in good fights – they don’t want to get hit but they want to be in good fights, and if you’re in a banging fight, they’re entertaining. 

“But your job isn’t to entertain – it’s to win boxing matches. In wrestling, it’s not to win matches, it’s to entertain. The travel is hard, being away from family is hard, and the politics in an industry in which there are no real winners and losers because you can’t really be the best because it’s all subjective – I find that bit challenging. I love the simplicity of boxing. It’s you; your opponent; the best boxer wins. The person who wants it wins. It’s simple. It’s easy. Professional wrestling, it’s opinion-based, and I struggle with that.”

Having seen Ogogo in darker times, it is refreshing to see him in 2024. He started Getting Back Up, his own podcast speaking to those who have overcome odds or setbacks to succeed in life, and he has learned from them. He will occasionally cite a guest, retelling a story of inspiration, a mindset or an opinion that he’s been able to adopt and grow from.

Boxing and what happened to him will always be a frustration, but the resentment is easing. His mind is purer. The closure he has given himself has stopped him from routinely torturing himself, even if he sees the starkness in the trajectories of him and, for example, Joshua. There was a time when Ogogo said “AJ” was “his little brother on the Team GB squad”. 

They have not remained close, although Ogogo remembers Joshua consoling him when Ogogo’s Olympic dream was in jeopardy.

“‘Keep your head up, you can do this’,” Joshua told him after Ogogo suffered another shoulder dislocation. “No one else said it.”

“[But] his career has gone on the way it has; he’s become a franchise, and mine’s gone downwards; his shot up and mine went in the exact opposite direction of his.” 

He is happy for Joshua though. Ogogo clarifies that, but he allows himself a momentary glimpse of the alternate path that was not to be, and he stays on boxing for a moment; talks about sparring the likes of Carl Froch, George Groves, John Ryder, Darren Barker… it all sounds like “coulda-been-a-contender” stuff, but those who know, know.

“No one saw it,” he adds, the joy of wrestling removed by the sadness of boxing. “Unless you saw me in the gym and could see what I could do when I was healthy, no one’s seen this. 

“Sometimes I think to myself, ‘Was I that good?’, and I go back and see some of the videos and I think, ‘No, I was. I was’, but no one got to see this.”

But Ogogo’s self-awareness takes control. He can feel the shadows start to fall across his face. He can feel it bother him and he knows he doesn’t want that. That allows him to take the conversation in a different direction, and perhaps back to the solitude of wrestling. It directs him back to Rhodes, the man of the hour in the entire wrestling universe.

“I saw Cody in the ring with The Rock the other day, I saw it on YouTube, over a 100m views or whatever and I thought…,” Ogogo pauses, a shake of the head and he presses his lips together. “I took a screenshot. And I just thought, ‘Fuck. I was in the ring with him a couple of years ago, now he’s in with the biggest star in the world’. Everyone knows The Rock. 

“I’m happy for Cody. He’s a very good professional wrestler. He’s worked hard. He’s bet on himself. I’m happy for him.

“And I text Cody and said, ‘Mate, this is one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a long time. Buzzing for you. Go get it’. That’s what I text him. And I mean that, it’s a big thing for him.”

In boxing, spar-mates and rivals of Ogogo’s made millions fighting Canelo, be it Callum Smith, Ryder or Billy Joe Saunders. Team-mate Joshua is a UK superstar. Rhodes is on top of the world. But Ogogo doesn’t mind.

“I went through a phase of thinking, ‘They’re living my life’,” he concedes. “But they’re not living my life – they’re living their life and they’re doing their best and if I want to get to that level then I’ve got to get my head down; work hard. Do I think what if? I did.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather be wrestling in front of 5, 10, 20,000 people, or 80,000 at Wembley. Of course I would. I’d much rather be doing that. But I’m not.

“And, I made a pact with myself that when I retired from boxing, I didn’t get the full enjoyment from my career and when people ask me what would I go back and tell my younger self, I always say, ‘Enjoy the little wins along the way’.”

For instance, when Ogogo defeated Kieron Gray in April 2013, as a Golden Boy Promotions fighter on a Khan undercard, instead of going to the afterparty he went to bed because he had to train the next day as he had a fight scheduled in Atlantic City just three weeks later. The young fighter had tunnel vision which is why, when the destination changed, he had no idea where he was going.

With AEW it has not yet worked out how he hopes it will. He wants to be a star, but he is ready for the ride and feels like, finally, he might have control over his own journey.

“I’ve told myself to enjoy the moments along the way,” he repeats, reinforcing it to himself. “In this chapter of my career… this isn’t Wembley; it’s not the MGM Grand; it’s not Madison Square Garden, but it’s Southampton, in a little nightclub in front of a few hundred people and it was intimate and there was a load of fans in there who made a lot of noise and you’ve got to be on your game, because with the fans so close to the ring, if you do anything fake, or unprofessional, or things that don’t look good, those hardcore fans will tell you. 

“If you’re talking to each other in the match, they’ll hear; they’ll let you know and you’ll lose them. You’ll suck them out of the match. At the big shows, the fans are further away; they can’t see as much. You could perhaps throw a sloppy punch and in the cheap seats it looks great because you’re so far away. In those smaller arenas, you can’t, because if you throw a rubbish punch, the fans are going to see. It’s like watching a movie – if you see the reflection of a cameraman in the mirror, and it’s a really intense scene or its dramatic, you’re out of it, and it’s hard to get back in. Same thing with wrestling.”

Ogogo, a good guy, loves being the bad guy. He likes having the opportunity to do what he’s worked hard at being able to do, which is wrestle in front of a live crowd and love it. It’s probably the career path the 12-year-old Anthony Ogogo would have preferred, anyway. 

He refuses to sulk over the past, or over not being on the main shows for AEW just yet. He refuses to complain. The tears have dried.

He was happy with his match against “Dave”, and he’s had less than 40 matches as a wrestler in total. 

With Ogogo ready to leave the Southampton venue, he winced as he picked up his bag, his back sore from the bumps; the heavy lifting; life on the road, and he gradually stood upright. 

Next stop, Crystal Palace. It might not be Vegas, Wembley or even Carrow Road, home of Norwich City Football Club, where he always thought he would top a bill as a world boxing champion, but he doesn’t mind. Wembley might still come. AEW sold more than 70,000 tickets to their Wembley Stadium show last year, but Ogogo had just a walk-on part. 

This year might be different. If it is, he will love it. If it’s not, he will keep working. For now, there will be more nights like in Southampton. There might be more nightclubs and leisure centres. They might be worse than this one, but they will allow him to hone his graft; to get better; to put more distance between him and his broken dreams while taking him closer to his new ones.

“It’s an opportunity for me to show what I can do,” he says, of performing on the road. “It’s enjoying the wins along the way and I really hope I get to wrestle at Wembley this summer, I really hope I do. If not this summer, then next summer. But until that happens, I’m going to enjoy all the little wins along the way and I won on Sunday [against Dave], but getting that reaction, making hundreds of fans shout things at me – that’s a win. That’s a win. 

“I’m smiling thinking about the David Haye chants. I’m smiling about the ‘tramp stamp on his back’ chants. It’s funny. And that’s what it’s all about. I’m winning.” 

Products You May Like

Articles You May Like

Announcer hounded out the sport as boxing again pretends it is perfect
Despite Advancing Years, Kovalev Wants To Show What He Has Left
Haney requests NYSAC overturn loss to Garcia
Berinchyk completes a memorable night for Ukraine defeating Navarrete to win vacant WBO lightweight title
Tyson Fury vs. Oleksandr Usyk live results and analysis

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *