After losing for the first time as a pro, Josh Kelly spent the best part of 16 months figuring out why he was so terrified of things going wrong, writes Elliot Worsell
PART I – Undefeated
FOUR years ago, Josh Kelly described himself to me as “bouncy bouncy” and, while no more specific than that, I suspected the phrase had nothing to do with his boxing style. Already, having spent just an hour in his company, I had come to the conclusion that the only thing more unpredictable, complicated and potentially damaging than the Sunderland boxer’s combinations was his mind, a point Kelly, particularly today, would not dispute.
Indeed, even back then, when just 5-0 as a pro and 24 years of age, Kelly was aware of his demons, or hang-ups. He told me that day in Merstham, for example, that ahead of a sixth-round stoppage of Jean Hamilcaro, he had become obsessed with his opponent’s jab to such a degree he had found himself watching it over and over again on video, often while eating dinner or interrupting his fiancée’s favourite television programme. He called himself “the deepest thinker in the world”, a title for which there are many challengers, and his obsession with opponents, alas, owed to more than just research or preparation. Similarly, Kelly showing me the 303 unopened and unread text messages on his phone owed to something greater than rudeness or a lack of consideration.
As if to somehow prove this, he later that day offered to drive me to the train station, only first checking with every person in the gym for instructions on the quickest way to get there, despite me having told him there was no panic on my part. To that he said, “But I don’t want you to be late,” and therefore what followed was the shortest of journeys alongside the most anxious of chaperones.
Thankfully, his coach, Adam Booth, had warned me ahead of time. “He’s a worrier who becomes a warrior,” Booth said of Kelly. “His weird thing is his sensitivity. He’s not a narcissist like some. I don’t think his challenges are in a fighting sense. I think it’s more to do with how well-suited his character is to this sport and this business.”
For further clarity, Booth once broke it down to Kelly like this: “Because you have this ability to have such a high IQ in what you do (boxing), your brain is working at a level the average person can’t match. The normal brain function is this: eat dinner, watch a bit of telly, relax, brush my teeth, go to bed. But yours is different, and you need time to recover so it can act like that again.
“The way that will manifest is you will start to doubt everything because you’ll be looking for the reason in everything. When you feel like that, do one thing: don’t try and understand or think about anything. Just batten down the hatches, slow yourself down, and watch some TV. Don’t question anything, because in that state you won’t find answers. Eventually, you’ll be back where you want to be.”
PART II – Defeated
LESS surprising than the defeat itself, which admittedly surprised some more than others, was the reason eventually attributed to Josh Kelly’s first professional loss. It was not an excuse, nor even an explanation, but merely evidence of a 28-year-old man detailing what, at 24, he didn’t have the words or experience to properly articulate.
It was, for all intents and purposes, the same message, though; the exact same description of himself. Only now, of course, having suffered a loss to David Avanesyan in 2021, and having embarked on a 16-month period of soul-searching as a result, Josh Kelly now had not only a better phrase than “bouncy bouncy” to describe his character but also the tools to control all that once felt so unruly.
“That’s what blew the fight up for me against Avanesyan,” he said, making direct reference to the headline of our Boxing News interview back in 2018: The Worrying Warrior. “Not a lot of people know, but I was so worried about becoming sick before that fight that I became a borderline hypochondriac. I was always thinking, I cannot get this, I cannot get that… I think it stemmed from pulling out of that (Avanesyan) fight (in 2018) before when I was badly ill. Every fight from then on it built up more and more and then it blew up massively for that Avanesyan fight.
“I was dealing with it two weeks before the fight and it was just absolutely crazy. I was genuinely sick for that first fight and then every fight after that I was thinking, I can’t get ill for this fight, I can’t get ill for this fight, and it just kept going on and on and on. I would be going away just smashing Lemsips for no reason whatsoever, thinking I was going to get ill.
“Two or three weeks before the Avanesyan fight it came to a head and I started taking antibiotics by myself, getting prescribed them by a private doctor. It was no good for me. I couldn’t sleep and I was convinced I was definitely getting ill. I thought, This is happening again.”
A tough enough fight on paper, Kelly’s European welterweight title fight against Avanesyan was one made all the more troublesome by his own head and worries. He had, sadly, taken the notion that Avanesyan, this avoided dangerman of the 147-pound division, tends to give opponents “sleepless nights” and somehow made it literal.
“On fight week, I’m not exaggerating, I must have got, from the Monday to the Saturday, 13 hours sleep in total,” Kelly revealed. “I was just not sleeping. I was up thinking, What’s happening here? What’s happening here? I couldn’t stop my mind no matter how much I tried. I couldn’t put my mind to sleep. It was just racing, racing, racing, racing. I was in a bad way. But I thought, I have to fight. I can’t not fight.
“I remember on the Friday I said to one of the lads, ‘Will you stay in the room to chat to us tonight so I can get to sleep?’ Sometimes if someone’s there it relaxes you a bit. They stayed with me that night and I remember at one point saying, ‘What time is it now?’ They were like, ‘Oh, half six.’ I said, ‘Half six in the morning? Jesus Christ.’
“I don’t think I slept at all. They said I’d nap during the day, trying to be positive, but all I was thinking was, F**king hell, this has been the same all week.”
Kelly’s problem, in retrospect, was that he cared too much. About the fight. About his career. About winning. His caring nature, it’s true, will likely always be at odds with the ruthlessness and narcissism analogous with most top-level fighters, but, to make matters worse, the more he developed as a pro and the more people talked about him, the more, to Kelly’s detriment, he cared about their opinions.
“I’ve always been honest and anything I’ve ever said has been honest,” he said. “I’ve always told the truth. I’ve never lied once. Yet I feel like I’ve been thrown under the bus more than anybody for certain things. ‘Oh, he’s pulled out. He doesn’t want this; he doesn’t want that.’ But I’ve always told the truth. From my side, whatever I get told by my promoters or my manager, that’s the truth. They know how game I am and that I’ll fight anybody. So I just think it’s crazy how sometimes the good guys get slaughtered.
“When I was younger, I’d sometimes get frustrated and think, Well, I don’t follow Joe Bloggs on his day at work and tell him, ‘That’s s**t what you’re doing. I can do better than that. You’re terrible at laying bricks, lad. I could lay those breaks 10 times better than you can.’
“Those people haven’t got that, but us, as sportsmen, have to deal with that because we’re in the limelight. It’s not a choice. You can’t say, ‘Oh, I want to box, but I don’t want that.’ They both work together.
“But as I’m becoming more mature, I’m starting to realise what really counts, and how much attention I spend on certain things, and what thoughts come to mind, and how much attention I give them. Because it’s not our choice, the thoughts that come into our mind. How much attention you give them, that’s our choice.
“So, I’m sort of riding free at the moment. I’m not letting anything on the outside affect me.”
Pressured into fighting Avanesyan as much by his own inner critic than anyone else, Kelly learned the extent of his troubles only really in the aftermath, when the fight was over and silence returned – returned, that is, to everywhere but his mind.
“Me and Adam had a big chat a couple of weeks after the fight and Adam said it had been the hardest fight week he had ever had,” Kelly revealed. “He said, ‘I’m not going through that ever again.’ He then said, ‘I don’t want to see you as a person struggle like that, because for me, as a coach and a person who cares for you, trying to win that battle between you and the mental side is the hardest thing I have ever had to do.’ My dad said the same.
“That’s why I went away and took the 16 months out. I had to go away and find myself and do a lot of soul-searching and talk to a lot of people and get myself normal again. I had to do it for my family, my kids, and myself.
“I did that and now, if we’re talking about the part where I worry a lot, it has sort of gone away. Gradually, I have lifted a lot of pressure off my own shoulders. I love boxing, and when I’m in there doing it, I enjoy it so much. I feel like I definitely have a purpose in boxing because I wouldn’t still be here through all the trials and tribulations since I was a kid if I didn’t. I definitely feel like I’m destined to get to the top of the sport. I know I am. I’ve just got to enjoy it. I can’t put pressure on myself, because what will be will be.”
PART III – Still Undefeated
THOUGH he has clearly had busier and, in boxing terms, more productive periods of time, the 16 months between losing to David Avanesyan and stopping Peter Kramer in his last fight could prove to be the most meaningful and important of both Kelly’s career and life. Certainly, better than just knocking over opponents and further fuelling a hype train, Kelly has successfully added proper tools, the likes of which cannot be honed in a gym or showcased on fight night. He has, specifically, learned tools for coping, tools for managing, tools for life. He has learned more about himself – Josh Kelly, the man – than he ever could have discovered in a boxing ring, this place he typically associates only with escape. Escape from real life. Escape from problems. Escape from himself.
“This is the first time I’ve talked about it, to be honest, but I don’t feel like I’m showing weakness,” he said. “I feel like I’m well over that now. To even jump in the ring (against Avanesyan), give five or six rounds of hard work, and do the weight, which was a murder in itself, was something.
“I lost that fight in the two or three weeks leading up to it. It showed us how good a shape I was in, how hard I trained. I could have been in half the shape, and trained half the time, and would have got a better result if my head was in gear. The mental side of the sport is so f**king underrated. Belief is stronger than anything. If you get in that ring with belief your opponent will feel it and their energy will drop immediately.
“But you can’t take anything away from David (Avanesyan) because David did what he had to do. On the other hand, I failed to prepare because I didn’t prepare my mind. Now I’ve sorted all those demons out and I’m back in a good place. No longer am I a worrier. Well, I am, obviously, I’ve still got the personality traits, but I can sort myself out more.”
Speaking of personality traits, much of what makes Kelly such a complex and compelling character is that what he appears to be on the surface is entirely different from what he is beneath it. In other words, while some will see a preening, pouting, show pony fit only for modelling sportswear in adverts and interested only in the limelight, there are others, those closer to him, who know Josh as a caring, overly concerned introvert who not only doubts everything said about him but would also rather avoid being talked about, full stop.
“When I was going through those dark patches, those things (media obligations) always come on top of you because one thing leads to another and your anxieties about one thing push towards another thing,” he said. “But now, especially now, I’m just taking it in my stride. I’m not thinking about it. I’m not giving it the attention. I’m seeing things for what they are.
“At the end of the day, boxing’s my life at the moment but, if you look at it, life is bigger than boxing. If you can enjoy your life and box, you’ve got it absolutely nailed. But if you’re not enjoying your life because of boxing, and all the pressure is getting to you, you’re going to have a downward spiral. At the moment, I’m enjoying boxing and my life, and that will be for the foreseeable future.”
It will stay that way one assumes for as long as he keeps winning, though Kelly will be the first to stress winning is no longer the be-all and end-all as far as he is concerned. In fact, while to win is still important, gone, he says, are the days when the fear of defeat would haunt him on a regular basis. That fear has, to his relief, been usurped by a greater understanding, both of himself and what’s really important in life.
“If I didn’t go away and sort it out, it would have spilled over into my personal life,” he said. “It would have eventually affected my relationships with my family and possibly my kids, who in the future could have had hang-ups like mine. I had to put that all to bed and get it sorted.
“A guy who’s very close to me showed me two different clips of me: one from back then, and one from now. Before watching them, I said, ‘I don’t think I’ve changed that much. I’ve just changed my outlook.’ But he said, ‘No, you have changed. Let me show you this.’
“He then showed me these two clips and I was like, ‘Jesus Christ!’ The body language, my eyes, everything was different.
“Now I know I was really battling demons back then. It was real. It wasn’t some pretend thing. Now I’m not scared of anything. I’m not scared of taking a loss, which is what I was really scared of when I was a kid. I hated losing. I hate losing now, and I believe I’m going to win and not stop winning, but back then I was actually scared of losing. I’d think, What if I lose here? Now I’m not bothered.
“At the end of the day, I’m going to get what I’m going to get. Your career is defined at the end, not at the start or in the middle.
“I’m willing to go into the lion’s den and start taking these big fights and getting myself back in the mix. I’m ready to take myself off the leash. I’m 28 now and ready to really go for it.”
Ironically, the key to Josh Kelly “riding free”, feeling invincible, and wanting to take on all comers was not the unbeaten record he once possessed, nor the hype that followed him around like a starving dog. It was, in the end, simply two things: the first, getting beaten at a time when he had never feared defeat more, and the second, conceding that he was human and asking for help.
“I was looking at different avenues to go down and my brother was on this property course with a guy called Steven Green who said he wanted to talk to me,” Kelly recalled. “I was like, ‘Okay, sweet,’ and so started talking to him.
“He made his living in property but was an ex-army bloke and said he had things to do with mindset that he teaches on this course that he believed could help me in my career. He said he didn’t want anything for it, but I was thinking to myself, Yeah, yeah, whatever. You don’t know boxing.
“I started talking to him anyway, got to know him, and found out he holds two Ironman world records, both done with no rest, no sleep, nothing. He did those when he was in his 40s, so he’s mentally resilient and f**king hard. I started to realise and appreciate what sort of character he is and thought to myself, He’s got something, this guy. He told me he was qualified and skilled in these areas and wanted to talk to me, so I went with it. We did some NLPs (Neuro Linguistic Programming) and guided meditation and it really brought us right down; right down to when I was a kid. He then built me back up again.
“Now I feel as though he was a missing piece in the puzzle, because things have just clicked massively for me. He says things and I think, Yeah, why didn’t I think of that? He’s different level and has been key in flicking the switch in my head. You could put the world against us now and I’ll come out on top. I’m not worried at all.”
Four years ago, Josh Kelly had an unbeaten 5-0 (4) record but no children. Today, however, he is 11-1-1 (7) and has not one child but two. For him to therefore say he is no longer worried is a bigger breakthrough than even he, “The Worrying Warrior”, probably appreciates.
*** This Saturday (July 30) Kelly fights in the North East for the first time since 2018 when he takes on Argentina’s Lucas Bastida over 10 rounds, live on Channel 5 from 10pm ***