Interview with Dave Coldwell, by Paul Zanon. See more Hannibal Boxing interviews >>
Speaking to Hannibal Boxing from the comfort of his car on a sunny Friday afternoon, an extremely chirpy Dave Coldwell opened with, “I’m loving life!”
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Fresh off a training session with his super-welterweight charge, Anthony Fowler, Coldwell added, “I’ve got a great work-life balance. I’ve got a fantastic wife and kids, and spending my time with them is extremely important to me, that’s why I won’t work longer than 3 p.m., so I can go and pick my kids up [from school] and be around them.” It’s the dream that many fantasize about, but be under no illusion: Coldwell’s journey to reach his current peak was far from easy.
The proud Yorkshireman was born in what was then Calcutta (now Kolkata), India on July 6, 1975. He has no recollection of his birth country as his family moved to Sheffield, England when he was only eighteen months old. So why did boxing become a part of Coldwell’s life in his early teenage years? “Because I used to get absolutely terrorized at school! I was like your proper school wimp. I was the smallest and, as you can see, I haven’t really grown much since then! [Coldwell stands at a modest 5 ft 4 1/2 inches]. My dad was out of work back then. I was one of maybe four non-white kids in the school at the time [Coldwell’s father was white and his mother Indian].
“As well as having problems at school, I had a really bad childhood at home. I didn’t get on with my mother at all. She used to beat the shit out of me. I left home at fifteen and I was at a point where I needed to get some sort of confidence because I was always worried about what would happen when I got older. What would I do when I had kids and how would I have the confidence to bring them up? The way I was feeling then, was bad. As bad as you could get really. I was proper, proper low. I had a lot of bad thoughts in my head. If it wasn’t for boxing, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to keep on going.”
Coldwell grew up in a household where money was tight and he had to wear charity clothes and hand-me-downs. Intent on breaking the domestic mold, Coldwell sought employment but credits the discipline of the “boxer’s mindset” for his success. “I wouldn’t have anything I’ve got now if it wasn’t for boxing. I wasn’t a dumb kid, I just had no confidence whatsoever. I passed my exams and stuff like that and I started off working as a car valeter, then progressed to car sales, and later got myself a position as a floor manager in a big shop. The only reason I managed to be successful with things like that was because of boxing. Before boxing, I didn’t have the confidence to speak to anybody. I was very, very nervous. I’d start speaking to somebody I didn’t know and I’d just start sweating. I remember being in the [Wincobank] gym and speaking to Johnny Nelson and people like that, always conscious about making myself sound stupid. When you’re growing up and everyone is telling you that you’re never going to achieve anything, even your own mother, you go into the big wide world and you don’t think that you can do it. For me, it was at the gym, being surrounded by successful boxers and with Brendan’s [Ingle] input himself—that was the only stable thing I had in my life. That’s where I grew as a person. If it works for me, it can work for anybody.”
Straight-talking Coldwell discussed his amateur career and how failure became his biggest fuel for success and a key driver in life. “My amateur career! Ha ha! It was rubbish! To be fair, I’ll give myself a little bit of credit. I’m a perfect example to someone to show them that when it’s all going wrong, you have to keep on going, be determined, stubborn, ignore what negative people are telling you and you can make it.
“I lost my first eight amateur fights. In the gym, though, I was very good; but when it came to the actual fights, I would think to myself, ‘You get beat up every day. What are you doing stepping into the ring? You’re going to get smashed.’ As soon as the gloves and headguard went on, I’d mentally start falling apart. I’d say, ‘Please God. Let me win this one fight.’ I just wanted to win one. I just wanted to experience that feeling.
“I knew that I would have to go back to school and tell people that I got beat, again. You can spin it any way you want, ‘I got robbed,’ whatever—people don’t care. You got beat, you’re crap, you’re rubbish. Even teachers were saying, ‘What are you boxing for? You can’t box. You always lose.’ When people are constantly telling you that you can’t do it and then you go in the ring and get beat again, it’s heartbreaking.”
As a professional, Coldwell had nineteen fights, losing thirteen, but he did pick up the Central Area flyweight title. He discussed the true merits of his pro boxing journey. “The Area title? Not taking anything away from the belt, but for me as a person that doesn’t mean anything. I still deem it as failure. I’m not proud of my boxing career as a fighter. I look back and see it as my foundation of how I’ve been able to coach fighters now. Even the most competent of fighters will have moments of doubt and I can see that. I can bring them out of those moments, because I can identify them.
“Similar to when I was an amateur. I wasn’t scared of who I was fighting against, but more the fear of failure. Knowing I could still fail, I still went back into the ring, I still went through the ropes and I still fought. I think that is something you can say to people, say to fighters that have confidence issues, that it’s quite acceptable to have fear, to have a lack of confidence, but what isn’t acceptable is to walk away and give up. I never did that. I put my absolute everything into boxing. But being a fighter wasn’t my calling. My calling was to do what I’m doing now.”
It took almost a decade from the time of his retirement as a professional boxer in 2000 before he started to earn his stripes with distinction in the public eye as a bona fide boxing trainer, manager, and promoter.
Known as the man in Tony “Bomber” Bellew’s corner, Coldwell was quick to point out that his first major success was training the self-proclaimed “Spice Boy,” Ryan Rhodes. “When Ryan came to me, he was deemed as finished. Done. People thought he’d retired. His goal was to win a British title. That’s all he wanted. I also wanted him to do that, but more importantly I wanted him to get the fans’ respect. People saw him as a flash switch hitter, who had almost disappeared. I knew he had a hell of a lot still to give.
“To take him, not just to a British title, but then to win the European belt against Jamie Moore was a big win. Then obviously, fighting Canelo Alvarez for a WBC world title in 2011, that was a success. Not the result, but to exceed his career aspirations was a big thing.”
The first fighter Coldwell trained who became a world champion was Jamie McDonell. He attributes the success, however, to circumstances and timing. “Jamie had already been world champion. He’d already won the IBF bantamweight title [on May 11, 2013 against Julio Ceja]. Then a couple of years later on May 9, 2015, his coach wouldn’t get on the plane to go out to Texas [to defend his WBA world bantamweight title against Tomoki Kameda]. I was training Bellew at the time, so with twenty-four-hours’ notice I took Tony with me and got on a flight out there and trained Jamie for three weeks. Jamie won, then after that came the immediate rematch and we did an even better job that time around. That’s how it all started with Jamie.”
The blend of fighters and personalities that have passed under Coldwell’s tutelage is certainly eclectic, especially when you add former professional football [soccer] player Curtis Woodhouse into the mix. You can hear the enthusiasm in his voice rise at the mention of the Woodhouse. “Our Curtis! He was brilliant. He was such a laugh, but so driven. He’s a poster boy for anybody who doesn’t have a huge amount of natural talent but wants to fight, can fight, and is willing to learn and improve. When he first came to us, he was a southpaw. I said, ‘What you a southpaw for? It’s not effective. Are you left-handed?’ He says, ‘No.’ I then said, ‘Well come in tomorrow and let’s try everything orthodox.’ He came in the day after, shadowboxed, did a bit of pads, everything. I asked him after, ‘How does that feel?’ and he said, ‘Better.’ ‘That’s because you’re an orthodox fighter, not a southpaw!’ That’s how it started.
“What a man. We thought he was nuts initially. To give up football, which is a sport we all dream of doing, then coming into boxing with zero experience, apart from fighting in car parks and doing a bit of bag work and then to go into it properly is something special.
“The ride with him was brilliant. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t easy. We had setbacks. He won, got beat, won, got beat, but that was just a tribute to his tenacity as he was being constantly ridiculed. Not a little bit, but constantly! Everyone would be saying to him, “Get back to football,” and stuff like that.”
Despite four losses in his first twenty fights, Woodhouse beat teak-tough Scotsman Dave Ryan to win the English super-lightweight title in 2012. He went on to win four out of his next six contests, before going in as the major underdog against Darren Hamilton, challenging the Londoner for his British super-lightweight title on June 22, 2014. Beating Woodhouse would have been Hamilton’s third successive defense of the coveted Lonsdale belt, securing him the belt outright and his place in history.
Woodhouse had other plans, though. After twelve hard-fought rounds, Woodhouse put on the performance of his life and did the unthinkable, winning the contest via split decision. Coldwell recalled. “When Curtis won that British title, it felt like a world title. It was mission accomplished. A very special feeling.”
With that high came the most shattering of blows, when Jerome Wilson, another of his fighters, suffered a severe brain injury against Serge Ambomo on September 12, 2014. Coldwell cast his mind back. “One hundred percent, that was my lowest point in boxing. That broke my heart.” Coldwell takes a breath before adding, “That was a massive kick in the nuts. That was horrible.”
Less than two years later, on May 29, 2016, Coldwell recalls one of British boxing’s iconic nights, when the thirty-three-year-old Bellew took on Ilunga Makabu for the vacant WBC cruiserweight world title. “Greatest night ever! Oh my God. Let’s take a step back. With Bellew, it’s never just been a trainer-boxer relationship. It was a weird dynamic. I’d always look after and care for him on the boxing side of things, but he always kind of looked after me outside of the gym as such. When we trained, he knew I was at the gym all day and because he had his food prepared, he’d bring a tub of food for me and he’d chuck me a protein bar and say, ‘Make sure you’re eating.’ And as a person? I learned a lot from him about life. He’s a very intellectual man.
“Back to the Makabu fight. I don’t sleep the night before a fight. I never can. I remember saying, ‘Please God let him win this fight. This means everything to him.’ He’d been going to this stadium [Goodison Park] ever since he was a little kid. He’s a mad, mad Everton fan. He’s more nuts about the football club more than any grown-up adult should ever be. I just knew what losing would do to him if he didn’t win that night. Also, I know his family and love them to bits. We’ve seen each other’s kids grow up over the years, so I knew what it meant to the whole family for him to win it.
“I remember on the night walking into Goodison and the sun was shining. The big crowd weren’t in yet. We were there early because I had Pricey [David Price] on earlier that night. By then a few people started to come in, but not a lot. Pricey got his fight out of the way, then it was all about Bellew.
“There was a point when he went out to look at the stadium on his own and then he’s walked back and he’s spotted his boy. Then he came back to the changing rooms and he was crying. I’ve said, ‘What’s happened, what’s happened?’ It was the worst feeling. We didn’t know what was going on. He’s bent over and tears are dropping over onto the floor. And bear in mind he’s about to go out and fight for a world title. Me and his good mate Gary had a chat with him and got his head back in the right place.
“Then as we started to warm up on the pads, he wasn’t firing properly. He didn’t seem focused. That’s when I had to kick everyone out of the changing room and said, ‘Right. I need to get him switched on here.’ His mind wasn’t right, but then we had a chat and his head flicked on like a switch. At that point, I knew he was ready for anything.
“When we walked out of that tunnel out onto the pitch. Oh my God. As long as I live, I’ll never forget that feeling. That stand to his left when we came out was bouncing as they were chanting his name. It was unbelievable. The introductions, everything was incredible. I can remember it right now so clearly. You couldn’t help keep looking around. I said to Tony, ‘Soak it up, enjoy it, but switch on and ignore everyone when that bell goes. Stick to your plan and what you’ve got to do.’”
Despite suffering a knockdown in the dying seconds of the opening round, Bellew rallied hard in the third to seal the contest in devastating fashion. Coldwell tells the tale as if still in the corner on fight night. “Those few seconds when Bellew got him on the ropes and he did right hand, drop, left hook, right hand, drop left hook and then the left hook cleans him out. Oh my God. I completely lost my shit. That was just the best feeling. I don’t understand how people can be emotionless and climb into the ring and try to be cool. Screw that! That’s where you let the emotions take control. I was so happy for him. Job done.”
Following an eighth-round stoppage loss to Oleksandr Usyk last November, Bellew hung up the gloves with his head held high. Despite the Bomber’s departure, Coldwell’s current cohort is showing promise to bring back more silverware to the Rotherham-based gym. “Anthony Fowler punches really, really hard, is brave and tough as they come, and wants to learn. He’s not the most fluid of boxers, but he’s developing and his boxing IQ is getting better; and as that’s happening, he’s becoming more of a dangerous fighter. He’s got attributes that suggest he could go all the way, but let’s take it one step at a time. I think he beats everyone domestically. Let’s see what happens when he dips his toe into European and fringe world level, because it’s a very, very tough division. You need to be more than just strong and tough to win that division, you need to be smart and he’s developing all the time into an intelligent fighter.”
Coldwell then moved on to his most recent recruit. “[Dereck] Chisora still has mileage on the clock. I was worried for him in the Takam fight because of the way he fought. He looked old there. But then in the Dillian Whyte fight, he was doing really well. But what I’ve seen in his first week with me, is improvement in the space of seven days. He’s fun, fits straight in with the lads, and he’s very coachable. He surprised me and I told him that. The way I teach my fighters, the same with Fowler, Jordan Gill, same with Tony, the McDonnell twins [Gavin and Jamie], they understand what I’m showing them. When they understand it, they want to do it. He’s picking things up quickly. I’m excited.”
With an exciting future ahead of him, Coldwell puts his wish list out there. “Jordan Gill becomes the superstar I expect him to be. As far as talent and potential is concerned, there’s no ceiling on this kid. He’s phenomenally talented. He’s like plasticine for me. I can mould him into quite a few different styles. I’d go as far as saying it’s probably the most excited I’ve ever been working with a fighter.”
“I’d also hope Anthony Fowler becomes a world champion. Chisora goes out there and gets the fights he wants and beats them all. Me? I’d like to get a lot more TV work as well as the training work. I love it! There’s no physical bombardment on my body from doing it and I enjoy it. I get to talk about something that I love.”
A reflective Coldwell signed off with recognition of the driving force behind his success. “Where I came from and where I am now? Ah, man—I’ve got the best life, but I wouldn’t be where I’m at now if I hadn’t met the missus. She’s changed my outlook. Having kids has also changed me massively. I’m more driven because of them. Everything went up another level after they were born. I graft so hard now to provide them the very best life I possibly can. If I didn’t have these people dependent on me, I wouldn’t be as driven as I am now.”