“I was at my in-laws’ house, had just finished off pie and chips, and I got a phone call from my old trainer, Ronnie Rush. He said, ‘There’s a big fight for you.’ I said, ‘Oh yeah. What’s that?’ He replied, ‘It’s in two days’ time for the world title against John Davison. You’re naturally fit, and you can beat this guy. You’ve got so much talent; you just need to bring that out of you when you fight him.’ That was it. I packed my bags and we headed off to Newcastle. The rest is history.”
Despite looking back with fond memories of becoming the WBO featherweight titlist, Steve Robinson’s amateur record and early professional career didn’t show signs of a future champion. His pro record of thirty-two wins in fifty-one fights doesn’t reflect the depth of his journey and certainly not the success.
Robinson explained how it all began. “I was about nine years old, and my older brother started boxing around the corner at Ely gym, which was only a small place, but literally only a few yards away from where we lived. I was fairly active as a young kid and liked any kind of sport–running, football, rugby, and any contact sports. I guess boxing was a natural progression.
“I didn’t do much as an amateur, only had about twenty-five fights. About sixteen or seventeen junior fights and eight senior. I beat the Welsh champion, but not in a competition fight. I never won anything as an amateur. I boxed up to about twelve, stopped for about five years and then got back into it. When I got to about nineteen or twenty years old, that’s when I decided I wanted to turn pro.”
Robinson made his debut on March 1, 1989, against Alan Roberts, at the Star Leisure Centre in Cardiff, winning by a close decision. In his fifteenth fight, he took on former British champion Peter Harris, for his Welsh Area featherweight title. “It was a step up for me. My first title fight and I knew if I won, it would move me up the rankings. It was a good fight, close one, but I outworked him in the end. That was a good win for me.”
If you are wondering why and how Robinson earned the moniker, “Cinderella Man,” look no further than his first eighteen fights. Rather unfairly labeled by some at the time as a journeyman, Robinson had won nine, lost eight, and drew one. Did Robinson think by this stage, “Maybe boxing is not for me?”
“Yes and no. Every fight I lost up to that point were on points. They were very close, and I always felt I’d won the fight. I’d often be in the opponent’s hometown, and they’d give it to him by half a point or a point. It’s not like I was stopped. My old trainer kept encouraging me, saying, ‘You’ve worked hard, you’ve got to learn by each fight.’ I’d turned pro without much experience, so I guess I had to learn the hard way.”
On February 13, 1993, Robinson fought Algerian-born Frenchman, Mehdi Labdouni, losing a points decision in Paris, France. “Same again, I thought I won it. I boxed well, but when you fight abroad, these things happen. I was obviously disappointed but put my head down and kept on moving forward.”
Only two months later, on April 17, 1993, Robinson fought John Davison for the vacant WBO world featherweight title, in his backyard, at the Northumbria Centre, Washington (UK). With only forty-eight hours’ notice, how confident was Robinson going into the fight?
“I was naturally a featherweight, but after the pie and chips, I was about nine stone, eight [134 pounds]. I went for a few runs and sweated it out of me and just about made the weigh-in, which was on the day of the fight.
“I’d checked this guy [Davison] out, and I was so confident I could beat him. The first few rounds, I boxed his head off, and he couldn’t get near me. Then about round six or seven, I started to get a bit fatigued as I didn’t have much time to prepare for the fight. I had to dig deep and kept on boxing, reminding myself that this was for a world title. I also had a two-year-old son at the time—my first child, Luke—and I wanted to win the fight for my son and my family. I’d never had any luck before in any of my fights, so I took this opportunity with both hands and gave it everything I had.”
Robinson won a split decision to become WBO featherweight champion of the world. He’d gone from zero to hero. “I felt I’d won it by two or three rounds, but it was close and obviously in his hometown. It was incredible winning the belt, but the personal satisfaction of being able to prove to everyone that I was more than just a domestic fighter was something else.”
Four months later, Robinson knocked out Anthony Joshua’s amateur trainer, Sean Murphy, in nine rounds. If his validity as a bona fide world champion was still in question, he silenced the doubters in his next four fights by taking on three former world champions. First up was “Sweet C” Colin McMillan on October 23, 1993. “I trained very hard for that one. I was prepared for a very tough fight, and I’d seen him boxing in the past and knew he was a very good boxer, like another Sugar Ray Leonard, and was technically very good. I thought to myself, ‘I can match him for skill, and behind my jab, I can outbox him.’ I managed to win most of the rounds, but it wasn’t an easy fight by any stretch.” Robinson won a unanimous decision.
Next up was Paul Hodkinson on March 12, 1994, at the National Ice Rink, Cardiff. “I was very nervous before that one because I’d seen him fight in the past and he was the former British, European and WBC world champion for a long time. I knew it was going to be a tough, tough fight. His style was similar to mine, a box-fighter, and he was a good, gutsy fighter. He definitely brought the best out of me.
“I’d had him hurt several times in the fight, then in the last round I hurt him again and managed to stop him. It was Fight of the Year and I was named as Boxer of the Year, which I was so proud of.”
Three months later, Robinson made his fourth successful defense against Freddy Cruz taking a wide decision, before taking on England’s only ever three-weight world champion, Duke McKenzie, on October 1, 1994. “He was more awkward than Colin McMillan, and he caught me a few times. Duke was a good fighter, but I was a natural featherweight, stronger, and I managed to land that perfect punch, the left hook to the body in the ninth round.”
By now it was clear that Robinson’s rise to fame and his worth at world level were genuine. He defended his world title a further two times before taking on Prince Naseem Hamed on September 30, 1995. Naz was moving up in weight and Robinson certainly wasn’t the big underdog going into the fight.
“The build-up wasn’t great if I’m truthful, and I was a bit burned out at that stage. I’d had seven title defenses in two years, and that had started to take its toll on my body. You don’t see world champions these days fighting as often as that. I was a fit guy, but I’m only human. I wanted a bit more time to prepare for the fight. I’d come back from my honeymoon and only prepared for about three weeks. I should have pulled out really, but listen, no excuses, he was a great fighter and a great world champion. Probably one of the best fighters the UK has ever produced. He had very explosive power and fired at all angles. I just wish I’d had more preparation, though.” Robinson lost by TKO in the eighth.
After winning a tune-up against Kelton McKenzie on February 1, 1997, Robinson took on Billy Hardy for his European crown. “That’s another one I should have pulled out of. I had a bad tummy bug and wasn’t fully recovered going into the fight. I was still on antibiotics. I boxed the best I could under the circumstances, but it wasn’t enough [Hardy won on points]. I tried to get the rematch, but it never happened.”
A month later, he bounced back by beating Tomas Santos Serrano for the WBO Intercontinental featherweight title, and defended the strap four times. One of the defenses, on October 2, 1998, was against Welcome Ncita in his backyard. “The people in South Africa were great. They looked up to me as a former world champion and had a lot of respect for me, as I did for them. He gave me a good fight, was quite awkward, but I thought I won by about four or five rounds, but they gave it a draw. He was an ex-world champion, but also the people’s champion in South Africa. Great experience being there, though. Really enjoyed it.”
Intent on adding to his silverware cabinet, Robinson took on Spaniard Manuel Calvo on April 30, 1999, for the vacant European featherweight title. The Welshman was now thirty-one years old, and Calvo boasted a record of 25-3. “Same again. Fighting in his home town against the Spanish champion. It was a close fight. He kept on moving away from my left hook and made it a tough fight, but I did enough to win. I was proud to have won abroad, but also, becoming European champion was a great feeling. That put me close to going for a world title again.”
After defending the title against Claude Chinon seven months later, Robinson came up against the former European champion, Jon Jo Irwin on December 4, 1999, at the Bowlers Exhibition Centre, Manchester, walking away with a split decision victory. “That fight was one of the most awkward fights I’ve ever boxed. Every time I got close to him, he kept on holding me. I managed to outwork him, but I couldn’t get my shots off. I think the ref should have chucked him out for the holding. He [Irwin] was a nightmare. At the end of the day, a win’s a win, and that’s what counted.”
Unfortunately, Robinson lost his last six fights, including to future world champion Istvan Kovacs, and Scott Harrison, who would also go on to hold the WBO world featherweight crown. “There was also the WBU title against [South African] Cassius Baloyi. I thought I’d won, but they gave it to him by a couple of rounds on a majority decision. Same with the fight after against Calvo for the European. Overall, by that stage, I’d burned out. All those twelve-round fights I’d had over all those years and all those training camps had taken their toll.”
At the age of fifty-one, without an ounce of fat on him, Robinson reflected on his career. “I’m very content. From how I started to then win a world title and comeback against the odds is something I’m very proud of.”
However, the Robinson legacy is far from over. “I’ve got my second son boxing now, who’s 7-0, with two knockouts, one of which was knockout of the year, last year. He’s also a featherweight, has good power, but he’s a southpaw. His name is ‘Baby Jake’ Robinson. He’s a good fighter, signed up with MTK. I think he’ll be a future world champion. Watch out for him!”