Derry Mathews paces the floor of his Liverpool gym manically, animated by a desire to remain busy and unravel himself from the chains of boredom that retirement might have placed upon him. This domain, now his own, and where he barks a variety of instructions, is where the Liverpool lightweight was tortured by Georgie and Danny Vaughan for the bulk of his fifty-two-fight career, barring a brief spell under the late Oliver Harrison, when he needed a change following a long sabbatical back in 2009.
Today, James Dickens and Nathan Bennett are Mathews’s focus as the eager pair perform their drills inside the City Centre gym that Mathews relies on for his weekly wages. Circuits, yoga, boxercise, community classes, Mathews’s workspace is versatile, just like the approach the thirty-five-year-old adopted in 2002 when rejection from the Commonwealth Games, courtesy of British selectors, pushed him into the pro game’s volatile waters much sooner than he anticipated. Baby-faced and slender during his professional infancy, the demands of combat via a punishing career have altered Mathews’s appearance drastically almost two decades on, but despite the grueling nights—and there were plenty—Mathews, a darling on Merseyside, isn’t convincing when asked if his career is actually over.
“I was watching Tommy Coyle the other night in Madison Square Garden, thinking how good it would’ve been to fight there,” reflects Mathews, referencing an old waltz partner who succumbed to Derry’s left hook on a Hull dance floor during the summer of 2013. British boxing was about ten months into its latest golden age following the previous year’s scorching hot Olympics, but this influx of PPV bonuses and stadium extravaganzas occurred with the credits about to roll on Mathews’s epic movie. Boxing in Britain was heading in a prosperous direction, DAZN and their millions lingered on the horizon, but Mathews chose the comfort of home while some of his ex-victims went along for the ride.
“I’ve always tried not to have regrets, but the career I had, a big fight in America for a title and big money was the only thing that was missing. Fighters are getting them every week now, so I think I got out a year or two too early. It’s strange when you look at different eras because when I made my debut, it came just a couple of years after when ITV had Shea Neary and Andy Holligan and boxing in Liverpool was on a different level then. I was only a boy when Neary was the big star in this city, but I remember wishing I was a few years older because it would’ve been something else to fight on his shows as the whole of Liverpool was into them.”
Mathews’s inauguration into his craft’s paid ranks brought success early on as fringe world titles loosely adorned his slim waist. Turmoil soon followed triumph, though, as Mathews was regularly battered, with his first loss against Choi Tsveenpurev in April 2007 proving the catalyst for a demoralizing run of setbacks that forced him to depart boxing before he was evicted. At an amateur show shortly before Christmas in 2009, the popular fighter could be heard telling a concerned fan that even the most basic jab landing on him felt like a perfectly timed cross. He announced his retirement that winter, but nobody was buying Mathews’s new role as an ex-fighter.
“I’d had enough, in all honesty, just getting beat up by people I knew I was better than. I’d gone through my life having pretty much everything my own way, but it was a hard career and turning professional at eighteen made me go from boy to man in no time. It wasn’t just in fights that I was having a hard time of things. Look at Stephen Smith, a world-class fighter in my eyes, and me and him must’ve done about a thousand rounds together, helping each other out when we were gym-mates all those years ago. It was hard in the gym, and it was getting so much harder in the ring because I was always losing. I announced my retirement at the age of twenty-six, but I was fucking terrified about what I’d no next. It was a break I needed and not retirement, and that’s why I made a comeback.”
Version two of Mathews was an altogether different model than the one with which ardent followers of British boxing had become accustomed. Groomed in the Salisbury Boxing Club, a UK fight institution about a mile outside Liverpool City Centre, Mathews learned valuable skills that would bring him domestic vested accolades on an annual basis. Mastering these precious strategies, secret blueprints protected by the “Solly” committee as if they were an Italian family’s secret-sauce recipe, Mathews took the only style he knew with him into the professional code and had the Vaughan family add to it. This formula only registered victories until Mathews ran into Choi but, when beginning a second assault on the national rankings months into his predicted comeback, Mathews knew his old approach had to change.
Reliant on an excellent jab, swift mobility, and an expert defense, Mathews knew nothing of troubling engagements on his rise through boxing’s outbacks, culminating in minor world title glory. Designed to dominate with his gangly assets, Mathews was not built with heavy combat in mind, and when he returned to the familiar environment of the Vaughan Camp in 2012 after nearly two years in Salford with Harrison, Mathews embarked on a run of fights that were anything unlike he’d participated in before.
A series of grueling encounters with Anthony Crolla (twice), Coyle, Gavin Rees, Tony Luis, and a couple with Terry Flanagan all took their toll on his aging frame no matter the result. Ending his career with back-to-back losses against Luke Campbell and Ohara Davies, Mathews had been preparing himself for bigger fights and believed the only way to grasp them was to take on men with similar aspirations. The gamble backfired and in 2017, Mathews walked away after consistently forcing his way into the hearts of fight fans before inevitably breaking them.
“Look at the early fights of mine, and I haven’t got a fucking clue what to do when I got hit because I was someone who’d never really been hit hard. That all changed when I fought Choi, and then I found myself on the floor more often than not. The second time around, it was different. I weighed a bit more so held the shot better, but I was also taught by Danny to fight under pressure more and to hold when I was hurt. Watch me when I was hurt in the second half of my career, and you’ll see me holding a lot more. I was a boxer when I started out, but by the time my career was over, I was very much a fighter, and that made people love me more.”
On retirement, Mathews added, “It was the right time to go. I wasn’t going to hang around for titles that I’d already won. I’ve seen fighters win British and Commonwealth belts over and over and the time has to come when you push onto world level so you can see what you’re made of. The dream for me at the start of my career was a world title and there came a time when I basically gave up on it because I’d gone from someone ranked in the top ten of the WBC to someone getting knocked out by Harry Ramogoadi in the opening fight of a show. I had no right to think of world titles because I didn’t deserve to be anywhere near that type of talk, but I kept at it, and that’s all I ever wanted. If I wasn’t good enough to win one, then I didn’t want to keep fighting and become a name on someone’s record who’s on his way to fight for what I wanted.”
Now navigating the careers of two men who’d be grateful to reach the heights their mentor once soared to, and the driving force behind an amateur club that sports his name, not much has changed for Mathews in a sense that boxing still dominates the bulk of his life. A stopwatch holder for his charges on the infamous Everton hills before Liverpool makes its daily transformation from quiet night to industrious morning, Mathews is still acclimatizing to his position outside the ropes, but, unsurprisingly, he reveals the correct offer for the right prize would have him pounding the same concrete slopes that Dickens and Bennett challenge each dawn.
“A huge Liverpool derby or a path to a world title and I’m there if someone like Eddie [Hearn] or Frank [Warren] want to get on the phone and make me an offer. I love training the lads and putting everything I’ve got into this sport because it’s a hard career choice and the more people I can help make the right decisions means that I’m doing something worthwhile, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that they make me jealous. I had no idea about the journey I was going to go on when I first walked into the ‘Solly’ all those years ago, and if I’m fortunate to join one of my fighters on something so enjoyable, then I’ll be privileged to go through it all again with them. That’s probably my biggest motivation, to be honest.”