It’s been twenty-one years since Richie Woodhall won the WBC super-middleweight title against Thulani “Sugar Boy” Malinga, in front of his hometown of Telford, but to the Shropshire favorite it seems like yesterday. It is a night he refers to as the greatest of his life (after the birth of his children). But how did the journey start for the man who’s now an integral part of Team GB’s amateur setup?
“I was born in a place called Polesworth [April 17, 1968]. My dad Len was a brickie at the time, and he found work in Telford as it was being built at the time. He liked it that much, he stayed. I was about two when we first got to Telford, and I’ve been here ever since. We were brought up on a big council estate called Woodside, but there was nothing to do there apart from going to the community center and there was a boxing club there. My dad used to box as an amateur, went along and became a coach and that’s how I started at the age of seven.”
Woodhall continued. “I was in the Schoolboy championships twice and got to the semifinals both times. It was very hard back then. I think I boxed about eight times to get to the semis in those days. It’s not like it is now where you can have two or three fights and you’re in the finals. I got beat by the same lad twice both times. A lad called Steve Foran. Good fighter, from the Rotunda ABC.”
Although Woodhall did not amass the silverware he’d hoped for as a schoolboy boxer, his hunger grew when he became a senior. He qualified for the Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988. Having won his first two fights without dropping a point, he was matched against Roy Jones Jr. in the semifinals. Woodhall reflected on his contest with the future multiweight champion. “My coach said to me, ‘Don’t go barging in there. Do what you’ve done the whole tournament and box at distance. You’ve got a bit of height and reach advantage and fast hands. Try and pick him off with the jab.’
“It’s alright saying these things but putting it into practice was another story. Roy Jones was exceptionally quick. I lost the first, I probably won the second, and he got the third. I didn’t do too bad, but every time I tried to up it, he went to another level himself. He’d drop his hands low, leave his target area to be hit, and you’d come over your front foot to try to hit him and he got you. You had to box with a lot of brains against him. I didn’t do too badly, but his speed was a bit too much for me.” Woodhall may have lost to Jones Jr., but he walked away with the bronze medal, one of only fourteen Brits to have done so in Olympic boxing history.
Two years later he won gold at the Commonwealth Games, held in Auckland, New Zealand. Woodhall confirmed that the win was not his intended swansong before transitioning over into the professional ranks. “I don’t think I would have turned pro if there was the setup there is now. It’s unbelievable. They’re [the amateurs] on good funding, full-time camps etc. We didn’t have that back then. It was a case of getting personal sponsorship and getting your employer to give you time off and things like that. Also, as opposed to the East Germans, Russians, Cubans, who had full-time camps, we just had the odd training camp at weekends at Crystal Palace. It was very, very difficult.
“Looking back, I would have stayed for another two years and gone for gold in Barcelona, because that’s the ultimate prize in boxing. When you become world champion as a pro, you’ve then got to unify and there’s often many world champions at any one time. Whereas Olympic gold is only one medal. To win that, you’ve got to beat the best of the best and you’ve got to be very, very special. I think I was number three in the world at that point [in the light-middleweight category]; however, by then, I’d met my future wife and we wanted to settle down and get a place. I was offered good money to turn pro and did it.”
Woodhall made his debut on October 18, 1990, with a third-round knockout over Kevin Hayde. Fifteen months later, in his ninth fight, he stopped the Australian middleweight champion, Vito Gaudiosi, to take the Commonwealth strap. After defending the title four times, Woodhall stopped Silvio Branco in nine rounds for the European middleweight title on February 22, 1995.
After making two successful defenses as European champion, Woodhall, now 21-0, was presented with the chance to fight for the WBC world middleweight title, against defending champion Keith Holmes on October 19, 1996, in Maryland. Unfortunately, the training camp wasn’t ideal. “I had an operation on my elbow about a couple of weeks before that fight. I was on the pads with my dad, threw a hard shot, missed the pad and felt something go. I couldn’t throw a straight right hand after. I went to hospital and they did an MRI scan and I had to have an operation. I had dislodged some cartilage on my elbow joint and had to have it taken off. I was fighting in less than two weeks and my dad said to pull out. I spoke with Mickey Duff and he said, ‘He’s a Don King fighter, you’re the mandatory. If you pull out, you won’t get another shot at this for at least another year.’ I replied, ‘I’ll fight. I’ll be ok.’
“The US opened my eyes to professional boxing. Any fighter who goes abroad and wins a title has earned it. I get there and all of a sudden they’d lost my papers, so I had to have a full medical. Every day I was out there, something came up that disrupted me. You name it. Phone calls in the middle of the night, knocking on my hotel door room. I had to change rooms with my dad in the end so people didn’t know where I was. It was unbelievable. That’s boxing for you.
“I still went in there and thought I was going to win. I was confident I’d beat Holmes and that’s the problem there. Fighters often think they are better than they are and I said to my dad, ‘I can still throw the right hand. Don’t worry about it.’ But I couldn’t throw it properly. I also got knackered in that fight because I’d missed a bit of training and he done me.” Holmes won with a twelfth-round stoppage.
Woodhall continued. “One thing about that fight—it really toughened me up mentally. It’s almost as if it brought me up to speed in terms of what the fight game was all about. I could have jumped on a plane and gone anywhere around the world and fought anyone straight after that fight and would have been ready.”
Unfortunately, Woodhall didn’t fight for another eleven months. “I had to have another operation on my elbow after the fight,” he explained. “Straight after the op, the doctor said I should retire because there wasn’t enough cartilage on my joint. He said, ‘You’ll never throw that right hand properly again.’ There I was in hospital and I really panicked. As every fighter will tell you, you dream of being a world champion and I was in tears thinking, ‘What do I do now?’
“A couple of minutes later I said, ‘No way.’ I didn’t accept the decision and thought, ‘I’m going to be world champion one day.’ I left the hospital, literally had a few days off and was back in the gym. I started to experiment throwing the right hand as a bent arm shot. It seemed to work. It was only when I was throwing the punch straight, when the arm locked out, that I had problems. I lost five percent of my reach in my right arm, but throwing the hook was fine. No pain. I just had to change my style slightly. The problem you have when you throw your back hand as a hooked shot is that you’ve got to get closer to your opponent. I needed to get a little bit closer to land a hook or an uppercut to have any effect on my opponent. At world championship level, if you’re six or seven inches closer to someone like Joe Calzaghe, you’re getting your head ripped off!”
Some thought that Woodhall was too big at the middleweight limit by this stage, but he disagreed. “I’m six foot one and a half, which at middleweight is massive, but I was dedicated. Calzaghe used to say to me when I was twelve stone, never mind middleweight, ‘How the hell do you make the weight?’ I was on it. The key to making weight is not letting your weight balloon in between fights. I was never more than about two or three pounds over the middleweight limit, because I looked after myself, went to bed early, and lived the life of a fighter. I probably got that discipline from the amateurs and Olympics, weighing your food, doing everything right. I always said I wasn’t the most talented of boxers, but my strength was that I was very disciplined. You’ve got to be as a pro because it’s a hard game. You also have to remember, back then, it was weigh-in on the day that you fought. Never mind any of this twenty-four-hours-before stuff. You couldn’t cut corners then. You don’t put ten or twelve pounds on after you’ve weighed in and come in a stone heavier the next day. What’s that all about? I’d weigh in during the day and would only be a couple of pounds more on the night than what I weighed in at in the morning.”
Woodhall bounced back from the Holmes defeat and surgery. On September 11, 1997, he stopped a game Bernice Barber in the third round, before being handed the opportunity to fight Malinga on March 27, 1998, for the WBC super-middleweight crown in Telford. Woodhall reflected on the moment the opportunity was presented to him. “I was really confident because my dad was confident. Despite Malinga having beaten Robin Reid and Nigel Benn in his previous three fights, my dad was a very good judge of boxers and he said, ‘You’ll beat Malinga. You won’t stop him because he’s a tough kid, but there’s no way he will outbox you. He’ll go for your body, but we’ll prepare for that.’ Once my dad said that, I knew I could do it. He gave me that extra push. Frank Warren also got it on home soil. Not just that, in Telford!
“On the night, I did exactly as dad said. Malinga did go for the body and he did hurt me in those early rounds, but I just kept moving.” Woodhall won a wide unanimous decision on a euphoric night. “It was the greatest moment of my sporting life. People say to me, what about fighting in Madison Square Garden or Vegas, which would have been great to have boxed there, but hand on heart, the only place I wanted to win the world title was in my hometown of Telford. The place was packed to the rafters and there were about three or four thousand people there. How they got in I don’t know. Loads of my mates were climbing over the fences to get in. It was a magical night.
“It was also a strange moment, though. From a little kid, I’d dreamt about this and then at the age of thirty, I’d done it. My emotions were all over the place. I got home and I always had a nice cup of tea after a fight. I then said to my missus, ‘What am I going to win now?’ All my life I’d been aiming towards that world title and I’d done that now. To this day, I say that something inside me died that night because I’d reached the mountain top. I really admire the fighters like Calzaghe and Froch, who can stay there, but I couldn’t. Mentally, I’d been in the game a long time. 110 amateur fights, forty-three England internationals and then twenty-odd pro fights at that point. I knew I wouldn’t be in the game for that much longer.”
Later that night, the new WBC world super-middleweight king decided to stretch his legs. “I used to walk my dog after every fight when I came home. It was kind of like a tradition after my cup of tea. I’d never sleep on the night. I’d usually fall asleep about 6 a.m. the day after. When I used to fight, my head would be racing round with thoughts from the fight. I took my dog for a walk about 3 a.m. and I’ll never forget it. I’m in the middle of this wood and my ears were still rattling from the noise of the night because it was that loud. I stood there and it was a surreal moment. I knew at that point the meaning of silence being deafening, because it was absolutely silent, just me and the dog. I stood there for about ten minutes, just absorbing what had gone on.”
The day after, Woodhall fulfilled a promise to his amateur coach, Harry Grice. “For most of my amateur career, Harry was my main coach. As a kid, I grew up with his son, Niki, and as an amateur, he probably gave me my hardest spars. Hard as nails. He was a couple of years older than me and had about eighty fights and won most of them. We trained together, went to the same schools, sparred together. He helped developed me. Unfortunately, he got killed in a car crash at the age of twenty-six. I always said to his dad, ‘When I win the world title as a pro, I want to lay the belt on his grave.’ That meant a lot to the family and to me because he was a part of me growing up.
“Later that morning, one of my brothers knocked on the door about 7 a.m. and said, ‘Come on. We’re going round the Grices.’ We all went up to the grave and said a little prayer, had a little chat with Niki and put the belt on his grave as promised. It was an emotional moment.”
Six months later, Woodhall defended his world title against Bristolian Glenn Catley with a majority-decision victory. What he said on live television shocked everyone and showed an unparalleled level of honesty. “I was really disappointed with the performance. I was supposed to fight Vincenzo Nardiello and had trained for a southpaw. I didn’t really rate Nardiello and didn’t train as hard as I should have. Nardiello pulled out and Glenn came in. He was preparing for a fight close to that date anyway, was as fit as a fiddle and was British champion. I overlooked him.
“I fought a terrible fight and that’s it. There’s no excuses and he put in the performance of his life. I’m not one for bullshitting, so when I had the interview in the ring straight after the fight on television and they asked how I thought I did, I said, ‘I think Glen won the fight.’ Many said I shouldn’t have said that on air, but it was the truth. I wanted to give Glenn the rematch but had to fight Nardiello, who was the mandatory challenger. I fought Nardiello five months later, the same night Robin Reid fought Joe Calzaghe and beat him [TKO 6].”
Three fights later, Woodhall and Calzaghe locked horns. By this stage, Woodhall had lost his strap to Markus Beyer [who tragically lost his life after a brief illness in 2018] and was now challenging Calzaghe for his WBO crown on December 16, 2000. A few weeks before the fight, the boxers had attended a press conference, which had a rather amusing twist in the tale. Woodhall laughs before recounting the episode. “His dad [Enzo] and my dad got on really, really well. The venue for the press conference was crazy. Think about it. He’s in Wales and I’m in Shropshire and we have the press conference in Sheffield! Straight after, me and my dad are back down the M1 and the first service station we come across was called ‘Woodhall services’! You couldn’t make it up. My dad said, ‘Come on. Let’s get a cup of tea.’ So there we are, sitting having this cuppa in the services, when my dad says all upbeat and pointing at the doors, ‘Look who’s coming in! Joe and Enzo!’ My dad’s shouted over, ‘Enzo!’ and waved him in. They’ve come over, my dad’s bought Enzo a cup of tea and me and Joe are sitting there like two schoolkids with nowhere to look while those two are sitting there laughing, cracking jokes, having a great time! We finished the tea and my dad said, ‘See you guys in a few weeks. All the best,’ and Enzo said the same and we were off.
“Let me just say, me and Joe were very good friends and we never trash-talked each other. However, I always say that I had a split personality as a fighter. When that bell goes, friend or not, I’m going to try and knock him clean out and he’d want to do the same to me. We respected each other, but we went in there to beat each other.” Woodhall was stopped in the tenth round and retired with a very respectable record of 26-3.
Having played the body double for Brad Pitt in the movie Snatch back in 1999, Woodhall, now a five-film veteran, is contently enjoying his time, split between his involvement with Team GB boxing, punditry, fishing, and the big screen. “The Brad Pitt opportunity was only for one scene. I think the main body double was [boxer] Scott Dixon, but for some reason, he couldn’t do this one day, so they called Frank Warren’s office and said they needed someone about twelve stone or just under and around six foot.
“Down I went to Pinewood Studios. However, I had to say to Guy Ritchie, ‘At 5 p.m. I’m off, because it’s ‘Sports Personality of the Century’ tonight. Muhammad Ali is in the running to win and I want to meet him.’ He said, ‘Fine.’ About 4:55 p.m. we did the final shoot and I was out of there. I was only on the screen for about two seconds, but it was a great experience. I got to meet the likes of Jason Statham and wish I could have stayed there longer, but I had to go. I never did get a credit in the film, although I’ve got the contract showing I was in it!
“I do a bit of acting now, which I enjoy. I’ve been in a few films, taken some acting classes and enjoy it. It’s like boxing because you have to perform, handle nerves, and I’m constantly learning. If anyone wants to give me an acting job, let me know!”