Slough’s Hamzah Sheeraz has experienced both isolation and ramshackle living during his American adventure, but knows it’s all for the best, writes Declan Taylor
THE RISE of Hamzah Sheeraz had been about as serene as any of British boxing’s other blue chip prospects since the turn of the century.
The 6ft 3in, 13-0 super-welterweight seemed to have it all in spades and was on a seven-fight stoppage hot streak the night his whole outlook on the sport was altered.
That change came about thanks in no small part to a man 11 years his senior called Bradley Skeete, who had once himself held a position as highly-touted youngster in Frank Warren’s stable.
Sheeraz was a big favourite when the pair met at the Copper Box in December but it swiftly looked as though the bookmakers had got it wrong as the older man outboxed the youngster for large parts of the early stages.
As it happened, the favourite began to turn the tide and got his breakthrough in the eighth round, dropping Skeete with a left hook-right hand combination. But it was the three punches that Sheeraz landed with his opponent on the floor that would turn his world upside down.
Referee Steve Gray deducted a point for the foul. Commentator Richie Woodhall described it as ‘a bit naughty’ which was like suggesting Claude Monet was handy with a paint brush. In truth he should have been disqualified for what he did that night, but he wasn’t. He did his job, pressing on to stop the clearly hurt Skeete a round later. It was belt and braces time for Sheeraz.
“When it first happened, it was different to anything I’ve had to deal with,” says Sheeraz. “Everyone saw all the negative media from left, right and centre – from everywhere. The thing is, dealing with everyone’s opinions is mad.
“A week after that fight I thought I needed a break to get away from everything so I went to Abu Dhabi. But I didn’t have any break there either because everyone there was talking about it too. There was someone from Al Smith’s gym there, Kugan Cassius from IFL TV was there. There was me trying to get away but I couldn’t.”
More generally, ‘getting away’ is exactly what Sheeraz has done. He now bases himself in Los Angeles, California for 10 weeks of each 12-week training camp and he speaks to Boxing News at a roadside coffee shop in Las Vegas after catching a flight to Nevada that morning.
“I live five minutes away from the gym, in the Valley Area – Van Nuys,” he adds. “I just get a different Air BnB every time I come out. I just search on the app, book it and turn up – that’s me for the camp. This one is alright but for the last camp I ended up in the Hollywood Hills in an amazing pad. I was shocked, asking ‘is this really the right place?’ I felt like I was definitely chasing the American dream in that place.
“This one is alright as well, I’ve been humbled a bit this time but it’s fine.”
It means he can walk around safely without anybody knowing who he is, much less the name Bradley Skeete. It would not have been the same back home in Ilford. At the cafe we are joined by Taz Khan, a recognisable part of his nephew Amir’s management team for much of the recently-retired fighter’s rise to genuine superstardom. You sense his presence will be invaluable for Sheeraz who has big plans of his own.
“When all of that happened after the Skeete fight, Taz was such a huge help,” Sheeraz says. “Taz has been to the top so he knows what it takes and how it works.
“I logged off all my social media because I was getting constant abuse. It wasn’t so much affecting me mentally because I’m quite strong with that but it was more annoying.
“Taz just said – log out your socials. It’s all you can do, it’s as simple as that. Log out your socials, give it two-three weeks and everything will be alright. That’s literally what happened. He told me this is part of the sport, this is adversity you have to deal with and just told me to learn from it.”
The man affectionately known as ‘Uncle Taz’ will also be acutely aware of the covert and overt racism which followed Khan from the very start of his career, which exploded when he claimed the silver medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Sheeraz, already, has felt that too.
“It is intense,” he says. “I get it all the time. When I was at the gym in Hoddesdon when I came back from my first camp in America. I parked up my car outside the gym, did about three hours in there and then came back out. It was covered in eggs, flour, all over the car and said ‘don’t park here you paki’ this, that and the other. This was before the Skeete fight.
“It was my first direct encounter and from then I’ve had it from here, there and everywhere but now it comes down to understanding where I want to be and what I want to give back.
“It comes down to how mentally strong you are and who you have around you. I’ve been blessed. You’ve got to remember that Khan was the first British Pakistani in the public eye like that so the level he must have got must have been crazy. But at the same time he represented Great Britain in the Olympics and he gave something back to Great Britain. Hopefully one day, if I do win a world title, I can almost give that back as well.”
Sheeraz is now over a year into his American dream and joins a long list of British and Irish fighters to have crossed the Atlantic on a more permanent basis in search of glory. Khan, of course, was one of those.
Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Gym, where the Bolton man spent countless weeks and months in training, is just one spot where Sheeraz can be found sparring during camp.
His fight this weekend, against Francisco Torres at the Copper Box, is the fourth of his union with Ricky Funez, the head coach at another of LA’s famous gyms, Ten Goose Boxing. Things are starting to click but it has not been easy.
“Prior to a fight I do 10 weeks in LA and then I do the last two weeks back in the UK to acclimatise,” Sheeraz explains. “It’s great. This is my fourth camp with him, three camps have been hard because he doesn’t know me as a fighter. I have my off days sparring and I have my off days training – it’s all part of being a fighter.
“Obviously it can be frustrating – that coach and fighter relationship – and if you ask him I’m sure he’d say the same thing. But this camp has been so much easier because he understands me as a fighter and I understand him as a coach. The good thing is that in our down time we respect each other’s privacy. We’re not ones who are on top of each other praising each other.”
Sheeraz, instead, ploughs a lone furrow away from the gym and it is put to him that many British boxers in his position have struggled with the culture shift in LA, despite the weather and beaches.
“Honestly I feel it a lot,” he says of the isolation in LA. “Say you go out and get chatting to someone, I have to repeat myself about 10 times. The good thing is when I go out with Ricky he kind of translates for me.
“In the Valley I’m quite isolated so I’m not near the beaches and everything which means all I really do, no joke, go to the gym, come back and sleep then go to my S&C gym. The only time we go out is on a Sunday when we go for a bit of shopping or a bit of food. That’s it for 10 weeks.
“It’s either two or three sessions a day so if I can get a nap in I will. I’ll get my food in, do a bit of reading and that’s my day done. It would be a bit different if I was just here on my own but I’ve got my sponsors sending me out here so it would be an insult if I didn’t apply myself completely. That helps my focus, knowing that it’s someone else’s investment in me to be here.”
And how does the training compare to what he was used to back in England?
“I thought I was training hard back home but when I came here for the first camp it was a shock to my system,” he admits. “I would go home after sessions sometimes and think ‘is this really what I want to do?’ I wasn’t quite doubting myself but I was realising the levels.
“I’ve adjusted to it now, thank God, but back in England I thought I was training hard but I really wasn’t.”
Sheeraz speaks with a confidence and thoughtfulness that belies his 23 years. But then again, the kid who signed professional terms on his 18th birthday has always been ahead of his time. There are some parallels there with Khan, no question.
“He was a wild child, it’s not a secret,” Sheeraz smiles. “And he still is. He wore his heart on his sleeve. But I’m more reserved, I hardly ever go out. If anything I’m a bit boring to be fair but I just want to make my mark in the ring.”