In a year largely locked down by a global pandemic Maxi Hughes tells John Evans how he’s managed to break out
EVERYBODY thought they knew Maxi Hughes. He was a good lad and a hard night’s work. A real pro who would always give his best but fall just short. The classic nearly man.
Even BoxRec list his alias as “Maximus”, assuming his moniker is inspired by the vengeance seeking Gladiator from the Hollywood film. It isn’t. Daniel Hughes carries the name Maxi into the ring as a tribute to his grandad, a former miner from Rossington in Yorkshire.
Maybe we can be forgiven for making assumptions about the 30-year-old lightweight. After all, after ten years as a professional it seems like Maxi Hughes has finally got to know himself.
“Hang on, mate. I’m just outside emptying my green bin,” Hughes told BN, immediately reinforcing at least one stereotype, that of the down to earth Yorkshireman. “I’ve got a big apple tree in the garden and there’s been that many this year that my Mrs has filled the bin up with them. The bin men don’t take them these days if they’re too heavy so I’m sorting it out.
“Couple of weeks ago I was in Caesars Palace in Dubai, this week I’m sorting the bins out.”
Hughes might secretly be enjoying a mundane few days catching up on household chores. For the first time in his career he has no worries about where his next opportunity will come from or what he will have to do to earn it. Life changed this summer.
After impressively stopping Scott Quigg, Jono Carroll needed an opponent who would help maintain the momentum he had created. In the harsh terms of boxing, he needed somebody to keep him sharp and help him look good. It was decided that good old Maxi would be the ideal man for the job.
The respect of the boxing world is nice to have but Hughes had decided that after years of near misses he wanted to leave the sport with more than a few slaps on the back and the equivalent of a ‘Clubman of the Year’ trophy. Starting as a massive underdog, he produced the performance of his life to outpoint the Irishman and breathe new life into his career.
That win earned him the invitation to Dubai where the people backing the unbeaten Viktor Kotochigov had also made the mistake of seeing the 30-year-old as a convenient stepping stone. Hughes bettered his Carroll performance, dropping the Khazakh heavily and boxing his way to a comfortable decision.
Years of never saying no, professionalism and perseverance have finally paid dividends.
“Loads of people who’ve been around me – a lot of them well respected in the sport – would tell me that I was good enough to win the British title and go further. I’ve sparred numerous world champs and done so well against them in the gym,” said Hughes, who still works as a painter and decorator, applying the finishing touches to new build properties. “I’d do my own head in over it. I’d be saying to myself, ‘Maxi, everybody thinks you can do it. Why aren’t you putting it together on the night?’
“I used to be a lot worse too. Early on as a pro I had to stop watching my opponents. I could never seem to watch their faults. I only ever saw what they were good at. I’d stick a video on and think, ‘Oh, he’s good at that. Woah, look at that. I’ll have to watch out for that.’ When I was in the fight I’d be looking out for these shots I’d seen them throw and maybe because of my style, they wouldn’t throw them. I’d end up doing nothing and giving fights away because I was waiting for shots and moves to come that never did.
“Maybe it’s just all round maturity and coming to my peak physically and mentally. I do believe massively in the mental side of boxing. A few years ago, I wasn’t the most mentally strong and confident. Coming into the last few fights I’ve had, I have been.”
Until a British title defeat to Sam Bowen in 2018, Hughes was training with Jimmy Harrington in Doncaster and already part of the close knit team which surrounds world featherweight champion Josh Warrington. The defeat to Bowen temporarily sapped his ambition and he decided to concentrate on his day job and an impending house move. When the urge to fight inevitably took hold again, Sean O’Hagan’s base was just ten minutes away from his new home.
Hughes immediately felt at home in the draughty gym on the second floor of a Batley mill and it is no coincidence that his form has improved since he began spending every evening talking and training with people who have achieved what others insisted they never would.
The signs were there during one of his first days at his new gym. He finished a day’s work, drove to training and put in some hard rounds with heavy handed young prospect, Reece Mould. As the session wound down a camera crew homed in on Warrington, leaving an out of focus figure to quietly but diligently go through his core routine in the background. All in all, it was a routine day for Hughes.
O’Hagan, had his eyes firmly on Hughes though. “What do you reckon to young Maxi? Looks good doesn’t he?” he asked. “Definitely got another run in him.
“I had a total hiatus for a few months [after losing to Bowen]. I didn’t even watch any boxing. I was fed up with it all really and wanted a break,” Hughes said. “I just decided to really get stuck into work and was doing all the overtime I could. Eventually I found myself watching a couple of fights and looking at the lads around my weight and started thinking that I still had plenty left to offer.
“If I’d been stepping in with those kids [As well as the losses to Bowen and Walsh, Hughes has come up short in three fights with Martin J. Ward and Scott Cardle] and getting outclassed and it had been clear to see that I wasn’t at that level I’d have had to have a think. That wasn’t the case. It was always only a couple of punches between me getting the decision or losing. Maybe it’s the self belief and an all round maturity. I’m also in a really happy place and enjoy boxing. You can’t put your finger on one thing. It’s a mixture.”
A few months later Hughes would outclass the previously unbeaten Kieron McClaren before stepping up and suffering a hard fought decision loss to Liam Walsh. To an outsider it looked like typical Maxi Hughes form but he had made a believer out of those who saw him day in, day out. Now they just had to help him carry that form into the ring.
The transformation was complete less than a year later. Hughes was at the centre of the gym’s attention as he impressively finished his final sparring session before heading out to Dubai. He even made a little video, politely telling Kotochigov to ‘Get thee sen ready.’ Whether the Kazakh understood the broad Yorkshire accent is one thing but he can’t fail to have noticed the confidence exuding from Hughes.
“Being around Josh and training with him helps, I even drive up to his house and do my runs with him. He really believes in me and it doesn’t get any higher level than that. When he’s telling me I’m gonna win, you have to believe it.
“Once you get a win – I’ve had two fantastic wins in eight weeks – your confidence just grows. Mine is through the roof.
“People might laugh but if the Devin Haney fight came off I’d have it. People might say I’m not at that level but I just know that after a proper training camp and working out a plan, I’ve got a chance against anyone. That’s the fight I’d love. Not only to test myself, but it’d be a right good pay day too. Stranger things have happened. I’ve certainly put the work in over the years and not shied away from any fights. I’m not afraid of anybody so bring on those big fights.”
Until this year, only a select group of people truly believed that Hughes was capable of winning titles. That number is certain to swell given his recent exploits but the one person who was behind Hughes every step of the way won’t get to witness how his career ends. After a life spent working down the pits of South Yorkshire and years spent following his grandson around small halls, leisure centres and arenas, the man whose nickname Hughes proudly carries into battle passed away at the start of the year.
“He was always making people laugh. He was well known for his impressions. During the 1984 picket strike, the coppers were queuing the lads up and he put his hat to the side and started doing his Norman Wisdom,” Hughes remembered. “Even the coppers cracked up. He was a well-loved character and that’s why I named myself after him.
“He always watched me. He used to make me tell him who and when I was fighting and he used to like going on BoxRec with his notepad. He’d write down all his wins and who’d beaten him then ring me up and tell me. I just let him crack on and pretend I was being told for the first time so he felt like he was helping me.
“That’s the one thing that’s gutting for me. I’ve had these massive wins and things are finally starting to go for me and he isn’t here to see it. His words were always, ‘Let’s rock.’ That’s what he used to say to me.”
The government have spent the last few weeks clumsily drumming home the message that the current coronavirus pandemic might well force people to adapt to different roles. After years of near misses Hughes now has a WBC ranking belt and the backing of a major promoter. He even has a few pages dedicated to him in his favourite magazine.
“I sent my mate out after the Carroll fight to get two copies of Boxing News. He didn’t check before he bought them and he rung me to tell me I was gonna be gutted when I saw it. I had a couple of sentences and there was no picture.
“That might change now, hey?”