May 6, 2021

David Starie on what happened against Joe Calzaghe, a terrifying brain infection and why he rejected Matchroom

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David Starie tells Bernard O’Shea about his infamous contest with Joe Calzaghe, the brain infection that terrified him, why he rejected a deal with Matchroom and the night he won a title fight then put out a flaming caravan at 4am

IN January 2000 the so-called “Baddest Man on the Planet” landed in England and stayed for a fortnight. In between kissing babies, posing for photos, lavish shopping sprees, a brush with the Immigration Service and the mass hysteria caused during his visit to Brixton, Mike Tyson took just enough time out of his busy schedule to dispatch British heavyweight champion, Julius Francis, in two rounds at the MEN Arena in Manchester. The chief-support that night was Joe Calzaghe’s fifth defence of his WBO super-middleweight title against Britain’s David Starie. It was Calzaghe’s debut on American TV with Showtime broadcasting the fight in the US. With the scene set to impress, the Newbridge southpaw did exactly the opposite.

Calzaghe laboured to a painfully dull unanimous points victory and the fight drew boos and slow handclaps from the 21,000 fans in attendance. The Guardian said the fight was “a messy, mauling bore” while Boxing Monthly described Starie as “lacking purpose and self-belief”. Promoter Frank Warren was visibly annoyed as the verdict was announced and in his post-fight interview with Sky Sports, an angry Calzaghe said of his opponent, “This guy didn’t want to fight, he just came to hold and survive.”

It seemed strange that Starie, a decorated former amateur and the British and Commonwealth champion, would surrender an opportunity for a world title so meekly. “Nobody asked me what happened with the fight and to be labelled as someone who just turned up was deeply upsetting for me,” Starie tells Boxing News.

Starie threw his first punch in the ring as an 11-year-old in Hurstlea/Kerridge amateur boxing club. His coach Barry James owned a hardware shop in Needham Market and he would invite his young protégé over to watch videos of Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano, Floyd Patterson and Mike Tyson. It wasn’t long before the education started to pay off. He had a successful amateur career, winning the ABA light-middleweight and middleweight titles in 1993 and 1994 before the lure of the professional ranks proved too hard to resist.

“I was the ABA champion, but I had no money,” explains Starie. “You weren’t paid in those days. I had a part-time job but I was struggling to work and train five days a week. Ian Irwin, who was in charge of the England team, told me that if I stayed amateur I would get picked for the Commonwealth Games but I just thought it was time to go professional.”

Starie was initially approached by Barry Hearn to turn over. He travelled to London to finalise his contract, if he signed he would have taken up residence in the ‘Matchroom Villa,’ a sprawling two-storey house that accommodated Hearn’s stable of fighters. It had a communal kitchen, a television room and a series of bedrooms. Some nights up to 13 fighters were known to have slept under its roof. “I walked in there and I didn’t get a vibe or a feeling that I liked. It just wasn’t me,” explains Starie. “I sat down opposite Barry Hearn and I said, ‘Sorry this ain’t for me and I haven’t signed the contract’.”

Starie instead linked up with trainer Gordon Holmes and promoter Frank Maloney. He made his professional debut in September 1994 with a stoppage of journeyman Paul Murray. In his 14th fight he defeated Belfast’s Sam Storey in seven rounds for the vacant British 168lbs title. “To have a Lonsdale Belt, and to win it outright was one of my main goals,” says Starie. “The Lonsdale Belt has always held great significance for me because of its history. To win it in York Hall was an amazing feeling. I had boxed there maybe 10 or 15 times as an amateur and I felt at home. It was an amazing night.”

The jubilation was to be short-lived, however. Prior to the Storey fight the British Boxing Board of Control had ordered that the winner must defend the title against Dean Francis within 90 days. At the time, Francis was in red hot form, he had stopped his last seven opponents including an emphatic thumping of Cornelius Carr in a fight Francis would later call the most complete performance of his career. Starie had beaten Francis as an amateur en route to winning his first ABA title, but events overtook his fight preparations.

“I don’t like to make excuses,” says Starie, “but everything was wrong. Four days after I beat Storey my wife had our first child. It turns your life upside down, not just physically but emotionally. I couldn’t go to training camp because I didn’t want to let her down. I could have pulled out and cited an injury, but I never did that. I shouldn’t have boxed Dean Francis at the time. I wasn’t ready, but I did and I was beaten.”

Alongside his boxing he was also working as a retained firefighter to make ends meet. “One evening I boxed for the British title, travelled home, and at 4am I was putting out a fire in a caravan.”

Starie bounced back from the loss to Francis and two fights later he was challenging the future IBF light-heavyweight titlist, Clinton Woods, for the Commonwealth strap at 168lbs. The pair had history: Woods had served as Starie’s sparring partner in his preparation for Francis. “Clinton was all over me in sparring, he completely dominated me which didn’t do a lot for my confidence at the time – but what he didn’t know was he was boxing someone who wasn’t at their best.”

Inside a prize ring, Starie produced a masterful exhibition, winning 117-113 on referee John Keane’s scorecard. Starie then put together a six-fight winning streak and became a two-time British super-middleweight champion when he stopped Ali Forbes in the 11th round for the title vacated by Francis. He won the Lonsdale Belt outright with a third round stoppage of Willie Quinn in January 1999.

Frustration followed when three potential world title challenges collapsed that year – against Richie Woodhall, Sven Ottke and Joe Calzaghe. Starie was also taking a beating in the press for substandard performances in the ring; first he was drawn into a ghastly brawl with Mark Baker in June 1999, then he was taken the distance by the squat Georgian Teimouraz Kikelidze in a dreary affair four months later. “The banging I received from the media at that time was thoroughly deserved,” admits Starie, “but at least it resulted in Calzaghe’s people re-approaching us.”

The Calzaghe fight proved to be a low-point in Starie’s career. The Welshman had been dogged by injuries to his elbow, wrist and hand in his two previous fights. He was unable to spar and it showed in his performance against Starie. Even so, the challenger knew straight away he was up against it.

“Calzaghe was an accurate, fast, world-class fighter but early on in the fight I knew he was better than me,” explains Starie. “I was throwing punches and he was countering them but I didn’t feel I was out of the fight.”

Starie’s plan was to draw Calzaghe on to him and exert pressure in the later rounds when it was hoped the champion would tire. His trainer Gordon Holmes maintained he had to adopt a more cautious approach after he sustained a deep cut to his right eye in the sixth round. However, it was the post-fight comments from the champion that hurt Starie the most.

“Calzaghe came up to me at the end of the fight and he said, ‘You’ve got power, you’re awkward and you’re going to be a world champion,’ but a few days later he slated me in the press. I have never got into the ring and not tried to win. I’m aware it was a stinker of a fight – but I did what I thought was right. If I had fought aggressively I would have been knocked out. Calzaghe is the best fighter this country has produced but he felt my power and that’s why he didn’t walk through me. He had a lot to lose that night because it was his first fight on American TV and if he could have got rid of me that night he would have.”

Starie responded to the disappointment of the Calzaghe loss in the best way he could, by notching nine consecutive stoppage victories. This led to a date with Markus Beyer for the interim WBC title but, when Beyer pulled out at the last minute through injury, Starie was forced to defend his Commonwealth championship against Andre Thysse in South Africa. “I had to get back in the ring for financial reasons, I ended up going to South Africa and I cocked things up. I honestly don’t know what happened, the training was perfect, I felt strong but at the end of the first round I had nothing in the tank. It was nothing but pure pride that kept me on my feet for 12 rounds.”

Starie visited the canvas twice in round nine and looked to be out on his feet in round 11. Things would soon get even worse.

Starie complained of severe headaches in the aftermath. They were so intense he asked a family member to remain by his side, fearing he had suffered a brain injury. Back in England a few days later he visited a doctor who suspected a bleed on the brain and rushed him to the hospital.

“I never experienced pain like it in my life,” explains Starie “I thought I was going to die, it was like someone was shoving knives into my head.”

Fortunately the doctor’s fears were not realised, the pain was attributed to an infection and Starie was given the all clear to resume his boxing career.

Starie would have one final hurrah on the world stage, dropping a points decision to the undefeated WBA and IBF champion Sven Ottke in Germany in June 2003. Another world title shot, another loss to a fighter destined to retire undefeated.

“I had already accepted a full-time post with the fire service. It wasn’t about the money it was about the title. It didn’t happen though, I came home and that was it.”

Today, Starie continues in his role as a full-time firefighter, alongside his role as a Fire Liaison Officer at West Suffolk College.

“When I look back on my boxing career I imagine it was a house that I had built from the foundations up since I was 11 years old. Every fight was a brick in that house and I only had one brick to add, my world title, everything else I was happy with, but I had to walk away without putting that brick in. It was a difficult but I knew it was time to walk away.”

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