James Metcalf was shielded from the sport at an early age but that didn’t stop him from wanting to follow in his famous father’s footsteps, writes Chris Walker
A YOUNG James Metcalf wasn’t allowed to attend his father’s fights. As Shea Neary planted the seeds for a Liverpool boxing boom that would later be watered by the likes of Derry Mathews, Tony Bellew and the Smith brothers, Metcalf would have to make do with watching his dad on television as he threatened to become one of Britain’s biggest fight stars at the turn of the millennium.
A WBU champion at 140lbs, a belt not widely accepted as a legitimate championship but one nonetheless worn with pride after he took it from American veteran Darryl Tyson, Neary was on the cusp of the big time before his city was ready to host his rise. Without a local arena – the waterfront venue wasn’t even at the planning stage back then – Neary’s promoters had to get creative to cash in on the fighter’s immense popularity.
Stanley Park, famed for its no man’s land reputation between the footballing battlegrounds of Anfield and Goodison Park, became the site for one of Liverpool’s all-time classics as Neary went to war with local rival Andy Holligan in March 1998. A grand marquee housed ITV cameras as Liverpool’s latest boxing hero impressed in front of a midweek terrestrial audience. Metcalf, a schoolboy at the time, can remember the frustrations of his sitting room vantage point as his father went to work.
“They were all good nights but I just wish I was able to go,” reflects Metcalf, days out from his imminent British title challenge against Ted Cheeseman. “My dad was very firm on his decision not to let me go and no matter what I said, he wouldn’t change his mind. I’d promise to be good and to behave myself, and not open my mouth, but there was nothing I could do to persuade him. I look back at his career and some of the fights he was involved in and I’m gutted that I wasn’t able to be there as he was always in boss fights.”
Neary was on the verge of the big time, with potential fights in America looming when Micky Ward came along at the start of 2000. Their memorable clash, an education in the art of body attacks, was decided by Ward’s own devastating ability to assault his opponent’s midsection. The fight would later receive Hollywood treatment thanks to Mark Wahlberg’s portrayal of Ward in The Fighter, but for Neary, it was a result that crushed his hopes of hitting the big time.
Facing Eamonn Magee later that year, Neary was defeated for the second time in three fights when a controversial points verdict was handed to the Belfast man. “The Shamrock Express” would never fight again.
Despite being unable to watch his hero from close quarters, the boxing bug had bitten Metcalf. A student at Liverpool’s legendary Salisbury boxing club as an amateur, Metcalf, with the help of the coaches at ‘The Solly’ and also lending the guidance of his dad, went from being ‘Shea Neary’s lad’ to ABA champion in 2011 with a dominant display over the more experienced Tom Baker. He would soon turn professional, 11 years after his father’s final bout.
“It was the right time to go over. I’d been in gyms since I was a young lad with the end goal being to turn pro and once I had an ABA title then it seemed like the best time to crack on with the pros. You hear it said a lot about people having a pro style whilst in the amateurs but that’s true for me because of the way I’ve been raised and the fighters I’ve been around since I was a young lad. The plan for me wasn’t a load of amateur titles. It was to turn pro and win the big belts that way.”
With his apprenticeship complete, and with his shot at the British title approaching, Metcalf has grand ambitions to use the Cheeseman fight as a platform towards the type of showdowns he has dreamed of since mimicking his father as a child. Where Cheeseman represents a significant step up from the likes of Damon Jones, Serge Ambomo and Jason Welborn, the standout names on Metcalf’s ledger, the steely Liverpudlian believes it’s a fight he’s long been ready for.
“I’ve wanted tests like this for a long time because I know how good I am,” he said. “I’ve got my dad looking out for me and there’s Georgie [Schofield], the man who looked after my dad and who knows the boxing inside out. There’s nothing he doesn’t know. The two of them are honest with me and they know I have what it takes to win titles. Cheeseman is a fight that I always had a feeling would happen and it doesn’t matter when it took place, I always believed I would win and now I have the chance to prove it.”
Heading to Gibraltar, Metcalf, a frequent fixture on Frank Warren’s BT Sport shows, will fight on his maiden Matchroom event thanks to Eddie Hearn’s winning purse bid. Fully aware he’s the ‘away fighter’ against Cheeseman – a regular show-stealer on Sky Sports broadcasts – Metcalf light-heartedly raised a concern.
“A few of the recent scorecards have got me worried,” joked Metcalf with a rare laugh. “But I can’t worry about judges or controversy because I know I’ve prepared the best I possibly can. Cheeseman is a good fighter and he’s been involved in some good fights that I’ve enjoyed watching. Whether that’s putting miles on his clock is another thing but I’m preparing for the best ever version of Ted Cheeseman and there’ll be no excuses from me on the night.”
Victory over Cheeseman will propel Metcalf at 154lbs but it’s closer to home where he may ultimately prove himself. Liam Smith is firmly established at world level and Anthony Fowler is currently demonstrating the type of form that could take him there.
“It’s good that there’s talk of going in with such names because the other fighters from where I’m from can obviously fight,” he said. “It’s natural that there’s going to be talk about fights in the future because that’s what happens in boxing isn’t it? I’m not that lad who’s going to start calling out names because I’d rather do it in the ring but for now I have to just look at Cheeseman. It’s a chance that’s been a long time coming for me so It’d be wrong to think about other fighters. Cheeseman has my full attention for now and after that fight we’ll see what’s out there.”