Participation in boxing was once reserved, almost exclusively, for the poor. Young men brutalised by their environment were saved – and often exploited – by the sport. Gruelling runs in the dead of night, endless sparring with injuries, risking death for meagre pay to line another man’s pockets: these were the cruel options left to the poor that no comfortable person would endure. For every Sugar Ray Leonard – a handsome, articulate fighter from a stable background – a dozen men shared a story like Iran Barkley. The mean-looking Bronx native was born into desperate poverty, raised within a notorious street gang and escaped prison or death only through the discipline of boxing.
But that image has changed over the last two decades. The stereotype of the terrifying, ugly, ferocious boxer has been repeatedly challenged, if not entirely smashed. You’re as likely now to meet a mild-mannered athlete as you are an intimidating brawler. What is less clear, at least to me, is the motivation of these modern boxers who are not economically obliged to fight for their lives.
These questions rushed to me as I watched Dean Sutherland fight earlier in the year. The 20 year-old Aberdonian appeared young, bright and trendy. He could likely seek employment in a number of other fields or pursue higher education. His natural ability suggested he could have taken up other, less brutal, sports. And his post-match conversation was as articulate and insightful as his performance was impressive. What, then, drove him to dedicate his life to boxing? I tracked Dean down earlier this month to explore.
“I had a really good childhood, great family. I started combat sports at the age of three, my mum and dad took me along to Taekwondo because I had far too much energy and I had to put it somewhere. I absolutely loved watching the Power Rangers and re-enacting it – lots of pillows and furniture got smashed! – and so we decided to start there to let loose. I was progressing well and entered my first competition at the age of five and came away with two gold medals. That set the bar, I knew from there I was going to be a fighter.
At the age of nine I was struggling to get competitions, I had won everything I entered, and so my coach suggested kickboxing as they have tournaments more frequently. I went to the world championships at ten and expected to get an absolute pasting but again came away with two golds. It was such a good experience travelling abroad with the full squad. I really enjoyed it, and from winning that I just knew that I wanted to be a fighter for the rest of my life. Every championship I went to after that I came away with gold medals.
As I matured I did a little bit of amateur boxing to improve my hands. I always had a passion for boxing but just didn’t have the technique or boxer’s brain at the time. But growing up my idols were Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather and Roy Jones Jnr and my passion just grew and grew. I always knew that I was going to move to boxing – it was just a matter of when.”
Sutherland’s words resonate. We regularly hear fighters discuss their passion for the sport. But what continued to evade my understanding was how someone can withstand such physical and mental pain – which is inherent in the sport – without compulsion. It takes a special character to dedicate their lives to this game, sacrificing their best years for our entertainment. Dean continued:
“Juggling everything can be difficult. It’s hard to get the combination of work, training and family right. I work full time as an apprentice electrician and we’re in the middle of a hectic contract. I’m up at 4.30 most mornings for my run, and I train three times a week in Dundee, three times a week in Aberdeen for strength and conditioning, and at least once a month down in Glasgow.
Of course, no one wants to get up at that time but this is what I want to do with my life, forever. You know that the full-time professionals are training twice a day so I need to sacrifice. If it means I have to give up sleep or other things then that’s fine, training has to come first.
That’s another reason I left kickboxing. It’s almost like a dying-out sport, there’s a lot more opportunities in boxing and MMA. When you get older you have to think about money and your commitments. You have to make your training worth it. In kickboxing I could be training for 12 weeks solid for fights, spending loads of money, and then actually losing money by the end of it. So you have to start recognising your hard work and worth.”
There are thousands of young professionals up and down the country with ability and dedication. Sutherland possesses those and then some. But often more is needed to realise potential and reach the top. There is an entire support system operating around Sutherland that has allowed him to prosper in his first year. He is trained by a martial artist experienced in both boxing and kickboxing, which has developed his movement, versatility and sharpened his natural skill. There are regular sessions with a Scottish boxing legend down in Glasgow, passing on wisdom and focusing on specific attributes. And there’s Kynoch Boxing, a dynamic and ambitious promotional outfit that already recognises how bright the future could be. Dean elaborated:
“When you have a group around you that supports you and believes in you then it really does push you on. I’ve got the best team possible up here and down in Glasgow.
Normally when I come down to Glasgow I spend time with Gary Jacobs. Working with Gary is absolutely brilliant, we spend a lot of time speaking about the game, and he’s a great example that coming from a small place like Scotland if you’re willing to put in the hard graft then you can achieve what you set out to.
I mostly train in Skyaxe gym in Dundee and my coach is Paul Kean Snr. It’s a great gym – the lads have come from kickboxing, we went to world championships together, been there through the good times and bad.
It’s a really nice blend between Paul and Gary. Gary does a lot of work on inside fighting, showing me how to really punish boys when they’re up against the ropes. And with Paul in Dundee a lot of the work we do is about movement, hit and not getting hit. It’s the perfect combination – you’re able to move around the ring freely and also catch them and get them out of there.
On top of that, my family and girlfriend are really supportive. My girlfriend gets up early and has my breakfast ready after my run, helps a lot with my meal prep and sorting my kit. She’s so understanding during camps, and I try to make it up to her after the fights!
It’s important for me that the money I make from boxing goes towards us. We’re a team – I don’t think I’d manage without them.”
Sutherland has the fire of an old school fighter but embraces the modern way. Fighters of previous generations trained to the plans of mentors, and were guided through experience and instinct. Modern athletes now have access to individually tailored scientific programmes to aid their development. Dean attends Robert Gordon University for evidenced-based strength and conditioning sessions each week. To grasp and engage in that process at such an early stage in his career is encouraging.
Similarly, the way boxing is promoted has dramatically changed over the years. The popularity and accessibility of the modern game has led to a saturation of young fighters turning over to the professional ranks. Every town has a venue where young hopefuls are picking up victories over experienced journeymen. It takes creativity and a commitment to self-promotion to stand out. Skill is, cruelly, not enough.
Sutherland has this year launched his own website, recorded professional videos for his multiple social media channels, and secured interviews on traditional and new media platforms. The dedication to hone his skills is matched by an understanding of marketability. And that is an essential, potent combination.
“Social media is huge just now to promote yourself. From the bottom to the top of the sport. Even the big money fights are arranged on social media. It has a massive impact, not only to create fights but to make money and boost your profile. My dad got a touch with a [videographer] and we did a really good video for promotion. Some people might say it’s a wee bit cheesy to make videos when you’re only 3-0, but you have to be aware of the business side of things. I’m aiming not only to reach friends and family, but to build a brand on social media, and really put myself out there.”
Yet, even with all the impressive modern benefits, and indeed spirit, little would matter if Sutherland did not possess quality. I watched recordings of his first two contests against Edagha and Trizno, and saw him outpoint experienced veteran Kevin McCauley at ringside. There is naturally a lot to learn through experience gained from tougher opposition, but as a young boxer in his first year – the potential is immense. Sutherland has outstanding movement, gliding and rotating around the ring making others look robotic. His work-rate and creativity is endless. And there is an end product to the dazzling moments of skill – as a vicious uppercut to break the nose of McCauley in his last bout confirmed.
Sutherland stands out in a world of seemingly countless boxers. They are as common as food selfies on Instagram with varying levels of authenticity. Dean understands the game, and the role that media plays, while remaining genuine. There is style and substance, quality and marketability, and – what I find most interesting – is that he embodies the modern approach with a real old school mentality. The story of the troubled youth being saved by boxing remains inspiring. But the sport now includes a variety of characters and, increasingly, young men and women who dedicate their lives to it because of their passion and ability, as opposed to economic necessity. In a game where sacrifice, injury and pain is demanded, that too is extraordinary.
We ended our conversation with Dean looking to the future:
“I want to fight as much as possible in 2019, go into training full time and hopefully after the summer work towards a title – a Scottish or Celtic belt. I am someone that loves a challenge and if there are higher stakes then I rise to the occasion. I understand that a lot of people after a few fights think they’re going to reach world level, but I truly believe in myself and I will become world class. I still have a lot to learn, but with the team I have around me I know I can achieve my dreams.”
See Dean fight live on Friday November 30 at the Kynoch Boxing show in Glasgow. He is facing his toughest opponent yet – Vinny Atkins from Yorkshire who boasts a record of 5-1.