Updated: Oct 15, 2020
‘All I want is for my fighter to be honest with me, to talk to me, and we are going to get results.’
Whilst a global sport, at its essence boxing still remains a subculture rooted in the specificity of place and the particularity of location. Fanbases remain tribal and rivalries territorial; styles idiosyncratic to the shifting influences and distinct experiences that forge them; the situational character of a space, influencing the consciousness of those burghers incumbent within it, and manifesting in circumstantial thoughts, behaviours and attitudes – personality evolving through psychogeography.
Nowhere is this more evident than when you think of London and its current-to-relatively-recent boxing scene. Amongst the names which rise in association when you think of England’s capital, in pugilistic circles there is one which rises with increasing regularity above all others; one which arose firstly during the 1960s and which has spanned the city and each successive decade since, to current, present day. Yes, the name ‘Tibbs’, a synecdoche label beneath which lies a family boxing history best described as dynastic, and one which is thus gravid with success, knowledge, and proven boxing pedigree.
Father Jimmy and son Mark were each fighters before both becoming trainers; and whilst the obvious spoils, applause and media attention still tends to be predominantly boxer-orientated, within the close-knit coterie of the boxing fraternity, they remain respected, highly-regarded and renown as successful trainers who are/were (Jimmy is now retired) able to exorcise the very best out of those committed enough to follow their tuition. I recently spoke to Mark to discuss his life and role as a trainer, and to shine a light upon this essential facet of boxing, which is a dark artform not otherwise, often celebrated.
We start at the very beginning of the journey and what qualities, as a trainer, he is looking for in a fighter before deciding whether to ‘take them on’:
‘Well it’s always nice if they [a fighter] have pedigree. You can then get a sense and an overall picture from that. But the longer you are in this game as a trainer, by spending a bit of time with them, talking to them and doing a bit of training with them, you get to know what sort of fighter they are, what kind of level they are at and what kind of level they are able to reach. [...] The things you are mainly looking for are whether the fighter can respond to instructions and whether he or she can understand those instructions? Do they understand what’s in front of them and how to approach the threat in front of them? The longer you have been in this business, like anything, the better you get at it. Some fighters learn quicker than others and some just can’t get to certain levels, and you get to know that.’
In his 2014 autobiography, Jimmy Tibbs stated that due to the widening, stylistic divergence between the codes of professional and amateur boxing, amateur boxers who now turn professional have a much bigger technical gap to bridge in order to become professionally successful. Therefore, I ask Mark whether amateur pedigree is indeed indicative of future professional success:
‘Every fighter has a different level. I have taken on very, very good amateurs at the top of their game who simply can’t take it. And when they can’t you feel as though you’ve wasted three of four years of life in giving that to them, but you’ve learned along the way and you’ve gained experience along the way. At some point, in every case, at the death of it, you have to give each fighter a little test, and when you give them that test, they may just be having a bad day. And you don’t necessarily offload them straight away or part company with them; you keep going and going until usually you eventually feel like, “I was right. I should have picked this up a little while ago.” But fighters, they are all different. They are all very, very different.’
Different and diverse they have indeed been. Working as a trainer since 2008, Mark has been responsible for coaching fighters across all levels, from regional successes all the way to national, European and world champions. Of those he has worked with, in both his own and during his father’s training camps, who is the one fighter that stands out at the best he has worked with, and why?
‘I can’t pick just one… Let me think. There are three that stand out: Dillian Whyte, Billy Joe Saunders and Frank Buglioni. Why? Let’s take each in turn. Dillian Whyte has a great worth ethic and he is very, very clever, especially considering the amateur pedigree that he doesn’t have, you know what I’m saying? Billy Joe Saunders, regardless of the history with his weight management and the problems he has had with making weight, he is a phenomenal boxer, a phenomenal worker.
I’ve hit pain barriers with him trying to get weight off that you just wouldn’t believe. He is one tough, skilful son of a bitch. A phenomenal trainer, who is such a naturally skilful fighter that he knows what you are going to do before you do it. When we gave him instructions, he instantly knew why we were doing what we were doing and he understood and trusted everything we were doing. Frank Buglioni, he wasn’t the most skilful fighter, but he was intelligent and he was a phenomenal grafter. A really good student of the game. He done so well; he over-exceeded all of my expectations.’
Of those three, Frank Buglioni is now retired, having become the Southern Area, British (light-heavyweight), European and WBA International super middleweight champion; Billy Joe Saunders has reunited once again with trainer Ben Davison, and Mark and Dillian continue to work together, plotting the Jamaica-born, south Londoner's route to a world heavyweight title – and it is in this current working relationship for which Mark is now most commonly known. Working together since 2016, following Whyte’s only professional loss – to domestic rival and current IBF, WBA and WBO world champion, Anthony Joshua – the two boast an undefeated 9-0 record, which has since seen Dillian ascend to become the WBC Interim heavyweight champion and the number 1 contender and mandatory challenger for Tyson Fury’s full version of the WBC heavyweight title. Recalling those nine fights and those nine shared successes, which has been Mark’s favourite with Dillian thus far?
‘My favourite night…look, well, every fight you have with him [Dillian] is always exciting and always different. Every night has been good, but if I have to pick one, the Rivas fight was the best for me. Because I really felt that after he got over the Rivas fight, that he’s really, really ready for anybody. Because before that, two or three fights before that, there was a lot of talk of him fighting Deontay Wilder and all the other two or three at the top. But for me as a coach, I was thinking “No, no, no, we are not quite ready yet.” I kept it inside and kept my thoughts to myself because the promoters and fighters were going to talk and sort it out, but I was just hoping and praying that we got over one or two more hurdles before that to get him ready. You know, after the Rivas fight – you know Rivas was a handful; he was young, a handful and hungry – Dillian was ready. He was definitely ready.’
The Rivas fight now stands as a contentious flashpoint for not only serving up an immense performance-high within the ring but for courting sensational controversy outside of it, as during fight week distinguished boxing journalist Thomas Hauser broke a story revealing that Dillian’s ‘A’ blood sample had tested positive for one or more banned substances. News which it was suggested had not been revealed to Rivas’ camp, was subject to an appeal and which was also the subject of a last-minute hearing before the BBBoC (who continued to sanction the fight). Dillian and promoter Eddie Hearn exchanged fraught glances and anxious conversation prior to the prefight press conference, an exchange some of which was captured by an attendant cameraman, and Dillian’s status as the mandatory challenger to then Deontay Wilder’s WBC title was temporarily revoked. Being around Dillian in those moments and an integral member of that camp, I ask Mark for his reminiscence of that time, and whether such overhanging uncertainty, stress, and suspicion ever altered his relationship with his main charge:
‘You know what, I never knew about what was going on until after the fight. Not right after the fight either, but about a week after the fight when all the news started coming out. Until then, I never knew. Obviously, I was a little taken aback and a little bit confused. But after an hour or so I digested it all, and I realised why Dillian and his team – when I’m talking about his team, I mean his managers, etc– kept the information from me, and I’m glad that they did. Because I had Richard Riakporhe in a 50-50 fight; I had another guy, Charlie Duffield, in a 50-50 fight, so I actually had three 50-50 fights on that night. I can understand how and why the team hid all that news from me and looking back, I sit and stand by what they did; and I sit and stand by it now.’
Officially, five months of mostly silence from Dillian and Matchroom followed a void which continued to be filled with media speculation, before Whyte was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing (the errant sample was found to be a result consistent with contamination) in December 2019, a day before he would fight Mariusz Wach on the Anthony Joshua-Andy Ruiz Jr undercard. Whyte had spoken once to the press in the build-up, releasing a statement which ran in The Sun, The Times and The Mirror, and articulated the stress that he was feeling as a direct result of living under these allegations of wrongdoing, the protracted subsequent investigations which followed, and the frustration of desperately wanting to clear both his name and rescue his now stricken public reputation. He weighed in for the Wach fight at a career-high 271.1lbs (19.4 stone), though given the unideal build up and tumultuous distractions surrounding this fight, was it a contest that as a team they were ever reticent or reluctant towards taking?
‘Going into that fight, I was around Dillian, training him and ticking him over. You know, as a team we kept around Dillian to keep his spirits up. There was talk of maybe a run out in America, but then the Saudi job came up on short notice, maybe a month beforehand. We wanted to keep Dillian on the winning track. With all the negativity going on, we knew and felt that he was licensed to fight and that it wouldn’t hurt him. Weight-wise, I wasn’t happy with the weight, but I knew he could handle Mariusz Wach if he boxes well; you know, centre balance and top half, like you should fight, and not on the backfoot. You know, you can’t fight rangier punchers on the backfoot. But I also knew from my sources that Wach was in training, and that he had been in training for a fight somewhere else in the world. So he was ready; he was definitely ready for us, and that was always in the back of my mind. My back was against the ropes a bit, so to speak, in taking that fight, but looking back I am glad we did take it because of all the positive news that came out whilst we were out there. It turned out to be a good experience for us.’
Mark speaks with a refreshing, unassuming directness that is good humoured, sincere, and completely free from artifice. I decided to break from the formality of the interview and take advantage of his good humour by sating my own curiosity and asking a question I have long since pondered: just what was he thinking during the press conference for Whyte vs Chisora as Derek launched a table in the direction of Dillian, and consequently towards Mark himself and the rest of the Whyte team?
‘[Laughs] Well when the table came up, I was concerned for Adam Smith who was so close to Derek at the time and with Derek being so volatile. My concern was for Adam Smith, not so much for Eddie [Hearn], because he’s a big old boy and he’s strong. I’m not saying that Adam isn’t, but Eddie’s big and strong, and he sort of lifted his arm up and guided the table along. I was also concerned with Dillian, but thankfully he didn’t even move. I think he was still smiling and looking the other way. […] You know what, as well, I had a lot of cash below my feet at the time, in ticket money which I needed to pay into Matchroom Boxing, so I’m also concerned about the money beneath my feet, because I definitely did not want to be losing that. But you know, just a word on Derek, he’s a real showman. He’s good; he’s serious. But I like Derek. He helped me out once before with sparring and moving around with a cruiserweight I was looking after, and he was a real gentleman. A couple of weeks after our fight as well, I bumped into him at a Rolling Stones concert. I was running to the entrance as I was late and I ran right into Derek. I actually thought “oh no, it’s going to go off now”, but he gave me a high five and he was really cool about everything; he was really, really cool.’
From that bathetic segue back into the sober world of professional boxing training, and the criticisms that trainers can receive in instances where they are deemed too slow or tardy to pull their fighters out of contests in which they have begun to take excessive, unnecessary punishment. As a trainer, does Mark have a predetermined process by which to pull his fighters out of these punitive positions, and does he ever discuss the occurrence of this undesirable possibility with any of his fighters beforehand:
‘No, we never talk about it. And I’ve been in that situation a few times, and it’s something that my gut, my gut sense and experience tells me what to do, and when to do, if I have to. You have to remember that I know how strong they really are, these fighters. I know each and every one of them. I know how mentally strong, how physically strong and how big their heart is. So it’s about timing… Yes, I’ll get the odd one who’ll say, “Never pull me out, etc,” but I do what I want, what I want to do and what I feel is right for the safety of my fighter.’
An aforementioned ex-professional fighter with a record of 22-2-1, I ask whether that cumulative experience helps Mark in making these above decisions, and indeed whether being an ex-fighter advantages him in his current role as a trainer:
‘I can only speak for myself, but with regards to it developing me as a trainer, it certainly helped. Emotionally, I have felt what it is like to be a fighter, which has helped me to be a coach and a trainer. There are a lot of successful old trainers out there who were never fighters, Angelo Dundee etc, but it definitely helped me. I mean, there was stuff that I felt as a fighter myself which I never exploited, and now I can warn my younger fighters of those situations and to guard against them, if you know what I mean?’
What mistakes is he talking about?
‘There’s a lot of people today; too many cooks spoiling the broth, and that’s a shame. Things are very simple if you keep them simple.’
Entourages and things of that nature, the retinue of followers and ‘hangers on’ that have plagued fighters for time immemorial?
‘Yes. The earhole blowers. They’ve been about and they ain’t going nowhere; the earhole blowers, cheerleaders and the people that want to jump in on the back end of the business end, the end of the bandwagon. The fighter has to listen and look up to one head coach only. You can’t have two or more masters. As a trainer, it’s all about balance and it’s about controlling things and doing them right. You have to be a strong coach. Take the relationship between trainers and strength and conditioning approaches and coaches today: they want what they want out of their sessions, but they don’t understand what it is like having a 12-round fight with three minutes a round and one minute rest. I mean, with mental pressure. So you have to balance these things out and guide fighters correctly. You have to use boxer-specific workouts and train with fighting in mind, and the importance of a head trainer is managing everything and making sure that this happens. With Dillian now, he has Pete [Marcasiano] and Ruben [Tabares] as his strength and nutrition coaches, who in my opinion have been the best we’ve had because of their history with boxing and they understand boxers [both have previously worked with David Haye]. My first meeting with them and talking with them was absolute bliss.’
But what of the highs of being a fighter, and how do they compare to those he now experiences as a trainer?
‘The highs of being a fighter…? [Laughs] Well it’s really nice when you crack someone on the chin, yeh. It’s beautiful. It’s really nice; it’s almost spiritual actually when you crack someone with a two or three-shot combination on point and with distance and timing. It’s a great feeling. But obviously, when Dillian wins in good fashion at the o2 with a sell-out crowd it is equally, if not more, I must say, of a high.’
And for those reading who wish to chase that same high and work their way to the same sell-out, championship mountaintop, what advice would Mark give you in helping you to accomplish that aspiration?
‘You need to live it. You have to breathe it. You have to live and breathe boxing and make it your number one priority in your life. It’s a very, very small window and you’ve got to be very, very selfish. It’s my job to identify the heart, brainpower, skillset, and toughness of a fighter, and to develop these, but as a fighter you need to have a lot of all of these ingredients to make it to the very, very top.’
Having made it as a fighter and now as a trainer, one can see that Mark Tibbs, like his father Jimmy, imbued with the character and synonymous with London’s East End itself, is not shy in his ample possession of each of these pedigree ingredients.