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.

Decades of training experience captured in one photo. Father and son, Jimmy and Mark Tibbs.

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.’

Trained by Jimmy and lifted by Mark, Billy Joe Saunders becomes the new WBO world middleweight champion.

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 know