Professional Reading-born boxer Michael Sprott is an indelible tributary thread wending through the rich, debouched tapestry that was the British heavyweight boxing scene of the late nineties, noughties and tens.
Turning professional in 1996, under distinguished trainer and manager Terry Lawless, Michael has amassed a professional record of 42-29; 71 fights, which have seen him compete against renowned champions, undefeated prospects, plucky journeymen and fringe contenders not only in Britain but throughout Europe, New Zealand and, more recently, Turkey.
Though he is perhaps best known for the fecund period between 2002-2010, which saw his domestic rivalry with national contemporaries Audley Harrison, Matt Skelton and Danny Williams result in him opposing one of them on eight different occasions; a pugilistic polygon which moved with the unpredictability of a quicksilver carousel, and upon which Michael would ride to become the British (twice), European and Commonwealth heavyweight champion.
Not officially retired – Michael is still looking for one more fight – although he acknowledges that it will not be in Britain, given as it is that he is no longer granted a license by the British Board of Boxing Control – ‘I cannot really go and fight anywhere anymore because of my age. But I’ll get out somewhere. Probably.’ – here, Michael reflects on the biggest nights, and the fights against the biggest names of his enduring career to date; as well as shares an anecdote of such mobster hilarity that it would be more akin to the big screens of a gangster-Guy-Ritchie-melodrama than the supposed elite world of professional prizefighting.
Date/Venue: 20th November 1996/Conference Centre, Wembley
Titles: Heavyweight non-title bout. Michael’s debut.
‘I was nervous beforehand; very, very nervous. There was a lot to take in and a lot to get used to. For example, I was not used to going in there and boxing without a head guard. And I also had to contend with a slight injury that I had picked up in training beforehand. Yeh, I was just really nervous to be out there. But as soon as I made it into the ring and they announced my name and stuff, the bell then went and that was it. My nerves were gone, and I just got into my work.
‘But I look back at that fight very differently now than I did then, with really differing emotions. I have had quite a long career as a professional, and somewhere along that journey, I learnt to give up on the nerves that occur before a fight, and in feeling and investing too much in the emotions that go along with it. Time has helped me and it gave me a new outlook.’
Result: Sprott TKO 1
Date/Venue: 2nd December 2002/York Hall, Bethnal Green
Titles: British and Commonwealth
‘So before that fight, I was in Barbados for two or three weeks. I was having a good time out there and I put on some summer weight. And when I got back, I got a call to go out to Scotland to spar with Mathew Ellis. But as soon as I make it to Scotland, I get another call from my manager at the time, Dean Powell, who says to me: “Mike, Keith Long is pulling out of the fight with Danny Williams, do you mind stepping in?” He wants me to step in and fight Danny for the British and Commonwealth titles and I was like “Wow!” I was like, “This has come at the wrong time. And even though there are titles at stake, I just do not know.” He said, “Well think about it. It will be a fight that everybody wants to see.” I ended up saying, “You know what? I am going to do it.” I picked up the phone, called Dean back and said, “Yeh, let’s make it happen.”
Michael would be retired from the fight by his corner at the beginning of the seventh round, beginning to take heavier punishment and trailing on Richie Woodhall’s unofficial ringside scorecard 60-54. Although rather than this experience being a chastening, demoralising failure, the manner in which he lost and the overall way in which he acquitted himself instead conversely announced his competency at, and instant arrival upon, the British-title-level domestic heavyweight scene.
‘I showed that I was capable of being there. With more preparation, I believe I could have and would have won that fight.’
Result: Williams RTD 7
Date/Venue: 24th January 2004/Conference Centre, Wembley
Titles: British and Commonwealth
‘Oh man. That was…that was really a joy. It was a lovely night, you know. In my mind, I should have won the second fight [this was the third occasion that the two men had fought. Williams won the first two, with the second being a contentious victory wrought upon the back of a slew of illegal low blows] but yeah, I won that fight. And I won this fight, and, in the end, I was so emotional. I was so happy. I went back to Reading, went all night to the casino, went out to celebrate with my friends and family. It was really amazing.
‘I prepared better, and I was much cleverer. I was watching out for any low blows, you know. For me, I just had to watch out and watch up. And to be careful. Obviously, the referee knew the sort of things that were going on in the second fight. And he had to watch out for Danny too, you know?’
Result: Sprott PTS 12
Date/Venue: 24th April 2004/Rivermead Leisure Centre, Reading
Titles: British and Commonwealth
‘Oh man, so for the first fight with Danny, I went to spar with Skelton. I did a lot of rounds with Matt Skelton. Then obviously there was the offer to fight Skelton to defend my title. It was disappointing really, as after I had fought and finally won, finally got my British title, I should have been able to manage my first defence, or to take some time out to rest, but I never got that.
‘I had had three or four eliminators in order to get to the title, which was not fair, because, you know, usually you have one eliminator and then you fight for, fight for the title. But I had about three of them and then eventually when I won the title, I was due to have a break, but I got a call from Dean Powell and he said that I had to fight Matt Skelton in a certain amount of time or I would have to forfeit my title. My girlfriend was saying, "Well this is not right. You did not have a rest Michael. You have been fighting back to back." But the rest never happened. We took the fight and then…yeh. To be frank I was quite exhausted when I got into that fight. I had just had a fight, the fight with Williams that went on to last twelve rounds. I was knackered.
‘And Skelton was just strong. I got caught in a bit of a barrage. He was just rough in there. He just roughed you up. The next day, the day after the fight, my back had rope burns all over it. Plus, he fights a bit below the belt, you know.
‘I had rope marks on my back and just, yeh. It was mad. He rubbed me against the ropes and at one point it looked like he was going to knee me. Thank God he did not because he was a K1 fighter!
‘Two or three weeks later, I went up to David Haye's gym, and David said to me that he should have been disqualified for some of the stuff he was doing in there. But you know, well, it is what it is.’
Result: Skelton KO 12
Date/Venue: 17th February 2007/Wembley Arena, Wembley
Titles: European Union and vacant British
‘It was a big build up because me and him had fought each other a lot in the past. I sparred him a lot as an amateur and I also sparred with him a lot again once he turned pro. I sparred with him during the Olympic preparations and I sparred with him down in Cornwall, for quite a while actually. When Dean told me I was going to fight Audley Harrison, I go, "Well this should be interesting" because we’ve literally just sparred, literally just been sparring, you know.
‘So then on the day of the fight, this is what happened. I was waiting to go on; I was in the arena in the back, just waiting. I was quite nervous, nervous and stuff because it was a big, big fight that was gonna be shown on live tv. It was the main fight. I was getting ready and I got my stuff out and I said to my trainer, "You know what, I have forgotten my boots." Right before we were going to go on. And I am feeling a bit nervous, more so now, and my stomach is getting smaller and smaller, and so he rushed back to my hotel, to my room and to my cupboards. Eventually, he found my boots, but he was having trouble finding them and it took a lot longer than was comfortable. He rushed back, got to me and said, "Calm your nerves and get ready." He gave me my boots and everything, we warmed up quickly and then we were off.
‘I had a lot of supporters going. I think I sold like forty thousand pounds worth of tickets or something like that. Forty, maybe forty-five. A lot of people who supported me were there. There was therefore a lot of nerves, and plus it was a good day for Reading as the football team had won a big match. So that, combined with the size of the event meant that I was nervous before I went on. But by the time I arrived in the ring I was focused. I was tuned in and my manager Jim, my manager, Jim Evans, told me to run out there and throw a big right hand at him. But I said to him, “Nah, I am not doing that,” because I know Audley Harrison and I know him very well. Good counter puncher, so no I’m not gonna go and run at him. Overhand right, nah. I said I am going to take my time really. It might have been a boring first round or whatever. I don’t just want to go in and get knocked out. I want to get the knockout. I am in this to win.
‘I was confident I was going to win. I was not overconfident. I knew him well. I’ve sparred him a lot, so I knew what to expect. But I think I was still a bit cautious. Even though I knew him from sparring beforehand, I started off slow. But the thing is that Jim, Jim Evans is telling me beforehand that he’d marked the bags up as Audley Harrison’s chin. So I trained the left hook, right hand, left hook. I just practiced that combination over and over again. Jim said, "Look, we are going to practice this as much as you can because in the fight you will not even think about it. It just happens," and that is what happened, in exactly the same manner. I did not think about it, it just happened.’
Result: Sprott KO 3
Date/Venue: 14th March 2009/Ostseehalle, Kiel
Titles: Heavyweight non-title bout
‘I remember they called up Jim Evans and said, "Does Michael want to fight Lamont Brewster?" So Jim was like, "Oh he’ll fight anybody. Yeh, of course he will." He rang me up and he told me. Jim told me and I said, “Yeh, fair play. I will fight Lamon Brewster. It is only an eight-round fight.”
‘I remember we went there; I met him face to face at the weigh in, at the face off. I’m thinking, “Alright, he is kind of stocky, but he is not as big as I thought he would be,” you know, but he is still heavy. So the next day we go, I get my stuff and I go down there to check out the arena, but the first time I saw Lamon Brewster again was in the ring. He came into the ring and I was like "Oh my God." I could hardly believe it. He was as wide as he was tall. He was huge. Even my friend who was there saw Brewster come out and said, "Woah, man, this is trouble right here." Yeh, so Jim kept his eyes down a little bit [laughs].
‘Jim is like, "Alright, get your jabs in and catch his eye. Catch his eyes a bit." So I went out there, I felt his power though I was a bit cautious because I knew that he was a good left hooker. I knew he was dangerous, so I just played it safe and then I could hear this man making chicken noises in the background. He was trying of put me off.
‘I think it was the second or third round [seconds remaining in the third] when as I was boxing him and we were just about to end the round, he caught me with a terrific left hook and I remember thinking, "Wow, what the hell was that?" I went down, I got back up, slowly back up, the bell went and then for the rest of the fight I was just picking, really. Picking, jabbing, picking, jabbing, holding, choking him towards the end but it was just a bit too late.’
Result: Brewster UD 8
Date/Venue: 20th June 2009/Veltins Arena, Gelsenkirchen
Titles: Heavyweight non-title bout
‘Ustinov happened when I was sparring with...I think it was with Wladimir. Maybe Vitali, but I think it was Wladimir, and Wladimir was supposed to be fighting David Haye; and my jab was a very good jab, very quick, and so they called me in for that. But Wladimir ended up fighting Chagaev instead, and so the guy who was managing Ustinov approached me and asked if I would fight Ustinov on the bill. I said, “Yeh,” and they said, "You would be matched with him before the main fight."
‘I knew he was quite a big guy, but I’d never met him. But when I got to the place and I saw how big he was, I was like "Shit." Six foot seven, he must weigh about over 300 pounds. I looked at him and I thought, "Jeez."
‘I think at the time, he had only been the distance once with someone, so I knew he was a bit of a puncher, so obviously I wanted to box him, just box smart, really. Box him. I caught him with a few shots, and he caught me with a few towards the end, and he was hurting me a bit, but we went the full 10 rounds. Yeah, I went 10 rounds with him.’
Result: Ustinov UD 10
Date/Venue: Circa 2002/Russia and London
Titles: Existential heavyweight bout
‘Yeh, I fought Pulev… Ahhh, let me tell you this! So before I fought Pulev, I was in Russia for four weeks sparring with Alexander Povetkin. Me, Travis Walker and Sherman Williams were over there, but Sherman had left by then, so now it was just me and Travis over there sparring Povetkin. And halfway through the camp – during this camp, we lived in this halfway house, like a mad, mafia madhouse – one day we go back to the house and this guy knocks on our door and he says, "Listen, the big boss wants to see you." I was like "Who is this big boss?" So we go there, went to his massive house and he was like, "Have a seat, have a seat." Well me and Travis were in Russia to train, but they were pouring us drinks out of this large bottle of vodka. I was telling the guy, "No, I do not drink," and our driver started kicking my leg from underneath the table. He looked at me and Travis like, "You going to drink it?" I go, "Nah." He looks into my eyes. "Drink it! Drink it!" he kept saying. He said that if I don’t then the boss will get upset. So me and Travis must have drank a bottle of vodka between ourselves, before the boss then brings out another massive bottle of vodka! I look at him and I am thinking, "This man is a nutcase."
‘We then get showed around this mansion, and there was all this Russian history, soldiers standing up in mock battles, and there was a polar bear, like a dead polar bear being used as a rug. At this point, the boss then takes out this massive sharp sword and he is waving it in our faces, before he then threw it hard on the floor, just missing the pair of us. I am looking at Travis and I’m like, "You know Travis, this guy is steaming drunk, you know. He could have easily stabbed us in the leg or the arm or anything.” He then picks it back up and he continues repeatedly banging it on the floor again and again, until he then finally goes, "Right lads. Now you have seen this. Let me take you to the pigeon shed." And it was full of pigeons, just like Mike Tyson!
‘He then took us downstairs, and with them all laid out before us, he goes, "Gentlemen, this is the place where I keep my guns.” I don’t really know guns but there were AKs etc all laid about. Machine guns and stuff and he has got all these bottles of vodka lined up. He gets one brought out and brought up to us and again we’re being told, ‘Drink it! Drink it!’. And I go, "Oh no. This is too much."
‘But by now, this guy is just about falling asleep. He was so drunk that he could barely notice us, and so Travis starts pouring water into our glasses and we are pretending it was vodka. But he then rouses again, and he wants to show us the sauna he has in another room. He takes us to the sauna, and we all go in, and then to cool down, in the back garden, he has this massive lake. It was a massive lake and it was freezing cold because it was snowing at the time, and we all jump in there to cool off. Back to the house, we get some food, but I’m just thinking that I need to get home, and quickly.
‘The next day, I was starting to feel ill; I felt like I had the flu. But I still had like a week to go until the end of sparring. We get to sparring, and I am curled up and I’m saying to the trainer that I can’t spar, that I just feel too ill. I’m nearly curled over with a fever. I feel awful, absolutely ill, and he said, "But you’ve got a spar. There is only one other sparring partner and I can’t let him go 10 rounds with Povetkin.”
‘He’s looking at me like “Are you really ill?” But I thought ok, I can’t let the other guy do the full 10 with Povetkin. The bell rang for the sparring and as we get going, he hit me in my stomach, not a massive punch and one I would usually take and be fine with, but I’ve gone over, completely doubled up. The bell rang for the end of the round and the trainer says, "Man, get out of here." I said again that "I am not feeling well." Then later in the evening as we were having dinner, the trainer comes up to me and says, "Mike, you were right. I am sorry about today. You weren’t well and you shouldn’t have sparred. I will put you on a flight home tomorrow."
‘I stayed awake all night. I would not go to sleep. I said to myself, "Do not go to sleep. If you do, you are going to die in your sleep."
‘I mean, it was that bad. If I was there for one more day, I knew I was not gonna make it. So I said, "I am not going to sleep here, I am staying awake." All the way home I stayed awake; all the way to the airport, and then on the plane I spent the flight talking to the staff to keep myself awake. I got home and my girlfriend as soon as she saw me, she said, "Oh my gosh." She got me in the car, and she drove me straight to the hospital. We didn’t even go home. She drove me to the hospital, and they tested me and told me that I had contracted pneumonia. I was there for five days. And the doctor said to me, "It’s a good thing that you are a fit man. If you were not, then things would now look a lot different."
Result: Sprott SD
Date/Venue: 23rd March 2013/GETEC Arena, Magdeburg
Titles: British and Commonwealth
‘Helenius, I did not really get enough work in training. Basically, I do not know. It is kind of strange. I went there and I did not perform at all, mate. It was right from the first round, and it kept going round after round. I was just not into it. My mind was like yes, but my body said no. Jim was like, "You know what, this is your last time in the ring." And I said, "You are kidding me."
‘Yes. He bullied me in the corner. Smacked my face, he said, "Look, mate. This is your last fight because you are not performing." And so on. But, you know, you get off nights. That was not my night and the training was not great. So, you know, I lost on points. After the match, I saw him talking his gloves off and his hands were bleeding. I said to him, "That's not good, you are bleeding." and he said, "Man, you got a hard head."
Result: Helenius UD 10
Michael continues to keep fit; he continues to search for that one last fight, that one last vindication to punctuate what has been a long, exacting but decorated career. Whether he is granted that desire or not - Danny Williams still continues to fight, and Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield are both in training for a reported exhibition match at ages 53 and 57 respectively - at 45 years old, Michael believes he can compete and compete competently, buoyed by and reciting an evergreen maxim which continues to tempt and underscore the ring returns of ageing fighters.
'That is one thing in boxing, the last thing to leave is your punch. You never lose your punch. You might lose the ability to deal with speed, and your timing, but the punch will always be there.' It is an axiomatic cliche, but often enduring along with the punch, is a fighter's will to fight, and it seems evident and unmistakable that Michael Sprott still carries the requisite excess of that.