From Raging Bull, to Rocky and right up the recent Creed movies, Hollywood has always had a fascination with boxing as a narrative. It’s a sport that lends itself with relative ease to the silver screen – The young man who came from nothing, the outsider who no one gave a chance, the raw emotion of a fighter who refuses to be defeated. But what about the story of the boxer transformed himself from a journeyman to a world champion on just 48 hours’ notice?
It’s 1993 in South Wales and Steve Robinson is eating pie and chips when the phone rings, he doesn't know it just yet but it's a call that would lead to his name being etched into boxing folklore. John Davison was due to challenge Ruben Palacios for the WBO World Featherweight title in Newcastle but only two days before the bout Palacios tested HIV+ and was immediately stripped of his WBO title leaving it vacant. In a frenzy to salvage the show, promoter Tommy Gilmour Jr. got on the phone for a late replacement and unfortunately for Davison, Robinson answered the call on his mother-in-law’s phone.
“Actually, I’ll tell you the truth, I gave up my job not long before the phone call. I gave it up about a week or so before to take up full-time training. I was just getting into full-time training and then I had the phone call. It was out of the blue! The way it happened was Ruben Palacios tested HIV+ and they stripped him of the title and needed an opponent for John Davison on two days’ notice. This day and age they wouldn’t be able to sanction that fight with the rules and regulations but somehow they got me to fight for the world title. They asked a few other people to take the fight who said no they wouldn’t be ready. But I thought, I’ll be ready – I was 7lbs overweight, so I had to lose 7lbs.”
I put it to Robinson that they must have overlooked him, with only 48 hours’ notice and a relatively unimpressive record at the time of 13 wins, 9 losses and 1 draw there wouldn’t have been many backing him.
“They must have overlooked me but obviously they knew I was a good fighter, not a bad fighter, but obviously beatable because my record didn’t look much. Of my 9 losses, a lot of those I thought I won – I’ve been robbed many times."
As a late replacement with many assuming he was there just to make up the numbers and up against the hometown fighter it seems Robinson could well become victim to another close decision going against him. This time though, on the biggest of nights, Robinson, dubbed by many as The Cinderella Man, had his Hollywood moment as referee William Conners lifted his arm in victory as the announcer bellowed “The winner, and the new WBO Featherweight champion of the world is Robinson, ladies and gentlemen. Robinson is the winner!”
In a whirlwind 48 hours, Robinson goes from rank outsider to featherweight royalty and from relative unknown to newspaper back page features.
A victorious Steve Robinson | WalesOnline
“Obviously, people recognised me out on the street and I was in the papers. I was Steve Robinson world featherweight champion, I had to pinch myself a couple of times to realise I was a world champion. I adapted to it though, I stayed humble, I didn’t get big-headed and I still had the same friends.”
While the local papers and those in his South Wales community may have heralded Robinson’s victory as a monumental success, there was more than the fair share of detractors who labelled Robinson’s victory as somewhat of a fluke. They say it’s hard making it to the top but it’s even harder to stay there.
Going into the John Davison title fight, Robinson had won four and lost three of his previous seven fights and was challenging for the title off the back of a points decision loss in France. It was little wonder that many seemed to be waiting with bated breath for him to fall from his throne as quickly as he had become seated upon it.
"After Frank Warren took over he started throwing all these ex-world champions at me like Colin McMillan, Paul Hodkinson and Duke McKenzie and he finally got me beat in the end when he brought in Naz.”
“I just wish I didn’t box him at that time, I should have given myself a bit more notice. I had only just come back from my honeymoon and I didn’t have that much preparation but that’s just the way it is”
I prodded on the topic of rising superstar Naseem Hamed asking whether there was additional pressure for Robinson to take the fight because of the hype surrounding Hamed.
“Yeah, there was. They were keeping on about me fighting him and I was thinking ‘How come he’s the no. 1 contender? He’s come from super bantamweight and all of a sudden he’s a featherweight and the no. 1 contender’. But somehow he got the fight”
Hamed came into the fight boasting a 19-0(17KO) record and aside from the two men who took him the distance, every opponent was stopped within six rounds, many of them in far fewer. “I underestimated him - I thought he’s coming up in weight and I’m naturally bigger and stronger. I thought I would handle him quite well because I was a bigger featherweight but I didn’t realise how good he was at the time.”
Robinson loses his WBO title to 'Prince' Naseem Hamed | Boxing News
“I thought he was a cocky kind of person, bit of a big head but obviously I know that was all part of him being a showman. He did get under my skin a bit and at the time I went through a court case between Barry Hearn and Frank Warren and it wasn’t really at the right time with the short notice. No excuses, but I wish I never really went into that fight, I should have had that bit more preparation. You’ve got to prepare for someone like Naseem Hamed for 3 months to work his style out, the way he punches, the way he moves his feet.”
Robinson’s defence of the WBO title against Hamed came to a conclusion when Hamed landed a short-left hook that forced Robinson to the canvas and convinced the referee that he had seen enough. This was the moment that many had anticipated would come a lot sooner, but Robinson proved the naysayers wrong by reigning as the WBO king for almost two and half years and defeating some well-renowned men in the process.
“I knew Duke McKenzie was going to be a tough fight because he was obviously a three-weight world champion. But I looked at him and thought I’m a bigger, stronger featherweight and I can match him for speed. I worked him out and my preparation was really good for that fight and I came out on top in the end. He was a good fighter, it was a tough fight but I was confident that I would beat him. I was more nervous for the Colin McMillan fight, I rated Colin highly, he was a top, top-class boxer.”
Skipping forward to the present day and that incredible work ethic that Robinson was famed for hasn’t diminished one iota. Robinson keeps himself in tremendous condition and there’s no doubt that that will be a motivation to his son Jacob (8-0) as he continues to make his rise in the professional game.
“I train Jacob, I used to manage him as well at one time but I’ve put him onto new management now. I take him for runs in the mornings, work out his training routines, his diet and do everything for him really.”
I asked Robinson how he enjoys working with Jacob and you could almost hear his smile over the phone as he jovially replied: “He answers me back every now and again, he’ll chops back but I’ll say to him ‘Listen, I’ve been a world champion, mate! And you can’t take that away from me’ and he does listen in the end. We’ve had a few tiffs here and there but I put him straight.”
The father-son relationship is fairly commonplace in boxing, possibly the most famous example of it also coming from Wales with the late Enzo and his son, Joe Calzaghe. In Wales, the father-son boxing bonds don’t end there – Former cruiserweight world champion Enzo Maccarinelli credits much of his success to his father Mario and current world-title hopeful Jay Harris can often be seen with father Peter in his corner. Naturally, when talking of Jacob, Robinson is his biggest fan.
“With Jacob, I think he has very good punching power and he hits very hard with both hands, I don’t think I hit as hard as he does. With myself I had a bit of a higher work rate and I was probably more conditioned than he is but he is conditioned and fit. Also, I just believed in myself and that I could beat anyone to the punch but Jacob can lack that bit of confidence sometimes but that will come with experience because he’s only had 8 professional fights and 22 amateur fights so he’s learning. I’m not just saying it but I believe Jacob can go all the way. I say to him you’ve just got to believe in yourself, that’s what it comes down to.”
Father and Son, Steve and Jacob | Liam Hartery
Steve Robinson’s story has all the hallmarks of a Hollywood script – The no-hoper brought in to appease the crowd of the hometown favourite who, against all odds, digs deep and walks away with the glory and honour no one expected him to earn. I mean, if this was really Hollywood though then surely the movie would have a sequel where his son, his protégé follows in his footsteps to world championship glory of his own?
Only Time will tell.