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Jul 15, 2011

From left foot to left hook

On Saturday night, boxer Curtis Woodhouse takes on WBO Intercontinental welterweight champion Frankie Gavin in what is unquestionably the biggest fight of his career. The pairs' respective roads to this contest could not be more different. While 25-year-old Gavin experienced a glittering career in the amateur ranks, Woodhouse never fought an amateur bout before his pro debut, due in no small part to the fact 'The Driffield Destroyer' spent almost ten years as a professional footballer before quitting to become a full-time pugilist in 2006.

A gifted youngster, Woodhouse burst into Sheffield United's first-team at 17 and became their youngest ever captain two years later, before going on to win four England Under-21 caps and seal a move to Birmingham for the princely sum of £1 million. The midfielder had a brief taste of Premier League football when he made four appearances for Blues in the 2002-03 season, but he was sadly to follow a well-trodden path.

Having promised so much and been tipped for the top, Woodhouse endured a downturn in fortunes. He moved to Rotherham and, although he performed well in the lower leagues with Peterborough, a move to hometown club Hull proved disastrous. He could not reignite his ailing career and, after a short spell with Grimsby in 2006, he called it a day at the age of 26.

"I've no regrets about giving it up, definitely not," Woodhouse tells ESPNsoccernet. "Football was good to me and I'd say I enjoyed 85% of my career. I achieved what most kids dream of in becoming a professional footballer and I'm very grateful and proud of what I did. But I believe I got out at the right time as when I left there was no desire and no ambition to do anything in football anymore. The fire had burnt out and I didn't want to prolong my football career just for the sake of playing.

"It wasn't really one thing that triggered it off, it was just as time went by I slowly but surely started falling out of love with the game. It started off with me not looking forward to training and then when it came to Saturdays I was thinking, 'Oh god, I've got to go and play football today'. I know how mad that sounds because obviously 99% of young boys want to be professional footballers when they grow up, but I remember being involved in some big games and just not wanting to be there at all. It was a gradual thing and it just snuck up on me - I don't know where it came from or why it happened, but it did."

Up until his retirement, many professional footballers could have empathised with Woodhouse's story of failing to make the grade and eventually settling for a life of lower-league obscurity. But the Beverley-born boxing enthusiast was determined not to settle for that fate and, despite footballing mediocrity not being a barrier to a lucrative salary and comfortable lifestyle, he quit to follow an alternative passion.

"I was always a big boxing fan but I just liked watching. It had never been on my mind to give up football for it. Then, towards the end of my football career, this crazy thing started going through my head: 'Shall I give professional boxing a go?' Every time I said it out loud, though, I thought, 'Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?'

"One day, though, I went to see my dad, who ran a pub near Hull's stadium, sat him down and told him I was contemplating becoming a professional boxer. I was playing for Hull at the time and I remember supporters coming in and telling us stories about what they could have been or what they nearly were - you know, how they could have become a footballer if they hadn't injured their knee, or met a girl. My dad just said to me: 'Listen, I hear ten of these stories a day and I don't want you here in ten years' time telling my customers you could have been a boxer. Just go and do it or shut up about it.' Ten weeks later, I made my pro debut. It was my dad who inspired me to do it."

That debut in September 2006 brought a points victory over Dean Marcantonio, made all the more impressive because of Woodhouse's lack of amateur experience. He did, however, have plenty of fights behind him as an inability to stay out of trouble off the pitch saw him develop something of a bad-boy reputation during his football career, and in 2002 he was sentenced to community service after being charged with affray.

"I didn't have a single amateur bout at all - car parks and nightclubs were where I had my amateur experience. I'm certainly not proud of it, but when I was young I did get into more trouble than I should have been. If someone had something to say to me I was one of those people who would never walk away, I was stupid at times but when you're young you do daft things and you learn from them. Now, if I'm out at the weekend I can easily walk away, but when I was 21, my immediate reaction would be to put my drink down and get involved."

Since his debut five years ago, Woodhouse has come up against a number of obstacles in his relentless pursuit of boxing success - his career is a delicate balancing act as his status as an ex-footballer provides both his unique selling point and a significant reason for the fighting fraternity to dismiss him.

This Saturday's opponent, 2007 World Amateur Champion Gavin, is among those who have pounced on Woodhouse's past, recently saying: "Woodhouse played for Birmingham City but I hardly ever saw him because I only watched the first team. He didn't make it as a footballer and he won't make it as a boxer." But Woodhouse believes football has helped him develop the sort of thick skin needed in what can be a ruthless profession.

"I think the main thing I've taken out of football is that I'm used to dealing with pressure situations," Woodhouse explains. "A lot of people want to see me knocked out because they think of me as this footballer trying to force my way into their sport. I'd say normally about 80% of the crowd are booing me, spitting at me, throwing things at me - but I've played at places like Millwall and Cardiff so I'm used to a hostile environment. I can perform under pressure, deal with difficult crowds and not let it bury me; I've played in promotion games, relegation games, cup semi-finals and derby games so I know how to keep my emotions in check and not let the occasion swallow me up.

"Being an ex-footballer is a double-edged sword really - I've had people slam the door in my face and not take me seriously because of my past but I've also had doors open to me because of it. You wouldn't be speaking to me now if I hadn't had a ten-year football career. There have been positives and negatives but I just want the respect of the people in the boxing industry - ask any of my opponents if I'm for real and definitely 12 of them will say yes as 12 of them have been knocked out. There will always be people who will be talking about my football background in the build-up to a fight but once the bell rings normally their attitude will change pretty quickly."

Woodhouse has continued to play football at a semi-pro level - Rushden & Diamonds, Mansfield, Harrogate and Sheffield have all utilised his services since 2007 - with a move to Conference North side Eastwood Town beckoning after the Gavin fight. And non-league football has helped the former England Under-21 starlet rekindle his affection for the game that was once his livelihood.

"Once football stopped being my career path, I actually started enjoying it more because it was something I chose to do rather than had to do. I missed the atmosphere and the banter in the dressing-room and I missed being around the lads because boxing can be a very lonely game. Now when I play there's a lot less riding on it. I'm not sure my left foot works quite as well as it used to so I don't think I've got it in me anymore to head back to the dizzy heights of the Football League. I still enjoy playing, but there's definitely no professional comeback on the cards.

"For me, knocking someone out is 100% more enjoyable than scoring a goal. There's no feeling like it. I think it's more to do with the preparation that goes into it. I've been training for this fight for ten weeks and you do all that build-up and hard work for that moment. It sounds pretty brutal but once you land a clean shot and you see him go it's a nice feeling. Wayne Rooney likes scoring goals; I like knocking people out. It's just one of those things."

It is unlikely Woodhouse will ever earn the level of recognition reserved for dual-sports success stories like Denis Compton (legendary England cricketer and Arsenal footballer), Manfred Burgsmuller (West Germany striker and then the oldest professional American football player in history) and Rebecca Romero (Olympic gold medallist at both rowing and track cycling), but the midfielder-turned-mauler most certainly deserves respect for bravely following his heart and taking what was a genuine step into the unknown.


Curtis Woodhouse is sponsored by White Stone Solicitors and will be in action against Frankie Gavin at the Liverpool Echo Arena on Saturday July 16.

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