Livefight talks to former WBO featherweight champion Steve Robinson
Livefight Interview; Steve “Cinderella Man” Robinson
“I fought Hamed on three weeks notice but showed the way to beat him” Steve Robinson
By Michael J. Jones
When Welshman Steve Robinson defended his WBO featherweight title against brash challenger Prince Naseem Hamed, he had the whole of Wales in his corner. The bout at Cardiff Arms Park was a sell-out, Robinson was making the eighth defence of his crown and many, including me, thought he would prove too big and strong for the unbeaten Sheffield star. Hamed had dazzled in many fights prior to his first world title shot with a mixture of unorthodox switch-hitting and crunching punching-power. At 21-years-old and 19-0 (17), “Naz” was at his confident best and ready to prove he could mix with the best fighters around his weight. Having boxed primarily as a super-bantamweight, Hamed would fight Robinson at 126lbs. The Welshman, five inches taller and a naturally strong featherweight, looked to outmuscle the younger man to retain but things were not as they seemed in the build up to this title showdown. Steve explains to Livefight; “I got three-and-a-half weeks notice for the Hamed fight. I was actually on my honeymoon in Portugal when word got to me about my next title defence.”
The then-champion had defended against Spanish challenger Pedro Ferradas on July 7, beating his over-matched foe in nine rounds. After that contest Steve married partner Angela and was enjoying his holiday before being informed of his next defence. Just two and a half months separated the two title fights.
“I do feel like I was stitched up a bit with that defence” under-states the Welshman, now 43 and a pro trainer. “It was just sprung on me out of the blue. I knew about Hamed but I still thought, even with the late notice, I’d be too strong for him.”
The bookies made Hamed the narrow pre-fight favourite to dethrone Robinson. The fight proved one-sided with the flashy Sheffield contender out-boxing Steve before stopping the brave champion in the eighth. It was the first time Steve had ever been stopped as a pro and only the second time he’d tasted the canvas. “He was stronger than I thought he’d be” concedes Steve. “He was shorter than me and the guy coming through but if I’d have had eight-to-ten weeks training and not three, it would have been a totally different fight. I think tactically, I showed the way to beat him; throw the jab over his right-hand and left hook and keep moving to the left just like (Marco Antonio) Barrera did.”
Robinson would never fight for a world title again despite staying unbeaten against good-quality opponents from 1997-2000. He craved a rematch with Hamed, insisting he had the beating of his successor, yet the bout never came close to be a reality. “I boxed probably better post-Hamed than when I was a champion. I stayed unbeaten but never got another shot at a prestigious world title belt. If I’d have fought any of the champions around that time, I could have been the first ever two-time Welsh world champion” says Steve thoughtfully. “I kept waiting for the shot but it never came. Then I faded, it happens to every fighter, you just lose the reflexes and fade.”
Steve Robinson turned pro in March 1989 under Johnny Owen's old trainer and manager Dai Gardiner. From the very beginning the young Welshman was matched tough. From his first twelve contests, Steve dropped decisions in six. “Was it really that many?” laughs Steve. Looking through the former champion’s record, I see many of the points losses were by very close margins. I ask whether some were of the contentious variety. “Oh yeah definitely” comments Steve matter-of-factly. “The Drew Docherty fight especially. I thought I didn’t just win, I thought I’d won easily” says Robinson about a contest he lost by just half a point to a future two-time British champion. “At the end, when they made Docherty the winner, I wondered what fight (the ref) was watching?”
I ask the inevitable question; was he ever disheartened by taking on such tough fighters so early in his career? “Yes and no” replies Steve slowly. “At the end of the day I rarely knew anything about how good an opponent was, so why would it bother me? People may have thought I was just a journeyman, but all of those early losses were very close. I knew how good I was.”
The future champion’s first taste of title success came when beating former British champion Peter Harris over ten rounds to lift the Welsh title. Steve kept improving, suffered a few more decision losses but remained determined. In October 92’ he was matched in France against 23-0-1 Stephane Haccoun and hammered-out an upset eight-round decision. The head-turning victory was followed up with a stoppage win against 5-0 Dennis Oakes back in the UK just two months later.
The vastly-improving Welshman picked up another title early the next year when out-pointing former Commonwealth champion Paul Harvey for the WBB title. There was to be another controversial decision loss just a month later when Mehdi Labdouni won a razor-tight points win back in France. “Yeah that was frustrating” remembers Steve. “I’d beaten Haccoun, who was far better than Labdouni, and then I thought I’d won that bout but they gave it to him. It was pretty close but I thought I did enough.”
Two months later a series of events would change Robinson’s life forever. Newly-crowned WBO champion Ruben Palacios was scheduled to make the first defence of his crown versus crowd-pleasing Geordie John Davison in Washington, Tyne-and-Wear. The Columbian champion failed a pre-fight medical and was forced to retire aged 30 due to having the AIDS virus. A co-challenger was required for Davison to fight for the vacant belt and Robinson got the call. “Two days notice I got the call to fight John Davison for the WBO title” begins Steve. “I was confident going in because I’m always in shape; a bit of a fitness fanatic, but I was worried about the late notice.”
Steve and his trainer Dai Gardner studied Davison’s aggressive style in the short time they had and devised a simple plan. “We didn’t know about my stamina so our plan was to be strong the first six or seven rounds and just hang on for the decision” chuckles Robinson.
Robinson was just 13-9-1 (7) before that fight but bossed the earlier rounds as Davison struggled to land more than one shot at a time. By the late rounds, Robinson was still out-working the hard-punching Newcastle contender and seemed a handy winner at the final bell. The scores were surprisingly close at; 115-114, 115-114 and 116-114, but the underdog still won the unanimous decision to become an unlikely champion at 24-years old. It earned him Jim Braddock’s old nickname of “Cinderella Man”. Previous to this contest, Robinson was working in a storeroom in his local Debenhams.
The famous victory wasn’t just a flash-in-the-pan result as the new champion cleaned up the domestic scene beating world-rated fighters back-to-back on many memorable nights. Sean Murphy was the champion’s first victim being stopped in nine in Cardiff. Follow up defences against former champions Colin McMillan and Paul Hodkinson underlined the well-conditioned champion’s dominance.
“Winning the championship improved me and made me a much better fighter” reveals the former champion. “I bloomed into a good champion and beat several former world champions. My confidence was high and the performances reflected that; you can’t perform at that level without confidence in yourself.”
Robinson would make seven defences of his cherished crown (including a stoppage of Duke McKenzie), before running into the merciless fists of Hamed, who would hold the crown for another five years.
After suffering his first inside-schedule defeat, Steve took a year out before making a comeback at the end of 1996. A warm-up win later and he was matched with fellow veteran Billy Hardy for the European title. A rusty Robinson would be edged on a twelve round decision by a man who would be destroyed in one by Naseem Hamed in his very next fight.
Over the next three years, the Welshman stayed busy, going 10-0-1 (6) and picking up the WBO Intercontinental and European titles. He fought and beat good fighters like Manuel Calvo and Jon Jo Irwin, but couldn’t pin down another world title shot. The terrific run of form was halted by Mexican contender Juan Carlos Ramirez who stopped Steve in the eleventh round. Robinson had been ahead on the scorecards at the time of the stoppage.
The fading former champion would end up losing his last six bouts all at top level. Although he gave both old foe Calvo and Cassius Baloyi hard twelve rounders (for the European and WBU belts respectively), Steve was punished in a British and Commonwealth showdown by Glasgow’s Scott Harrison. A future holder of Steve’s old WBO title, Harrison mauled the aging contender in just three rounds. “I thought I beat Baloyi and just nicked the fight with Calvo but I lost a majority decision in both bouts” recalls the retired fighter. “My reaction time was slowing down and I started to get hit with silly shots; punches I’d have easily avoided in my younger days.”
Steve’s last bout was an eight-round decision loss to capable Steve Conwy just over ten years ago. He retired immediately after that defeat with a 32-17-2 (17) record. Of 51 pro bouts, 26 were for various titles. Of his seventeen reverses, at least ten were via debatable decision and the granite-jawed Cardiff man was only stopped on three occasions.
“It was still hard walking away” admits the “Cinderella Man”. “It’s just the way it goes; (boxing) catches up with everybody at some point. I had a great career, was a world champion, not many can say that” says Steve proudly.
The retired Welshman kept out of the limelight for many years but has recently been seen regularly as chief second to his promising son Luke Francis Robinson. Twenty-one-year-old Francis turned pro last year as a light-welterweight and has built a solid 4-1 slate. He suffered his first loss last month to fellow Welshman Tony Pace. “Luke turned pro without much amateur experience but he’s learning well. He lost to Tony Pace last time out but it was close, it could have been a draw” reasons the prospect’s father.
Does Steve see similarities between his son’s boxing style to his own? “Yeah we have a similar style but I was more of an inside fighter while Luke’s more of a boxer. We’re going to work hard on making him a bit more of an aggressive fighter and hit a bit harder. He’s eager to comeback as soon as possible, Tony Pace is a good fighter we’ll look to fight him again down the line.”
Apart from training his son, Steve also trains a few other pros and keeps himself in incredible shape as well as doing some personal training. Steve, still married to Angela, also has two other children in 17-year-old Jacob and 13-year-old Ebony. Jacob looks to be another boxing star of the future, currently making waves in the amateurs.
I ask the busy former champion one final question.
“The fight I’d go back and do again? Probably the John Davison fight. Winning the world title as an underdog on two days notice, it doesn’t come much better than that does it?” concludes Steve.
In his thirteen-year pro career Steve Robinson fought them all and lived to tell the tale. At his peak a granite-jawed pressure fighter who was always in magnificent shape, Steve could hit sharply and, even with the tough breaks he had, is still firmly considered one of the greatest Welsh fighters in history. It was an honour and a privilege speaking to one of this writer’s all-time boxing heroes and Livefight wishes Steve and Luke all the best for their promising future.
Note: anyone in the Cardiff area that would like personal training from the former WBO champion please contact him via Facebook (under Stephen Robinson).