News July 2017

Unstoppable Force: John Murray talks ring wars, career frustration and life as a trainer


Manchester’s former British and European champion John “The Machine” Murray talks to Livefight

By Michael J Jones

IT IS OVER THREE years since Manchester warrior John “The Machine” Murray last boxed as a professional fighter. Forced to leave his beloved sport following a serious injury to his right eye, Murray chalked up a fine record of 33-3 (20) while capturing the English, WBC Youth, British and European lightweight titles.

In fitting style following a thrilling career, Murray went out on his shield in a Manchester derby against future world champion Anthony Crolla. Murray appeared ahead by midway but Crolla took full advantage of his opponent’s facial swellings and ring rust to stop his rival in the tenth round.

Since seeing his fighting career scuppered on medical grounds, Murray has set up his own gym in Reddish and currently trains his younger brother Joe as well as a few other amateur and pro boxers.

“The gym is going good and I’m enjoying what I do, it’s a bit frustrating at times but I’ve got a good set of lads who all work hard. If they give me 100% I’ll do all I can for them” John Murray tells Livefight this week.

The future champion turned pro aged 18 back in the summer of 2003. Progress was swift as the young fighter fought often and against decent opposition. By the end of 2005 he was already besting awkward Spaniard Ignacio Mendoza to claim the WBC Youth title as he remained undefeated.

The following year, the Manchester ace was awarded the prestigious ‘Young Boxer of the Year’ award by the British boxing board of control. Murray was also unafraid to travel, taking learning fights in Canada, Florida and, on the Floyd Mayweather-Oscar De La Hoya bill, Las Vegas.

“It was an amazing experience boxing on an undercard like that. The kid I fought (Lorenzo Bethea), was one of the best I ever faced but I put in a good performance to stop him. After our fight he got a bleed on the brain so never boxed again.”

The unbeaten prospect would double his title collection at the close of 2007 with an impressive knock-out of Dean Hickman to lift the English belt as he continued to climb the ranks.

“Early in my career, I faced a lot of tough fighters” comments the 32 year old Murray. “They were tests that I was not only winning but winning impressively. It was a surprise to me I never got picked up sooner than I did for the bigger fights….I had to wait quite a while before I got a title shot.”

In July 2008, Murray was matched against old sparring partner Lee Meager for the vacant British lightweight title. What looked on paper as an even money affair quickly turned into a one-sided mauling as Murray swarmed all over his Salford co-challenger before stopping him in the fifth.

“I was actually very nervous about that fight” reveals Murray nine years removed from his British title triumph. “We had sparred quite a bit and it was always pretty rough. Lee was the type of fighter that if you caught him with a good shot he’d be straight on you. I expected a very tough twelve round fight but it turned out to be the best performance of my career.”

“I was so nervous before the fight I tried to run to the ring and had to be calmed down. I was really nervous but the nerves just made me on fire and I was punch-perfect.”

Murray excelled at British title level, racing to five emphatic stoppages on the bounce as he made the Lonsdale belt his own and also won the European title with a bloody stoppage of teak-tough Welshman Gary Buckland.

There was a menacing intensity to Murray few fighters can claim to possess. His face a blank stare, hands high and chin down, Murray would let his hands go from the off and could keep the punches flowing to head and body from first bell to last while also effectively cutting off the ring.

In short; he made you fight whatever your plan was.

Not a particularly pleasant reputation to have but many fighters such as Meager, Thaxton and John Simpson, retired from boxing as a direct consequence to sharing a ring with the Manchester body-snatcher.

“I know a good few did walk away after I boxed them” acknowledges Murray. “Some were at the tail-end of their careers anyway and I just finished them off a bit but also I think the way I fought and kept on them all night assisted their decision.”

“They probably thought ‘screw this’ as I was hitting them over and over.”

“When I boxed Jon Thaxton (October 2009), he really made me train hard. He’d been around a long time and had fought people like Ricky Hatton but I’m not a person to back down and that’s one of the few fights I did everything possible in training and I left no stone unturned ahead of that fight.”

Although he was coming off two close distance defeats, Jon Thaxton was a still considered a handful as he was a tough, experienced puncher. Similar to the Meager fight though, Murray won comfortably when the referee waved it off (a tad prematurely it should be noted), in the fourth. A heavy right-hand landed to stagger “Jono” and referee Howard Foster wouldn’t let him suffer any more.

The defeat sent the Norwich southpaw into retirement as the winner kept his unbeaten run intact and appeared destined for bigger things.

“There were some fighters who didn’t really worry me and the fights ended up almost like a sparring session” admits the fighter-turned-trainer. “When I was most nervous that’s when I boxed at my best. People don’t seem to give me enough credit but there were so many good fighters that I beat and beat in good style too.”

“Both Lee McAllister and Gary Buckland went on to win plenty of titles after I had beaten them and victories like those show what kind of fighter I was at that time.”

Still unbeaten as the British and European champion and world ranked, it seemed a certainty Murray would face one of the world champions though he would face a domestic rival first in the shape of Kevin Mitchell. Following a laboured points win against heavy underdog Karim El Ouazghari in another defence of his European title, the Mitchell fight was made for July 2011 at the Echo Arena, Liverpool.

“People only seem to remember me for the Mitchell fight which is annoying as it was probably the worst I had ever been…I should not have taken that fight but, me being me, I thought I could still fight and get him out of there early like Katsidis had done.”

The famously temperamental Mitchell was coming into the fight off his first pro defeat in which he was stopped early by rugged Aussie Mike Katsidis. It seemed a hugely audacious move by Mitchell to take on the in-form Murray off the back of a loss and subsequent fourteen month lay-off but the fight went ahead and, if anything, exceeded all expectations.

“I had stunk the place out in my last fight (against El Ouazghari) and it just got to the stage where I just got sick of boxing. I felt I wasn’t earning enough money; I was looking at young kids with fifteen or twenty fights who were driving around in Mercedes! I didn’t know how the hell they could afford that as I certainly couldn’t.”

“I was having problems in camp and my head was just battered. I went through with the fight purely as I thought I could still win with all of this going on.”

The pattern was quickly set with Murray applying educated pressure and Mitchell looking to counter off the jab on the move. Both took punishment early on but, unlike in his fight with Katsidis, Mitchell gritted his teeth and met fire with fire.

“I felt after five rounds I was ahead and that he was ready to go but I feel my face being a mess inspired him and he found a bit of extra energy so fair play to him. I feel if I was at my best it would have been a different fight but full credit to him he took advantage and got me out of there.”

After eight frenetic rounds, Mitchell found the punches to finish Murray to cap one of the best fights of the year and wipe out the memory of his previous contest. For Murray it would be the first defeat after 31 fights and clearly still rankles him to talk about it to this very day.

“I spoke to Mitchell after the fight and since then when we’ve met up and he said to me I put the absolute fear of God into him before the fight and that made him throw himself into training and work like a demon. It is what it is but I always see it as he just got me at the right time.”

The victor was supposed to be next in line for reigning WBA champion Brandon Rios but, as Mitchell had some legal troubles hanging over his head, it was Murray who would bag the title shot at Madison Square Garden some five months after the Mitchell setback.

“It’s great that isn’t it? I get to 31-0 and win British and European titles and get no shot…I lose to Mitchell and get one straight away….”

Eager to eradicate the Mitchell defeat, Murray trained hard in the hope of dethroning one of the best young champions in boxing on away turf. Rios was 28-0-1 coming in with few obvious weaknesses to exploit though the English challenger felt ready to pull off the upset.

“I knew I was in sh*t shape for Kevin Mitchell and all I wanted to do was to put that right, beat Rios to become WBA champion and then immediately make my first defence against the man who had beaten me. I had a fantastic camp and was in unbelievable condition but the weight gap was just a bit too much to overcome on the night.”

Having failed the prefight weigh-in, Rios was stripped of his world title meaning only Murray could win it. By fight time, Rios had ballooned nearer a middleweight than a lightweight meaning, on the night, Murray was conceding a chunk of weight to the Californian.

“On the night, I was about 10st 10lbs and he was more like 12st” states Murray with a sigh. “I think you can tell I was much fitter for Rios than my one before but he was absolutely massive. I put in a strong performance but it just wasn’t my night.”

After a bright start, Murray’s face was soon marking up but he gamely took the fight to Rios but the American’s superior weight told and began to wear the visitor down. By round eleven Murray was desperately tired and heavily marked up once more. After taking some sickening head punches, Murray was forced to the ropes to be halted on his feet.

“The scores were way too wide, I thought I was only a point or two behind and Manny Steward (commentating for HBO) had it close. Looking back, and how much bigger he was, I can’t believe I lasted as long as I did.”

If the prospect of two defeats in a row wasn’t bad enough, Murray would then have the worst two years of his life which kept him firmly out of the ring from the end of 2011 until November 2013.

“I took some time out after the two losses and then got offered (former world champion) Gavin Rees which I was made up about. I had a great camp and was sparring really well. I thought one more loss and I’d have to retire so I felt my whole career was on the line.”

“I had to contend with my split from Joe Gallagher and losing my house and I thought ‘never mind’ a win over Rees would put everything OK again.”

“The last week before the fight, after all the intense training and sparring had been completed, I got a call from the Board who said I’d failed a brain scan, the fight was off and I’d have to see the doctor. I said ‘am I going to die?’, so he said ‘I can’t say over the phone you need to talk to the doctor.’ You can imagine what that phone call did to me I was devastated.”

“It turned out it was just a misread brain scan and there was no cause for concern but it took me a year to get my licence back to be able to box again.”

If the fight with Welshman Rees had gone ahead what would have been the out-come?
“Talk is cheap but that was a fight I was peaked, primed and razor sharp for. There wasn’t many times I could have said that so I feel I would have done a number on Rees but we’ll never know will we?”

By then 31-2 (18), Murray would eventually return with a stoppage in November 2013 and there appeared little evidence of ring rust. Four months later “The Machine” received a late notice call to box former British champion John Simpson as the away fighter in Glasgow.

Simpson was meant to be crossing fists with Anthony Crolla before “Million Dollar” was forced out through injury. Murray, despite the late notice and Simpson being then one of the toughest men in British boxing, took the fight without hesitation and gave one last vintage performance.

“When Simpson was lined up to face Crolla I thought ‘how come he keeps getting fed these blown up featherweights?’ He was a lightweight same as me but he’d fought Stephen Foster Jr, Michael Brodie and I just saw Simpson as another guy moving up to fight him.”

“When they offered me the fight I was fired up as I knew no featherweight could hope to beat me. That’s not to sound arrogant or disrespectful but I was a big, strong lightweight. I knew his punches would bounce off me and mine would do damage…I honestly wasn’t surprised at what happened.”

The fight was exciting but short-lived. Murray swarmed and was soon zeroing in with his trade-mark body punches and ripping hooks and uppercuts. Simpson tried to fire back but was overwhelmed, floored on three occasions and stopped inside of two rounds.

“My fight is you hit me and I’ll hit you and we’ll see who the better man is. People don’t talk about me like they should but at my best I was an unstoppable force and only politics and having to wait so long for the opportunities is what ended me.”

Murray’s final fight saw him matched with former gym-mate Crolla just a month later in Manchester. There was some underlying tension ahead of the match as the outspoken Joe Gallagher, a long-time coach of Murray, was working against his former fighter in Crolla’s corner.

“It was never the Joe Gallagher show” John tells Livefight regarding his one-time trainer. “I felt not having a big money promoter backing me was one thing that held me back and also that Joe Gallagher wasn’t a popular man had an affect. I didn’t think about any of this before or during the fight. It was me against Anthony Crolla and nothing more.”

Murray made a strong start against his fellow Mancunian but Crolla stayed conservative behind the jab. It was a close fight after six or seven rounds but just as Murray was slowing, Crolla started picking up the pace to land combination punches and some good body shots of his own.

“Early in my career, I had this tendency to go hell-for-leather early on and not really pace myself. I learned to not do that and usually I’d box for four rounds before getting down to work. Because I was still shaking off a bit of ring rust, I went out way too eager and ran out of gas. Looking back I should have had an eight or ten rounder before facing Crolla.”

“All I had to do was stay on my feet those last two rounds. I think one judge had me winning all but one round and another had me five rounds up. I felt in great shape before the fight but not having rounds under my belt cost me dearly that night.”

If the third defeat of his career was a tough pill to swallow what came next would eclipse Murray’s loss to Crolla.

“My eye was actually bad for three or four years after they picked it up” concedes the former crowd-pleaser. “I had double vision as my eye wasn’t looking the same way as the other one. As it was one eye at a time I could always do the eye tests easily. I’ve had nine operations since and am nearly blind in my right eye now.”

“I’m currently training my younger brother Joe and he’s after a British title shot but nobody wants to fight him. He’s getting so sick of the politics he’s threatening to retire. I think he will get the chance but probably at late notice so he’ll have to be ready for when that time comes.”

“I’m overall happy with my career. If I was to go back I’d do a few things differently. I think having the right promoter makes a huge difference. It’s like when I boxed Rios. Nobody there knew me or cheered for anything I did there was just silence.”

“In Manchester or anywhere in the UK people would have screamed for me and that would have made a difference in my opinion.”

“I would have liked to have won a world title but I came close but wasn’t quite good enough. I won virtually everything else there was to win.”

One last question before we conclude our interview. A Manchester fighter born and bred and one of the most exciting fighter’s in the country…why only four pro bouts in Manchester?

“It’s another thing with the promotional side of things I was always on the road. I took a fight in Canada on five days’ notice, I took a fight in Florida on eleven days’ notice, I boxed in Vegas on short notice, Simpson in Scotland on short notice. I was a road warrior and came to fight, I wasn’t scared of anyone or anything and I’m the same now.”

“If it wasn’t for this eye I’d still be out there fighting the best.”

To learn more about John Murray’s gym go to his website

Murray stops Lee McAllister at the peak of his powers.

John Murray would like to thank Phil Russell of Total Refurb, Andy Sheridan of Sheridan Lifts, Paul Cheetham of Sudulo and Ged Mason of Morson Group for there support.

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