Three years is a massive break from top-flight boxing, even for a fighter with a glittering resume such as Bradley Skeete.
It’s led some to question the motivation, if not the wisdom of the 34-year-old’s return when he takes on Hamzah Sheeraz for the European Super Welterweight Title this Saturday.
The Tooting boxer will play an unfamiliar role back on the big stage, but Skeete is relishing the challenge of the away corner on fight night.
He said: “I’ve got a lot of people to prove wrong and it’s adding fuel to the fire.
“I’ve been with Frank Warren my whole career and when he made statements saying he wanted Hamzah to win that got my back up, and I’m at my best when I’ve got my back up.
“Everyone’s doubting me because I’m fighting a young champion, but they’ve forgotten who I am and I can’t wait to shut people up.”
Skeete has a highlight reel most prospects dream of, having represented England and GB Boxing as an amateur before turning over in 2010 and capturing the British, Commonwealth and European Welterweight titles.
He dominated the domestic scene in 2016, seeing off Sam Eggington, John Thain, Dale Evans and Shayne Singleton, and by 2017 Skeete had climbed to number three in the world rankings, on the cusp of a shot at the WBO title until Jeff Horn swerved him in favour of Gary Corcoran.
However, Skeete began 2018 with a loss to the now highly rated Kerman Lejarraga in front of a hostile crowd in Bilbao, and worse was to come.
In his rehabilitation fight against the largely unknown Diego Ramirez, Skeete was floored by a shattering left hook in the second round, leaving him clinging onto his opponent in confusion until the referee stepped in.
It was a near career-ending disaster, but when Skeete climbed through the ropes that night he already knew his lifetime love affair with boxing had come to an end.
He said: “Walking to the ring I just knew it wasn’t me, I was sick of boxing and the whole build up to that fight was a shambles.
“I lost count of how many opponents I’d had, the show was on and then off, it was for a title and then it wasn’t, I trained but I didn’t know if I was coming or going.”
A fighter’s life is never all it seems, their journey rarely straightforward, and the Ramirez defeat came coupled with personal issues that forced Skeete into a two-and-a-half year hiatus with many presuming retirement.
The Tooting boxer took to personal training, coaching Tony ‘Lightning Junior’ Curtis, a future champion of the sport, but as he looked back on his career Skeete was filled with a sense of unfinished business.
He said: “It was hard, boxing’s all I’ve done since I was seven and the sport I loved I didn’t love no more, but I knew I wasn’t finished.
“When I was coaching I would walk past the mirror and start shadow boxing and moving around the ring, I wasn’t fighting fit but I wasn’t sat there getting fat, I was ticking over and staying active.”
A return to professional ranks was far from certain as lockdown closed gyms across the country and Skeete continued his battles outside of the ring.
But an invitation from Skeete’s boxing hero Prince Naseem Hamed to take Lightning Junior for a training session at the Ingle Gym in Sheffield changed everything.
He said: “I always believe things happen for a reason and soon as I walked through the door I had a smile on my face, something in my belly just told me that I needed to come back.
“I had a good chat with Dom [Dominic Ingle] and we cracked on from there.”
The success of the Ingle Gym speaks for itself, five world champions including the Prince himself, and Skeete is in the company of stablemates Kell Brook, Kid Galahad and Liam Williams.
In June Skeete dusted off the cobwebs with an impressive stoppage over Dale Arrowsmith, and at this stage in his career the Ingle Gym could prove the change that Skeete needed.
He said: “It all feels fresh again with the famous Ingle lines, the footwork drills, and it’s an honour to be surrounded by world class fighters and a world class coach.
“Dom hasn’t really changed my style but he’s added to it, the switch hitting, the movement, it’s all coming together and I’m buzzing.”
Skeete will face Sheeraz on the undercard of Lyndon Arthur and Anthony Yarde’s rematch on what is shaping up to be a compelling night of boxing on BT Sport.
Described as the best prospect in Britain by Carl Frampton, with a perfect record of 22-0, there’s no question that the 22-year-old Sheeraz will be a stern test.
The 6ft 3 Ilford fighter has cut swathes through the division using a devastating blend of aggression and stopping power, and none of his last seven fights have gone the distance, but the veteran feels that this is a contest where experience will be key.
He said: “Hamzah’s a good fighter and he’s been performing, but I was winning British titles when he was still an amateur.
“He’s a great kid and I like him but this is business, he’s in my way and I’m going into smash his face in.”
Victory would propel Skeete to the top of an exciting list of names that make up the domestic division, but his rising ambitions don’t end at our shores.
He said: “There’s some great fights to push on and being a two weight British title holder would have a good ring to it, but I was denied that opportunity for a world title and this gets me back in the rankings.
“I’m in a world class gym with a world class coach and I’d love to put my name down as another world champion from the Ingle Gym.”
Featured Image Credit: @shamirmasri_media